Music/Interviews

Billie Eilish refuses to be boxed in

April 19, 2018

The 16-year-old breakout artist is unapologetic about her vision. She's also channeling her energy into art that belongs to her fans.

Billie Eilish is happy to be able to use her own bathroom again. She tells me over the phone that she arrived home only 24 hours prior to our conversation and that it’s the first time in several weeks that she’ll consistently be able use the same bathroom. For that, she says, she is grateful.

The 16-year-old Los Angeles born and raised singer is in the midst of her first tour, bringing the songs from her stellar debut EP, don’t smile at me, to her hungry fans. Eilish is one of those once-in-a-few-years sensational hits. The last person to achieve this sort of acclaim this young is Lorde, whom Eilish can certainly call a professional peer. At the age of 13 her song “ocean eyes” (which she had recorded for her dance teacher to choreograph) went viral. The video for “ocean eyes”—which features a platinum, silvery blonde Eilish staring into the camera, her big eyes almost too intimidating and soul-piercing—has over five million views. Recently, the track went gold and, to date, she has been streamed almost 300 million times on Spotify.

Viral success is one thing but riding that momentum and showing you are actually quite talented is something entirely different. Eilish (whose last name is pronounced like Eye-Lish) is a 21st century musical prodigy. Following the success of her early releases, Eilish landed a record deal with Interscope and began putting out tender, exquisitely crafted songs with the kind of bite that made her stand out in a crowd, like last year’s “bellyache,” a delicate acoustic number, turned club-appropriate banger or “Bored,” which was featured on the soundtrack for the Netflix hit, 13 Reasons Why. Now counting Vince Staples on her list of collaborators and armed with a co-sign from Charli XCX, Eilish is on course to set the music world on fire, reshaping its new direction in the process.

“I don’t fuck with genres,” Eilish tells me. “I don’t like the idea that you can only listen to this genre or this genre.” If you don’t know much about Eilish, you learn quickly that she is unapologetically herself. Eilish is defiant and wise with a sharp edge. Precise, and, at times, totally goofy and fun, her singing voice dives low, then soars to higher ethereal tones that are equally mesmerizing and mature. Her speaking voice is loose and youthful: she’s a teenager who says “bro” and “dude,” clearly educated in L.A’s trademark vernacular.

“I’m sort of whatever anybody wants me to be.”

Billie Eilish, April 2018

“If it’s a good song, it’s a good song,” she continues. “Who cares? Who cares what sort of category you want to put it in? If it’s good, it’s good. That’s kind of where I come from: making what I want at the time. And that can change and it will change. But it’s what I want at the time.” It’s a fair philosophy to have because Eilish believes herself to be a visual artist first, and a musician second. Aesthetics mean just as much to her as sound. She designs her own merch, dictates the stage design and lighting, and makes all the decisions on her own look, as well as her brother’s and onstage drummer. “If somebody thinks I have a look right now and a sound then don’t listen anymore because that’s going to change,” she says.

Innovators are often always looking for a new path to create and Eilish’s approach to deviation is in line with others like Princess Nokia or Hayley Kiyoko who have more recently, forged a new direction with their sound, as a way of maintaining an authentic vision for their work. “I don’t like the idea of pop. I am not at all a pop singer. I think that’s so wrong and that’s so vague. ‘Billie Eilish is a pop star’— like, no I’m not. That’s not what I want, that’s not what I am.” She continues, generously saying: “I’m sort of whatever anybody wants me to be.”

Eilish’s determination to transcend the confines of pop is a statement that speaks to the work pop (or pop-adjacent) artists have done to undo the genre’s rigidity, expand its definition and loosen up its framework so their art can move between it. Eilish’s music is less of an actual blank canvas but rather something she hopes her listeners can listen to it as. “My art is for people to use as their art, you know what I mean? It’s for you, it’s for everybody else, to feel exactly the same as I feel, actually go through it with me,” she says.

She tells me that if you mishear a lyric and believe it wholeheartedly as something, then it is now that lyric. “If it’s your situation, it’s your situation, you can take it however you want,” she explains. “You can think that song is about whatever you want. That’s up for you to decide.” To Eilish, her music is living and breathing; a fluid entity that is completely open to personal interpretation and how her art is interpreted is a wholly personal experience.

Eilish’s determination to transcend the confines of pop is a statement that speaks to the work pop (or pop-adjacent) artists have done to undo the genre’s rigidity, expand its definition and loosen up its framework so their art can move between it.

Now that she’s home, Eilish is ready to dive head first back into music making. I ask her what it was like on the road and if she felt she could be creative. There is never a laugh both more hopeful and searing than that of a teenager. Eilish excitedly tells me: “Bro! I don’t do shit on the road that has to do with that. Bro, I cannot!” She emphasizes: “There is no way. We did not make music on the road because that shit is very… I was a busy motherfucker. There was no time.” In the first 24 hours of being back in L.A., Eilish wrote and recorded two songs. She is more or less bursting to get all of that creative energy out and into something. “I’m not really making a timeline because I’m going to get as much as I possibly can out right now,” she says.

This week, Eilish dropped “lovely” with similarly stratospheric artist and friend Khalid. In 2017, Khalid covered her song “idontwanttobeyouanymore” and Eilish has nothing but praise for the singer’s success, whom she’s known since 2016: “He fuckin’ rocket-shipped into this huge, you know, like, star that I already felt like he was when I met him just because of the art I had heard him make,” she says.

Some people online—the realm that bolstered her to where she is now—are pushing her to make and drop a full-length as though it is as easy as a viral hit. “People are like, ‘release the album!’ I’m, like, dude, I haven’t made an album! I’ve been on tour. What do you think I’ve been doing? Like? I’m excited for what’s to come.” Eilish let’s it slide off her back and when she says she doesn’t feel the pressure or really care at all, I believe her.

“[The people around me and my fans] trust me and believe in what I’m doing. If they don’t, then fucking fuck off.”

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