As we launch the NME 100 – the brand new artists we’re tipping to break through in 2019, the full list of which is on NME on Monday January 7 – Thomas Smith travels to LA to meet Billie Eilish, the teenage singer-songwriter whose genre-bending music is showing the millennials it’s time to move aside.
PICTURES: Rachael Wright
We meet Billie Eilish in an LA apartment that’s a kitsch wonderland to behold. There’s garish wallpaper, a hollowed-out vintage TV set that’s been turned into a fish tank and a pungent whiff of incense in every room. With plenty of objects precariously hanging on the wall, it feels like one huff could blow this place down. One of the few rules that the owner gave us before they left was this: “Don’t touch the chandelier in the bedroom, it’ll literally frazzle you”. When the 17-year-old hears it, a wicked grin spread across her face. I’m certain a hand twitches in its direction.
“I’m the type of person if you tell me to stop doing something, I’m going to do the opposite,” she says in our interview.
She’s a teen – she’s meant to be rebellious – but Billie has an endearing ‘fuck you’ attitude that only a handful of people can carry off. Want proof? After a long day of shooting, she’s been asked by US TV network NBC to film a spritely ‘Happy New Year’ message to be shown on their New Year’s Eve coverage. She tries and fails several times to nail the happy-go-lucky attitude the network wants. On the seventh try, she looks like she’s about to nail it. She reaches the end of the clip and blows a kiss to the camera to sign off, then immediately flips the bird directly to camera. Her mum, Maggie Baird, who’s been with us all day, is exasperated – the clip is useless. “You need to leave a beat at the end of the clip for them to edit away,” she tells Billie. “I did,” Billie replies. “This is my beat” – and she throws up the middle finger once more.
NME first met Billie in New York in October 2017, a couple of months after her first and only EP to date, ‘Don’t Smile At Me’, was released. Things were a little different then – she was polite and entertaining, but still settling into the touring mentality and adjusting to being in a new city every other night. When we travel to her hometown of LA to meet her again in December, there’s an unspoken acknowledgment that a seismic shift has taken place in her life and career. That debut EP, a concise 7-track collection that added a brash hip-hop edge to sugar-sweet pop, has been hanging around in the Album Charts both in the UK and in the US for the best part of a year. She’s spent the year hammering the festival circuit, and her Instagram account (@wherearetheavocados) shows her mugging for the camera with the likes of SZA and Julia Roberts.
A forthcoming tour of the UK and Europe this spring, including three shows at London’s 2,000-capacity Shepherd’s Bush Empire, has already sold out. An album is due in the first half of 2019, and it’s one that will tie the delicate thread between recent festive single ‘Come Out and Play’ and the assured summer hit ‘You Should See Me In A Crown’, where she proclaims that she’s ready “to run this nothin’ town”. Billie seems ready to take it all this year.
“People underestimate the power of a young mind that is new to everything and experiencing for the first time,” she says. “We’re being ignored and it’s so dumb. We know everything.”
Billie grew up in Highland Park, an LA neighbourhood 30-minutes away from The Graceland Inn, West Hollywood, where NME’s shoot is held. When not on the road, she still lives there with her older brother Finneas, who co-writes and produces Billie’s material and has had acting roles in TV shows such as Glee in the past. Her parents, Maggie Baird and Patrick O’Connell, also both actors, follow Billie on tour as much as they can.
“Highland Park has become become popular now but growing up there, it was not like that at all,” she says of her upbringing. “There were gunshots and shit, y’know – it was really sketchy. People just have a different vision of how I was raised and that’s not correct. They think I’m just a little rich girl from LA.”
Her home, then, was her sanctuary – and her school. It’s the only place where she reckons she could have become the artist we meet today. “If I went to [public] school, no one would take me seriously and that’s terrifying to me,” she says. “There are so many people who come to my shows, who bring their art of me, or video edits and I’m thinking, ‘Why aren’t you an editor? Or, ‘Why aren’t you a fucking video director?’ It’s not an age thing for me; you can have these ideas at any age. There are geniuses everywhere,” she says.
