Billie Eilish is making me nervous. She has called, as arranged, bang on time – 11pm in Los Angeles – but, she admits, she is not quite ready to speak: “This is a mess, I’m so sorry!” Her pale face and platinum hair loom from her phone screen, surrounded by darkness. Her head is at a funny angle and … oh God, she’s driving, her mobile apparently balanced on the car’s dashboard.
Help! I don’t want to inadvertently cause the death of one of the world’s most gifted and valuable pop stars; to watch as a generation-defining musician at the top of her game crashes her car.
“Girl, crashing is not me! I am not that person,” Eilish says, half-laughing, half-stressed. “I went to my brother’s house for a swim and to check on his dogs, because he’s away, and now I’m driving to my parents’ house. I promise it’s really close.”
She's 19 now, a music veteran of six years. At her early gigs she had to sit outside on the pavement before shows, not allowed in because she was underage
Okay, I say, still jumpy. But what’s that beeping sound?
“It’s my dog – he’s sleeping on the other seat and he’s 70 pounds, so he’s making the car beep because he doesn’t have a seatbelt on. I have mine on, look,” she says, showing me. “The beeping is really perfect for this call, isn’t it? And now the car wants to Bluetooth my phone. This is great,” she says, almost to herself, her sarcasm instantly familiar to any parent of a teenager.
Such bombastic attitude is forgivable, because Eilish is a teenager, albeit one of the most famous in the world. She's 19 now, a music veteran of six years, ever since she made a track, Ocean Eyes, with her songwriter elder brother, Finneas O'Connell, known professionally as Finneas, for her dance class. She uploaded it on to SoundCloud, where it gained a couple of thousand listens and almost instantaneously landed her a management deal. At her early gigs she had to sit outside on the pavement before shows, not allowed in because she was underage. But within a few months, something happened: in 2017, her EP Don't Smile at Me made a splash with young fans, and a year or so later Wish You Were Gay and Bad Guy smashed her into the mainstream. Eilish's intimate, breathy vocals over the driving beat, her eye-rolling, nose-bleeding, blue-haired look in the video, and the flip of the lyrics ("I'm that bad type… might-seduce-your-dad type") took her stratospheric. ("Duh," she sang.) She was 17.
Her first album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, released in 2019, went multiplatinum and landed her five Grammys; she picked up another two, this year, for her theme for the still-awaited Bond film No Time to Die and her single Everything I Wanted. She'd done three dates of a huge world tour when lockdown arrived, so she and Finneas used the time to write another album.
“It’s not a Covid album, but it was the first time in four, five years that we had time off to actually make songs, without anybody telling us to, or any deadlines, or any pressure. It was great because I don’t write fast,” Eilish says. Her voice is deeper than you might expect. “We were so in the mindset, I loved it.” She has pulled over, to get her dog (Shark, a pitbull) to lie on the car floor. As she talks, she holds her phone up at random angles; no standard video-call etiquette here – her phone is an accessory, a witness to her life. “Ask me questions!” she says, as she organises herself. Within a few seconds, she’s driving again. “My parents’ house is literally five minutes away!” she hoots.
Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O'Connell is full-on, in all senses. After a rocket-powered zoom from cool indie artist to massive global fame, her second album, Happier Than Ever, has just come, and she's working hard to promote it. Everyone wants her, from the press to her fans (88 million on Instagram); she recently admitted to having crying jags over the number of photoshoots she's had to do. She is huge across the world; her every move, official or papped, is clickbait. Her devotees span all ages, but she has an especially besotted young fanbase. She has said that her fans are why she does what she does – "I wouldn't want to do any of this if they weren't involved," she says – but they also analyse her every move, flipping between worship and informing her where she's gone wrong.
