In this video, Finneas O’Connell shares a few of the vocal production techniques he used on Billie Eilish’s single “Therefore I Am”
Interview With Finneas Text:
I think everything I just played is MIDI data. And so I wrote and recorded the chorus in my own voice, probably a couple of keys lower than where we landed for Billie because I have a lower voice, and just had it as this hook. I had no idea what to do with it. I sang through Auto-Tune so it sounded very atypical of the other music that I put out. But I felt the chorus was super, super catchy and I sat on it. I didn’t have verse ideas or anything.
So I had this, “I’m not your friend” thing. And then when Billie came over at some point later to work on something else, I pulled up this session and played her this chorus that I had and she thought it was infectious and cool. And the original line that I’d written was, “You think you need a man, I think therefore I am.” And Billie was like, “Oh, it should be, ‘You think that you’re a man, I think therefore I am,'” which is way cooler and actually the internal rhyme structure of that is ‘you’re’ and ‘for’, which is way better anyway. And so we threw her on the hook and then we set about writing the verses together. When we first started this I was in a different studio location at a house that I lived in in Highland Park for a while and Billie was singing into a Neumann TLM 103, which she was holding in her hand. And so this verse vocal…
So all of that stuff is recorded on a TLM 103. And she really liked the laugh that she did on that take. And so it was a naturally quiet laugh, so we gained the laugh by 27 dB just so that it would pop out in the mix. That was back in probably December, we wrote those couple of lines. This song… oftentimes when we’re making a song it’s a very short start-to-finish process. We write everything in a day or two, we record it over the next week or two. This song was like, each time we went to write, we were recording while we went, but it was several days over the course of seven or eight months to get each individual part. So literally that day, all that we got was… That was it. And then the next time we went to revisit it we wrote this…
To me, the heart of Billie’s sonics when I’m working on it in a song like this, not in every song, but she’s such an incredible harmonizer. So there’s so much chordal information in a song that otherwise, really is a baseline and high notes played in a syncopated pattern. Most of the chord data is actually just in her voice. And then I think the same day we did that, we ended up writing this part which was really fun. And that was… We had the instrumental layout of that, to be honest. We knew that we wanted the verse to end with this stop moment, where the synths would drop out. So we had that set up to write over. And that was, as far as we got that day, just reintroduce the chorus. We added a little dropout because the chorus is… each chorus is a double, right? It’s the entire… It’s really a repeat.
It’s like, what can we reintroduce the second time? So, the only thing that comes in on the second chorus, on the second half is this clap which was a thing that Billie was doing in the room. And I thought that gave it a really fun, lilting thing, which was really appealing to me. So I threw it in the recording. There’s also this, I’m calling it, like, cowbell-type. It’s not a cowbell sample. It’s actually… it’s not that complicated but it’s… just that little clackety thing that rhythmically is doing what a cowbell would do in accordance to the kick drum maybe. Which I thought gave it a little bit more neck. And then we added this bass sweep instead of the one in the drums on that part of the chorus, which goes… instead of playing the one on everything. And it’s pretty understated.
There’s not a lot made of it, which I thought was fun. Because we wrote the song over the course of so many different days, each time we have to reinspire ourselves. So we got to the second verse and we thought, “Well, we really don’t need to do all of the rhythms of the first verse, we don’t need to do the melodies of the first verse vocally.” And so in trying to reinspire us, I reintroduced different components. So I added this Synth Bass, a Trilian patch. And just that alone, which is very sparse for Billie and for me to write with her completely turned the rhythmic components of the song on their head and allowed us to go to a completely different place rhythmically, vocally, which is this… I don’t know what to call it other than a totally different groove, vocally.
We never would’ve come to that place, vocally, if we hadn’t had that rhythm change. And I think that’s a lesson I’m learning more and more in producing songs is what you’re capable of writing over what. When I first started I was exclusively a songwriter and then a producer, where I would sit at a piano and write a song. And then I would migrate to a DAW and record the vocals and record the piano and maybe add some drums or some bass. As time goes on, there are totally songs that we write that way. Billie has a song called “My Future” that we wrote that way, where we sat at an instrument and played the chords and then ended up ingesting it into the system. In a case like this, there are things about the songwriting that would never have been true if we had tried to write it on an acoustic guitar first. So it was super advantageous to start with the rhythmic components of it.