THERE’S a small piece of Australia embedded within one of Billie Eilish’s biggest singles – and it’s impossible to unhear once you know it’s there.
If you listen closely to the chorus of ‘Bad Guy’, you’ll hear a distinctive metronomic click. It’s the sound of an Aussie crosswalk that Finneas O’Connell – Billie’s brother, collaborator, and sonic partner-in-crime – used in place of the “rim shots” typically played on a hi-hat.
Whether that subliminally helped Billie achieve her first ARIA #1 hit is debatable, but Finneas says it’s been a source of amusement on the pair’s most recent Australian visit.
“Every time I press the crosswalk to walk across the street anywhere in Australia I hear the chorus of ‘Bad Guy’,” he explains. “Billie was just enamoured by it, thought it was really cool, and I think it’s just a fun little Easter egg if you’re here.”
Finneas sampled those crosswalks clicks while the pair were visiting Australia as part of the Laneway Festival lineup in 2018. It’s in his phone, along with a bunch of other sonic souvenirs the pair have hoarded over the years.
Another favourite, RPGshrapnelnoise.m4a, is a clattering explosive sound that has made its way onto several songs including Finneas’ ‘College’ and ‘I Lost A Friend’, and ‘I Love You’ from Billie’s debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?.
As Billie sings, “Up all night, on another red eye/I wish we never learned to fly”, you can hear an airline safety announcement swell up in the background.
“I wanted it to be really quiet,” Finneas explains, “the idea that you’re already sitting in your seat and the chaos is happening around you. There’s nothing you can really do about it, but you’re just sitting there and it’s all in your own head and it’s in the background.”
MATCHES being struck. Samples from Billie’s favourite TV show The Office. Noises from cars and planes.
Part of the fun of listening to When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? is unwrapping the sonic Easter eggs Finneas and Billie have woven into each track. But these are more than just pops of colour on a record that reveals new layers with each listen.
It’s a device Finneas uses to combat the imposter syndrome he sometimes feels making music in his bedroom with his sister from scratch. After all, when you create a new audio vocabulary no one can ever accuse you of doing things the wrong way
“Doing any production is making something out of nothing,” he explains, “and so anything that inspires me that I can use towards my advantage is like a road map. It’s like if you were walking through a glade, and there was no path but you saw something you liked and you thought, ‘I can pretend that’s a path and I can follow that way.’ It gives you this sense of calm like, ‘I know where I’m going’, even though you totally don’t.
“That’s sort of the way I approach all that stuff in songs,” he continues, “whether it’s the seatbelt sign or the car exploding, anything that tricks me into thinking I know what I’m doing makes me feel really good.”
Sitting in the lobby of Sydney’s QT hotel, just a few hours before he and Billie play a show at the Hordern Theatre, Finneas unpacks five songs – three from Billie’s debut and two singles he’s released in 2019.
From Billie Eilish’s WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? (2019)
It’s been really fun to be in Australia for the past couple of weeks while ‘Bad Guy’ is doing what it’s doing on radio and on Spotify playlists. Part of that has to do with the fact that every time I press the crosswalk to walk across the street anywhere in Australia I hear [mimics crosswalk sound], which is the chorus of ‘Bad Guy’, sampled off that actually. That [crosswalk sound] is essentially the high hat or the rim shots of the chorus of that song.
The impetus for that song was this sort of bass kick, syncopated pattern. The kick drum that I had put in the song wasn’t cutting through enough and I just kept thinking “What is this missing?” Every time I would go to record something new, it would sound great and then when I would stop recording and play it back, it wasn’t sounding good enough. I realised that the metronome actually sounded really good on the song. I just missed the actual quality of the metronome. So I had to record the metronome and then put the metronome in, just to make it sort of stand out the way I was hoping. It had this crunchy top end that sounded really good.
I think people often get caught up in how people perceive songs. But to me I just get bored so fast of sounds and sonics and songs. I never want anything to sound the same as anything else so I will do anything that makes it sound a little bit different or more unique. Even down to starting a song or titling a song … Sometimes that’s just not even using an intro, just starting the vocal because the vocal is unique. Just little things like that are personal things for me. I just like them more.
‘I lost a friend’ was a song that I recorded the demo of the minute I wrote it; sort of in real time, which I very rarely do. I usually sit on a song and write it, and then have a voice memo to just not forget it. It lives as just a non-paper composition for a long time before it’s actually recorded. In that case I had recorded a scratch vocal and a scratch piano and played it for a bunch of people, which is often a terrifying thing to do because you get symptoms of “demo-itis”, where you kind of fall in love with the demo.
My voice didn’t sound very good on it so I didn’t fall in love with it so much as I knew it had to be very simple. So when it actually came time to record it I thought, “I don’t wanna lose any of the intimacy of this demo for the first while.” I think it’s a three-and-a-half minute long song and I figured keeping the first half super raw and sort of bare bones would probably be the way to go than having some production elements kick in.
