Billie Eilish – Album Of The Year: 2019 was hers

Billie Eilish's debut is NME's Album Of The Year 2019. Duh. The LA teenager started the year as a cult hero and finished it as the most-talked about musician in recent times, brandishing a brand-new sound and all the makings of a true once-in-a-generation star. Thomas Smith speaks to the 17-year-old about her triumphant year, coping with fame and how she's going to follow this one up.

Two years ago this month, NME met Billie Eilish for the first time, backstage at Brooklyn’s 280-capacity venue Baby’s All Right. Calm, collected and staggeringly cool, the then-15 year-old put the heebie-jeebies into us – barely a teenager, she already had wisdom beyond her age, and it felt abundantly clear we were meeting with a future superstar. As her ‘Don’t Smile At Me’ EP was gaining steam, we asked if she was ready for the fame coming her way. “The attention doesn’t scare me,” she said. “Nothing really scares me, to be honest.”

If her 2019 is anything to go by, every other artist should have the fear running through them. She’s entering the next decade comfortably perched on pop music’s highest throne, just like she promised on ‘You Should See Me In A Crown’. Good luck wrestling it from her.

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2019 was Billie Eilish’s year – she started out as a cult figure and has become the most exciting, accomplished artist on the planet. Now 17, she delivered a devastating debut album, toured the world and became an icon of a generation untainted by the real world. She’s still not scared but she is utterly baffled as to how it all got quite this big. As she said on Instagram following her momentous Reading & Leeds Festival performances: “Why the fuck do you all care about me?”

“There was no expectation of any sort of success that would come,” Billie tells NME during our transatlantic phone call (we’re in London; she’s got a day-off at her Los Angeles home), in which we’ve just delivered the news that her debut ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’ has been named NME’s Album Of The Year 2019 – you can read the full list very soon. “I did not have any feeling that anything like this, or even close to this, would happen to me,” she says, laughing in disbelief. “Not even a microscopic version of this. Absolutely no way.”

Throughout the year, fellow Gen Z artists such as Clairo, Omar Apollo, King Princess and Beabadoobee have proved a new dawn is rising, one where our jumbled-up music tastes result in honest, innovative, experimental music with a DIY ethos.

With an album recorded in her own bedroom, and a genre we’re yet to coin – WhisperWave? BillieCore? – Eilish was at the front of that movement, but no one has yet managed to copy her unique sound, in which she shuns the big pop vocals of her forebears in favour of hushed whispers, creating a listening experience of weird intimacy.

It’s a vocal style that’s at its finest on the eerie, anti-opioid anthem ‘Xanny’, a song that’s become particularly poignant given the number of not-much-older and similarly promising US musicians who’ve lost their lives to downers this year. Then there’s the music, which is distorted and unconventional, with dark beats and horror overtones forming something as unsettling as it is banging.

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She’s become the first artist born after 2000 to land an NME Album Of The Year. She also joins only a handful of others to do it with their debut – a list of luminaries that includes Arctic Monkeys, The Strokes, Oasis and Björk. But, we ask, what was her album of the year? “Lana [Del Rey] is always fucking killer on everything she does,” she says. “But honestly, I’ve been listening to old shit from Britney Spears, The Black Eyed Peas and Avril Lavigne.”

Here are some crucial facts about Billie’s debut album: released on March 29, it was recorded the star and her co-producer/older brother, 22-year-old Finneas O’Connell, in their family home. We gave the album five-stars, declared it a “game-changing debut record” and noted that other artists would soon be “scrabbling to replicate it”.

Since March, it’s topped the charts in 22 countries, including stints at the summit here in the UK and the US. It also spawned the weirdo-pop smash single ‘Bad Guy’, which landed at Number One in over 16 countries, and whose dead-pan “duh!” moment spawned one of the most consistently funny meme templates in recent memory (pick a clip of something obvious happening, cut in her vocal take for confirmation, then add some silly dancing). Sorry, Baby Yoda.

Though she’d been considered a tantalising prospect since her viral-hit ‘Ocean Eyes’ in 2016, this was the year in which she went supernova. For example: in March 2019, she was booked to play three shows at London’s tiny Shepherd’s Bush Empire, but by Glastonbury and Reading and Leeds Festival just months later, she’d become so popular that she could have plausibly headlined both with ease.

