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Finneas, many Grammys later, releases his debut full-length, 'Optimist'

Finneas O'Connell, photographed backstage at the on Sept. 17, 2021 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
Isaac Brekken
Getty Images for iHeartMedia
Finneas O'Connell, photographed backstage at the on Sept. 17, 2021 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

Updated October 18, 2021 at 10:11 AM ET

Finneas has won eight Grammys in two years, and he's not yet 25. He's produced for Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato and written, of course, with his sister – Billie Eilish. Now, he's put out a full-length album of his own, called Optimist.

From Los Angeles, Finneas spoke to Weekend Edition about the album's huge, sometimes at-odds subject matter – of dealing with personal struggles against the backdrop of a tumultuous world.

To hear the broadcast version of this interview, use the audio player above.

Scott Simon, Weekend Edition: It has been a tough year-and-a-half, as I don't have to tell you. Is now the time for the Optimist?

Finneas O'Connell: To me the title Optimist is more aspirational – I think optimism is something I try to strive for. At my most optimistic, I'm also the hardest working and the most successful.

Your song "The Kids Are All Dying" has kind of a devastating line – "I tried saving the world / but I got bored." What were you doing here?

I was writing about heartbreak, or my own personal life, as there were sort of... bigger things happening. It's dual parts my own existential crisis like, 'Ah what am I doing, singing about my personal matters?' And also maybe a little bit the voice of the internet in the back of my head, chastising me if I'm saying something that's personal and if I'm not speaking out enough about an issue. So it's sort of both.

You bring up political themes in your songs, you refer to a lot of things that have happened. Do you ever wonder if that will date your work?

Yes, absolutely. Probably the most specific political song I've ever put out, I put out the day Trump lost the election. And that I didn't put on this album because it felt like it would date the album. I think at the end of the day, everything becomes the evidence of its time.

There's another song, "What They'll Say About Us" – what it would look like, for you? Making the world better?

The genesis of that song was last summer, when I was participating in protests following the murder of George Floyd. Miost of the protests I attended were very inspiring to me – I was surrounded by incredibly like-minded people who were walking the walk and standing up for things they believe in. What that song is about is that at the same time that was happening, I was following a woman whose husband was in the ICU, I think in a coma at the time, battling COVID-19. And I sort of wanted to write this song as if I were her, sitting at the bedside of someone you love, and then looking out the window and seeing police with riot shields walking down the street. This strange confluence of crises – you have the long-term, endless cycle of racism, and then you have this immediate concern of illness befalling the people who love.

You and your sister have a very close artistic partnership – what do you learn doing a solo album?

I've always been writing material alone – and when I was 18 I started making music with my sister and that was incredible, and continues to be incredible and fulfilling. But this album is mainly rooted in self expression and being as honest as I can be, and as open with the audience as I'm capable of being.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.