'Uuuugh,' she says of online trolls. 'These people don't do anything. I'm like, do something with your life! Go somewhere. Go get a hobby'
Recent gripes include her choice of boyfriends – her ex, the rapper Brandon “Q” Adams, wasn’t nice enough to her; her supposed current boyfriend, the actor Matthew Tyler Vorce, used racist and homophobic language in the past – but also: aged 13, she once sang along with a racial slur in a Tyler, the Creator lyric (she has apologised, saying she had no idea what it meant at the time; plus, no heat for Tyler, you notice); her video for her recent single Lost Cause, in which she appears to be having a fun sleepover with other young women, is “queer-baiting”, because she is straight. Cancel culture, where one misstep can send you to societal Siberia, seems impossible for anyone to navigate, but especially so when you’re young, famous and doing your growing up online. “Uuuugh,” she says of online trolls. “These people don’t do anything. I’m like, do something with your life! Go somewhere. Go get a hobby.”
Lost Cause, with its all-together merriment, is a bit of a departure for Eilish, who has long presented herself, at least in videos, as an outsider. Nonconformity is her appeal: her music uses experimental production, she hides her soulful voice by singing close to the mic or using Auto-Tune. Her lyrics reveal the teenage life pop usually ignores: not just the intensity of its romantic love but also its strange fears and stupid jokes; its revenge fantasies, ineffable sadness, loopy drama and life-death obsessions. In her lonely videos she floats like she’s possessed; cries black tears; has cigarettes stubbed on to her cheeks. In photos she stares into the camera with a hood-eyed, eff-you stare. She has Tourette’s, and when she’s stressed she tics, her head flicking, her eyes pulling wide, as if she wants to expel something crawling in her brain.
Teenage girls, as an audience, have been targeted by adults ever since pop was invented. Eilish has shown that they’re a lot weirder, cooler and on it than the grownups ever credited, by detailing the switchback moods and defiant peculiarity of contemporary teenage life. But she’s becoming an adult now. Can her fans allow her to evolve?
To my relief, Eilish is now parking the car in her parents’ yard: “The entrance is so small and my car is such a tank.” I know her car is a black Dodge Challenger, given to her on her 17th birthday by her record company. And I also know her parents’ house is a scruffy detached bungalow, packed with the detritus of long-term family living. I know these things because Eilish enjoys her life being documented – via home videos when she was young and recently in a book of photos from her childhood to now – though there are limits, as she will tell me.
She bustles through the house, calling “hello” to her parents, plonks down on a bed and leans the phone against something. After a while I realise it’s a mirror, because she starts brushing her fringe.
Although we start by talking about her album’s themes – there are two, broadly: one is a f**k you to an old flame, the other calls people out for the way they treat young women – we soon start discussing body image. Eilish loves to play with fashion and changes her style all the time – she remembers making the deliberate decision, aged four or five, to go out with her knickers on top of her trousers – but tries hard not to be overly concerned with her looks.
If you're always standing a certain way, walking in a certain way, and always have your hair just so … It's such a loss to always try to always look good. It's such a loss of joy and freedom in your body
For a long while her aesthetic references combined the gothic (coloured hair, pet spiders, the Babadook) with hip-hop (baggy shorts, hoodies, Louis Vuitton), culminating in her dyeing her hair black with neon green roots, sporting claw-like nails, neon green top and shorts.
Her new look is less cartoonish, though it still seems a little dress-up: Marilyn Monroe blond hair; soft beige and pink clothes; references to 1930s Hollywood and French boudoir. As it’s Eilish there’s a twist (big trainers, over-the-knee socks, a huge new tattoo of a dragon across her lower hip). She launched this style in British Vogue in May, where she stared from the cover, defiant in a corset, instantly confounding those who previously lauded her for covering herself up. Today, beneath that glamorous platinum fringe, she’s rocking a baggy Eazy-E T-shirt.
“Since I was a kid,” she says, “my dad and I have always talked about a certain type of person who’s so insecure, or hyperaware and self-conscious, that they never move in a weird way, or make a weird face, because they always want to look good. I’ve noticed that, and it makes me so sad. If you’re always standing a certain way, walking in a certain way, and always have your hair just so … It’s such a loss to always try to always look good. It’s such a loss of joy and freedom in your body.”
