Billie Eilish on surviving teen fame and trauma, and how she finally stopped reading the comments
Billie Eilish is crying on the cover of her new album. The lone teardrop isn’t obvious at first, shiny enough that it could just be part of her glittery makeup. Her eyes are blue and empty, staring vacantly into the distance. “Happier Than Ever,” read the words above her face.
Is this what fame has done to Eilish? Taken the air out of the lungs of the wunderkind from Highland Park? Stripped her of her Rainbow Brite hair colors and oversize tees and turned her into a blond pin-up?
Not entirely. But it’s complicated.
There was a moment not too long ago, admits the 19-year-old, when she was truly miserable. After her debut single, “Ocean Eyes,” became a viral hit on SoundCloud in 2015, she signed with Darkroom Records and landed a deal with Interscope. But she felt ill-equipped to deal with the sudden onslaught of attention. Which isn’t surprising, because the music industry didn’t see her coming either — a teenager with such a distinctive look and sound that mass appeal was in no way inevitable.
“I hated going outside. I hated going to events. I hated being recognized. I hated the internet having a bunch of eyes on me. I just wanted to be doing teenager s—,” says Eilish, who was 16 when she toured her four-times platinum debut album, “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” She grew depressed, and her body didn’t react well to the stress; she was constantly coming down with laryngitis or developing fevers. And she was surrounded by adults. The only people her age were in the audience, which had become both physically and emotionally untouchable.
So how did she end up at this industrial compound in the San Fernando Valley, readying for the July 30 release of her sophomore effort?
“Honestly, it took growing up a little bit. Literally, physically growing up — like the actual chemicals in my brain shifting,” she says, sitting opposite a couch filled with vitamins and wellness supplements. Her brother, Finneas O’Connell — who has served as her sole musical collaborator since she began writing music — has a cold, and everyone on Eilish’s team is worried about her catching it. Her mother, Maggie Baird, hands her an immunity shot.
“Oh, I don’t need all that!” Eilish groans, downing it begrudgingly.
“Just in case,” urges mom. Baird and husband Patrick O’Connell — with whom Eilish lived in her northeast L.A. childhood home until roughly a year ago — then leave their daughter alone for the interview. But the singer’s publicist remains within earshot directly outside the room, and when Eilish asks if she can close the door, she’s denied.
Even though she’s technically an adult, Eilish is still figuring out who she wants to be as a grown-up. Between 17 and 19, she played Coachella, won seven Grammy Awards — in 2019, becoming the youngest person ever to sweep the prizes for best new artist and record, song and album of the year — wrote the theme song for a James Bond film and released an Apple TV+ documentary about her life. So when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she finally had an opportunity to pause and “do the self-reflection I’ve never had the time for.” Under her own roof for the first time, she began to think about what she’d been through “and how it affected me — how I actually feel about it all instead of just doing it.”
Baird suggested to her two kids that they use the unexpected free time during the pandemic as an opportunity to create new music.
“My mom was, like, ‘What if you guys had a schedule where Billie came over and you worked three days a week?’” recalled Finneas, 23. “At first I was like, ‘I don’t think that’s needed.’ But she said: ‘Listen. Why don’t you just try it for one week? You don’t even have to make anything.’ And within the first week, we’d written and recorded ‘My Future.’”
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That song — the first single from the album, released nearly a year ago — has Eilish dreamily fantasizing about the days ahead, wondering who she’ll become as she transitions away from girlhood. Lyrically, it’s lighter than a lot of the material on “Happier Than Ever,” a body of work that offers a picture of an artist grappling with her place in the spotlight. She sings about the unflattering paparazzi photos of her published by tabloids, about making boys who come to her house sign NDAs and about her fantasies of disappearing on a Hawaiian island.
“Things I once enjoyed / Just keep me employed now,” she voices at the outset of the album’s opening track, “Getting Older.”
“That line isn’t really, like, ‘Oh, boohoo, I’m sad’ — it’s really just a f—ing fact,” Eilish says. “Things that I enjoy can sometimes just turn into things that feel like a burden, and it’s really weird. Like, ‘Oh, this is something I used to love and now it feels like a job.’ It’s not, like, ‘Oh, I hate this now.’ It’s different. It’s changed.”