I had sent the demo to my graphic designer Luke, who does all my cover art for me. He always has really weird interpretations of my songs, which I love. His interpretation of this one, for no good reason, was going to a junkyard and beating the shit out of a car with a baseball bat, and then sending me photos on film of this super fucked-up car that he just hit with a baseball bat for a while, which I found kind of upsetting. [Laughs]
"Whether it’s the seatbelt sign or the car exploding, anything that tricks me into thinking I know what I’m doing makes me feel really good.”
[‘I Lost A Friend’] in its concept is really just about a relationship I had with a friend of mine that had fallen apart and we’d stopped talking. But I did kind of love his interpretation of it being more serious than that, more violent somehow. So there’s an impact sound on the beginning of the second chorus that’s a car blowing up or crashing. It sounds very destructive. I think the file in my computer is called “RPG shrapnel noise” or something. I just love the decay of that sound. It’s this big explosion and all this glass clattering. It’s just a great sound effect, and I probably used it in like seven songs. I think it’s in ‘I’m in Love Without You’, maybe even ‘College’. I don’t know, I put it everywhere. It’s so goofy.
The whole song is similes. Like keys in a sofa, like a wallet in a backseat … I just wanted to make that song analogous to anyone. I wanted everyone to be able to understand that to me it was like, “How did I? Where did I put? Where did that go? What happened?” Which is how losing your keys in a couch makes you feel, or losing your wallet in a dark movie theatre.
The song ‘Ilomilo’ on Billie’s new album was a product of faffing about on a keyboard for a while. I had this beat loop that I established [mimics loop] and I thought that was really interesting. I had enough to work with to pocket a keyboard part, and then I played this synth pass that I really liked. It had this sort of melancholic quality to it and then this toy piano part just sits in the pocket of that beat in a satisfying way. I played that on rotation like two or three times and just sort of played it for Billie.
I never know when I make things like that if they’re going to be something that Billie’s gonna be obsessed with or Billie’s not even gonna care about at all. In that specific case, Billie really liked the way it made her feel. It felt very nostalgic to her. She initially wanted it to be on the album as an instrumental and I sort of blanched at the idea of having an instrumental on an album at all. I’m a big skipper on instrumentals on records so I encouraged her to think of it as a template for a song. Over the course of a couple months we wrote what turned into the lyrical topline of the song.
The premise behind calling it ‘Ilomilo’ is that there’s a Xbox game from 2010 or 2011 called Ilomilo. It’s a little puzzle game and it’s a really cool game. The puzzle is basically a planet with a gravitational centre and the characters are around either side of the planet. You work your way around the planet to each other and then you just hug. That’s the end of the game. [Laughs] You get these two little friends called Ilo and Milo to each other and they hug. It’s real wholesome, and I think that score of that game had a similar, eerie playful quality to the song ‘Ilomilo’.
‘Claudia’ was a song I wrote the night I met Claudia, who is now my girlfriend, and it’s a funny thing. I feel like I almost always know what the title of a song is going to be the minute I start it. With that song I was immediately like, “This song is gonna be called ‘Claudia’.” It’s a little goofy cause we’d just met. But I knew that song would be called ‘Claudia’ long before it was like, “Oh, we’re going to really have a relationship.” I’d just met this girl and was sort of fascinated by her. I thought she was beautiful, and had driven her totally in the wrong direction from where I had to leave the restaurant to go home, just so I could spend more time in the car with her.
There’s this little empty bar in that song before the chorus drops. What I was trying to replicate was the sound that your car makes when you don’t put your seatbelt on right away, like that seatbelt flash noise, buckle in … That song always sounded best to me driving around LA at night and it was definitely the place it was written about; driving down Sunset, Melrose, and Hollywood Boulevard. I can say something lyrically that points to something like that, but if I can point it out with a soundscape, that makes me feel really good.
Billie is a devotee of the US version of The Office. She is just obsessed … but like genuinely obsessed. I had made the beat for ‘My Strange Addiction’, and she was just joking around with this one scene in [the episode] ‘Threat Level Midnight’ with this dialogue. I was like, “Oh my god let’s see if we can use it!”
As a producer, I don’t produce with samples very often. I’m not interpolating songs the way Kanye West has always been so amazing at doing, so I’m not very well-versed in the complications of using a sample. I naively was like, “Oh, if we put this whole scene of The Office in the song, that’s just a good idea. That’ll be great! And I have to be the only one that’s ever had that idea.”
I’m sure tonnes of people have wanted to use scenes from shows, and we said it to our manager and I was like, “Ta-da! Look at this!” And our manager was like, “What are you talking about? There’s something like 14 actors in the scene alone, we’d have to clear it with the writers of the show.” Luckily I had sent the song to them in July  and the album didn’t come out until March, so we had six months to really try to focus on clearing it.
Bless our legal department, we got it all cleared. It did take an individual stamp of approval from each cast member of The Office. We paid them also. It wasn’t charity on their part, but it’s really special to me and it feels like a real victory that we got all the voices of The Office on this album.
It’s a whole process, and rightfully so. If someone wanted to use some scene of Glee [Finneas played Alistair in the show’s final season] in their thing and I suddenly heard my voice on it, I’d be pretty bummed about it. So it’s good you have to get it cleared.