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Finneas and Rick Rubin on Making Hits and Keeping Your Ears Fresh

t’s about two
hours before Billie Eilish and her brother, Finneas O’Connell, are due onstage in Brisbane, Australia. For the moment, though, Finneas’ mind isn’t on the gig; he’s backstage, loading up Zoom so he can meet one of his heroes.

“I feel like we’ve been meant to meet for a long time,” Rick Rubin says when Finneas pops up on his screen. “I feel like it was in the ether, and now it’s actually happening. It feels good.”

Rubin is in Siena, Italy, where he’s in the studio working on an unspecified new project. “I’m seeing these giant trees swaying and leaves spinning,” he says, looking out his window at a raging storm. “It’s beautiful.” (Finneas, meanwhile, just enjoyed a meal at Subway. “It was the same as it is in every other part of the world,” he says. “Their quality control is unbelievable.”)

Both producers launched their careers in nontraditional ways: Rubin, 59, started Def Jam Records out of his NYU dorm room, while Finneas, 25, helped produce Eilish’s breakthrough LP, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, in his childhood bedroom. Rubin went on to work with everyone from Johnny Cash to Jay-Z; Finneas has continued to team up with Eilish, collaborated with artists like Halsey and Kid Cudi, and released his own solo debut, Optimist, last year. Both have a deep respect for rock, pop, hip-hop, and everything in between. “I’m excited to see how you got to be who you are,” says Rubin, “and to learn how you make the things you make.” (The interview happened before Finneas’ bike accident, from which — thankfully— he’s recovering. “I feel so lucky to still be here,” he wrote to his fans. “Take care of yourselves.)

Finneas: I first became aware of you when I was about nine years old, through Linkin Park liner notes. Then I looked up your discography, and there were so many albums I didn’t know you did that I love. That was a really exciting revelation — it was a thrill to figure out that one person could be involved in that.

Rubin: I first was aware of you because I’d heard of Billie prior to [her debut album even being finished]. The feeling that something special was going on was already in the air. It’s rare that it happens, especially in this post-streaming world, where everything exists all the time. But how was there such a sense of something bubbling with no music out? How did that work?

Finneas:  I think the short answer, other than we were lucky, was we were putting stuff out on SoundCloud. We had a couple songs on there, and then we uploaded this song, “Ocean Eyes.” That got put on a blog called Hillydilly very quickly, within 12 hours. I’d never heard of that blog, but I learned it was this great, buzzy blog that A&R’s pay attention to. Then we got outreach from labels and A&Rs.

But it was still just a song on SoundCloud. She was 13, and I was 18. We had no back catalog.  It was just the one song. Then we started to write and record more things together. But that thing didn’t even transfer from SoundCloud to iTunes, Apple Music, Spotify for several months. There was 18 months from “Ocean Eyes” existing to her debut EP.

Rubin: At that point, did you have a dream of a job in life that wasn’t music?

Finneas: I really, really, really wanted to be a musician professionally. From the time I was 12, I was like, “Oh, my God, if I could just make music for a living.” So from 12 to 18, I was fairly stressed all the time.[After “Ocean Eyes”] I was so relieved that I’d made one more step toward that at 18. I was very inexperienced and super hungry to learn more, but I was so relieved that “Oh, maybe I’ll get to make music for a living. That’d be cool.”

Rubin: Amazing. Congratulations. It’s so cool.

Finneas: OK, this is a personal question. I look at the breadth of your career, and I see you as a master delegator, giving people the steering wheel and being like, “I think you could drive in this direction,” but trusting them to drive the car. Is that right?

Rubin: When I started, I created all the music myself and there was a lot of writing involved, even lyrics. What I came to realize, very quickly, is that if I wanted to work on a lot of stuff, I can’t write everything myself. The greatest writers in the world can only write an album or two albums of material in a year.

So I stepped away from writing and focused more on just the way it sounded — the arrangement of the song, whether the material was good enough. I might leave at 6 p.m., but the engineer and the artist continue working into the night. Then in the morning, when I come in, there’s another batch [of songs] to listen to.

