Billie Eilish: “Fame takes over your brain, it can destroy you”

Words: Hannah O’Connell
Photography: Alexandra Gavillet

Hannah O’Connell caught up with one of the fastest-rising artists in the world, Billie Eilish for District Issue 004, with photography by Alexandra Gavillet.

Billie Eilish is not your typical singer-songwriter. She sings, yes, and writes songs alongside her brother Finneas, but she also dresses like she’s just dropped 2018’s hottest mixtape, she gets artists like Vince Staples to collaborate with her on tracks and she pens lyrics about murdering her friends and stashing their bodies in the back of her car.

Billie unapologetically pushes the boundaries of every genre that could define her music and creates exactly what she wants to make in the moment. She is bubbling with energy and ideas and has no intentions of being confided to a category just so people can understand her more easily.

When I call Billie she’s in the UK half way through a press day. She is without a doubt the most interviewed artist I’ve ever spoken to. A quick Google search will throw back pages and pages of results so I started by asking her is there anything that she is sick of talking about. I got just the answer I predicted; do not ask Billie Eilish about her age (she’s just turned 16) and do not ask Billie Eilish about being home-schooled.

“Can people just leave me alone about that shit? Oh my god! Seriously like, how does that add to anything that has to do with music? Gosh.”

Glad that we got that out of the way. One question that Billie, full title Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell, was never asked in past interviews and one that I really wanted the answer to was the origin of her very Irish surname, a surname that we share.

“I don’t even know. I think my dad’s grandfather is Irish,” Billie turned away from the phone for a moment to get confirmation. “Right, my mom is agreeing with me. He’s from Ireland.”

Billie’s career almost happened by accident. It was probably inevitable that she would end up doing something creative having been raised by a family of actors and musicians, but it wasn’t until her dance teacher asked her to make a song for class that she recorded her debut ‘Ocean Eyes’. She shared it on SoundCloud in 2016 thinking nothing of it, but two years later a YouTube video of Billie dancing to the song has been viewed over six million times and the track has racked up a cool 42 million streams on Spotify.

Not to dwell on her age, but she was just 15 at the time. It’s hard being a teenager, really hard sometimes, and that’s without the extra added pressure of millions of people watching your every move. I asked Billie how she’s been handling fame.

“It’s rough, I don’t know… I don’t really want to say that it’s not good or it’s hard but… I don’t even think of myself as famous because I just don’t, but I definitely have some sort of element of it, whatever it is that I have, I don’t know what I’m saying but it’s a very difficult thing and I hate it a lot of the time because it sucks a lot.

“The thing is, I’m really not at all on any sort of fame level as say, the Kardashians or like Justin Bieber or that kind of thing and when I think about that I feel for them. I don’t pity them. I don’t feel happy for them. I feel for them. You know what I mean? It’s a really difficult thing.”

Billie Eilish

“I feel like me saying that sounds so ungrateful and I really don’t mean it to, but it’s just true and I think everyone knows that. I’ve been realising more and more and understanding the way a lot of celebs and people in the public eye act the way they do and why people have breakdowns. People are like, ‘Oh every famous person is crazy and acts out’. They’re just people and I understand that now because it’s really hard. Fame takes over your brain, it can destroy you.”

She takes a second and then continues.

Billie Eilish for Issue 004. Image courtesy of Interscope.

“The thing is, I’m really not at all on any sort of fame level as say, the Kardashians or like Justin Bieber or that kind of thing and when I think about that I feel for them. I don’t pity them. I don’t feel happy for them. I feel for them. You know what I mean? It’s a really difficult thing.”

Lucky for Billie she seems to be doing what she’s doing for the right reasons; she loves music. That coupled with being surrounded by good people, like her brother who co-writes and produces for her and her parents who wholeheartedly support her, have helped keep the young artist’s head in a good place when it comes to the downsides of the industry.

“I’ve always loved being on stage. The thing is that I like making music. I enjoy it and I like singing a lot and I like performing. I would not do it if I didn’t like it. No matter how successful I got I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t like it. That’s such an important thing, especially for me. I think doing something because it’s getting you somewhere or just to prove a point to other people is so dumb. What if everyone died right now you’d be left with this fucking thing that you didn’t want in the first place, you know?

“It’s really not worth it, especially with fame because fame sucks so if you really don’t like what you’re doing and you’re only doing it to get famous then fucking stop. That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. Like Jesus Christ!”

