She may have a song about being a serial killer, give a deadly smoulder on Instagram, and demand – via the title of her new EP – that you do not smile at her, but none of this means that Billie Eilish isn’t friendly. She talks a mile a minute about her music, her fans, and horror movies. She gushes about her brother’s songwriting talents. She expresses real excitement about her recently announced shows in Australia and New Zealand, including a night at The Tuning Fork in Auckland. She can’t quite believe the success she’s experiencing (including over 90 million streams on Spotify), but is making sure she enjoys every minute of it.
Born in 2001 as Bille Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell, she’s been called “pop’s best new hope” by The BBC, “pop’s most impressive 15-year-old” by Billboard, and “pop’s next it girl” by Vogue. It’s mighty high praise that makes one thing very clear – her lyrics may be black as night, but her music has been claimed by pop.
Her creative partnership with older brother Finneas has produced songs such as ‘Bellyache’, ‘Ocean Eyes’ and ‘Bored’, each of which helped her to amass a devoted collection of fans, but it’s not been a smooth ride to success for Billie. A pair of injuries put an end to a potential career in dance, a mentally and physically painful ordeal that eventually allowed her to focus more on music.
We spoke to Billie on the phone from Highland Park, the north-east Los Angeles suburb where she grew up, about surrounding herself with a supportive family and friends who “don’t care” about her fame (although, the day after our interview, she tweeted "im bouta lose everyone i love just watch"), how she recovered psychologically from her injuries, her debut EP ‘dont smile at me’, and finally getting long-due justice for the colour yellow.
COUP DE MAIN: We’re so excited that you’re going to be playing a show in Auckland later this year. It usually takes artists years to get to New Zealand, so this is truly wonderful. Are you excited to be heading Down Under?
BILLIE EILISH: I mean, I’m excited about everything, all of the shows, in any place, at all. It’s really surprising to go and play shows in places [where] you’d never thought that people might know who you are, or even that you exist. And then you go, and all these people are there just to see you and it's unbelievable. I've seen so many people in Australia and New Zealand that are fans of me and that I wouldn't otherwise meet unless I go and do a show, which I think is such a cool opportunity.
BILLIE: I like outdoors. I don’t even care about the city, in any place. I just love seeing nature and animals. I mean, I’ve never been there, so I’m excited for it. I’m not excited about the fifteen-hour flight, but whatever! It’s cool!
CDM: How would you describe Highland Park to someone who’s never been there before, who maybe imagines L.A. as all glitz and glamour?
BILLIE: It’s kinda like a little hipster block party, almost. It’s not huge, it’s this little area. There’s this one street called York, which is kinda where everything is. We moved there when it was affordable. It wasn’t a great neighbourhood and nobody really lived there. It wasn’t a popular place at all, then over time, tons of stores and little shops popped up, and it’s huge now, and kinda popping, which is weird. I think it’s really cute. It’s very homely, very comfortable.
CDM: I’m sure you get a lot of interest from producers who want to work with you, but you continue to work with your brother Finneas. Have you always had an inherently creative relationship?
BILLIE: We’ve always gotten along. I think a lot of siblings hate each other, or don’t even talk to each other because they don’t want to spend any time with each other. But me and Finneas have always had a bond. We agree on a lot of things. I feel like the age difference, four and a half years, is perfect; it’s not too big and it’s not too little. Of course, we get in fights and we disagree and argue, because I don’t think you can have a sibling without doing that, but we’ve always had a connection, especially with music. He started writing before I did. He would write these amazing songs that I wouldn’t even know were him. He’d play them, and I’d be like, “What band is that?” And he’s like, “Oh, I wrote it.” It inspired me to want to write as good as that. The whole time I’ve written any music – since my Mom is also a songwriter, and she taught me how to write songs – I’ve always had a standard that is really, really high. I have to be as good as them. Sometimes it’s not great to have that, but it’s also pushed the standards [up] of what I think is good. I want them to think it’s cool.
CDM: I know that some of your songs, such as ‘Bellyache’, are written from the perspective of characters who are very much not you. How do you get into their heads when writing lyrics like that?
BILLIE: It’s kinda always different. Like, for that song, we were just sitting in my garage and Finneas started playing something on the guitar, and then our friend played something on his guitar. And I was just like, <sings> “Sittin’ all alone…” We were riffing off of that, and Finneas was saying, “Mouthful of gum / In the driveway / My friends aren’t far / In the back of my car / Are their bodies.” So it was supposed to be like I’m sitting in the car with all my friends. But then I was like, “Ooh, what if I was like, ‘Lay their bodies’, like I killed them all?” And we were all like, “Yo! That’s crazy!” So then we just kind of went from there. It’s just really fun to write from a perspective that you would never be in otherwise. Songwriting is literally just like writing a book. You can just write anything at all, and you don’t have to be feeling a certain way to write a song about feeling that way. I feel like some people think, “I’m not going through this, so I can’t write a song about it.” No! You can write a song about literally anything. It’s just really fun to step into that creative zone.
