Meet The 15-Year-Old Everyone Says Is Pop’s Next Big Thing
The real deal.
It’s an unseasonably warm morning in Sydney’s CBD, and LA singer Billie Eilish is sitting on a couch in Universal Music’s headquarters, trying to get me to smell some green juice.
“Seriously dude, this smells rank,” she says, pushing the small white bottle under my nose.
I smell it, and agree that yes, the juice does smell like rotten mown grass. She laughs and nods, before setting the bottle on the ground next to her feet.
Eilish flew into Australia the night before, and despite staring down the barrel of a nonstop few days of press commitments and showcase performances, she is impressively calm and collected.
There are minders and PR people buzzing around her — offering drinks and food and whatever else she could possibly want — but the 15-year-old remains steadfastly chill, the calm at the centre of the media storm.
Eilish has been almost universally branded pop’s next ‘It’ girl, and it’s not hard to see why: tracks like ‘Bellyache’, ‘Bored’ and ‘Ocean Eyes’ are sophisticated, dark, and infuriatingly catchy. We met the teenager to find out what it’s like to be music’s next big thing.
You grew up singing in a children’s choir in LA. How did you go from that to writing your own songs?
The choir taught me all the basics of not destroying your voice and vocal technique. I just started writing at 11 because I was like, “Dude, I got some stuff to say, and I’m gonna say it, and here it is.”
Also my mom writes music, and my brother does, because we all are a musical little bunch. I always thought of it as just something that was part of us. So I just wrote down all my thoughts and feelings and then made them into songs. There was no, “I’m gonna write a song now.” I just did it.
What was the first song you recorded?
The first song I recorded was something I wrote when I was 12 called ‘Fingers Crossed.’ It’s actually out. It’s about the zombie apocalypse, which is a little… odd.
I was in the songwriting class my mom taught, and the little assignment was that you had to watch a movie or a TV show and then write down all the parts that you thought were good hooks or good lyrics. So, I watched The Walking Dead — like, why not — and then I wrote down all this stuff. People don’t even know that that’s what it’s about, because it sounds more like a longing heartbreak song. But nope, it’s about zombies.
You write your songs closely with your brother [Finneas O’Connell]. What is your sibling relationship like? Do you yell at each other in the studio when you’re writing?
Yeah, but how could we not, really? I think you can’t have a sibling without not getting along with them at some points. But he’s my best friend, and I think I’m his, so our work relationship and our sibling/friend relationship is pretty much the same.
Sometimes we have to put aside our little friendship because we’re just giggling all the time and then we don’t get any work done. We have that trust in each other where you can just say how you feel, instead of having a session with someone you’ve never met and it saves so much time. I can just be like, “Okay, I want to write about this and this.” And then he’s like, “What about this?” And I’m like, “No.”
Instead of at a session with somebody you don’t know where you’re trying to be polite and you’re like, “Maybe we could do it different?” I can just be like, “Nope, I hate it. Stop.”
‘Ocean Eyes’ blew up very quickly on SoundCloud. How did it feel watching it go viral?
I don’t even know… how is somebody supposed to process that kind of thing? I was just sitting in Starbucks, and we had put the song out in the middle of the night the night before, and Finneas called me and he was like “Dude, we got 1000 listens.”
That was such a big deal at the time, even though 1000 is basically nothing compared to everything else in the world. But at the time it was a huge deal. We just thought we made it. And then it just kept growing, and then it got really big.
When you look at other artists who have became really famous when they’re young — someone like Lorde or Justin Bieber — you see how hard it is for them to have a personal life when they get older. Does that worry you at all?
Not really. It’s already started a little bit, but not in a bad way really. I mean, it’s unavoidable. But it’s more that your friends always get weird, and people that you don’t know say stuff like, “Let’s hang out, I miss you.” Like, bitch please. That’s really annoying and everyone is fake.
It’s difficult, and I’m trying to deal with it. But I’ve lost a lot of people, but I think it’s supposed to happen like that. I just need to find people that won’t be so weird.
‘Bellyache’ is from the perspective of a serial killer. It’s not a usual thing to write about, how did you come up with that concept?
It just kind of happened. I think we were just in a garage and riffing a bunch of stuff, playing these same chords over and over again. Then we were like, “Sitting all alone, mouth full of gum, in the driveway”… that was just a cool image.