Billie is in the UK because she’s currently on a world tour. While most people her age are doing homework, she’s stepping on stage at sold out shows in London, Paris, Berlin, LA, Chicago and Toronto, the list goes on. It’s not exactly a conventional upbringing but she assured me she did not miss out on a childhood.

“I mean I’m still a child. I think I might feel that way if this had happened when I was younger because what if this had happened when I was 13? What if this happened when I was like 11 or 12? Like I just think about the person I was when I was 11; that’s when I really feel for Justin Bieber who actually got big at 11. Like 11! I don’t even know, like having everyone watch what you do from when you’re 11 for the rest of your life? That’s just insane.

“My childhood was great; I had an amazing childhood, let me tell you! Jesus Christ, I’m not rich. I never was rich and I feel like a lot of people think I was rich and I grew up like super privileged and I so did not. I had like one pair of shoes and like four shirts and that was kind of it, but I had a lot of fun. I was just having fun my whole childhood and it was great. I loved it.”

Billie seems extremely close to her family. Her Mom is currently on tour with her while her older brother Finneas is her “partner in crime”. In many ways he paved the way for Billie’s career breaking into the world of music before her with his band The Slightlys. The siblings work so closely together that I wondered if they ever fight.

“[Laughs] Yeah, literally all of the time; all of the time. I mean, you can’t have a sibling without disagreeing with them. Some siblings only disagree and we’re lucky to also be best friends. It used to be you’d write a song and you’d put it out because you want to… You do it for the fun of it and now it’s like our job and you have to do it so there’s definitely more pressure on it, but it’s still sick.”

Billie’s track ‘Bellyache’, which she wrote with Finneas, is about a murderous psychopath. She alarmingly sings in the first person, but reassures me that it’s fiction; comforting considering.

In the driveway

My friends aren’t far In the back of my car

Lay their bodies

Where’s my mind

Billie acknowledges that lyrics don’t have to come from past experiences; a refreshing approach when so much of today’s pop music is cluttered with artists banging on about their relationships and the complications of love. She breathes freshness into the genre, something that is sure to challenge her peers to push the boundaries a little bit more.

“I don’t think anything is too crazy to put into a song. There’s definitely stuff I haven’t put out yet that’s a little much and kind of might freak people out but it will come out one day. You can write about anything.”

Billie Eilish is more suitably defined as an artist rather than a singer or songwriter as her creativity not only defies musical genres but bleeds into a whole range of industries. Next on her checklist of world domination is a clothing brand.

“It’s going to be fucking crazy. I just want to make crazy shit and the thing is I’m always changing and my style changes all the time so what I’m looking forward to is I’m going to make stuff then I’m going to make something completely different then it will be a different line basically. I’m looking forward to it; it’s going to be so sick. I’m so excited.”

Following that is a move towards hip hop, a step which seems like a natural progression.

“I really want to step more into the hip hop world because that’s what I think is fun and I want to have shows that are energetic and fun where I can jump around and people can mosh. I don’t want to just sit there and sing. I’m really not about that. I’m a performer and I like to perform with my body I don’t just want to perform with my voice.”

Last year Billie released ‘& Burn’ featuring Vince Staples. It was a remix of her track ‘watch’ and the first official sign of her hip hop intentions. She told me how it came about.

“I put out ‘watch’ and everyone thought it was sick but we were like ‘What can we add to this?’. They were like, ‘If you could get any rapper on this song…’ and I was like, ‘Vince Staples, duh!’ I said that knowing he would never do it because that’s just how my brain works like, ‘Oh Vince Staples, he would never, that’s crazy as fuck’ and then he said yeah so we went and met him and he’s hilarious and a literal genius.”

Throughout our chat Billie has talked a lot about hip hop and rap. Smino, Tyler, The Creator and Earl Sweatshirt are all on her collaboration bucket list, which made me curious. How much does the world of hip hop influence what she does?

“It’s really the reason I am the way I am and the reason I make art the way I make art. Yeah, I would sound completely different otherwise. Like a lot of the artists I listen to, when I hear what they listen to it’s completely different than their kind of music, which I always think is really interesting.

“Artists don’t really make what they listen to, they make what they want to make which is kind of weird. A lot of the time I listen to really hardcore rap and obviously I don’t rap hardcore but I want to. A lot of me is like, ‘I want to make music like that’, and I think I will because, fuck it. We’re definitely working on a lot of stuff like that but it still has me in it. I mean, it’s not trying to be anything else it’s just trying to be me.”