Along the way, she’s made fans in rock’n’roll royalty such as Dave Grohl and Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong. Oh, and she became a teenage icon, using her platform to hit back against body shaming, bullies and come out in favour of undertaking drastic action to save the planet we live on. See, Billie really is fearless.

As the year comes to a close, and with the Album Of The Year title belt hers for the next year, here Billie Eilish reveals all about the making of the triumphant debut, how she’s managed to cope with the rising levels of fame, saving the planet and where the hell she goes from here.

The Album

On paper, ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’ really has no right to be a commercial and cultural juggernaut. The album’s lead single, ‘Bury A Friend’, is basically The Doors’ ‘People Are Strange’ but with added kookiness, while on ‘8’ Billie duets with a chipmunk version of herself. It’s an album made by – and for – the recluses and misfits of the world.

The album’s uniqueness is key to its success. When we spoke to producer Finneas earlier this year, he said that they wanted their songs to sound like they’re “tearing themselves in half”. Good albums reflect the time in which they were made, but the truly great ones define what the future will sound like. You’ll no doubt witness plenty of copycats trying – and failing – to concoct a similar recipe.

Throughout the album, Billie’s claustrophobic vocals rarely rise above a whisper and its finest moments – ‘ilomilo’, ‘Listen Before I Go’ – are actually rather uncomfortable to listen to. That intimacy is how she ended up being labelled as the first ASMR popstar (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response – basically, noises to get goosebumps to).

But she’s not interested in that too much. “I never thought about that at all. I mean, great, I suppose. But people are weird with that ASMR shit.” She’s right: check out the countless videos uploaded to YouTube of people whispering, or, er, opening crisps seductively to achieve spine-tingly results. “It’s so fucking weird! But If I can please people’s weirdness, then there you go.”

The album was recorded in Finneas’ bedroom in their home in Highland Park, Los Angeles. The duo have used the same location since early releases such as the ‘Don’t Smile At Me’ EP, which was released in in 2017, and it’s here that Billie first recorded ‘Ocean Eyes’ – her 2016 breakthrough single – which Finneas originally penned for his then-band The Slightlys.

She grew up in a creative household. Both her parents, Maggie Baird and Patrick O’Connell, have had careers in film and music, and Billie spent her childhood and teens being home- schooled. Earlier this year she told NME that her creativity would have likely been spurned at a regular school: “if I went to public school, no one would take me seriously and that’s terrifying to me.”

Much of the magic comes from Billie and Finneas’ bond. He’s been playing shows with her and recording her songs since day one, and she recently told Variety that “he’s the only reason I’m anywhere in the whole world and he’s probably the only reason I’m alive”. She also said in March that “we see each other in a way that doesn’t require needing to tell each other”.

There’s little surprise, then, that the album often feels like an in-joke between two siblings taken a bit too far. That silliness is evident on the album’s 14-second opening track ‘!!!!!!!’, on which she reveals that she’s taken out her retainer – and the pair crack up in hysterics. Or there’s ‘My Strange Addiction’ ,where the pair cut up audio-clips from their favourite TV show The US Office.

“It’s just been so genuine and easy to work with each other in our bedrooms at our house,” she says. It’s always made it come off so real and so much rawer than something else would. We know that from experience because we’ve made music in studios and it’s definitely cool, but that home touch just does it for us.”

That’s why ‘When We All Fall Asleep…’ has the brutal honesty of diary dispatches from a teen trying to find her place in the world. ‘Listen Before I Go’ is a frank rumination on suicide and depression – something Billie has battled and spoken on throughout the year. Earlier this week she said that she’s “been of coming out of [it] for the last six months” and that, for her, it’s “the most freeing feeling to be able to come out of that shell.”

Nothing from the album has been as dominant as ‘Bad Guy’ – the most intense and catchy song she’s done to date. It’s also the track that finally toppled fellow newcomer Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road (Remix)’ in August, having broken the record for the longest-running Number One single in the US earlier with 19 consecutive weeks at the top.