“Obviously I’m not a serial killer, I don’t think”
And then, Finneas said, “My friends aren’t far, in the back of my car, are there bodies?” Because the scene was we’re in a car with our friends and we’re just cruising down the street. And then I was like, “No, no, no. In the back of my car, lay their bodies, because I just killed everyone.” And then we were like, “Yes.”
Finneas came into my room the next day and wrote the chorus in two seconds and I thought it was freaking genius. So then, that whole song we were just like, “Okay, so this is about a psychopath, serial killer, bipolar, insane person, kind of.” Because it’s also really childish, because it’s a bellyache: no adult says “I’ve got a bellyache.”
Do you find it easier to write in characters? Do you like writing in characters?
It’s fun to put yourself in a place you wouldn’t normally be. People think you can only write about stuff you’ve gone through, and it’s so not true. You can write about anything at all. Something you’ve been through, something you’re gonna go through, something you’ve never gone through, or something your friend has been through — or from the perspective of someone you know.
I’ve written songs that are from the perspective of someone that I’ve hurt, and it kind of opens your mind to the way that people perceive you as a person instead of what you think of yourself. Obviously I’m not a serial killer, I don’t think, and so I just wrote about something that I’ll never get to experience — but I can experience it in the song, which is almost more fun than killing people.
I guess a lot of people might say to you — being so young — ‘well how could you write about heartbreak’? Does that annoy you when people say that?
It’s annoying to me when they think of it as just because of age. People look at me and they’re like, “Oh you’re 15. How can you feel those things when you’ve never experienced them?” It doesn’t matter how old you are, any person can experience any sort of pain or happiness.
I don’t tell people my age, though everybody knows it now — but the thing is that I don’t want people to know, because then they’re going to think of me as something I’m not. My brain has no age. It’s just a brain, and it thinks and it feels, and I feel.
“My brain has no age. It’s just a brain, and it thinks and it feels, and I feel.”
My hardest years were when I was 11, 12, and 13. And people are like, “Oh, that’s just being a little kid.” But it’s like, dude, that’s when you figure out things, and that’s when you start feeling horrible things. And I think that’s when you learn the most, really. The teenage years is when you learn the most too.
Being an 11-year-old sucks so much and being a 15-year-old sucks. Adults are like, “Oh, you’re just a kid.” But maybe that 11-year-old has felt more than they have. Of course a 40-year-old has gone through more than I have just because they’re older, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t felt the things that they’ve felt, you know what I mean?
And that certainly doesn’t mean they can write about it.
How did your EP come together? Did you pick a bunch of songs you’d previously written, or did you sit down and go, “I want to write an EP.”
Most of them were already there, because we always write stuff.
Right now there’s zillions of songs that are not done, or not recorded, or they’re completely done but not released. So with the EP, we were kind of like, “I think this should come out, and this, and this.” And then we just wrote a couple more songs and were like, let’s put out some music.
I always know what I want to do. So with that, I didn’t even talk to anybody, I didn’t ask anybody, I was like, “Okay, this is the order of the songs, these are all the songs that are gonna be on the EP, I want the EP cover to be me in red on a red ladder, in a yellow room, with a bunch of chains on. And the EP is called don’t smile at me. That’s it. Boom. Bye.” And then they were like, “Okay.”
And your label — Interscope — were just like, “Cool.”
Yeah, which is insane, because some labels really control everything you do. I think I’ve proven myself to really know what I want, and so I think they’ve just stepped back and trusted that I’m going to get what I want.
That’s insane to me. I’m so grateful that I can have that, because people don’t have that a lot. So for the EP I was just like “This is what I want.” And they were like, “Great, makes our job easier.”
You seem to have a very clear vision of what you want your career to be. Do you look much in the future? Do you think, “I want to be headlining that, I want to do that. This is gonna be my album.” Do you have a clear, plotted vision?
I think if I did that, I might get really disappointed. If I thought that way about everything, I think I might just piss myself off all the time, you know?
Billie Eilish will play Laneway Festival in 2018. Her debut EP don’t smile at me is out now via Universal Music.
Jules LeFevre is Staff Writer for Music Junkee and inthemix. She is on Twitter.