CDM: Do you think you’d ever be interested in writing a series of songs about a certain story or character, maybe in the form of a concept album, or song cycle? Do you get attached to certain characters?
BILLIE: I haven’t really thought about it. Each song has its own character and its own total personality. And then some songs are completely me and come from right inside of my head. Like ‘idontwannabeyouanymore’, the song that just came out, is basically exactly all of my thoughts put into a song. It’s pretty sad, but it’s straight from the brain. That whole song is completely about talking to yourself, every word is looking at yourself in the mirror.
CDM: On that song, you sing, “If teardrops could be bottled / There’d be swimming pools filled with models / Told a tight dress is what makes you a whore.” Does that speak to your personal experience of feeling certain pressures about appearance, either in the music industry or out of it?
BILLIE: Yeah, Finneas wrote that line. We were both thinking about that a lot. Models are the standard. Everybody – kids, teenagers, adults – looks at models because they’re the icon, they’re how you ‘should’ look. But if you’re a model, you’re still told you need to lose weight. Even when you’re at the top, you’re still not at the top. I also feel that way about when people climb to the top, and use people just to get to the top. Because what do you think is at the top? Nothing is there if you ruin everything on the way. There’s a lot of different little meanings in there, which you can interpret in any way that you want.
CDM: Both ‘idontwannabeyouanymore’ and ‘COPYCAT’ seem to really celebrate individuality. Was your individuality always something you were encouraged to embrace by your parents and those around you growing up?
BILLIE: Oh, yeah. For sure. We wrote those two songs together. It was one song, kind of, when we wrote it. ‘COPYCAT’ is about somebody copying everything you do, to a point where they’re not even them anymore, they’re just doing exactly what you do. And then we wanted to write a song that was the opposite of that song. The bridge of ‘COPYCAT’ is part of ‘idontwannabeyouanymore’, all the chords are the same and the melodies are a little similar. Anyway, back to your question. I’ve been surrounded by support. Both my parents are great, and I’m so happy about that. So many people have the worst parents ever, and they’re horribly unsupportive. It just makes me want to die. No matter what you do, you deserve support. Even if what you’re thinking you want to do is a horrible idea, someone should still support you and try to help you accomplish [it]. I’m really lucky to have had that.
CDM: We hear all the time about stories of young women in the music industry not having their creativity and talent properly respected or valued. Even though you’ve come from a very supportive family network, have you come up against underestimations of your talent from others, because of the combination of your gender and age?
BILLIE: You know, the age thing is kind of a weird subject. It can be completely what you’re saying, but it can also be the opposite. People will like you more because you’re younger. If you’re younger, you’re supposed to know less, right? Maybe I don’t know as much as somebody who’s twenty years older than me, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t felt what they’ve felt. That’s what’s so annoying to me about the whole age thing. It’s like, I don’t want you to know my age because then you’re going to judge me and think that I haven’t felt completely horrible. I have. Anybody can, at any age. But it’s also great, and it gives me a lot of leverage. Mostly, everyone’s just respected my opinion on stuff. I have a really strong opinion on pretty much everything. I always know what I want, and I think people understand that, so they refer to my judgement. I know a lot of people don’t have that, especially women or younger people. But so far, people listen to me.
CDM: To you, what is the difference between creative expression through dance and through music? What does music give you that dance doesn’t, and vice versa?
BILLIE: The sad thing is that dance was always my way of letting everything out. Music still doesn’t really do that. It’s not like you can just write a song in two seconds without thinking and then feel great. It takes a lot of work. The thing with dance is you can just move around and that lets out all the tension inside of your body. I’ve always been a really physical person. Every time I go through anything, I need to move. I can’t just sit and let it happen, I have to get up and run and jump and wave all of my limbs around. Dance was always my way of doing that, and then I got injured, and then injured again, which completely took me out of dance. I still haven’t really danced since then, which was about a year and a half ago. That was horrible, horrible, horrible. Because I lost that way of expression. It did give me a lot of time to focus on music, but I was horribly depressed for a while, because I didn’t have a way of doing anything. Music has taken the place of that a little bit. They’re both really, really strong ways of communicating with yourself, I think. <laughs> I got super deep just there.
CDM: Had you not suffered those injuries, do you think you still would have eventually focussed your energies towards music?
BILLIE: Honestly, I don’t know if it would’ve made me want to do it more if I wasn’t so sad, or I would just be like, “No, I want to dance, I don’t want to do that.” I don’t really know. I think it all worked out perfectly. It was a blessing and a curse.
CDM: Some of the headlines and articles I’ve read about your music have been incredibly praiseworthy, variably calling you the future, or saying that you’re saving pop. What are your top tips for staying sane amidst all the hype? Do you have people around you who keep you grounded?