This loss of freedom is more likely, of course, if you’re a young woman. Eilish recently released Not My Responsibility, which is on the new album: a spoken-word piece that questions why her physique is seen by others as provocative, no matter whether she covers herself up, or doesn’t. “The body I was born with, is it not what you wanted? If I wear what is comfortable, I am not a woman. If I shed the layers, I’m a slut.” And in Your Power, a song about older men preying on young women, a punch-to-the-gut lyric hidden in the prettiest of tunes, she talks about the terrible ways that those who are “provoked” by such young women can act. “You ruined her in a year, don’t act like it was hard … She was sleeping in your clothes … now she’s got to get to class.” “It’s an open letter,” she says, “a general statement. I had multiple people I was thinking about in that song, which is sad, I know. But it’s not all about one person. Some lines have nothing to do with me, they’re just things I’ve seen, or things my friends have gone through.”
Another song on the album has a similar call-out theme: “OverHeated applies to all the people who promote unattainable body standards,” she says. “It’s completely fine to get work done – do this, do that, do what makes you feel happy. It’s just when you deny it and say, ‘Oh, I got this all on my own, and if you just tried harder, you could get it.’ That makes me literally furious. It is so bad for young women – and boys, too – to see that.”
She knows from experience of the music industry that most perfect Insta-friendly images are unreal. But it still affects her. “I see people online, looking like I’ve never looked,” she says. “And immediately I am, like, oh my God, how do they look like that? I know the ins and outs of this industry, and what people actually use in photos, and I actually know what looks real can be fake. Yet I still see it and go, oh God, that makes me feel really bad. And, I mean, I’m very confident in who I am, and I’m very happy with my life … I’m obviously not happy with my body”, she adds casually, “but who is?”
She picks up a small jade roller and runs it over her cheek as she speaks. I’m taken aback that she’s “obviously” not happy with her body, but Eilish is nothing if not honest; she responds in the moment. And actually, despite her enormous social-media presence, she can often seem like she’s in disguise. Her style is so distinctive, it has become a camouflage. (You can order her green-and-black look as a costume online; several of her friends, and her mum, dressed up as Eilish for Halloween 2019; Eilish herself dressed as a ghost.)
She used to be a dancer, and imagined that would be her career, until she suffered a serious hip injury, aged 13. We talk about how dancing makes you feel, its exhilaration. She used to love jumping in mosh pits, “the freedom and independence”, though she hasn’t managed to do so since 2016. “Even though there’s many people around you in a mosh pit, you’re alone. Nobody knows who you are. That’s what I really loved. I miss mosh pits.” Before her gigs got really big, she was proud of creating mosh pits in them – “I once created seven!” – but some of her fans were too young and didn’t know what to do.
She still connects with that physical wildness, usually when she’s on stage – though she has to push away negative thoughts in order to do so. “When I’m on stage I have to disassociate from the ideas I have of my body,” she says. “Especially because I wear clothes that are bigger and easier to move in without showing everything – they can be really unflattering. In pictures they look like I don’t even know what. I just completely separate the two. Because I have such a terrible relationship with my body, like you would not believe, so I just have to disassociate … Then you get a paparazzi picture taken when you were running to the door and had just put anything on, and didn’t know the picture’s being taken, and you just look how you look, and everyone’s, like, ‘Fat!’”
How weird, I say, to have your body dissected in such a way.
“Yes! I mean, we only need bodies to eat and walk around and poop. We only need them to survive. It’s ridiculous that anybody even cares about bodies at all. Like, why? Why do we care? You know, when you really think about it?”
She smooths her fringe. “Why do we care about hair? Why does everybody hate body hair so much but we literally have an enormous thing of hair on our heads, and that’s, like, cool and pretty. Like, what’s the difference? I mean, I love hair, and I do crazy things with my hair. I’m as guilty as everybody else. But it’s so weird. If you think about it hard, you go crazy.”
