You can’t bring up pop prodigy Billie Eilish without mentioning her age. In our youth obsessed culture, it is an inevitable and repetitive talking point, so let’s get that out of the way early – she’s 17. Why does that define her? Should it at all? Eilish is an old soul in a young body, full of weary discontent for the world she is growing up in, the expectations of what pop music should sound like, what she should look like and how to navigate her new-found fame.
When it comes to this Californian wonderchild, those expectations are fleeting, as we’ve watched her continually challenge the norms of being a ‘pop idol’ – her honest and refreshing feelings about the music industry, her approach to her fans (though she would never call them that) and her avant-garde fashion sense. Most impressive though is the way she promotes the authentic evolution of her music. When questioned about that cultivation, she’s said: “If everyone dropped dead and I didn’t, I would be left with what I had created. What the hell would the point be if I was just creating something that somebody else wanted to create? I’d be stuck with the sh-t I didn’t want in the first place, and that’s trash.” It’s that honesty and unapologetic attitude that drives her growing success story, and it’s the same attitude that has endeared her to her 14 million loyal Instagram followers.
A creative life was inevitable for Billie (born Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell). The daughter of two actors who enjoyed moderate Hollywood success, Eilish grew up in a humble outer suburb of Los Angeles where she was homeschooled. With her brother by her side – actor and accomplished musician in his own right, Finneas O’Connell – she had a built-in best friend, and it wasn’t long before natural selection had the pair uploading covers to YouTube.
Her big break came when Finneas approached his sister with a song he had written for his band, The Slightlys. Unhappy with his own version, he asked Billie to record her voice on the song – and just like that, her dreamy debut single Ocean Eyes was born. The pair still enjoy a highly collaborative songwriting process and one that takes more of a thematically creative approach than one which mines personal experience – many of Billie’s lyrics come from fictional, imagined places and situation. She leans away from cookie cutter pop into something more gothic, ankle-deep in horror. Second single, the acoustic-driven Bellyache, is a fictional story about murdering all of her friends. Soon afterwards came her debut EP, Don’t Smile At Me. With my boy, idontwannabeyouanymore and copycat racing up the charts, Eilish cemented herself on every ‘Next Big Thing’ list in the world.
Famously, Eilish doesn’t smile in photos. “I hate smiling. It makes me feel weak and powerless and small… I’ve always been like that,” she said early on in her career – one of many walls built to protect herself in an infinitely accessible world. Last November, she reluctantly revealed she has Tourette’s Syndrome (after fans started creating compilations of her facial tics).
In 2018 we saw a further evolution in the fledgling superstar, as Eilish illustrated her love of horror – you should see me in a crown and when the party’s over welcomed darker, trap-heavy beats which leaned out of her wistful pop roots into heavier, hip hop influences. Those tracks were quickly followed by the lingering and chilling bury a friend in late January this year, and the announcement of her debut album WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?.
Billie Eilish has spent the last two years carefully cocooning herself in preparation for this album’s release – just don’t expect a beautiful butterfly to emerge from the chrysalis. It’s more than possible we’ll get a moth: intense, all-consuming, and ready to change pop music forever.
WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? is out March 29 via Universal.