She understands exactly how that sounds — that people look at her and think she shouldn’t be complaining about anything when she’s successful and rich. “And I think that’s where a lot of people in my position can get confused, saying, ‘Oh, it’s hard, blah, blah, blah,” she continues. “I agree that it’s really hard. People that don’t have our lives have no idea how hard it is. It’s f—ing horrible. But you have to be respectful of people that have so much less than you and be mindful of your privilege and be polite, I guess.”
Eilish somehow manages to talk about her disdain for fame without sounding totally obnoxious. Probably because in person, it’s impossible to forget how young she is. She has her pink sneakers up on the couch and is wearing a T-shirt from her own merchandise line. She keeps flipping her iPhone in her hand but ignores it when it lights up, revealing a screensaver with an image of herself sleeping. She’s not overly self-conscious — she lets herself form opinions as she’s speaking — but also wants to be liked. (“Make me sound good!” she’ll kid at the end of the interview.)
Eilish acknowledges that she has trouble ignoring the public’s opinion of her. Just two weeks before this interview in July, she decided to stop reading the comments on her Instagram account, where she has 87.8 million followers. Her new plan is to go on the app only to post, forcing herself to exit immediately after doing so.
“Because otherwise I will spiral out, and s—'s mean as f—,” she says. “There are some people, like my brother, who can get a text from someone he doesn’t like and delete it immediately. He won’t even read it. I can’t do that. If Satan himself texted me, I’d be, like, ‘What did he say?’
“I want to hear what people have to say, and also, because I’ve grown up on the internet, I mostly agree with a lot of what the internet says. Some of the things that they make fun of people for are funny because they’re kinda true, right? Which then worries me because I’m like, ‘Oh, God, are the mean things [about me] actually true? And what are they?’ I want to know them! But I don’t want to know them, because what is that going to do for me? Nothing.”
Most of the negative comments, Eilish says, center on her body. From the moment she became famous, she wore clothing that purposefully hid her shape: long tunics, billowing pants, high-end sweatsuits. Her look was celebrated as anti-pop star, anti-male gaze. Fans deemed Eilish a feminist hero because of her formless wardrobe; trolls became hyper-aware anytime she showcased her body.
Shortly after she turned 18, she posted a video of herself taking a shower with a bathing suit on. “And because you could see my shoulders, everyone was, like, ‘Oh, my God, she turned 18 and she’s a slut!’” she recalls, rolling her eyes. In May, she revealed her newly blond hair on the cover of British Vogue, posing for the photo shoot in retro corsets and form-fitting lingerie. She was taken aback by the reaction to the spread: “Oh, my God! The new Billie!” she gasps in faux exasperation. The images weren’t meant to showcase a makeover but rather give a preview of the feeling she was going for with “Happier Than Ever.”
That vibe emerged over the last year, after what Eilish describes as an identity crisis relating to her appearance. She’d never wanted to “be the person with dyed hair but somehow became exactly that,” changing the color from age 12 onward. It was gray and violet and teal and black and finally neon green — a look that became so recognizable that she stuck out in public like a highlighter.
“I wanted something that was more natural, and also, I wasn’t depressed,” she says. “I felt the need to change it all the time when I was more unstable.”
But even after she settled on the blond — a color she “could f—ing let outdoors or at the gas station” — she didn’t know what overall look she was going for with her second album. With the music almost finished, she went home one night and lay on the couch. It was raining outside, so she lighted some candles and put on a fire. She started playing Julie London and was suddenly overcome by bliss.
“I thought: ‘This is what I think I want my album to feel like: Julie London,’” she remembers. “Not the songs, but the feeling — longing, kind of dreamy and curious.”
Best known for her recording of the torch song “Cry Me a River,” London was a stylish, sultry-voiced singer of jazz and pop ballads in the 1950s and ‘60s. She often sported pin curls and chansonette bras, a look that served as inspiration for a buxom pin-up character featured throughout Eilish’s new merch.
“It’s like me, if I was what I wish I was,” Eilish says, pointing to the drawing on a button she’s pinned to her shirt. “I want to be that girl. Are you kidding me? I would love to be a hot girl.”