Did you expect ‘Bad Guy’ to be a hit when you were making it?

“Not at all! I knew I liked the song a lot, but I had no idea what to expect. When we were making that song, me and Finneas thought nobody was going to care about it. We thought they would like it but we didn’t think it would do what it did.”

Have you sent anyone a meme of yourself from that song?

“No! It’s so funny that song has been so memed out. That’s really crazy.”

What’s the song you’re most proud of from the album?

“I go through phases of liking certain songs and listening to certain ones over others. ‘ilomilo’ always hits a spot for me, but also ‘Listen Before I Go’. If I’m honest with you, I genuinely love the album. So many artists I know hate their own music and it’s weird to me because I love mine.”

Was it hard to let people into your world on that album?

“I think the only time that it maybe was a little difficult is right now. I’ve got to a place where the people listening to me aren’t just my fans – there’s the other side of people who just know who I am. So now I’ll make a song I really like but that I want to keep to myself, because if I put it out there then there’s going to be a million people that hate it. It’s like making a fucking breakfast for yourself that you love and you think, ‘This the best breakfast!’, but then a bunch of people see it and talk shit about it. So something you think is really cool or really good and then everyone else is like, ‘Boo! This sucks!’”

The Fame

Billiemania spread worldwide this year. Her dedicated and engaged fanbase got the ball rolling, but she’s now attained household name-status. Only a handful fans were sporting lime-green beanies from Billie’s clothing line and aping her baggy clothing style at her Shepherd’s Bush residency in London this March. By August a passing plane might have mistaken Reading Festival for Heathrow airport, given the number of hi-vis jackets on the ground.

This level of fame has forced her to use her presciently adult voice against the creepiness she’s been exposed to. In August, when a German magazine put her on the cover of their magazine – as a bald, naked android – she called them out, saying that she “did not consent in any way” and criticised their decision to make her topless. The most talked-about teen on the planet is always mature enough to say the right thing at the right time.

As Billie’s profile rose throughout the year, celebrity endorsements became commonplace, with rock’n’roll royalty proving the keenest. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke was spotted watching her Shepherd’s Bush show from the balcony and afterwards told Billie that “you’re the only one doing anything fucking interesting nowadays.” Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong recently lauded her in a joint interview with Rolling Stone, saying that her “music sounds like freedom.”

The most impactful cosign came from Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl. Speaking at Pollstar music conference in February, he said that “the connection that she has with her audience is the same thing that was happening with Nirvana in 1991.” He added: “When I look at someone like Billie Eilish, I’m like, shit man, rock’n’roll is not even close to being dead.”

Billie, who was born seven years after Kurt Cobain’s death, says: “I grew up on a lot of rock and shit like that, so it meant a lot to hear that kind of validation from somebody like him. It’s funny to meet people that I don’t know, but my parents are a huge fan of. That’s when you know shit is going crazy. I’m like, ‘Why?’”

Billie connected with her own idol earlier this year: one Justin Bieber. A longtime stan, she teamed up with Biebs for a remix of ‘Bad Guy’ in July. To bring it full circle, the single’s artwork shows a younger Billie in a bedroom plastered with Bieber posters. N’aww.

That was an opportunity that proved too good to turn down, but now she’s at the point where she doesn’t necessarily want to work with her heroes – she just wants to chill: “I love Childish Gambino, but I’d rather not work with him, I think. I just wanna be friends, you know?”

Head to her Instagram and you’ll see everyone wants a snap with her, from film star Julia Roberts to – her again – Avril Lavigne. “My world now means I can’t even be seen with another artist without it being like, ‘Billie Eilish and blank are collaborating on a song'”, she says. “And I’m like, ‘Oh my God – no!’ We just hugged!”

Now that she’s consistently in the headlines, every day life is different. “Going out and doing normal stuff and not getting noticed was something I missed last year a lot,” she says, and now I couldn’t care less. Like, what am I going to do? Go to the store and get a fucking toothbrush? I have so many things in my life now that I dreamed about when I was younger, so the fact I can’t go anywhere is OK to me because I’m busy doing my own shit. Also, I can fucking buck up and go places anyway and just be fine with getting recognised all the time.”

