“I’m Constantly Terrified That I’m A Bad Person”: How Eilish Gilligan Unravelled Herself
On her new EP, Eilish Gilligan spins her anxieties into shimmering pop songs.
Eilish Gilligan is working on herself.
The acclaimed singer-songwriter, who just released her new EP First One To Leave The Party, has spent the last few weeks in a creative rut, bereft of inspiration. And so she has turned her gaze inward, working on those anxious thought patterns that tell her that she’s a bad person; a bad artist; a useless creative. “I’m kind of feeling like I’m a little creatively worn out right now,” she says.
It’s surprising to hear Gilligan admit that she is in a drought. The artist has had a stunningly productive 12 months, following up the sensitive and humane beauty of her last EP, Hospital, with the grander, more pop-inspired motifs of First One To Leave the Party. It seems like years of hard work are finally paying off — she is getting the best reviews of her entire career, and her weekly Twitch streams are introducing her work to a new audience. She’s moved from high to high, turning her inspirations — Kate Bush, Bat For Lashes — into a stew of stunning, deeply autobiographical pop paeans.
But she is no stranger to self-doubt, even as her career hits this new peak. “I tend to catastrophise a little bit as most anxious people do. And suddenly it’s like, ‘I can’t write a good song, that’s why this isn’t happening for me, and that’s why this person isn’t replying to my emails, and that’s why I’m going to be a failure forever. That’s why no one is going to listen to my music’. It’s this weird chain of events that is purely emotional reasoning, and it follows no logic whatsoever.
“It sometimes is a very seductive pit of despair. But you just have to be like, ‘just because I can’t write a good song today, it doesn’t mean I’m a bad artist.’ And it also doesn’t mean I’m a bad person, which for some reason always gets caught up in there as well.”
Part of the problem for Gilligan is that she also finds herself caught up in the inverse train of thought. When she is on a “creative spike” — when the songs flow easily, almost like taking dictation — the creative fulfilment bubbles over into the other parts of her life. She feels free, loosened from the shackles of self-doubt by productivity. The technical term might be, “getting high on her own supply.”
“I have this bad wiring in my brain that I’m trying to resolder that’s like, ‘when I am productive I am a great person’,” Gilligan says. “‘And when I am making a lot of music, I am a really good person who deserves things.’ I think that’s an extremely toxic way to think. And not something that I would ever force on another person, ever. It’s only ever a personal reckoning.”
Riding The Creative Waves
For the most part, these cycles of despair and self-fulfilment feel outside of Gilligan’s control. She has “extremely defined waves of creativity” that come over her with little warning, and when they’re done, the creative drought is just as hard to parse. “Last year I had probably the longest creative spike that I’ve had in ages,” she explains.
“It was months and months of this purge of creativity. It was amazing. I was like, ‘this is never gonna end! Every song I write is really good. Everything I do is brilliant!'”
But then, with a kind of dull predictability, the wave passed. “Since the start of the year I’ve been in more of a quiet period creatively,” she explains. “Which is something that feels a little disheartening. But experience has taught me if you just keep up the discipline of practicing most days — nearly every day — writing, doing things to spike your creativity, you’ll encourage that creative wave to come visit again.
“I’m trying really hard to not equate my worth with my productivity.”
“I think there is a lot of toxic productivity in the world at the moment,” she continues. “And I’m trying really hard to not equate my worth with my productivity. But it definitely comes first before health. Which I’m trying to not to do anymore.”
The key she says is discipline, something that she has struggled with her whole life. She has to force herself into creative routines — most notably her extremely popular Twitch streams, in which she plays songs, video games, and chats directly to her fanbase. Revisiting her own music to the delight of the captive audience on her stream allows her to pick apart past pleasures; to better understand the mysterious nature of the muse. “I like renovating old songs,” she says, simply.
This backward-facing bent has its problems too. Gilligan can find it complicated to let projects go. Though she understands that the point of being a singer-songwriter, if we can talk about such complicated professions as having a point, is releasing music out into the world, and letting other people do with it what they will, she struggles with the process of release. “I had been working on [The First One To Leave The Party] for two years, and it came out on Friday,” she says. “And I was so excited that it was out, but I don’t know what I was expecting to happen.
“You know when something really big happens, and you’re walking down the street, and people are having a coffee and living their lives normally. And you’re like, ‘Don’t you know that this thing has happened to me?’ Not in the way that people weren’t talking about it. There was a great amount of buzz. But it was just so strange to have something that I’ve been working on since 2019 out in the world. And to consider, ‘I’ve done that now. So what do I do next?'”
That’s the old anxiety creeping back in. But Gilligan is now deeply aware of these thought patterns, and how they work. Through her music, and through the introspection that characterises these creative down periods, she has grown better acquainted than ever with her own mind, and with her art. “I think because life does not ever provide closure, I think my songwriting process has always been a little bit of an obsessive dissection of moments in my life that I thought were worth dissecting. Like, my reaction to things, other people’s reactions to things that would bewilder me, years later.
“I think sometimes songwriting has paid off in that I’ve discovered something about myself, or I discovered that this person was dealing with that, and upon dissection and recounting I’ve been able to gain some sense of empathy. And then sometimes it leaves me even more confused than before.” Gilligan laughs. “I go, ‘oh, maybe they could have been thinking this?'”
That means for Gilligan, the creative impulse is linked to the anxious one. The obsessive nature of her worries, the way they circle back to past loves and to past relationships, gives her a hyper-awareness of the lives of those around her. And that, after all, is what music is all about — understanding the other. “I am an incredibly anxious person, and I think that weirdly can be a strength,” she says. “It can be a strength and a hindrance when it comes to personal relationships. Sometimes it gives me this supersonic empathy. Because I’m constantly terrified that I’m a bad person.
“And that’s not just an anxious trait, that’s a songwriter’s trait.” She laughs — a clean, crisp sound, the sound of someone who knows exactly who they are, and exactly what they want.
Eilish Gilligan’s First One To Leave The Party is out now.
Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Music Junkee. He tweets @JosephOEarp.
Photo Credit: Jeff Andersen