Finneas: You’re coming in the next day with a perspective you wouldn’t have if you stayed all night.

Rubin: That’s a really key point. Once you hear something 100 times one way, it’s very difficult to hear it a different way and have the other way sound like what you want. These days, I don’t take music out of the studio with me, for exactly that reason. I always want to come in fresh, as if I’m hearing it for the first time. That’s how the listener is hearing it.

Finneas: How the listener hears something is the most intimidating part of the releasing of music for me. I’ve so often heard a song and rejected it at first, then a week later, been hit by it in a different way and loved it. I always hope people are exposed to a song more than once, because I need that sometimes.

Rubin: Do you tend to listen to music as songs or as full projects?

Finneas: I tend to listen to music as songs, at least in the discovery space of it. If I’m on a flight or a drive, I’ll commit to the full record. I love bodies of work.

Rubin: What would be an example of an album that you might commit to for a flight?

Finneas: One of my favorite artists is Feist. She has a couple albums that are of my favorites: The Reminder and Pleasure. Those are the ones I’ve listened to recently. I spent a lot of time listening to Cake this year. I would love a new Cake record, personally.

Rubin: Maybe you can make one with them.

Finneas: That would be really cool. What about you? Is there an album lately that you’ve been listening to all the way through?

Rubin: I kind of listen to music by an artist, not necessarily a specific album, rarely a song. It’s usually, “I want to listen to the Doors,” and I’ll listen to a lot of the Doors. Or the Beatles, or Sinatra. It tends to be not specific. It’s more, “That is the flavor I want.”

Finneas: I grew up a little bit that way. All my favorite music is the Beatles. And I grew up with no awareness of what Beatles album contained what songs. My dad was picking his favorites from these albums, and putting them on CDs he’d play in the car. So it’s only really been as an adult that I have any awareness of which songs were on Magical Mystery Tour and which songs were on Abbey Road. As a kid, I just knew the songs. And it’s been an interesting to sort of “Oh, these songs go back to back into each other in order,” because I never heard them that way.

Rubin: Whatever little bit I know about music is from listening to the Beatles. And luckily, I was listening to it from the time I was three years old. The DNA of that brilliance is in me through osmosis. What were the other things you might have heard on your dad’s CDs?

Finneas: My dad’s CDs were sort of things that he loved for a long time, like the Beatles or Simon and Garfunkel or Pink Floyd. It was also a lot of current pop stuff that he loved. We had a lot of Avril Lavigne on those mix CDs. There was also Sixpence None the Richer, Dido. I think Natalie Imbruglia was on there. It was a lot of great 2000s pop. So really, my whole music education I feel was the Beatles, and then 2000s, that kind of pop rock that’s come back in a huge way. It was soft drum kits, acoustic guitars, and female vocals. They are just gorgeous, heartbreaking songs.

Rubin: You said earlier about when you were younger, you were stressed about the possibility of becoming a musician. And in listening to your album, Optimist, I pick up a lot of stress in the lyrics, where you’re projecting into the future. There are multiple references to being forgotten and moving on. Do you spend a lot of time projecting into the future?

Finneas: For sure. We spent this whole year on tour, essentially, and I find it so hard to be present in my day when I’m on tour. I feel like my relationships with everyone, except my sister and our crew … my girlfriend, my friends, my team, it’s all virtual. It’s all on my phone. It’s the only way I reach anybody. So I’m on my phone all the time. So I find that, in between legs of the tour, I’ve been so desperate to be disconnected from my phone, which I feel so joined at the hip to on the road.

I have this song on my most recent album, which I wrote during Covid, called “Only a Lifetime.” And it’s all about being present, life’s short, shouldn’t waste it, waiting for time to pass. I remember writing it very arrogantly, thinking, “I’ve cracked it.” And I did it again the next day. That’s the sort of polarity of all of it. I find it very hard to write on tour — very uninspiring experience for me to write.