Billie has amassed an army of dedicated fans on Twitter (3.8m followers) and Instagram (44.5m), Billie has a tricky relationship with social media. When she was younger, she would notice negative and nasty comments on her music and appearance. As a result, she’s largely taken herself off of various platforms, using Instagram sparingly. “I don’t need to see that horrible stuff,” she says. “I can just give them the music and shut the fuck up and be gone.”

Is it scary or comforting to have such a vocal fan group?

“It’s definitely somewhere in the middle. Most of the time it makes me feel so good that I have them. They’re so perfect and so sweet to me. It’s so good to have people like that there for you because I always know they’re there for me.”

Recently, you had to step in and tell everyone to chill out a little bit…

“They are wild and they are reckless and that’s the way they are. I am also pretty reckless and I understand where they’re coming from with their craziness. They are literally me – a whole bunch of me’s. I want to let them know that they don’t have to be as crazy all the time. They can relax a little bit. It’s OK, don’t worry, put yourselves first, not me. They’re so sweet that they really put me first. But really I’m like, ‘Come on – you’ve got your own lives. Stop worrying about me – worry about you too, you know?”

Billie is more interested in mobilising her fan group for positive actions. Earlier this year, she announced that tickets for her upcoming tour could be won by engaging in planet-saving initiatives. Teaming up with Global Citizen – an organisation that seeks to end extreme poverty and raise living standards across the globe – Billie is using her platform and the insatiable demand for tickets to help improve our world.

She’s not the only teenager shaking things up this year, though. Her rise has been simultaneous with another Gen Z icon this year: climate activist Greta Thunberg. Both were born in the 2000s, both appear to be the most mature head in the room at all times and both are sick and tired of being underestimated by those in positions of power. If there were a one-two ticket for these two running for Presidential office, they’d have a bloody good shot at it. “She’s paving the way,” Billie says. “She’s doing her thing and I feel honoured to be compared to her.

“Hopefully the adults and the old people start listening to us [about climate change] so that we don’t all die. Old people are gonna die and don’t really care if we die, but we don’t wanna die yet.”

The Festivals

The result of having a chart-topping, world-beating album? Everyone was keen to see Billie play live in 2019.That’s why her performance at Glastonbury landed one of the biggest crowds of the weekend. She packed out The Other Stage on Sunday evening for what was her first appearance at the festival and first performance in the UK since the album’s release. It was a watershed moment for the artist and could have spiralled into disaster if her cool head hadn’t prevailed once again.

“That Glastonbury show was a big deal,” she said. “Everyone told me it was a big deal for weeks beforehand. It was an enormous crowd and, again, so many people came to my show. I should only be happy about it but there were a couple things that were a bit off. Like my sound pack didn’t work the whole show so I was really distracted and it was really hot… blah, blah, blah. There are a million things that were off to me, but it was such a great opportunity and I was lucky enough to play it.”

She’s played just over 100 shows in over 20 countries this year – a huge leap from the 26 she undertook in 2017. They’ve ballooned in size, too. In March she played Kingston nightclub PRYZM for an acoustic-only set; by June she was taking on Chicago’s United Centre, which holds upwards of 20,000.

Against a gruelling tour and a staggering level of attention, Billie was struggling physically. She’d been playing shows and recording music since she was just 14 years old, but she’d never been on a tour quite this intense.

 

She was seen sporting protective walking boots for her ankles, which she has repeatedly injured. At a show in Italy in September, she had to be carried off stage after spraining her ankle and earlier this year she said in an interview that she felt that her body was “broken”. But with the end of the year approaching, and a couple of months at home recuperating, she’s feeling good about her physical wellbeing. “I have a physical therapist on the road with me that’s really been helpful,” she says now. “I’m getting better, I’m getting stronger and I’m healing.”

Staying mentally strong has also been key to her success. During previous tours, Billie struggled with loneliness, which is perhaps not surprising since she’s a teenager surrounded an older touring crew. But along with an expanded live set up – which includes her brother Finneas on bass and guitar – she’s now finding that life on the road can be quite enjoyable.

