She is the home-schooled 17-year-old pop superstar. Billie Eilish tells Decca Aitkenhead how success has altered her life — for better and for worse.
When teenagers dream of becoming pop stars, I imagine the scene they picture is pretty much this: a matte-black Dodge Challenger pulls up for a photo shoot in a fashionably obscure Los Angeles neighbourhood. A documentary film crew is poised at the studio door to capture its arrival. Inside, a dozen or so creatives wearing baseball caps and black arrange vegan snacks among the vintage vinyl and French fashion magazines; racks of jewellery and rails of designer clothes and shoes fill another entire room. Everyone resembles an ironic extra from Wayne's World, except for the silver-haired man in a suit guarding the diamonds, who looks as if he's stepped off the set of The Sopranos.
We're all waiting for Billie Eilish, the singer breathlessly described as the future of pop by everyone from The Wall Street Journal to The New Yorker; Rolling Stone to The Washington Post. Currently the third-most-streamed artist on Spotify, her debut album shot straight to the top of the Billboard 100, with 12 of its songs among the 14 she has in the US singles charts — an all-time record for a female artist. Its big hit, Bad Guy, reached No 1 in more than a dozen countries, her 2017 debut EP has now been in the charts for more than 18 months and she has more than 25m Instagram followers. Dave Grohl, the Foo Fighters' frontman and former Nirvana drummer, likens the buzz around her to "what was happening with Nirvana in 1991". Her last world tour sold out, her current one soon will too, and she's just headlined at Glastonbury.
Eilish knows this is the stuff of teenage dreams, because she is all of 17 years old.
Everything about her sounds fantastical — even her full name, Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O'Connell. The home-schooled daughter of jobbing LA actors began writing music at 11 and was 13 when she posted a recording on SoundCloud of herself singing Ocean Eyes, a haunting ballad written by her big brother, Finneas. Within weeks she'd been signed by professional management; by 14 she was signed to a record label. In the words of The New York Times, her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, "redefines teen pop stardom".
A kind of Lena Dunham of Generation Z pop, she sings about Xanax, unrequited love and adolescent envy in a husky slur of a voice, her genre-defying music looping effortlessly from ethereal acoustic to explosive electronica. She co-writes all her songs with Finneas, now 21, who records and produces them in his childhood bedroom in the modest two-bed LA home Eilish still shares with her mum and dad. She designs her own merchandise, controls her own styling, curates her own videos — but is still technically a child. At an awards ceremony earlier this year, a camera caught her sucking on a lollipop.
Having never interviewed a child before, I'm unsure what to expect when the door of the Dodge Challenger swings open. Late last year Vanity Fair posted two videos of interviews conducted 12 months apart; in the first Eilish is perky, eager to please, but in the second her eyes are hooded, her answers wary. The videos look like a chilling parable about the perils of precocious fame and, when the slight figure steps out of the car, my heart sinks. Her entire head is hooded in a sinister black-and-white skeleton mask. Oh no, I think. Not yet 18, and already she's reached late-stage celebrity paranoia?
It turns out to be nothing of the sort, just adolescent self-consciousness about a hair-dye disaster. She'd had it coloured the night before, it went wrong and came out blue. Hood off, she confers earnestly with her mum, like a typical teenage girl, until a stylist comes to the rescue with hair extensions. Eilish looks relieved and cheers up, her mum goes off to fetch lunch and, not for the last time that day, I'm disorientated by the domestic family normality at the epicentre of this celebrity circus.
Eilish is by a long way the coolest human being I have ever met. The simultaneous nonchalance and polish with which she poses for the camera is breathtaking; she has that mysterious quality of otherness that makes stardom look less like ambition than destiny. She is clever, self-aware and socially conscious, fortified by a self-belief too impregnable to be mistaken for conceit. Yet she can also be charmingly naive and contradictory, just like any other child and at lunch sits gawkily cross-legged on a sofa, burping loudly, then accidentally drops a diamond into her scrambled tofu.
"I just say 's***' all the time, without thinking," she volunteers cheerfully. "For instance, you're an interviewer. And I come in here and go 'blahhh' about a bunch of s*** that doesn't need to be told to everyone. Because I don't think you're going to …" and she mimes me typing up her words, when that is literally my job.
She still hasn't got used to the thrill of getting stuff free. "It's crazy. Jewellery, clothes, shoes, nails — you can just get it. That's f***ing dope! If I knew that when I was 11?" Her eyes widen. "All I wanted was a pair of Nikes and I couldn't afford them. And now I have hundreds in my house. Unreal." Yet she can't nip out for groceries without being mobbed, and needs a security team to go anywhere in public. Nightlife is no longer viable. "I keep pretending I can go out at night. We're like, 'Let's go to blah blah blah!' But I can't."
Has her internal world altered along with her external reality? She laughs. "Something people say is, 'I'm still the same me.' I feel like, no, you're not. You really are not. Not at all. How could you be? I honestly feel like I'm a different person. You know when you see stories about little kids who've had past lives? I feel like that. I remember everything about who I was, but I don't recognise that person any more. Around when I turned 16, I died, and I got reincarnated as Billie Eilish."
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What makes her meteoric rise so remarkable is its defiance of the orthodoxy about mainstream musical tastes. The music industry operates on the assumption that children want shiny bubblegum pop and commodified sex appeal — but Eilish's work is borderline arthouse, often dark and always singular. How did she know that was what they really wanted? "I wasn't creating 'my brand' or trying to break the rules. I wasn't doing something to make kids like me. I just literally did what I wanted. That's the only reason it worked."
Her appeal extends far beyond her teen fanbase; everywhere I travelled in the week after we met, people kept telling me how much they loved her. To be equally popular with a middle-aged Jamaican estate agent, a Swedish logistics manager and a Wall St banker without trying to please anyone, is a feat beyond the wildest dreams of most marketing professionals. Eilish pulled it off without compromise. I wonder if she'd be a Billie Eilish fan too, were she someone else. She grins.
"I spend so much time thinking about that. If I saw me I'd think, 'Oh my God, she's dope. Like, look at her outfit, dude!' I think I would think I was so cool. But I would also think I was really annoying." Because? "I have always hated people who are like me. Whenever I meet someone with a similar personality to me, I think, 'Eeww, shut up!' I just always wanted to be the only one doing me."
If ever there were an advert for home schooling, it would be Eilish, who credits her originality to her unconventional education. She grew up in a sketchy LA neighbourhood, with little money; her father landed small parts in The West Wing and Iron Man, and her mother fitted voiceover work around her children's lessons. Eilish sang in the Los Angeles Children's Chorus, took dance classes and developed the astonishing confidence in her own aesthetic instincts that would explain why no record executive has ever tried to patronise her. "Everyone was always just more impressed than patronising," she shrugs.
Does she ever doubt her own creative judgment? She shakes her head. "I've always just known what I wanted. Always. The only time it was different was when I was 11 and 12, when I tried to be like everyone else. I tried to fit in. I remember shopping at the stores where other people shop, I started talking different, I tried to change my laugh, because I always had a deeper voice. It was the worst year ever. It made me miserable, and it also made me annoying, because it wasn't authentic. But that year I thought, 'Oh my God, I have to be someone else, because I am the worst.'"
The problem was that her brother had formed a band, landed parts in the TV shows Glee and Modern Family and appeared in a film with their mother. "And I was soooo jealous. I wanted it so bad. It was not great." Even the memory makes Eilish's expression darken. "It really did not sit well with me when Finneas was the star of the family."
How does it sit with Finneas to see his little sister the big star now? At once, she brightens. "It's fine, because he would not like fame at the level it is for me. He has his own projects, which are dope, and he's great. See, if I'm being honest with you, I was always the boss but people always like Finneas more. Finneas is hilarious, everybody thinks he's funnier, so he's the one people like more. But everybody always knew I was the one."
Even so, I'm fascinated by how her fame must have altered the family dynamic. The four are so close that until Finneas turned 10, they all used to share one bed — but he is now her producer, her dad is her stage lighting director and her mum is her assistant. In other words, they all work for the youngest in the family — so who is in charge? "I'm in charge," she says firmly. "But then I've always been in charge. That sounds annoying, but I was just bossy as f***. I've always been the boss." The prospect of turning 18 in December and assuming full legal control of her career doesn't faze her one bit. "Now I think I could handle it. I can't do this for ever with my family, and I wouldn't want to, and I don't think they would want to."
Mum Maggie is less sanguine. Artsy, vegan and liberal, in well-worn trainers and no makeup, she could not be less like the cliche of a pushy Hollywood stage mum, but has the slightly frazzled energy of cumulative jet lag, and is constantly on the phone fielding industry calls. "This is the most stressful thing I've encountered in my life," she admits. "Everyone's telling me, 'You must be so proud, you must be so happy.' But I'm stressed out of my mind."
Eilish doesn't touch drugs, or even smoke but the family is too thoughtful to be unaware of the fate of too many child stars. Maggie worries about her daughter's health — the constant touring has already triggered contact dermatitis — and she worries about Eilish turning 18. "Because a lot of what I do is mind-reading and I don't think you can pay somebody else to figure that out. Also, no one else is gonna be able to say, 'Hey, go to sleep.' I don't want her to become a person that no one can say no to."
Above all, Maggie worries about the unsustainability of Eilish's total creative control. "I would rather not do anything at all than not be in control of it all," her daughter counters flatly. "I can't not be involved, which literally drives me insane, because I don't have time to do it all." Would Eilish settle for a smaller career in order to maintain full control? "No. I'd rather have the career I have and have all the control. The way Kanye does."
Control matters so much, and success has come at such a pace, that Eilish is already chafing against the constraints of the public image she herself created. She used to enjoy people finding her intimidating, "But over time it's kind of become a thing, 'Billie Eilish, the creepy, weird, scary girl.' And I don't like that. It's lame. I just don't want to stay one thing."
