Part pop, part punk and the quintessence of individuality, the 17-year-old is not afraid of doing things her way.
Billie Eilish has managed to turn a wild childhood dream into a reality. The Los Angeles born singer-songwriter first landed on a global stage with her debut single Ocean Eyes that was initially not even meant to be hers.
The song was written by her brother and creative partner Finneas O’Connell for his band, but then ended up fortuitously being released with Billie. Since its release, the song had amassed more than 173 million streams on Spotify. The duo currently works together, with Finneas producing his sister’s music and collaborating with her on songwriting. They most recently released Billie’s debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? The song debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200 and resulted in Billie becoming the youngest female artist to top the chart in ten years. Within the first week of its release, the album was also streamed more than 194 million times.
Once you listen to Billie’s music, the accolades that she’s achieving come as no surprise. The talented singer is not afraid to tap into that imaginative childhood wonder we often all but lose as we grow up. Her music is a sort of escapism that invites you into another realm – the eclectic and the wonderful. While her music videos are often dark, twisted and moody, they’re balanced by a certain lightness within the music itself.
Like her upbeat and catchy single Bad Guy off her debut album, Billie’s creativity sees no limits. While her music may be categorized as predominantly pop with an air of punk and rebellion, in the shadows lurks something darker. A style reminiscent of film noir and expressionism. Billie expresses her thoughts and ideas on paper via drawings, which then get brought to life through her music. Nothing about the singer is cookie cutter and she is unequivocally herself both through her music and in conversation. I caught up with Billie over a phone call one chilly Toronto morning the week she was prepping for her Coachella Music Festival debut. The singer was upbeat, frank and exuded ingenuity. Despite her age, her youth doesn’t dictate her ability to express herself eloquently and pointedly. The singer is just getting started.
Photograph by Jess Gleason
Photograph by Kenneth Cappello
You’ve had such a positive reaction to your debut album. Were you anticipating this sort of response?
I never really have any expectations. I think people won’t like what I make but at the same time I think no one will dislike it. I have no expectations and so the way people have reacted to it has been insane.
Do you have a favourite song?
I love it so much it’s hard to pick one. But if I had to give you an answer I’d probably say that the first one I listened to, which was Ilomilo.
Which influences did you pull from when creating this album?
It was kind of inspired by everything I’ve ever listened to throughout my life. There wasn’t one specific album or song or artist that inspired it.
But over the past year I kind of went back and listened to the things I loved when I was younger. It was crazy to see how they have impacted me and I realized that I’ve taken what I’ve loved and put it into my work in my own way.
Speaking of things you love, you sampled a quote from The Office in the song ‘My Strange Addiction’. Which character are you the most similar to? And what’s your favourite episode?
Michael Scott to be honest with you. I feel like I’m really stupid in a lot of ways haha. There are so many elements of his character that I kind of resonate with which is kind of horrifying. But it’s great though cause he’s hilarious and everything, but I don’t know my favorite episode. It would probably be each game which I’ve seen like like 16 times or some shit.
You’ve been collaborating with your brother since the beginning – So what’s that process like — working with someone so close to you and who’s equally as creative?
There is kind of a lack of meeting to have small talk with the people that you work with. It’s trying to avoid what you want to say because you don’t want it to come off as rude, or you don’t want to offend anyone or whatever.
Like there’s always the possibility that they quit, or fire you, or you fire them, etc. But it’s not like that with my brother. Neither of us are going to leave, you know? We love to hear something and say “No, that’s bad,” and be open to changing it. I think it really it saves a lot of time. It makes us focus on the things we actually care about, instead of spending a whole day trying to be polite and change something that you don’t like.
When you don’t see eye to eye creatively how do you settle that?
Well neither of us ever compromise. It’s good and bad thing at the same time, because when we have a disagreement about something creatively, one of us wins. There’s never a “let’s make a list” because then we’re both somewhat unhappy. Right. So with everything we do, we usually have to pick our own battles and fight for what him or I actually think is the right move.
How much are you involved with the video treatments, planning and the overall creative part of your songs and career?