BILLIE: It’s really cool, I’ve gotta say! <laughs> I don’t know how one is supposed to react to stuff like this happening. I’m just letting it all happen right now. My brother is a huge part of keeping me sane and grounded and real. I have a group of friends who have known me forever and don’t care about my tiny little fame and don’t really want to hear about it. I’ve been doing some pretty cool things, but I’m not going to go up to all of my friends and be like “Guys, look at all this cool stuff that I’m doing!” It’s just selfish and rude. They just want to hear about me and how I feel about things, instead of what other people feel about me. They’re super supportive of me and they love what I’m doing and my music, but they don’t care. I think that’s so much better than people only being there because of the fame. They keep me grounded, and if I suggest something and it’s a horrible idea, they’ll be like, “Billie, you’re an idiot, don’t do that.”
CDM: We love your ‘dont smile at me’ EP, every song is so good. When we spoke to you earlier in the year, you said your debut album would be out in 2017, but is that looking more like a 2018 project now?
BILLIE: I have a lot of songs that are not out and aren’t coming out on the EP. It’s just a huge pile of songs that are not done. There are so many that I want to work on and then get out there. I just want people to hear them. So I’m working towards some stuff, but right now it’s about the EP, and then the touring. But some stuff’s coming eventually.
CDM: If you could write a song for the soundtrack of any director’s new movie, who would it be?
BILLIE: Whoah. Dude. I really like horror movies, and – I don’t want to use the word ‘aesthetic’ because that’s really annoying, but – aesthetically beautiful movies. Like, beautifully shot and all the colours are perfect. I’m a really visual person, so that’s the main thing. I’m trying to think who that would be. ‘Beginners’ [2011 film directed by Mike Mills] is so good. I love everything about that movie. I love ‘American Horror Story’. ‘The Office’ is my favourite show, actually. So if ‘The Office’ comes back, I’ll write their new theme song. <laughs>
CDM: You have a lot of yellows and reds in your visuals, particularly those for ‘dont smile at me’. Why are these colours that you want to use?
BILLIE: Well, yellow is my favourite colour. In the past, yellow has always been the hated colour. Nobody likes yellow. And then suddenly, yellow is this big colour, and it’s only because so many people started wearing it. But yellow has always been underestimated. Nobody likes the yellow Starburst, nobody likes the stuff that’s flavoured banana. I freakin’ love yellow Starbursts and I love the colour yellow, and I always have. It’s such an out-there colour and it works with how I think. In my head, everything is yellow. I have this very weird sense of style – you can look on my Instagram and see how weird it is. I love fashion and wearing crazy things and designing clothes. A lot of the time, I’ll wear an outfit that’s all one colour or all one idea or one pattern. I think red is a great colour, and I hadn’t really done anything with red in the past. For [the ‘dont smile at me’ artwork], I was like, “I want a yellow background with a red ladder and me wearing all red with a million chains,” and I got it, I actually got it! And I’m so happy that it looks the way that it does. It’s so sick.
CDM: I read an interview in which you said, jokingly, “I’m super attention whore-y! I love people talking about me, I love anybody just looking at me.” But the EP is called ‘dont smile at me’, and I read that you’re not always comfortable smiling back at people. How’s it going, figuring out how to cope with a new kind of attention, particularly from fans?
BILLIE: I love it. I love the fans and the support. I just think it’s so crazy. I used to be a super fan of a bunch of different artists and I even owned a fan account once. I know how strongly they feel. It’s unbelievable to me that I have people who think that about me. I talk to all of them, every single day. I like all their pictures of me, I comment on their stuff, I DM them, I tell them how much I love them. When I meet them, I spend as much time as I possibly can with them. I try to bond with them. They’re people, so I treat them like people. Because they are. I think so many artists don’t really care about that, and they don’t really try to talk to their fans or even interact with them. The fans are the reason you are anything at all. That’s huge. They deserve the credit. I don’t deserve anything. All of my fans deserve everything I have. And ‘dont smile at me’ – that title has a very strong meaning. I hate smiling, for a lot of reasons. I hate it. I don’t want to smile. If you take a picture of me and you tell me to smile, I will literally take your phone and delete all of your everything. <laughs> When you’re walking down the street and a stranger smiles at you, the point is that you’re supposed to smile back, right? That’s what you do – when a person smiles at you, you smile back. It’s forcing you to smile at somebody. If I’m walking down the street and I look very serious and I’m not smiling, and somebody smiles at me, they’re basically being like, “You have to smile at me, or else you’re a horrible person.” And I hate that. I hate it. So if you see me, don’t smile at me, and we’ll be good.
Billie Eilish's debut EP 'dont smile at me' is out now + she is embarking on a completely sold-out tour of New Zealand, Australia, and America beginning next month.
Listen to Billie's song 'my boy' below: