Billie Eilish grew up writing songs.
Raised in a musical family and homeschooled from an early age, it was just something she assumed everyone did. Her first, an upbeat, positive tune about falling into a black hole, she wrote when she was four-years-old (the lyrics were, in her own words, pretty bad.)
The first real song, however, came aged 11. As part of an assignment set by their mother in songwriting class, Billie and her older brother, Finneas, were instructed to go away, watch something on TV and turn how it made them feel into the basis of a chorus. So, Billie wandered into the kitchen, turned on the TV and sat down to an episode of The Walking Dead. The subsequent song – ‘Fingers Crossed’ – remains on her SoundCloud to this day. And yes, it’s about zombies.
Given such an early fascination with the apocalyptic, it’ll come as little surprise to learn that Billie Eilish is not your standard popstar. Far from it. Sharp, self-deprecating and equipped with a weird and wicked gallows humour, the 16-year-old artist is a refreshing burst of unshackled personality. An individual, she most certainly is.
Billie – full name Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell – was born to actor parents and grew up in LA. Creativity, in all of its forms, was encouraged from the very beginning and singularity was always rewarded. “Being homeschooled was just finding anything you could possibly want to do and doing it,” she explains. “It was like, ‘let’s go build a house out of cardboard!’ And then I’d go outside and I’d do that. There was always so much to do.”
While she was a member of the Los Angeles Children’s Choir, Billie’s musical education came in the form of absorbing the sounds favoured by her family members. Her dad would make mixtapes and play them in the car, while her brother’s various different musical phases taught her everything she needed to know about genre. “It was like a perfect little ladder.”
Back in 2016, she uploaded a song by the name of ‘Ocean Eyes’ to her SoundCloud account. Written with her brother, the moody, melodic number was intended for only her dance teacher’s ears, who’d ask to hear it so that he could choreograph something to it. But – as it so often does – the internet had other plans. ‘Ocean Eyes’ went viral overnight and the rest is, as they say, history. Billie blew up. She was 14 at the time.
“It was crazy. We put the song out to send a link to my teacher so he could make a dance to it. We literally weren’t even gonna put it out. It just got out of hand, really,” she recalls. “It’s really hard to actually take it in. I don’t know if there is a way to take it in. With stuff like that, you just have to feel the way that you feel.”
Speaking over a crackly phone line from her home in LA, Billie switches from sardonic absurdist to wise and worldly at the flick of a switch. She’s just as likely to laugh and proclaim “I’m dead” after a response as she is launch into an unpromoted philosophical take. When it comes to discussing her influences as an artist, she continues to roll with the latter.
“There was this one evening, I was surfing YouTube and watching videos. That’s how I find music a lot of the time, cos I’m a really visual person. Anyway, I remember sitting in my room watching a bunch of stuff and I saw this little thumbnail on the side. I was like, ‘what the hell is this?’
“It was a song called ‘Runaway’ by AURORA. I had no idea who she was, I had no idea what the song was, I didn’t know anything about it. But, I clicked on it because the thumbnail looked cool. I remember sitting there and watching it and thinking, ‘oh my god, this is what I want, this is what I wanna do with my life.’ I knew it already, but that was kinda when my brain was like, ‘oh, okay – sick.’ That was the moment.”
Billie’s sound, much like her upbringing, is a blend of different ideas and inspirations. Her dark, idiosyncratic take on pop shares the broodiness of early Lorde and Lana Del Rey, existing within meticulously crafted soundscapes that only amplify its mystical quality. She cites both R&B and hip-hop as her most important guiding forces (“Tyler, The Creator is my biggest influence, I’d say”), while displaying a penchant for crafting grizzly fables that feels incredibly literary (see Angela Carter’s My Bloody Chamber).
Take, for instance, ‘Bellyache’, a song she opens with the nonchalant announcement that she’s killed her friends and hidden their bodies in the car. Gnarly. Similarly, on ‘Party Favor’, she reassumes the role of ice cold killer, albeit in a different sense, cooly breaking up with a significant other on their birthday (“happy birthday, by the way”). Though her music exists under the umbrella of playful and melodic, it isn’t afraid to wander into uncomfortable spaces. dont smile at me – her debut EP, released last summer – is full of them. They’ve never sounded better.
Much of this can be probably be put down to the songwriting partnership with her brother. The honest, upfront, fearless relationship she shares with Finneas – who himself starred in Glee – operates in tandem with the feelings they explore together in Billie’s music. There’s no tiptoeing, nor skirting around. That wouldn’t be very them.
“I think, for me, we have that trust. I don’t have to be super sensitive about what I say. Usually, with sessions you go into a room for hours and hours with someone you’ve never met in your life. But songwriting is such a personal thing, and I feel like writing with my brother makes it so much more real for me. We can agree that we always come out with the stuff we like the most – and what we think is the closest to us – when we work together.
“Working with other people, I still like it, it’s still okay, but I think that sometimes it’s a waste of time. If I can just work with my blood – my brother – and come out with something that’s real instead of something that’s made to feel real, then that’s better. Right?”
Given her meteoric rise, much of the coverage that surrounds Billie tends to focus on her age. While she admits that this can sometimes grate a little, she accepts it as part and parcel of who she is, what she does. What she doesn’t get on board with, however, is when people question the authenticity of the material based on her lack of years.
“Anyone at any age can feel anything,” she counters. “If you’re a 40-year-old, then obviously you’re older than me. You’ve lived longer than me, maybe you’ve experienced more than I have. But that does not mean I haven’t felt the same way that you’ve felt. People are like, ‘oh, you’re 16, how could you have possibly have gone through that?’ and I’m like, ‘dude, do you remember being a 16-year-old? Shit sucks, bro.’”
It’s that kind of empathy – one that maybe others lack, the older they get – that make Billie such a unique voice. While her songs can fluctuate from spiky to surreal, they always come from a place of deep and personal meaning. She’s an extremely intimate songwriter, unafraid to pour feelings, warts and all, into her music.
Her social media accounts follow a similar kind of set-up. Her Instagram is a gloriously garish comic strip of different looks, memories and scenarios, while her Twitter operates as a constant stream of consciousness, to which fans have untapped access. Tweets range from proclamations like ‘Hugh Hefner is dead and so am I’ (“it kind of speaks for itself. He is dead. And I hate it.”) to running commentaries of her various scrapes, such as ‘I just gave a dirty look to a baby. I’m a bad bitch’ (“that’s a true story. I think I was in the airport.”)
To put it bluntly: Billie Eilish doesn’t really give a fuck. Be it writing songs about zombies or glaring at newborns, she doesn’t adhere to any pre-set rules or conventions. If you were to try make her, you’d kind of be missing the point. As someone who grew up moving to the beat of her own drum, her individuality is habitual. She only knows how to be Billie. Lucky, then, that she’s good at it. “I think other people think I should look and act a certain way more than I think I should,” she muses, before swiftly deciding that she doesn’t really care. “If I wanna fucking do something, I go do it.”
And what is next? Well, that’s anyone’s guess. As a 16-year-old with the world as her playground, you couldn’t blame her for stepping back, just for a moment, to take it all in. Not Billie, though. She’s having fun, doing what she’s always done. It’s all she’s ever known. Why on earth would she stop now?
“I just want more of everything. I think expect some crazy shit,” she concludes, fittingly. “I’m gonna have music that makes you scream and jump around and punch people. That’s what I want. More content, more videos, I wanna have a clothing line. Everything.
“I guess I want a lot of things. I’m getting there.”
This feature was taken from tmrw magazine volume #23.