Oh definitely more creative. Everything is on me — like all the videos are matching. I edited the last one, I sat in the room to edit the one before that for like 10 hours. I sort of thought of myself as a co-director even though they don’t title me. At first, it was all designed by me and drawn by me. But obviously I don’t have enough time to do that always. I have a lot of really good people working on that — it’s still curated by me. All the creative stuff is on me. Making the actual music itself, that’s all me and my brother. You know? Nobody else involved at all.
That’s amazing. Do you follow any rituals to get into a creative space?
I wish I did, because there are times when I want to be into the zone and I don’t know how to get into it. It’s different for writing music than it is for videos/visuals and stuff because I think visually first — so it comes naturally to me. I don’t I really have to think when I’m doing visuals, but it’s different for songwriting and actually making the music itself.
Finneas and I are kind of opposites that way, which I think is why we work so well. Songwriting and producing comes so naturally to him, it’s like walking. He thinks about it and he does it.
For me it’s really different — it’s actually a lot harder and it’s a more draining. He’s not that way with visuals and everything that I do, but I am so I think that’s why it works really well.
So when you’re making a music video are you just pulling references from different places and creating a moodboard? Or what’s that process usually like?
I actually don’t even make mood boards. I mean nothing ever describes things right for me. I see everything visual in my head already, so anytime I see a mood board for something that I’ve created and anything is a little off it really messes me up. My team really knows me, and they know how my brain works and know how illiterate I am but can understand me.
They can kind of read my mind about what I need — they know exactly what I’m striving for, and making it actually possible is incredible.
Coachella is next weekend. So what’s that preparation been like for you?
It’s been crazy. I mean I was really nervous at first. It’s weird because I really don’t get nervous for shows like at all but it’s Coachella. I’m from California and I’ve never even been to Coachella. So it’s crazy for me.
I mean it was more stressful because when we kind of first started to lock in and try to work on the stuff that we planned for Coachella. At the beginning of our European tour, I was really stressed out because I felt like so much of it was so far from being done that I just felt like this big weight on my back.
Are there any key elements that you make sure to include in your live performances?
Energy. If I’m not very energetic. I’d rather not do a show. On the last tour I got like shin splints, and my legs and I could barely walk — and then I sprained my ankle. I felt I cared less about getting injured back then, it was more about giving a good show. I’m not happy unless I’m jumping around and like running all over the stage making sure that the audience is hype up. I give all my energy to the world.
With your popularity rising so quickly at 17, what do you find the most challenging about it? Like maintaining your friendships or just balance in general?
I mean it’s weird because I’m kind of in this place right now where I have a lot things I didn’t have growing up. It’s really strange, who knew I would lose the things that I used to have? It’s a really weird world. It’s beautiful and horrible at the same time. Right now I’m able to do a lot of the things I never would have been able to do. But I’m also not able to do a lot of things that I used to do all the time. So I don’t know. I mean it is what it is. I can’t complain.
How do you balance work in your personal life?
I don’t really have a personal life anymore. I mean first of all I can’t because everybody is watching me all the time right. It’s something you can’t really think about for too long, because it’ll drive you crazy. But I don’t relax. I’ve always liked being surrounded by like a crew of friends — like a crew of people and I was close to my friends from all of this. I barely have anybody left, but I have a couple of people that I try to keep by me as much as I can because they keep me sane. I’m working on bringing my friends on tour with me which is going to make it a lot more fun for me.
We know you have a close connection with your fans too. How did they inspire you?
It’s funny because they say I inspire them, but really they inspire me. So many of my videos have been inspired from their drawings, and I’ve written songs that have been written from the perspective of someone that has written a comment on my Instagram account. I grew up as a fan so I know what’s like and I feel for them. I want them to know I’m reachable, but I don’t know how to be reachable. That’s the main thing. I want them to feel like I’m right there with them.
What impact do you want your music to have?
I think it should have whatever impact has naturally. I’m not going to put into anyone’s head what I want it to be. I guess though, whether or not someone likes my music, I want them to respect that it doesn’t sound like everything else. That’s what I try to do in my life. If I hear something, I always appreciate it whether I like it or not. Just acknowledge music as an art form and have an open mind.