Discovery: Billie Eilish

By
Photography James Ryang

Published February 27, 2017

BILLIE EILISH IN NEW YORK, JANUARY 2017. PHOTOS: JAMES RYANG. STYLING: LILLI MILLHISER. HAIR: SHINYA NAKAGAWA FOR KERASTASE. MAKEUP: KATIE MELLINGER FOR NU EVOLUTION COSMETICS.

Billie Eilish hasn’t slowed down since she posted her tidal wave of a debut, “Ocean Eyes,” online in November 2015. Her intent at the time was to share it with friends and send it to her dance teacher for use in a recital (she danced 11 hours a week until a growth plate injury a year ago), but it took on a life of its own. Then 13, Eilish went viral. She has since been given airtime by Zane Lowe and was signed to Interscope. On Friday she released “Bellyache,” her fourth single and the first hint at what’s in store for Eilish in 2017: hip-hop leaning production applied to pop ballads, crafted by her and her collaborator, her older brother Finneas O’Connell.

“A lot is coming,” says Eilish when we meet in New York. She and O’Connell, who both started singing in the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, have written over a dozen tracks that are in consideration for her debut album. Eilish is eager for listeners to hear more than a few singles. She’s also itching to dance again, though she was wearing an ankle brace when we met (due to a less than ideal encounter with a ditch). “I miss it so much,” she says. “I don’t even care; I’m just going to move around. I’m trying to get back into it slowly—and not break myself.”

AGE: 15.

BORN & BASED: Los Angeles, California.

“OCEAN EYES”: It was weird, because we didn’t plan for it to do anything really. The reason we put it out when we did was that the whole song was meant to be for my dance teacher, because he wanted to use it for a dance. That’s why the production is dance-esque, contemporary, and lyrical. And then it was done, and we were going to wait till Friday to put it out, and thought, “Screw it. Let’s just put it out now.” So we did, and it hit 1,000 the next day. My brother and I were like, “We made it! 1,000—we’re it. That’s our whole career. We’re done.” We thought that was huge deal, which it was at the time, and it still is, but we thought it was because my popular friend reposted it—we didn’t think it was anything besides that. Then Hillydilly found it and Zane Lowe, and it was played on KCRW by Jason Kramer. It kind of went up from there. The Astronomyy remix came out; we didn’t even know, he didn’t ask or tell us, it just was there. He DM’ed me on Instagram asking for the lyrics, and I didn’t know why. I was like, “Okay, here are the lyrics,” and it came out.

It’s a little odd, because it was one song that they heard, and then it’s like, “This changed my life!” And that’s insane. This thing that meant a lot to me can mean something to you; that’s always what I thought was really cool, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do more of. I want to touch people in the way that it touches me, and have somebody feel a certain way that they didn’t know they felt.

KEEPING IT IN THE FAMILY: It makes it a lot easier [to write with my brother] for a lot of reasons. We take criticism really well, so he’ll do something and I’ll be like, “No. That’s terrible,” and he’ll be like, “Okay. You’re right.” And it’s the same way with me; if I say, “What about this?” he’ll say, “Nope, nope,” because we can be honest instead of just being like, “Yeah, totally,” when don’t actually feel that way. When you work with some people, you don’t really have that trust with them. I don’t want to be mean and say I don’t like that, but I don’t. So it’s really easy, especially because I get along really well with my brother, and I always have. We’re really close. We go through a lot of the same things even though we’re five years apart. He sings and he writes a ton, and I write a ton, and we write together. He does tons of harmonies, and we always perform together. We’re a team.

HOMESCHOOLED IN SONGWRITING: I did this homeschool school thing. It was this once-a-week [program] called WISH, which is what you “wished” school was like. There were certain classes you could take, like cooking classes and sewing classes, and my mom taught a songwriting class because we wanted to take it and other people at the school wanted to take it. It was really helpful. It taught the basics of songwriting, not rules—because there aren’t really rules of songwriting, you can do whatever you want, which is what’s so great about it. But it was [about] the structure, how to start off, and what you can do, which is super helpful.

