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For Billie Eilish, performing at the Oscars is ‘terrifying, horribly terrifying’

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Thank you staying with us all season long as we talked with some of the contenders for the 2024 Oscars. To close out this season of “The Envelope,” we have a special bonus episode with superstar siblings Finneas O’Connell and Billie Eilish, who have been nominated for an Oscar for a second time for their original song “What Was I Made For?,” featured in “Barbie.”

Mark Olsen: Welcome to this very special bonus episode of “The Envelope” podcast. I’m Mark Olsen, and at the recent Oscar nominees luncheon, I had a chance to sit down with Billie Eilish and Finneas to talk about their collaboration on their Oscar-nominated song from the “Barbie” movie, “What Was I Made For?”

As I understand it, as you were in talks with Greta Gerwig about doing a song for the “Barbie” movie, the thing she asked for was Barbie’s heart song, something about her interior feelings. And the song you came up with feels so vulnerable and so emotional. Do you think you would have written this song if not for the “Barbie” directive?

Eilish: No, I don’t think so. I’ve said this before that it’s not the song that we would never write in a million years. It’s totally a song that we would have written. But I think given the period of time we were in and the weird creative zone that we were in and just the darkness surrounding life at the time, I don’t think it would have been the way that it was. I don’t know, I think that maybe there’s a world we could have made that song, but it would have been years from now.

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Finneas: It would have been after we saw the movie in theaters and gone home. We would have written fan fiction.

Eilish: We needed the movie to write that song, truly, which I think is really special.

Olsen: The song itself is interpolated in the score during the movie, and there’s even a sequence of credit created using home video footage from some of the cast and crew. How did the two of you feel that the song became such a part of the movie?

Eilish: I was so, honestly, I was so ready for it to be one tiny, little 10-second, 20-second moment of the movie. Even if we gave them a whole song, I thought “Oh, they’ll use a line from it for something.” And that was enough for me. That’s going to be great. I’m thrilled either way. And then to have so much of the song, for such an impactful moment in that movie ... that’s the moment I think a lot of people leave the theater thinking about, is that one scene where she’s feeling and that montage happens and everything. But then to have so many other little moments throughout the movie have the same melody and have my voice and the humming, that was really special. And props to Mark [Ronson] for that. That was Mark and Andrew [Wyatt]. They had me record a bunch of different hums and little lyrics here and there and some of the little melodies from the song and then weaved through the film, and that was really special. I felt really honored for that.

Finneas: I’ve just begun to dabble in composing and scoring, and I think there’s no higher honor to me than a melody or a motif being spread across the fabric of a film. And I think about movies that I love and one strange example I was talking about the other day was that amazing Nirvana song, “Something in the Way,” was a big part of “The Batman” movie. And there’s so many nods to that motif in the score, which I loved. And again I think it just gives you this undercurrent, it’s very reminiscent the whole time that you hear this deeper thing. It’s very exciting.

Olsen: Billie, the lyrics to the song feel so personal. And can you talk a little bit about where your head was at, what you were exploring in the lyrics to the song?

Eilish: It was so purely about “Barbie” and how she feels, and I felt I could look through her eyes and see the world and write from her perspective. And I was truly not thinking about myself. We weren’t talking about my life. And when we write, we’re talking about the things we’re writing about. Obviously, we’re trying to come up with new lyrics and explaining, “Oh, what was that one scene where she does this? Could we say something about that?” Never had anything to do with me at all. Wasn’t about my my life. I wasn’t thinking about myself. I wasn’t thinking about my experience. And I’ve said before, a couple days later, I was playing it for a friend, and I was listening to it, and I had a very weird, eerie, shocking moment of realizing that it was subconsciously fully about me and my whole life and yeah — that was crazy. And that happens. That’s what the beauty of music and art is. I was thinking about this the other day because I did this photo shoot for something that’s coming, and someone was like, “What’s the meaning? Because the meaning means this to me. And did you think of that?” And I was like, “Oh, sure.” You just make art. You’re not thinking why. And then it’s later that you realize, “Oh, OK, that’s what it was. That’s what I was subconsciously doing.” It’s amazing.

