FINNEAS on embracing transparency to make his debut album
A 2007 episode of Family Guy opens with Peter Griffin presenting his wife with a gift. “Lionel Richie’s Can’t Slow Down?” she asks.
“Great album, Lois, great album,” Peter says. “I didn’t know who I was until I heard this album.”
Cut to Peter alone in his room, sitting off the side of his bed, headphones firmly in place. “Oh God, Lionel,” he says, listening intently. “You have been hurt. You have been hurt by somebody. That much is clear.” He then begins rocking back and forth, choking back sobs and whispering, “Who hurt you? Who hurt you? Who hurt you?”
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Reader, I’m here to tell you that I’ve found my Can’t Slow Down. No, it’s not by Lionel Richie — it comes from a different adviser to American Idol hopefuls. It’s called Optimist, and it’s the debut album from FINNEAS.
If you hadn’t noticed, the virtuosic FINNEAS has become one of the biggest names in music today. His 2019 debut EP, Blood Harmony, has accrued millions of streams online. He has produced tracks for everyone from Justin Bieber to Halsey to Demi Lovato. And oh yeah, he’s won eight Grammys — including Producer of the Year, Album of the Year and Song of the Year for his work with his sister, Billie Eilish.
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While these achievements would mark a zenith in almost any other career, FINNEAS’ most impressive work yet lies in Optimist. I wouldn’t say it made me go full Peter Griffin, but I will admit to experiencing thoughtful nods, nostalgic sighs and the occasional lump in my throat.
Because yes, the album is optimistic, but not in a way that feels naive, forced or Pollyanna. The optimism here is nuanced and hard-earned — strong but shot through with worry, yearning and pain. It acknowledges the ongoing crises of the world and the inevitability of death and tragedy, and in the hands of someone less wise or less courageous, the message would stop there. But FINNEAS dares to say that no, these things do not make our lives meaningless. There is still power in love and joy in sex, and life is a thing to be celebrated alongside those you care about most.
After so many months of the pandemic, live shows have finally started coming back. How does it feel to be performing again?
When I used to envision a return to the stage, I thought it would be this crazy, cathartic experience. Although it’s been wonderful and we’ve always loved playing live, it actually just feels very normal. The main thing I’ve been nervous about is playing the songs, since I want to do a good job. But I’ve felt really good about the shows so far, and the crowds have been great.
Your debut album, Optimist, is fantastic. When you first started working on it, what was your goal for this record?
My favorite albums are cohesive bodies of work, and I wanted this one to be the same way. As a producer for other artists, it can be easy to make a song that sounds like this or a song that sounds like that, but I wanted this to feel like one artist. That was my biggest challenge, making sure that I have a real identity on this record.
In your own words, what does that thematic or musical cohesion sound like? What brings all these songs together?
The through line would be some version of honesty and transparency. These songs are really how I feel about my life and the world. There’s metaphor on this album, but there’s nothing that didn’t stem from my life experience or something that I think about constantly. So hopefully it’s a road map to getting to know me better and getting to know what keeps me up at night.
One of my favorite tracks from the album is “The Kids Are All Dying,” and at the beginning and the end, you can hear some people talking in the background. Tell me about the choice to include that.
I also used that sound on “xanny,” the Billie Eilish song. But in this case, I wanted it to sound like people at brunch — I’m a huge fan of brunch — because that’s a group of people who are not worrying about the world around them. When you’re at brunch, you’re sitting there figuring out if you’re going to get Florentine or Benedict, drinking orange juice and talking about how hard your easy week was. That’s basically what I wanted to write this song about, and it was super fun.
There was a lyric from that song that really stood out to me: “There’s nothing you can do that people won’t misunderstand.” What does that line mean to you?
I think it’s very easy to be misunderstood, even when you’re talking to somebody and communicating directly. But that’s even more true with the internet and its lack of nuance — you’re taking away most human mannerisms, so things like sarcasm don’t translate very well. It’s easy to say something and have it offend people when you didn’t mean it in a controversial way at all.
There are people who have radically terrible opinions — there are bigots, racists, misogynists and xenophobes, and that’s all horrible. But then there’s another whole section of the populace that’s well intentioned and articulating it poorly. We’re all busy crucifying them and being offended by them. That seems like shooting yourself in the foot, to say to somebody who’s trying to be on your side that they’re saying it wrong.
So, I have zero songwriting ability, but while I’m asleep, I sometimes get ideas for cool choruses and guitar solos in my dreams. Do you ever draw songwriting inspiration from your dreams?
