Billie Eilish Is Ready to Take Over After 'When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?' Comes Out

Photo: Kenneth Cappello

BY Matt BobkinPublished Mar 12, 2019

"I don't have a boundary for creativity. It just is not there," Billie Eilish says. The evidence is all over the 17-year-old pop singer's work so far. In her music videos, Eilish has put a live tarantula in her mouth, had dozens of fake needles plunged in her back, and had tubes in her eyes emitting thick, black liquid, a viscous mix of xanthan gum and charcoal water.
But even she has her limits, and Eilish discovered hers the hard way on the set of a recent music video. The stunt in question was to have Eilish make direct eye contact with a camera, with a bag on her head and her face submerged in water.
"I just couldn't do it," she says, over the phone from Paris, shortly after performing at the city's historic La Cigale theatre. "I put the bag over my head, we started to fill it with water and kinda right away, my tics were acting up," she says, referring to involuntary facial movements as a result of her Tourette's syndrome.
"I have this weird fear of water, which is really dumb. It's not insane; it's not like I won't go in a pool or go swimming or whatever the fuck. I have a weird thing about water. The ocean really freaks me out and being underwater, all that stuff. Water just fuckin' flips me out, I don't know why. I hadn't really told anyone that, because I don't like to say no. I don't like to chicken out and shit.
"After literally a second, I ripped the thing off of me and was like, 'No, I can't do this,' and I got up, pulled the bag off me and I went outside and just sat on the floor tic-ing and shaking. Which is the first time I've ever, ever done that in a creative scene, which is so embarrassing for me. Because I hate not following through."
It may have been the first time she's had to draw the line, but it confirms everything millions of fans and detractors alike have surmised since she blew up overnight, in yet another story of viral success: Billie Eilish is bold and brash and willing to risk everything, even her life, for her art.
Her high-risk approach is readily apparent on her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, due March 29 on Interscope. As her uncompromising image suggests, there's a willingness to grapple with modern pop tropes and turn them on their head, with a sense of unsparing emotional and musical range. Over the span of 14 tracks, the singer rifles through slow-burning balladry, industrial-tinged electronica and full-on trap bangers, all while Eilish tells tales of heartbreak, addiction and struggle with breathtaking lyrical nuance and impeccable vocal control.
It's an ambitious undertaking, especially for a debut record (her age notwithstanding), but Eilish's natural charisma and creativity make her uniquely suited for the task.
"I don't think I've ever known my boundaries, in anything."
It can be hard to imagine that anyone could overshadow Eilish — her formidable talents, vision, dedication and self-assuredness are immediately apparent, even at such an early point in her life and career.
But growing up in Los Angeles, her parents were dealing with a different child star: Eilish's older brother, Finneas O'Connell. Four-and-a-half years older, Finneas landed recurring roles on Modern Family and Glee while still a teenager, while his band, the Slightlys, started amassing attention in their L.A. hometown.
"Low-key, he was the favourite," Eilish claims. "He was in Glee and he was in all these shows and I was in the corner, fucking drawing. And then my mom made a movie and put him in it, and didn't put me in it, and I was taken to all the screenings of the movie — which was cool, it was a great time for them and I was always happy for them, but I was always not looked at, I guess.
"It's a little bit different now, huh?"
What hasn't changed is the strength of the siblings' bond, which has allowed them to navigate Eilish's musical journey as a team. Billie and Finneas's musical careers have been intertwined from the moment Billie dropped her breakthrough single, "ocean eyes," on SoundCloud in 2015. Finneas had written the song for the Slightlys, and Eilish covered it as musical accompaniment for a dance performance of hers.
"When people hear that [Finneas] wrote 'ocean eyes' and I didn't write that song, people are like, 'Oh, you don't write your own music?' And it's like, 'No, fucking fuckhead, I write my own music, but he wrote that song already,'" vents Eilish.
Now, the siblings work together in a full-fledged partnership, handling every step of the way — including songwriting and production — together. On any given song, Eilish says, "neither of us will remember who wrote what because we both wrote it so collaboratively and equally." Finneas is a credited producer of every song on Eilish's debut EP, 2017's dontsmileatme as well as When We All Fall Asleep.
"I think, in general, we're not really concerned with anything other than being authentic to ourselves, and new," Finneas says. "Everybody has different taste and everyone's favourite song is different and that's great. I think that, for us, the thing that no one can take away from you is that if you make something that they've never heard before, they're gonna respond to that. They may not love it, it may not be their favourite thing, but no one can take different from you."