Eilish does think hard, and is involved in all the visual presentation of her work. She directs her own videos, and thinks filmically: both she and Finneas have a form of synaesthesia, and she sees images when she makes music. I ask her about a new song called Oxytocin, which reminds me of dark clubs at 3am. What colour does she see when she sings it?
“There was flashing in my head when we made that,” Eilish says, thoughtfully rolling the jade across her neck. “The colour of whatever was in my brain while making it was dark, but also a flashing yellow.” She pauses. “Honestly, the images I have for Oxytocin were just sex. That’s it. All different kinds, and styles, and colours, and locations. That’s really what was in my head. Sex.”
She has another think. “Which means that whenever I sing it on stage, I have to think about sex,” she says, and grins. “I have no problem with that.”
Eilish talks completely on the level; not deliberately provocative, but unvarnished and straight. She was home schooled and has always had the quality, common to many home-schooled children, of being on a par with adults. She expects respect because she’s always been given it at home.
Her parents, Patrick O'Connell and Maggie Baird, both part-time actors (O'Connell was in Iron Man and The West Wing; Baird was in The X-Files and Bones), are massively important in her life; they've had to be, as until December 2019 she required a guardian in order to have a career. Whenever they're interviewed they come across as sane and loving, and have created a team around their daughter that lets her, mostly, be who she is, and express herself as she wishes.
Eilish’s now-privileged position doesn’t stop her from suffering the traumas of contemporary young life – she has suffered from depression and used to cut herself – but she’s able to talk about her feelings without venom. “I try really, really hard to be pleasant to work with,” she says. “Sometimes people are huge idiots, and you have to be, like, ‘Hey, you’re being an idiot.’ But I never throw things or yell at anybody, ever. I love working with people.”
I really don't like to be alone. I have a lot of stalkers, and I have people that want to do bad things to me, and I also am freaked out by the dark and, like, what's under beds and couches
Eilish is naturally very social; she chose the rapper Denzel Curry as her support act because they get on so well. And though she lost quite a few pals when she became famous, she has a couple who have stuck with her throughout: Drew she met aged nine; Zoe when they were three. Zoe came with her on her last tour, Drew gets a namecheck in a song on the new album. Fame has meant Eilish’s life has had to change, though she fights to keep some aspects the same. She now has her own place, but still likes to sleep at her parents’ house.
“I really don’t like to be alone,” she says. “I do like having anonymity, or autonomy, but I really am flipped out when I’m alone. I hate it. I have a lot of stalkers,” she says, matter of factly, “and I have people that want to do bad things to me, and I also am freaked out by the dark and, like, what’s under beds and couches. I have a lot of weird, irrational fears. So I’m still at my parents’ house a lot. I just love my parents and really like it here. It’s very comforting.”
Eilish thinks she is most like her dad – “we’re the same person” – a gentle, warm man who can turn his hand to anything practical (he made the large red A-frame for the artwork for her Don’t Smile at Me EP) and is now a carpenter and lighting director on her tour. “Our personalities are just very similar, and we have similar body language, and also the way we talk to people and listen to people. My dad also has tics, and I have Tourette’s, more severe than he does.”
Eilish’s tics come on when she’s stressed; her emotions made manifest. I wonder about her anger: where does that end up, in such a pressurised life? “I’m an equestrian,” she says, “and that gives a lot of adrenaline and needs a lot of strength, and it’s exhausting. That is a big stress reliever for me. I’ve been less angry and emotional since I’ve gotten back into that.” She laughs. “My family, my God, makes me so angry.” I’m surprised: they seem so close. “Oh, my family is like everybody’s. There’s anger – and love, so it kind of evens out.”
Eilish is at a strange time in her life; because of the pandemic, she’s not been able to enjoy being a full adult. She turned 18 in December 2019, and is still too young to drink or smoke in California, though she doesn’t do either. “In the last two years I haven’t been able to do shows. Before that I was always with my parents, and going along with my family, and doing what they were doing, or what my team was doing. Now I would love to just throw on a balaclava and, any festival I played, just go out into the crowd. It would be so much fun!”
