Billie Eilish defies your expectations and sings her own life story

Jonah Weiner discovers Billie Eilish is not that strange after all.

Billie Eilish defies your expectations and sings her own life story
US singer ang songwriter Billie Eilish performs on stage on the second day of the 27th edition of the music festival A Campingflight to Lowlands Paradise in Biddinghuizen, the Netherlands, on August 17, 2019. Picture: FERDY DAMMAN/AFP via Getty Images.

During the night of September 4, 2018, Billie Eilish ‘killed herself’ — in a dream. “I jumped off a building,” she said. What was most alarming about it was how little it alarmed her.

“I was in a really bad place, mentally,” Eilish said; the dream seemed to her less a nightmare than as grimly alluring fantasy.

The next day, she approached her older brother, Finneas O’Connell, a songwriter and producer, and told him about it.

They have collaborated on every piece of music she has put out, and she presented the dream to him as possible inspiration for a new song.

Eilish, whose full name is Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell, was raised in a two-bedroom, 1,200-square-foot Craftsman bungalow in a modest neighbourhood on Los Angeles’s east side.

In 2018, Finneas bought a house, but his childhood bedroom, abutting Billie’s, has long been their favourite place to make music. (Their parents, working actors who augmented their income with side jobs in construction and teaching, still sleep on a futon in the living room.)

Billie Eilish at this year’s Vanity Fair Oscar party in Beverly Hills, California.Picture: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Billie Eilish at this year’s Vanity Fair Oscar party in Beverly Hills, California.Picture: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Finneas, facing a keyboard, listened as Billie talked about her dream, and together they figured out some chords to frame Billie’s deceptively upbeat opening line — “I had a dream I got everything I wanted.”

As they worked on the song, though, Finneas grew increasingly uncomfortable, then angry, and, finally, he refused to go any further.

“It was me admitting to something that was very serious about my depression,” Billie said. “A very serious step that I was admitting that I was planning on taking. And Finneas said, 'I don’t want to write a song about you killing yourself and how that’s everything you wanted’!”

Her parents heard about the argument and, along with Finneas, grew “insanely concerned,” Billie said. “It became this huge thing, and I locked myself in my room, and I was in there, just drawing on my wall.”

Recounting this episode, Billie sat cross-legged on the living-room couch at Finneas’s house. Her hair was dyed ink-black, with a seepage of acid green at the scalp, and she wore an all-black outfit.

Billie Eilish performs onstage at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on April 20, 2019 in Indio, California. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Coachella)
Billie Eilish performs onstage at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on April 20, 2019 in Indio, California. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Coachella)

As she spoke, I could see her left eyebrow twitching — Billie has Tourette’s syndrome, which manifests mainly in facial tics and muscle-tensing. She had barely finished the story when Finneas arrived.

In 2019, he moved to yet another house, with his girlfriend, and repurposed this one as a place to hang out and record — it has also served as a “safe spot,” as Billie put it, since the address of the family bungalow leaked online last year.

Billie, 18, and Finneas, 22, have an easy, unabashed intimacy. They were home-schooled, and Billie likes to joke that had they ever attended public schools, Finneas — eccentric and sweet-natured — would have been bullied, whereas Billie — coolly charismatic and sharp-tongued — would have been a bully.

In conversation, though, they’re more likely to pay each other compliments, plainly and earnestly, than to reroute their affection through the kinds of sarcastic needling siblings often engage in.

Finneas, leaning over the couch in an extremely L.A. ensemble — multi-coloured camp shirt, skinny trousers, perforated brown loafers with no socks — gave Billie a hug. “Missed you,” he said, to which she replied, “You smell good.”

Seeing Eilish interact so unguardedly with her brother, you can forget that she is one of the planet’s biggest pop stars. Her songs have earned more than 15bn combined streams worldwide, according to Spotify, and her five most-watched videos on YouTube have 2.5bn views.

Eilish’s first album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? debuted last year at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, and her biggest single, ‘Bad Guy,’ rose to No. 1 on the Hot 100 pop chart in August.

In January, Eilish swept the top categories at the Grammys, including song of the year, record of the year, and album of the year.

That same month, the Oscars booked her to sing during the In Memoriam section; and MGM and Eon, meanwhile, asked her to write and sing the theme song for the next James Bond movie.