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Olsen: And I heard you say in another interview that your vocal performance on the song, you wanted it to specifically feel like you just stopped crying. I’m just curious, what is the technical challenge of that? In some ways do you feel you’re acting in some sense when you’re singing?

Eilish: I think to an extent, yeah. It’s performing, and I think all kinds of performing, it’s all about committing. You can’t go half-hard when you do so. It wasn’t dissimilar to how I’ve sung a lot in my life, but I think in that specific time, especially the key that we wrote it in and the phrasing and how long the phrases are when there are certain breaths within the phrasing, it makes all of it completely different. And it was definitely the hard choice. I don’t know what could have been harder for me. I think that the way that I wanted it to sound was going to be the way that it was the most challenging, and it may not sound challenging, but it is. It’s really hard to sing really, really softly and convey the message you want. But I also want it to be very enunciated and I wanted you to hear what I was saying, but also feel it. So it was a mixture of both.

Finneas: It’s all about making the listener believe what you’re saying, right? I think that’s one of Billie’s real superpowers, as the person that sits and listens to her record these lines, especially this song. These lines that are clearly metaphorical in this sense — at the very least pertain to this fictional story about a doll. I totally believe that it turns out Billie is not real, and she’s just something you paid for. I totally believe that when I listen to her say it.

Olsen: Billie, you directed the video for “What Was I Made For?” And I’m just curious how you found that experience. And do you think you’re going to be doing any more directing?

Eilish: I don’t know how many I’ve done it now, but I’ve been directing since 2019, I think. And it was always something I wanted to do, always a passion of mine. And I just had to convince people that I could do it.

[Clip from “What Was I Made For”]: Turns out I’m not real. Just something you paid for. What was I made for?

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Eilish: Directing this video was, I think, my favorite of any that I’ve done. And I think maybe my most —

Finneas: It’s my favorite video you’ve directed.

Eilish: I think it’s one of my favorites that I’ve directed. And I really would love to keep directing and maybe direct something else bigger someday. I want to direct for other people when I have time.

Finneas: I felt this way when we were working with Greta on this film that we saw before it had been even finished. She wasn’t even done editing it. She could describe to you exactly how something was going to fall into the next sequence of it, and I could just see that it was all already there in her head, already put together. And I think when I see Billie make these music videos, she has that. So I can’t wait to see what else you direct.

Olsen: Also nominated for an Oscar this year [is] the song “I’m Just Ken” that was written by Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt. And first of all, I’m just curious, what do the two of you think of that song?

Eilish: It’s great.

Finneas: It’s great.

Eilish: It’s so perfect for the movie. It’s so perfect for Ken. And just the goofiness and the silliness of that character.

Finneas: It just makes me laugh. I love Greta Gerwig so much, and I can so see her saying, “I want there to be this crazy dance montage ballad scene, and we need this song of this crazy character,” played so well by Ryan [Gosling]. And I don’t know, the whole thing is just so entertaining and funny to me.

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[Clip from “Barbie”]: I’m just Ken, anywhere else I’d be a 10. Is it my destiny to live and die a life of blond fragility?

Olsen: Now, what do you think you would have done if you had to write the Ken song?

Eilish: It’s a great question. I actually thought about that. I don’t know. We wrote the music for a movie called “Turning Red,” which is an animated movie. And we wrote songs that were for a boy band within the movie to sing, and that was one of our favorite tasks to do, because you’re just channeling the goofy.

Finneas: We got silly.

Eilish: Yeah. Kitschy, campy vibe of it. It reminded me of that when I heard “I’m Just Ken,” I was like, “I bet they had fun goofing around.”

Finneas: We would put double negatives in the chorus.

Eilish: It was very dramatic. “We drove by your house 10,000 times last year.”