For so long, Eilish says, she hid her body mostly because she wanted to avoid being sexualized. “Every girl wants to feel desirable,” she says. “But then there’s a whole world of men who argue that women say, ‘Oh, I don’t want men to sexualize me’ but then wear shirts that show their boobs and sing songs about having sex.’ I’m like, do you not get the idea that we want to wear what we feel good in but we don’t want you to jump in? It’s very dumb.”
Eilish talks about sex on “Happier Than Ever.” She references watching pornography and sending a racy image to a man’s phone. Some fans believe that “Your Power” — a single from the album about an older man exploiting an underage woman — is about her ex-boyfriend, Brandon Quention Adams. Adams — a rapper who goes by 7:AMP — was featured in the doc about Eilish that came out last year. In the film, he blows off her Coachella set and has to go to the emergency room after punching a wall.
Eilish has not revealed who “Your Power” is about — or who she is singing about on any of her new songs, for that matter. But the album contains specific allusions to those who have pushed past her boundaries.
“I’ve had some trauma / Did things I didn’t wanna / Was too afraid to tell ya / But now I think it’s time,” goes the last line on “Getting Older.”
Days after Bill Cosby was freed from prison after a court overturned his 2018 conviction for sexual assault, Eilish says she is conflicted about divulging what exactly that trauma is. She feels a need to share her thoughts and feelings with her fans — “I want them to know everything about my life somehow” — but doesn’t want to give herself over to the rest of the world.
“I have experienced some stuff that I have never spoken about, and I don’t want to at all,” she says. “I don’t want to f—ing talk about it. I don’t want to tell anyone, let alone the entire internet. It’s embarrassing to go through stuff like that. It’s why a lot of women and men — but especially women — don’t tell anyone when they’re going through it.
“But at the same time,” she adds, “even though I haven’t really done anything for [the #MeToo movement], it’s really important that young women know that it can happen to anyone. Just being taken advantage of.”
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During the months they spent working on the album together, Finneas says his sister was pretty open with him. “The only way I can aid the lyrical process is if she’s being transparent with me. I’m not gonna write a good line for her if I don’t know what she’s going through.”
Sonically, he thinks Eilish’s voice has developed significantly: “It’s quantifiably gotten so much better. I’ve been blown away by how strong her voice is and how her use of it as an instrument has evolved.” During the writing process, Eilish said she drew upon artists like Marina Diamandis — previously known as Marina and the Diamonds and now as Marina — who channel eclectic voices in their singing.
“Marina and Lana Del Rey do that, and I’ve always loved that about them,” Eilish says. “They try new s— and don’t get scared of having a different voice or singing in character. Marina has talked about how her lyrics use different characters and situations she comes up with. It doesn’t all have to be what you’re going through at that exact time.”
Finneas, meanwhile, urged Eilish to lean in to her vulnerability. He wanted to give her audience “something to empathize with and see themselves in” — something less theatrical, without a make-believe world.
“I wanted this to be Billie’s album about Billie,” he explains.
Eilish insists that not all of the new music is autobiographical. Like this line, from “NDA”: “Did I take it too far? / Now I know what you are / You hit me so hard / I saw stars.”
“It’s real s—, dude. But it’s also up for interpretation,” she says. “There are a lot of metaphors.”
Eilish says she’s eager to get back in front of a crowd and see how fans respond to the new material. On Sept. 3, she’ll showcase all 16 tracks from the album in a Disney+ concert special recorded at the Hollywood Bowl; the film, whose subtitle is “A Love Letter to Los Angeles,” will be co-directed by Robert Rodriguez and Patrick Osborne. Then she’ll embark on a 53-date headlining tour next year, stopping for three nights in April at the Forum. She hopes her fans will respect how much she’s been willing to share with them this time around — even if it leaves them with more questions than answers.
“Hopefully they’re grateful,” Eilish says. “I really want to be appreciated for it. Even though I come off as very open and bold, I don’t tell the internet s— about my actual life because I don’t think that anybody should, actually. That can make you go crazy when there’s 80-f—ing-8 million people watching you.”
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