As today’s pop superstars go, Eilish is remarkable for her abiding interest in the grim and the upsetting. She has resuscitated an aesthetic of macabre transgression that has been almost entirely absent from the musical mainstream since the ’90s heyday of rock acts like Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson.

In her lyrics, narrators murder their friends and liken lovers to hostages. In her music, bright singalong hooks are subsumed by bursts of distortion, and whisper-quiet verses are interrupted by shrieking samples of a dentist drill.

In her videos, which she helps to devise and occasionally directs herself, she has cried black tears and released a large spider from her mouth. In one, faceless tormentors burn her with cigarette butts; in another, they jab her with syringes. “I love bugging people out,” Eilish said.

Freaking people out. I like being looked at. I like being in people’s heads. I feed off it.

But it also connects to her tendencies toward melancholy and depression, which Eilish says songwriting helps her to navigate and, ideally, helps listeners relate to her music that much more profoundly. “I want to be the voice of people,” she said.

What she hadn’t considered when she brought her dream of suicide to Finneas, though, was the toll that such music might take on those who love her most. “Finneas was like, ‘I don’t want to keep making these songs that are only sad and they never get better’,” Eilish said.

“He wanted to make songs that resolve in the end. I was like: ‘But Finneas, that’s not how things work in life. And I’m not going to lie in a song and talk about how I’m feeling good when I’m not’.”

Sitting on the coffee table, Finneas nodded. “A lot of songs are written in retrospect, but this one felt like it was being written in real time, and I was like: ‘This is something we’ve got to write on the other side of this hill. We have to go through this in real life. You can’t always solve your problems in a song’,” he said.

When I first met Eilish, at the family bungalow, in December 2018, three days after her 17th birthday, she was already a streaming sensation, with a major-label contract and a catalogue of sparse, synthesiser-driven singles stretching back to her breakthrough, a lovely ballad called ‘Ocean Eyes,’ which she and Finneas uploaded to SoundCloud in 2015.

The bungalow was invitingly cluttered, with bric-a-brac on the mantles, musical instruments everywhere, and friendly pets underfoot. Eilish’s parents, Maggie Baird and Patrick O’Connell, zigzagged around, tending to household tasks, cheerfully checking in on Eilish.

Their backyard was spacious and sunny, occupied in one corner by a soundproof shed, where Patrick sometimes recorded audiobook narrations and other voice-over gigs.

Eilish showed me her room, a small space made to feel that much smaller by the reams of luxury apparel that fashion designers and athletics brands had sent her in the hope that she might wear them on TV or Instagram.

She made it to the other end of the room to retrieve her notebook, “the most valuable thing I have,” she said, “because it’s where I’ve written down every idea.”

Angling it for my benefit, Eilish flipped through the scrawled protolyrics and heavy-black line drawings of syringes and shadowy hallways.

“These are intestines and stuff,” she said. Flip. “This is a song we haven’t finished.” Flip. “This is the bridge of ‘Bury a Friend’ ” — one of Eilish’s biggest singles, whose darkest refrain, “I wanna end me,” she had written hundreds of times in tiny letters, the words piled into a tottering heap.

She put down the notebook and raised a dark-coloured curtain she had nailed up beside her bed, behind which, it emerged, her drawings and nihilistic scribblings had escaped the notebook and were spreading across the wall.

Eilish laughed. “There’s a lot more behind the pillows,” she said.

Eilish’s depression began in early adolescence, when she ruptured the growth plate in her hip while dancing — she had joined a dance company, which, painfully and abruptly, she was then forced to quit.

“My bone separated from the muscle, so that took me out,” she said. Unable to dance, Eilish spiralled into a profound unhappiness. This manifested, at points, in acts of self-harm.

Billie Eilish performs onstage during the 2019 iHeartRadio Music Festival and Daytime Stage at the Las Vegas Festival Grounds on September 21, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Picture: Bryan Steffy/Getty Images
Billie Eilish performs onstage during the 2019 iHeartRadio Music Festival and Daytime Stage at the Las Vegas Festival Grounds on September 21, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Picture: Bryan Steffy/Getty Images

During my visit, Eilish’s parents were easygoing and upbeat in a way that made the festering chaos on display in her bedroom feel less dire than it might have otherwise.

At the time, it struck me as a funny, moody, sensitive kid’s messy creative workshop, rather than some poisonous pit of teenage gloom.