That family home is where Billie records with her older brother in a makeshift studio in his bedroom, something they’ve done for as long as she can remember. “When people ask, ‘When did you start singing?’, I think that’s a dumb question. I was always singing and making up melodies and that was normal for our family to do that. I’d meet families who didn’t do that and I’d think ‘what the hell?’”
In late 2015, Billie recorded dreamy ballad ‘Ocean Eyes’, a song that had originally been written by Finneas for his then-band The Slightlys. The song was uploaded to Soundcloud and she sent it to her dance teacher, who helped choreograph a routine for a video. The track went viral, landed her a manager and was re-released by Interscope (whose roster includes The 1975, Lana Del Rey and Lady Gaga) a year later in November 2016. To date, it has had 132 million streams on Spotify, and the video a further 55 million on YouTube.
Like most people her age, her influences and listening habits are strikingly diverse. During the day-long shoot in West Hollywood she vibes out to music by rising US rapper Tierra Whack and her 15-minute album, ‘Whack World’, and as well as The Strokes and Arctic Monkeys. When we met last year, she cited The Beatles and Avril Lavigne, among others, as all-time favourites.
Though they are fairly traditional influences, her music is thoroughly modern. Her generation’s hope, anxiety, vulnerability and heartbreak are reflected in the songs she pens with Finneas. ‘Bellyache’, from that debut EP, was inspired by the regret she felt when she would shoplift or occasionally nab toys from friends. “I’d leave and want to throw up with guilt. I used to think the police were going to come to class and take me away from my parents,” she laughs. “It was completely irrational, but there’s nothing like that overwhelming feeling, and to say that a child can’t write about those feelings because they are too young is bogus.”
Getting people to take these songs, emotions and messages seriously hasn’t been easy. “When older people say, ‘What do you know about things like love?’, I know more about it than you do because I’m feeling it for the first time right now, whereas you haven’t felt that for a long time. That doesn’t mean it is any less powerful, but it is definitely a different feeling. They’re used to love, heartbreak, pain and just wanting to fucking die, but for a younger person that’s all new to you and it’s terrifying.”
Billie’s EP was the big introduction to world, but 2018 saw her become one of the most-talked about teenagers on the planet. Along with designing for her clothing line, she dropped singles in the shape of assertive anthem ‘You Should See Me In A Crown’ and the emotional ‘When The Party’s Over’.
That video for the latter is dark, unsettling and a perfect example of her unbridled creative mind. In it, Billie drinks a glass of gloopy black ink, which comes tumbling out of her eyes by the end of the one-shot take. “I decided it was going to be a video and planned everything out like a director’, she says. “I have this video of me being a fucking dick! I went into my yard and told my Mum to pretend to be me. I made her go outside with a table, glass and the chair in the position exactly where I wanted it and I started filming and deciding how we shot it and everything,” she says.
The album, due next year, keeps that home-made feel. It’s been recorded with Finneas in the same studio where ‘Ocean Eyes’ was. Even though her phone contacts currently boast the likes of musicians like Tyler, The Creator and Miguel, the idea of heading to a big studio or asking them to jump on a song is not on the agenda. “I never feel that way, ever. I don’t want to send my music to people. I never wanna play things for people. I never want to hear their opinions,” she says.
When we speak in early December, Billie says they’re “nailing it in the ass” to get the album done before the deadline, which is four days away. I feel bad using up eight hours of your day, I say, but she’s confident about it. “Yesterday, I recorded two songs – I’m going fucking crazy to get it finished.” Reckon the fans will like it? “They’ve been screaming in my face for it, so hopefully they like it! I like it!”