“I’ve only got the hang of it and really enjoyed it recently,” she says. I have a really good team around me that I genuinely really like and it makes it a lot better. I don’t really like to be alone. Whether it’s at the venues and on the bus, I enjoy having people around me.”

She adds: “When I think back to when I didn’t enjoy it, I realised I was 14 with adults around me and that’s why I was so miserable. I was the same person that needed to be around people all the time, but a 14-year-old around a bunch of 40-year-olds was not right for me. I didn’t know how to talk to anyone. Nothing was making me laugh, you know? I couldn’t get along with anyone at that point.”

Some of it, she says, has come with age. Though Billie has always given off an air of confidence, she’s clearly more comfortable speaking about her experiences and her views on the world each time NME speaks with her. “It’s interesting how different a 14-year-old mind is to a 17-year-old. It’s not that far apart physically, but it is in your brain. I can get along with most people, and not be totally lost talking to older people now.”

The Future

For her next trick, Billie Eilish is going to save the world. The Where Do We Go? world arena tour kicks off in March and includes seven sold-out shows in London, Manchester and Birmingham. She’s excited to head out again, she says, but wants to right some wrongs along the way. Much like Coldplay, who recently said that they would postpone touring until a sustainable way was found, and The 1975, who invite Greta Thunberg to inspire rebellion on a recent track, Billie is concerned about her impact on the planet while touring.

“It’s been something that has been hard to figure out,” she says, but she wants the tour to “as green as possible”. At the shows, fans will be encouraged to use reusable water bottles, limit the use of plastic and raise more awareness about the little things everyone can do. “We have somebody on the road who is telling us ways to make everything about the tour greener and more sustainable,” she says. “But I’m learning from it. I don’t know enough, so I’m trying to learn and teach along the way.”

Planes are the biggest obstacle. Obviously, we take a bus most of the time but sometimes I have to be in London for one day and come home and I can’t do that by going on a ship for a fucking week, you know what I mean? I just can’t. I have to fly and then be there and then fly home in one day. There are some things I just can’t change. I’m trying as hard as I can to change the things I can do and we’re offsetting all of the carbon emissions.”

Artists are often criticised for even trying to confront climate change. Speaking to NME earlier this year, Matty Healy said that he’d “rather not be 100 per cent sorted and be accused of being a hypocrite than do f*** all’. Billie feels a kinship to that. “Dude, I always see these posts that are like, ‘Why is this fucking artist saying this shit when they’re taking planes to places?’ Bro, would you rather I just shut the fuck up and say nothing and then no one will ever do anything? Yeah, maybe I’m doing something that’s not as perfect as somebody else, but there are things I can’t change. So because of those, I want to get the word out to other people. I want to do as much as I can and I want other people to do as much as they can.”

Then there’s the second album to start thinking about. Last month we got a taste of where that could be heading. ‘Everything I Wanted’ – a previously unfinished song from the debut album sessions – showcased a refined approach to songwriting, but retained those all-important moody vibes. How that ties into what comes next is still a puzzle that Billie needs to solve.

“We’re just starting and there’s no theme at all whatsoever. There’s no title, no more than two songs – and who knows if those will even be on the album. It’s just in our thoughts pretty much for now. We’re just kind of brainstorming and writing,” she says. “We’re at a place where we actually are really good at working anywhere we can. I think the next album will probably be made on tour to be honest. Finneas has a studio in his green room so that’s what we’ll mostly use.”

She’s also keeping her options open for the future. Over the last year she’s established a clothing line and made a foray into film. She’s been heavily involved with the creative process for music videos such as ‘When The Party’s Over’ and directed the recent video for ‘Xanny’. There’s also going to be her first vote next November in the US Presidential Election.

But, she says, she’s got her eyes on what she’s doing right now. “I’m pretty much taking it moment by moment,” she says. “I don’t want to think too far ahead and just want to make what I make now as good as it can be.”

Wherever Billie lends her talents, there will be an enormous success, but she’s had a huge impact beyond just streams and downloads. By staying true to her vision and retaining the disruptive streak that she’s been harnessing since 2016, she’s empowered a new generation of kids totally ready to make boundary pushing music and remake the world in the way they seem fit. Things are about to get really weird. It’s gonna be great.

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