Baird told me later that it “was a relief” to her when Eilish made it clear to the family “that the dark stuff she was putting out — writing songs, writing on her walls, whatever — was cathartic enough for her not to feel it so intensely; that she’s not writing it to feel worse, she’s writing it to feel better.”

The advent of fame complicated Eilish’s life in ways she felt ill-equipped to deal with at first. Teenagers in a choir she had been part of since she was 8 started making fun of her budding celebrity, cutting her down to size out of standard-issue adolescent meanness and jealousy.

“I had to quit the choir, and I lost all my friends; then, I didn’t want to do drugs, and I lost all my other friends, because they did,” she said.

She could no longer appear in public without being recognised, which started out fun, but came to feel, she said, “like jail.” In press coverage of Eilish’s career, much has been made of her oblique relationship to the cultural mainstream.

The genuinely improbable fact that she made a smash album with just her brother, in his bedroom, and that that album is frequently creepy and morose, has been held up alongside Eilish’s outré outfit choices and constantly changing hair colour as evidence of a subversive insurrection into — and even a paradigmatic shift in — the pop landscape.

NPR called Eilish a “misfit,” and Billboard called her a “rebel.” Rolling Stone, putting her on the cover last July, celebrated her rise as “the Triumph of the Weird.” When Eilish appeared on the March cover of Vogue, the magazine referred to her as “the Outsider.”

Eilish, for her part, does not describe herself, much less seem to see herself, in these terms. To the extent it exists, her rebelliousness takes reverent and flexible forms.

She decided that she wanted to be famous when she was 12, during a trip to New York, where she watched the crowd cheer the young star of Matilda on Broadway.

Eilish often cites the influence on her art of the brash and iconoclastic LA rapper-producer Tyler, the Creator, but her musical idol growing up was far more chaste: angel-voiced, mop-topped Justin Bieber.

Rather than disavow that idolatry as an embarrassing artifact of adolescence, the way some teenagers might, Eilish got Bieber to sing on a remix of ‘Bad Guy’ last year.

Who Billie Eilish is and who she isn’t are categories in flux. This is true, in differing degrees, for any of us, but especially for a teenager growing up in the public eye.

That was ultimately the lesson that she and Finneas learned last spring when they returned to the song about her suicide dream, which they had put on ice the previous fall.

“We listened to it, and we were both like, ‘Ohhh — what’s that’?” Eilish recalled, emphasising that, by this point, emotionally, she “was in a better place.”

She had been to see a therapist; she had figured out ways to make touring less punishing and less lonely, including flying friends out to meet her on the road; most simple, she said, she was that much older, with “things feeling more in your control, just your brain maturing and your mood changing.”

Of the new song, she went on, “my argument, which I think was the thing that made my mom and Finneas finally go, ‘Oh, OK,’ is I said: ‘This song is the way I can feel these things without doing something to myself’’.”

As Eilish and Finneas revisited it, its solitary fatalism gave way to themes of stability and fellowship: “Finneas and I both had the idea to make the song about each other, instead of just me and how I was feeling,” Eilish said.

And whereas, in the past, Eilish’s default mode has been to unsettle listeners, in the finished lyric, images of aestheticised self-destruction (“thought I could fly, so I stepped off the Golden”) alternate with lines about finding comfort in a comrade’s reassurances.

The song ‘Everything I Wanted’ is a hushed piece of dance music — its piano riff sounds as if it’s faintly flickering, and its kick-drum pulse sounds as if it’s throbbing from the other side of a wall.

Of his approach to song structure, Finneas said, “I think, where a song doesn’t go is as interesting as where a song goes. Sometimes, we’ll put a different verse in when it should go to the chorus, just for the slap in the face of, like, ‘Your brain has to stay awake for this’,” he said.

The song resists anything resembling a traditional climax, building only to recede, over and over, until it’s done.

A pop star’s job, on a generic level, is to provide comfort — to situate listeners within an experience of familiar emotions communicated through familiar structures, which might be subverted or tweaked, but only to the degree that they grab our attention and take up residence in our brains that much more effectively.

From the start, Eilish’s appeal has relied on combining her taste for the radical with her strong sense of the classical.

In ‘Everything I Wanted,’ what started as a song about profound disorientation ended up as a song about profound stability. When you listen to that single, it becomes clear that, for her — for now, anyway — pop isn’t something to sabotage.

It’s something to hold sacred.

Adapted from an article in The New York Times Magazine.

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