Last month she starred in a Calvin Klein advert, in which she explained that she wears baggy clothes because "nobody can be like, 'she's slim-thick', 'she's not slim-thick', 'she's got a flat ass', 'she's got a fat ass'. No one can say any of that, because they don't know." But now she's annoyed when people tell her: " 'I love that you're not sexualising yourself blah, blah, blah.' Because they are the same people who are slut-shaming girls for wanting to wear less. It's like, what do you want from us? I love girls who are comfortable in their skin, and they show their ass, they show their boobs and I support it so much. Because I see so many people ridiculing it. It's so not fair."
She doesn't wear body-conscious clothes, she tells me, simply because she has never felt great about her body. "Nope. Never, ever, ever. Ever. I love my boobs — I really do, I can't lie. But that's about it. I've never worn a bikini and I really struggled with having to wear a leotard for dance classes. I did not have a good time with it." But now, "I might just do it. That's nobody's decision but mine. That's why I got these nails," and she fans out her glossy 7cm talons. "Because I saw someone online say I would never get them. I don't want to be predictable. I don't want to be told whatever. If I decide I'm going to go put on a crop top and some shorts, or a dress and heels, I'm gonna do that. Nobody is going to tell me no."
The trouble is, people take everything she says for some sort of fixed ideological position. "People are like, 'Oh, Billie Eilish, she said this and now she says this.' I'm like, 'Bro! I was 13 when all this started. What do you expect from a 15-year-old's mouth?' To not say a bunch of dumb shit?"
Everyone inferred from the Vanity Fair videos that fame had already ruined her. "And I'm like, 'Bro, no!' The first one was shot on a day when I had a photoshoot, I had glam hair, I had just eaten. The second one, I had just woken up, so looked tired. It wasn't like, I was happy and now the industry has destroyed me. No, the industry is great! This is all I ever wanted to do."
BILLIE EILISH BY THE NUMBERS
•26.6m Instagram followers
•48m monthly listeners on Spotify
•15.4m subscribers to her YouTube channel
•1st artist to be born in the 2000s to reach No 1 in America's Billboard 100
•18 singles released
•287m YouTube views for Bad Guy, her single released in March
Of course, success is not uncomplicated. She's had no time to write anything new since November — and knows it's going to be hard to keep writing relatable songs when "literally nothing about my life is normal any more". It's getting hard enough to even know what to talk about to her friends. "I've understood now why huge celebrities hang out with other celebrities and date celebrities. Everyone is like, why? And it's like, you don't know what their lives are like. I used to think I knew and I had no idea."
Eighteen months ago she would have said she had at least 15 truly close friends. "Maybe more. Dude, I used to have friends on friends on friends on friends. I was popular as hell." And now? The smile fades. "One. Two." I ask what happened. Her voice drops unhappily. "I don't know. People don't like my job. I can't tell anyone about it. Because either it sounds like I'm bragging, or it sounds like I'm being ungrateful. I've started going to therapy, because it's the only person I can talk to."
Has trust become a problem? "A huge one. Some really close friends last year that I thought I could trust completely just used the f*** out of my name. And then complained about it. I was like, what are y'all doing? If you're going to dick-ride me, at least enjoy the ride. I don't know who to trust any more." For a while she worried, too, about how to know if a boy was really interested in her or "Billie Eilish". "But I think I nailed that," she grins. "I know I've got somebody who is not like that." She has a boyfriend? "Mm-hmm," she nods happily. "But no one else knows that."
Something else no one knew about until recently was her Tourettes, which manifests itself in involuntary eye-rolls. She was diagnosed years ago and underwent treatment for it but hadn't wanted anyone to know because she "didn't want people to define me by it". But someone posted a video montage of her eye-rolls, so Eilish made her diagnosis public. Yet because she has the condition under control, "now people are saying, 'She doesn't really have Tourettes.' I saw some stupid article that made out I was trying to get leverage off it. That made me want to cry. I was like, really? I've been hiding this for three years, and I finally said it, and apparently I'm using it to my benefit." She shakes her head, looking suddenly weary.
"But I don't care, because I don't expect anything from the internet any more. It has disappointed me time after time. Any time I go back on it and I'm like, you know what, I'm going to say something funny, I immediately regret it. It just got to the point where the internet is so unbelievably sensitive that I'm like, 'Y'all don't deserve my funny ass.' I don't post shit any more. I barely ever post any words, I barely even put a caption on a picture because people take it to heart."
I think this is the saddest thing she says all day. A digital native, she has lived her whole life online; her success came through streaming — her record label boss has described her career as the "blueprint for how to be an albums artist in a streaming era". Yet her mother lives in fear of the social media mob — "One wrong Instagram comment and you're hated on for the rest of your life" — and Eilish daren't be herself online. I'm reminded again of Lena Dunham, the precocious millennial creator of the TV hit series Girls, who practically invented the artist-on-social-media model, only to be burnt by the savagery of online judgment. I'm curious to know what Eilish thinks of Dunham's career. She looks at me blankly.
"Lena who?" She's too young to have even heard of her.
Billie Eilish's debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, is out now on Polydor
Written by: Decca Aitkenhead
© The Times of London