HER FIRST SONG: When I was four, I wrote a song about falling into a black hole. [laughs] But it was really upbeat, like, [sings] “I’m going down, down, down, into the black hole.” It went on and on. I found a recording of it. I used to write random little stupid things when I was five, but then the first song I really wrote was one called “Fingers Crossed,” which is on SoundCloud. I wrote it about the zombie apocalypse, actually. I was in this songwriting class that my mom taught—she was a huge part of my and my brother’s songwriting habits, the way we learned—and the assignment was to watch a movie or a show and write down certain lines that you thought were good hooks, good titles, or good names. And I watched The Walking Dead, because that was my favorite show at the time, and I got tons of stuff. I wrote this song about the apocalypse in my mind, and it came out as a love song—a longing despair, which wasn’t my intention, but it happened. People really like it and it was weird, because I didn’t care for it that much, and I just put it out because I wanted to. I don’t know if it was that one or another song that I wrote about dying. [laughs] Dark. Very dark.

INFLUENCES, THEN AND NOW: My dad used to make us mixtapes of all the stuff that he liked, which was Avril Lavigne, Linkin Park, Green Day, and a ton of the Beatles—the Beatles was a huge thing growing up. Then I was into the Plain White T’s for a while and Twenty One Pilots for a little. And then I realized that there was this thing called rap and hip-hop. [laughs] I started listening to that, and that’s where I am now, pretty much all hip-hop mixed with old stuff and really mellow stuff. Do you know the artist Spooky Black? He’s really cool. He’s a super mellow R&B singer. I really like the production; a lot of hip-hop [songs], they’re kind of poems. There’s a type of rap that’s all of these swear words and it doesn’t mean anything, and I also like that, but what I think is really interesting is when rappers can mention things that say something somebody has always been [thinking]—say words that everybody is thinking but nobody says, in a way that’s like, “Oh, I never thought about that.” Referencing stuff and making it rhyme, it’s so impressive to me. I think that was why I started to like it. Tyler the Creator is huge on that and Childish Gambino; it’s reference, reference, reference, and I think, “What!” I don’t understand how that works. The beats, the heavy bass—it’s just bad.

LOS ANGELES CHILDREN’S CHORUS: I’m still in it; [my brother] is not, because he graduated. It’s taught me all of my technique. Everything that I use I pretty much have learned from choir. We do music theory, so you go up a level each year, and it’s homework—that’s like the only homework I do, because I’m homeschooled [laughs]—which is learning music, learning how to read and write music, and play it on the piano, and knowing each note, and how long the notes are. That’s helped a ton with just learning how to play songs; I can kind of figure it out on my own. Choir has taught me the way to protect your voice and not fuck it up because you’re just screaming. Some artists just ruin their voices because they don’t know any better.

PROVING HERSELF: I did feel [like I had to] for a while. People were like, “Oh, well she’s 15, whatever,” and they would just talk to my brother because he’s the older guy and I was just there, which was kind of annoying. But then I proved myself to a lot of people, and I’m pretty intimidating to a lot of people, because I’m not super… Nice? [laughs] It’s not really like that anymore; I made my appearance and if you’re older and you don’t think I’m cool because I’m younger, then okay, I’m not going to be around you. I don’t want to work with somebody who’s like that. Age is just a number.

HIGH STANDARDS: I rarely like things. It has to be exactly how I want it for me to be okay with it. I won’t even let someone listen to it if it’s not perfect. Even a demo track, I’m like, “No. Don’t. It’s bad. Don’t listen to it at all.” I’m super self-critical, which I think is good, because then I get exactly what I want. I’m critical of other people, too—I try not to be though.

WHAT LIES AHEAD: I want to get a ton out there so that people don’t just hear one song, because everyone has only heard a few songs, and they don’t even know what I am or who I am, really. I want to be able to express myself so that people will understand even if they haven’t read an interview or listened to a lot: they’ll just understand. Also, I want to have to stuff to do with clothes, because fashion is a huge thing for me. I want to do something with some brand or make my own stuff, and get it out there, because I have so many ideas that I don’t even know how to do—they’re all piling up in my head. I really want to release an album this year, and a lot more music, and get out there and be known more.

FOR MORE ON BILLIE EILISH, VISIT HER WEBSITE