Finneas: We just really played into the silly over the top quality of it. So yeah, we definitely connected with that.

Olsen: Was the process of creating your “Barbie” song similar to when you created your [James] Bond song?

Finneas: I would say that the day we were sitting at a piano writing the song was not super dissimilar, but everything surrounding it was pretty different. Bond was this five-month-long audition of reading the script and submitting the song and going to London and trying out orchestra stuff with Hans [Zimmer] and Matt Dunkley and Johnny Marr. For the “Barbie” universe, we sent the song and they put it in the movie. We produced it out; they added some strings. It was much less the feeling of, “Oh my God, this may never work out.” Which is a real super luxury that we don’t take for granted. But yeah, the feeling was as soon as the song existed, we felt now it’s just our job to make the song sound as good as we possibly can.

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Olsen: Now we’re speaking before the Oscars nominees lunch, which a lot of people say is one of their favorite stops along the campaign trail. And I’m curious for the two of you, especially considering you just recently won two Grammys for your “Barbie” song. Congratulations. Can you compare the process of the Grammys to the Oscars? What is it like going through those, for lack of a better term, campaigns?

Eilish: It’s a whole different thing. Both are so incredible in so many different ways. The Oscars is so much scarier to me. I’m not in that world. I feel like I’m a guest, that I’m a plus-one to somebody’s party, and I’m trying to do my best. I don’t know, I want to make a good impression so maybe I get invited again or not. But I just don’t want to break anything. I don’t want to stumble. I don’t want to spill anything. Then the Grammys is like your homie’s party and we’re here and I know you guys, I love it. It’s friends, it’s whatever. The Oscars is the coolest kids. What do the cool kids do at the table? I don’t know. It’s very intimidating. Performing at the Oscars, which I’ve done now twice: Terrifying. Horribly terrifying. But in a great way. I love it. I can’t get enough of it. I can’t wait to do it again.

Finneas: Underneath everything else is just how much familiarity you have with the other people in the room. So by the time we were at our first Grammys, we knew a lot of those musicians. We’d played festivals with them, we’d made songs with them. You’re just seeing friends. And I remember the first time we went to the Oscars, we weren’t even nominated or anything. We just did the “In Memoriam” song. But we knew nobody. And then the only other time we’ve been at a luncheon before this, you’re standing there and Denzel Washington’s over here and Kristen Stewart’s over here. We’re not actors. We don’t really have much in the way of being, “Yeah, we’re the same,” other than just being, “You’re so talented.” So, yeah, it’s an intimidating experience, but the disclaimer’s that everyone’s been really warm and generous and kind to us, so nobody’s making us feel that way. We’re just feeling that way because we have impostor syndrome.

Olsen: It’s funny, I feel the same way. I’m a movie person. I don’t really get anxious or nervous around movie people, but I do around music people because it’s a different world.

Eilish: I agree. I’m right there with you.

Olsen: Finneas, I want to ask. The “Barbie” song is such a stripped down piano ballad, but the production on it is actually much more sophisticated than that. And there’s a lot going on in the background.

Finneas: Thank you, very kind of you to say.

Olsen: Is it a challenge to both build it up and have it feel stripped down, to not have the production get in the way?

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Finneas: It’s definitely the challenge I’m the most interested in pursuing. No matter how cool or complicated or hard I’ve worked, I’ve failed as a producer if I’m in the way of Billie’s vocals. To me, her vocal, the story of the song, the melody, the lyrics, that is the DNA of the thing. So if I’m doing anything in the way of that, I failed. But to make something feel dynamic and feel like you go on a journey from the first second of the song to the final second of the song, it’s a process of feeling where you can stretch it and where you can push it and little accents to just support everything else. In some ways the quieter, the more minimal the piece of music we’re working on, the more we kill ourselves to add these tiny little flourishes and accents. And again that’s so satisfying to me. And if people perceive the production as very simple and mostly piano and vocal, fantastic, as long as they love the song. If they then really turn up the volume and listen to it and hear all the nuance in the layers, that’s a bonus. But I’m definitely never sitting with somebody [and saying], “Did you hear that?” I just want them to love the song. And then I’ve done my job.