Rubin: I try to live in places that are inspiring to be in for my own head. It helps me to be in a peaceful, beautiful place, whether it be a forest or an ocean. When I moved to California, one of the first albums I made was the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik. This was their fifth album. The choice was, we could go into a windowless recording studio, like the ones they did the last four times, or we could create some new adventure. We rented this mansion, and the band lived there and we worked there together. And as a matter of fact, three of the members never left the premises until the album was done, which is radical. We just did the basic tracks for a new Strokes album. We recorded it on a mountaintop in Costa Rica. Outside, the band was doing a concert for the ocean, and it was incredible.

Finneas: [2020’s] The New Abnormal is, at the very least, tied for my favorite Strokes album. And I’ve been a fan of the Strokes forever. To see that you did it, I was so unsurprised. All the elements I love in their music are there, [but] “At the Door” was probably my favorite song on that record, and such a departure for them. I feel like you are in such a mentorship role in the eyes and the minds of people my age. Is there a person you can point to that occupied that space for you in your earlier years?

Rubin: There was a cool little indie import store I used to hang out at when I went to NYU, 99 Records. When I wanted to make music, they mentored me on where to record and where to have labels pressed and where to have vinyl pressed. I didn’t have many mentors in terms of the making of the recordings. And in some ways it worked in a positive [way] for me because this was the birth of hip-hop. The fact I didn’t know what I was doing helped. It was truly DIY punk rock, and it was truer to what the [hip-hop] scene was, which was more break beats and rock beats. … Growing up, did you ever play in a band?

Finneas: I did. The idea of making music alone seemed insane to me. But obviously, bands also have so much turmoil, or they can. I’ve never been in a successful band, but I look at them and I empathize. I think being in a band is so hard.

Rubin: It’s like three marriages simultaneously. That’s why so few bands survive.

Finneas: And even with my sister since, in some ways, we’re kind of a band. I always really firmly had this sort of, “Let’s have this be your name. You’re the star of the videos. The songs are about your life, and then I’ll do [my thing] separately.” There’s this kind of monarchy that I think has been so helpful for us as collaborators, because I’m not afraid to speak my mind, but I also have a feeling of when she’s like, “I hear what you’re saying, but I prefer the other way.”

Rubin: And you get to do your thing completely.

Finneas: Totally. But then there are bands like the Strokes or Chili Peppers or Radiohead that I feel like do not exist without the chemistry of those people. When a band does a tour and one of the guitarists doesn’t go for some reason, and you’re bummed — that’s how you know you really love a band.

Rubin: It can also work that way within an artist and a producer. The music Charli XCX made with Sophie is my favorite of the Charli XCX music. And now, unfortunately, that won’t happen anymore without channeling. Sometimes there’s a relationship that gets established where the pieces of it together make it bigger. It seems like you have that with your sister.

Finneas: I think if she, and she’s welcome to, and I hope she does, if it’s appealing … if she ever makes a record with a different producer-writer, I’m sure it’ll be really good, because she’s super talented, but it’ll be so different. It’s definitely a chemistry thing.

Rubin: You can often approach a great song from 100 different directions, and every one of them would be good. If the DNA in the song is good, the record you choose to make is more of just a taste choice. When the song really has power, it lives beyond whatever the record version of it that you make. 

Finneas: I think that’s more true right now than it’s been since the Brill Building days [in the early Sixties]. I feel like there was the Sinatra era, where 10 of the greatest singers were singing the same song, and you’re like, “This is a good song,” if he’s singing a great rendition of it, and Julie London is singing a great rendition of it. Now it’s happening again because we’re in the internet cover era.  We’re also in this era where everybody is flipping songs and reproducing them and slowing them down and speeding them up. The through line is just great lyrics and great melody or great lyrics and great rhythm. That’s so exciting to me.

Finneas: You know, we’ve never met each other before. I do believe that if we’re meeting off mic, we’d be having the same conversation, which is also a thrill to me, because I’ve always wanted to talk to you.

Rubin: Same here. I’m sure that next time it will be in person, and it will go much longer, and we’ll get to listen to music. It’ll be great.

Musicians on Musicians is the annual franchise where two great artists come together to talk about life, music, and everything in between. We’ll be rolling out each story in this year’s series through November 2nd, and each one appears in the November issue of the magazine. You can also hear a podcast version of many of these conversations right here.

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