There’s plenty of them, too. Billie’s current follower count on Instagram sits at 10.8m, with a further 1.8m on Facebook. And most of them are around Billie’s age. That enormous following and its demographic means that Billie is about to do something that no other pop star on the planet can do: she’s about to become one of the most important people to an entire generation of teens, connect with them and vocalise their teenage years, while being one at the same time.
Billie is now using her platform to ensure her fan’s voices are being heard in the political world. In September last year, she decided to join Eric Garcetti, Mayor of her hometown Los Angeles, in a plea for voter registration among students ahead of the US midterm elections in November. Like in the UK, the voting age across the country is 18, though you can pre-register in some states aged 16.
Now, Gen Z (teens born mid-’90s to mid-’00s; Eilish was born in December 2001) icons like Billie, guns-rights activist Emma Gonzalez and more are proving themselves tech-savvy, politically aware and ready to push the envelope creatively. “Bro, teenagers know more about the country that we’re living in right now than anybody,” she says.
“The world is ending and I honestly don’t understand the law that says you have to be older to vote, because they’re going to die soon and we’ll have to deal with it. That doesn’t make any sense to me,” she says. “But to see young people taking part in peaceful protests and not obeying is beautiful.”
Billie is smart and hyper-aware of the conversations happening around her. But in the age of social media, which has been a part of her life for as long as she can remember, trolls, abuse and misconceptions are rife. Does she spend a lot of time reading what’s said and written about you online?
“There’s an article online about me and if you look at the comments they say: ‘the industry is ruining her! It’s killing her! She has no spark in her eyes! Her smile is not as big!’ Come on…”
Billie’s aware of everything that’s going on in her comment sections – almost to a fault.“I used to read every single comment and every picture I was tagged in and respond to every single DM, but now I barely go on Instagram because I can’t handle that shit,” she says. “Fuck that shit. I just don’t wanna see all the horrible things people say. I don’t wanna see that I should have died instead of this artist. It takes not looking at my phone to stop myself from engaging. I had to delete Twitter in March because of it. Nobody is going to win. If somebody said something to me in person, I’d beat their ass.”
Being bombarded with hateful messages is a harsh reality of being a pop star right now, but it’s not all bad news, she says. “This industry is fucking horrible, but if I wasn’t doing this I would probably be miserable because this is always what I’ve wanted. No matter how horrible fame is and how horrible this and that is: a lot of things make all of this worth it, y’know?”
Do you think it’s because you’re a young woman that people feel that have a right to comment on what you do?
“Hell yeah. I’ve spoken a lot to female artists about this, because if you’re not a female artist you probably don’t think about this. If I was a guy and I was wearing these baggy clothes, nobody would bat an eye. There’s people out there saying, ‘Dress like a girl for once! Wear tight clothes you’d be much prettier and your career would be so much better!’ No it wouldn’t. It literally would not.”’
The fact you’re this age probably emboldens people too…
“Honestly, I’ll be old for so long that I’m cool with the age stuff. Once I’m old, I’m going to be old forever and I’m never gonna be young again. Also I can use it to my advantage. I can be like ‘what did you expect! I’m 16, dude! I fucked up, but I’m only 16, so!”
Having a fanbase a similar age means that there’s an opportunity for them to share experiences for the first time. The only time during our hour-long chat when she seems lost for words, is when I tell her this will likely be someone’s first album. The first that they can pore over and relate to line-for-line. Who knows, they might even go out and buy it on CD? “It’s crazy to think that. There was a point when I thought me and Finneas were never going to be able to finish it. I’m just so excited to put it out and perform it.”
Billie’s proven that people are as keen for it to be released as she is. There’ll always be haters, but you can imagine how she deals with them. “You wouldn’t believe the shit people say about me. It’s fucking funny though, because who’s making money? Who’s playing shows across the globe? Who’s getting free shoes? Me,” she says while mockingly looking around for an answer. “Not to be cocky or anything, but fuck you.”
Meet the full NME 100 on Monday 7th January