She picks up the phone and walks into the bathroom. Is she going to have a wee? “Noooooo way!” She digs out some dental floss, comes back to the bed, and starts flossing her teeth: an interview first, for me. At home with Billie Eilish is a relaxed affair, like a FaceTime catch-up with a mate.
We talk climate emergency, the California fires. She is vegan, and environmentally conscious, replacing the usual rider for photoshoots with a long list of green standards. She doesn’t think we take the climate crisis anywhere seriously enough. “The fires haven’t gotten to me yet, but it’s pretty much always a bit mad,” she says. “I hate it. I dread it. I wish people actually gave a shit about global warming, because I feel like I’m the only one. So, I don’t know. If we die, we die. And I think we probably will. The good thing is that the world will survive. The world knows what it’s doing. The world is just, like, ‘Guys, if you don’t do something to maintain this relationship…’ You know, ‘If you don’t pay your rent, then you’re gone, and I’m just going to go on without you.’ The world has no problem killing us all. I’m just saying.”
She turns to Shark, who is on the bed next to her, having a snooze. Will he wake up if she offers him chicken? “He’s vegan, but watch this,” she says. “Sharky, do you want some food?” Shark pings his eyes open.
She makes me laugh. She is so charismatic, such fun. Naturally confiding. No wonder her fans are besotted. I ask how hard it is for her to keep boundaries between them. “When it comes to fans,” she says, “it’s complicated. I don’t even know where to start. I don’t really know how to keep a boundary.” She sighs. “I’ve had such a good relationship with the fans since the beginning, and they have literally been the number-one priority for me. Half of me wants to tell the fans everything – every single thing I think and feel, and every person I meet, and every feeling I have – because I think of them as like my friends. But at the same time, I also really, really want to live privately. So it’s tough.”
She was a mega Justin Bieber fan herself when she was younger – a full-on no-boy-will-ever-live-up-to-him Belieber. There's a moving moment in The World's a Little Blurry, the RJ Cutler documentary about her, where she meets Bieber and can't speak. (He's now a friend who gives her advice.) Social media, which she once adored, has become more difficult as she's got more famous.
“With social media, I can’t use it as much because it will live there for ever,” she says, “and everyone besides the fans will also see. So that’s annoying. It’s like if you wanted to whisper a secret to a friend of yours, but while whispering it they had a microphone in their ear, and it was shooting to 80 million people. You know what I mean? That’s how it feels. I have this need to tell the fans these things and talk to them, and I used to do that, because it was a really tiny amount of people, when I first started out. And I would tell these whole stories about what happened and laugh about it, and it would become like an inside joke with the fans. But then those stories never go away.”
And because of Covid she hasn’t been able to connect with her fans in any other way – usually she would be doing shows, her favourite thing – so their interest has become more frenzied, and she’s further away than ever. She does understand their love, but she wants a life, too. Is there any way she can engage with them about music and art and hopes and dreams, without also having to reveal everything else?
“It’s just funny, because, like, as a fan, I would have never talked about what someone did, because it’s not your business,” she says, a bit exasperated. “It’s literally not your life. You don’t know any of these people. Nobody knows me, and I don’t know anyone. It’s nobody’s business. Like, why the fuck do people care so much? And I don’t actually think they do care online. With trolls, I think they just are bored, and that’s it. I do not get it. I don’t know when it became about everybody’s personal life. Oh my God, it makes me so angry.”
Eilish picks up the phone again, wanders around. It’s nearly time for her to go to bed, a young woman in her childhood bedroom, messing with her hair and phone, telling her stories to people online. What does she want them to know?
“I guess I want them to understand that … just as you change, and your opinions and feelings and likes and dislikes and knowledge changes over the years, so do mine,” she says. “Everyone’s guilty of looking at celebrities and not processing that they’re just a person. But they are. So it’s the classic ‘do to others what you would want to be done to you’. Because you’re just some person, and so is everybody else.” – Guardian
Happier Than Ever is on Darkroom/Interscope