Eilish: I do that. Or I sit there and I’m like —

Finneas: Check this out.

Eilish: Listen to this part.

Olsen: Is there anything, Billie, in the production of the song that you particularly like?

Eilish: There’s this little swoop that we talked about. That is just Finneas’ voice weird and muffled and echoed and verby, in the second half of the first verse. And I love that.

Finneas: There’s a little keyboard that I have that’s made by General Electric. It’s a kid’s toy. Billie played it, and I ran it through this old SketchCassette like tape emulator, but again the marriage of this song about a doll and Billie playing a little toy keyboard.

Eilish: It’s this little toy keyboard and it’s so fun.

Finneas: I love the way it sounds. The sound of it breaks my heart.

Eilish: I felt really proud of that. And then I love some of the harp that Andrew and Mark added. I thought that was really beautiful. The ascending harp that goes into the second chorus is really pretty. I love all the bass and the movement, and Finneas and I played a lot with doing different effects on different parts of my voice throughout the song, adding verb and adding delay on certain lines. I always loved doing that with him. I love the song so much.

Olsen: Billie, you mentioned singing at the Oscars. Can you give us any hint of anything that we might expect from a performance at this year’s Oscars?

Eilish: Well, simple and sweet? I don’t know. I don’t want to ever be in anybody’s face, but I want to be the voice of whoever is quiet in the corner. Hopefully I can translate for people who don’t want to speak up. I don’t know. Simple, easy.

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Olsen: Obviously, you have your “Barbie” song, you’ve done your Bond song. And actually one of your songs is in the credits sequence for the current season of “True Detective.”

Eilish: Yeah.

Olsen: What is it about your music that the two of you think works so well in movies and TV?

Finneas: Not to be too presumptuous, but I think we really write from a place of fantasy and we’re very interested in concept. The song that’s in this new season of “True Detective,” even when we first wrote and recorded it, there were so many sound effects in it. It was this really dark piece of music, and we were very conscious of that while we’re making it. Without trying to, our fantasy is always that it’s married to some amazing piece of television or film. The new season of “True Detective,” I love it. It’s my favorite season since the first season. Maybe the similarity is that when we make music, we really make it from this place of drama and it’s very hyper-thematic. That’s the goal.

Olsen: And then when the two of you are collaborating, when you’re writing and conceiving of things, are movies a part of that? Do you share movies with each other? Like, “I want this kind of vibe.”

Eilish: We’ve just always been such huge fans of film and TV. I think that music in film and TV is something that gets taken for granted. I think that the music in a movie can make the movie spectacular and or make it terrible. And I’ve seen movies that I’m like, “Oh my God, I liked that movie. But the score really was driving me crazy.” And vice versa, where a score was the glue, what made it so special. And it doesn’t mean the movie isn’t great or whatever on its own, but it just enhances what’s already so amazing. And so growing up, we’ve always related to all the stuff we like. Finneas is always showing me movies that he loves. I’m never up on what’s out and who’s made anything. And so Finneas is like, “You need to watch this.” And he’ll show me a lot of movies. Pretty much all my favorite movies were because Finneas showed me them, like “Drive,” “I Origins.”

Finneas: Both of those movies, great use of music.

Eilish: “The Social Network.”

Finneas: Incredible score.

Eilish: The score is amazing. “Ex Machina.”

Finneas: “Fruitvale Station.”

Eilish: “We Need to Talk About Kevin” was you too.

Finneas: Oh, yeah. Great movie.

Eilish: Yeah. I never find any movies of my own.

Finneas: A great song put in a great movie, you’ll like that song in a different way for the rest of your life. It’s really profound. Very cool.

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