I’ve definitely had dreams where I write songs, but then I wake up and I sing them, and they’re horrible. My dreams are actually 99% anxiety and worry about the future. [They’re] my greatest fears — like my dog gets lost, or I go through a terrible breakup. I don’t enjoy my dreams at all. As a stupid “would you rather,” I often posit the question, “Would you rather dream every night or never dream again?” Most of my friends say they would dream every night, but for me, never dream again is the easy winner. I’d much rather have peaceful, relaxing sleep without the terrible dreams.
Do you deal with these feelings of stress and anxiety during your waking life, too? Is mental health something you’ve had to work on over the years?
My journey with mental health has been leagues easier than a lot of people I love. But I think the real core element to my health is knowing what to expose myself to. I don’t read any articles about myself. I try not to look up my own name. I try not to look up Billie’s name. Those are easy ways for me to ruin my own day, like seeing some super-mean thing about myself or my sister.
I don’t feel that I suffer from clinical depression or anxiety, but I can easily get depressed if I’m not doing things like going outside, seeing daylight, breathing fresh air, exercising my body and drinking a lot of water. Those are simple things, but especially as a music producer — and especially on the road — it’s really easy to forgo a lot of those things. If I do forgo them, I feel terrible. I don’t have a good day.
Did you experience periods of depression or anxiety as a kid, or is this an emerging phenomenon in your young adulthood?
There’s a line on my record about being an anxious kid. I’ve always been filled with anxiety, sort of an existential dread. In 2019, I read the autobiography of Flea [Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist], and he talks about having a sense of unease his whole life. I’ve rarely related to something more. I’m basically uneasy and have been since I was born. I’ve come a long way, but it’s still present in my life — it’s still a thing I deal with, and I sometimes have to recognize when it may be a little irrational. I can feel it, but I don’t have to think that what I’m feeling is absolutely going to come to pass and that all my worst fears are going to happen.
Totally. My therapist likes to remind me that our thoughts are just thoughts, not absolute truths that are definitely going to happen.
How do these feelings affect your self-confidence? Rock stars and pop stars often seem like these larger-than-life figures, and it can be easy to forget that they’re human, too. Are there particular moments that make you feel awkward or embarrassed?
I feel like the more exposure you have, the more opportunities you have to embarrass yourself. I constantly see photos of myself where my hair looks stupid, or I’m making a dumb face. I have strabismus — I have a lazy eye, so sometimes I’ll see photos where I’m looking in two completely different directions. It’s frustrating.
So while some people might think that fame leads to bulletproof self-esteem, it sounds like that may not be the case.
Yeah, that’s not true at all. I’ve never met a more insecure group of people in my life than celebrities. It’s a privileged position, and it usually comes with money, which certainly makes life easier in some ways. But fame has definitely not changed the DNA of the people that it has happened to, in my opinion. The people I know who are famous are deeply insecure — there are exceptions, but in a lot of cases, that’s how it is.
On a lighter note, I’ve heard that you’re a bit of a gamer. Is that true?
When I was coming of age, I was playing a wide variety of stuff on my Xbox — Red Dead Redemption, the Halo series, Call Of Duty. I liked Alan Wake a lot. I played Gears Of War, and there was a game called Wolverine that was incredible.
I also played a lot of Super Smash Bros. growing up — that was a big game for me. I used to play as Fox on Melee, and then I played as Snake on Brawl. Then, because I’m a risk-taker, I always play as a random character on Ultimate. I feel like beating everybody with a random character is a flex.
But nowadays, I almost exclusively play Call Of Duty. I have a deeply, disturbingly addictive relationship with it — either I play for five hours in one day, or I play none for several months because it’s really just unsustainable. It’s all I would do if I weren’t careful.
So there have been people playing online with you, having no idea who you were?
Yeah, tons and tons. My buddy and I are both 24, and during COVID, we got really good at this game. We would decimate — we were formidable. We’d beat the other team, but then sometimes we’d hear their voices and realize, “Oh, good for us. We beat a bunch of 11-year-olds.” Then sometimes the 11-year-olds would totally kick our asses. It’s all hilarious, but I’m happy to be playing a little less often. It was playing too big of a role in my life.
Your new album is called Optimist, so as one last question, what hopes do you have for your near future?
Well, I’m about to start a national tour — I play a solo tour from the end of October to the end of November. I’m really excited about that. I hope the shows are a fun experience, that people come with their friends and sing along. Beyond that, I hope that people carry these songs through their lives. I hope that they identify with them and that these songs articulate how they’re feeling. That’s always my biggest goal.
This interview appeared in issue 399, available here.