Finneas brings up "bellyache," from dontsmileatme, as the first unique song the siblings made, citing "uncommon combos" in the song's arrangement. "There's a reggaeton beat playing at the same time as acoustic guitar playing this alt-rock strum pattern, and there's sort of like a bass drop in the production of the hook," he says. "If I was on a cooking show for music, and I was told to use all those ingredients, I'd be like, 'There's no way these are going to work together.' Just finding out that they actually work together was super exciting to me."
Finneas's ear lends itself to plenty of unorthodox moments throughout When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, like on fourth single, "wish you were gay," which includes a laugh track and the sound of his knuckles cracking as a percussion feature.
The siblings come by their boundary-pushing nature honestly. Growing up in Highland Park with their parents, actors Maggie Baird and Patrick O'Connell, there were plenty of indicators that the quartet weren't your typical nuclear family. "You go to a truck stop and there are key chains with names on them, and there's no Finneas. There's no Billie. They're little things, but as a kid, you just feel weirdly ostracized," says Finneas. (Furthering Finneas's point, his sister's full name is Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O'Connell.)
Creative expression was encouraged in the Baird-O'Connell household, which led to Finneas not cutting his hair for the first decade of his life, and Billie having full control over her wardrobe choices.
"I remember, one time, my dad took me and Billie to a fair," Finneas recalls. "I was probably 7 years old, Billie must have been 3, and she put footie pyjamas on and then put a second pair of underwear on over the pyjamas. I remember being like, 'What is Billie wearing?!' and my dad was like, 'She's happy with it. Let's go!'
"When I have kids, I want to be just the same way. To me, that was so great that they were down for us to be the way that we actually are."
Both parents are now fully on board with Eilish's stardom: Patrick O'Connell builds the singer's lighting rig for her live shows, while Maggie Baird "does a million things the way only a mom can," according to her son.
And, much like his sister, Finneas too has learned the power of restraint. "The only way that I really know that songs are done is, I add another thing and then it doesn't work anymore. You're hearing it and you're like, 'I like this!' and you're like, 'What if I add a crazy, arpeggiator synth here?' And you add it and it's like, way worse. And then you're like, 'Oh, I guess it's done, because adding new stuff is not helping this song.'"
It's unsurprising to hear that Eilish has received high praise from the likes of Lana Del Rey and Marina and the Diamonds, but Dave Grohl may not seem like a typical fan. Yet in February, Grohl wrote on Instagram: "When I look at someone like Billie Eilish, I'm like... shit man... rock'n'roll is not even close to being dead."
Eilish, unsurprisingly, rejects any notion of being intentionally rebellious. Whether she's singing about heartbreak and mental illness, or stuffing a live tarantula into her mouth, she's just being herself. "I feel like, if you're trying to be rebellious, it comes off fuckin' dumb. I'm not trying to be," she says. "I think that comes off with me, since I don't think of myself as that, but other people do. It's realer."
Her words echo an oft-quoted sentiment of Grohl's old Nirvana bandmate, the late Kurt Cobain: "Wanting to be someone else is a waste of the person you are." The parallels aren't lost on Grohl, who wrote, "The connection that she has with her audience is the same thing that was happening with Nirvana in 1991."
Grohl has seen Eilish's connection with her fans in real-time: he discovered the pop singer through his daughters, presently age 12, 9 and 4. He and his eldest daughter, Violet, even covered one of Eilish's songs at a charity event in 2018. "My daughters are listening to Billie Eilish and they're becoming themselves through her music. She totally connects to them," Grohl wrote.
It's been only a few years since Eilish was on the other end of that equation, idolizing the likes of Aurora, Childish Gambino and Tyler, the Creator. It's the genuine connection she still feels to these artists that allows Eilish to pay it forward to her fans, many of whom are around her age.
She recalls her first show in Paris, back in October 2017 at le Carmen nightclub, when a fan approached her and said that "she wouldn't be alive if it wasn't for me, and that was the first time I'd ever heard that, and it just made me cry. I stood there and cried."
To Eilish, she's just writing about the world she grew up in. "I gather inspiration from everyone around me and I see how other people manoeuvre. I watch the way that all of the people that I know move," she says. "I feel like I notice everything people do and I see how people are hurting. I write a lot about other people's perspective, and just how I'm feeling it."
Eilish uses her massive platform as a way to amplify issues that directly affect her and the people in her life. That's just her making sense of the whirlwind of fame she's had to navigate alongside the already rocky waters of adolescence. As she continues to accumulate fame and accolades at an alarming pace, her attitude is gradually but confidently refining to handle it all.
"No one really says no to me anymore," she admits, "but I think lately I've been learning to say no and how to say 'It's too much' and that I'm not comfortable and that I'm not happy with things."

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