Billie Eilish: “I owe it to everyone to put on a good Glastonbury show”

Worthy Farm’s sense of occasion is not lost on the festival’s youngest-ever headliner, as the 20-year-old explains: “I need energy coming back from the crowd to bounce off”

The hallowed fields of Worthy Farm, Somerset have sparked many emotions for punters and performers over five decades of Glastonbury Festival, but for Billie Eilish it didn’t make the strongest first impression. The recently broadcast BBC documentary Glastonbury: 50 Years and Counting depicts her assessing the field; she’s befuddled at the lush greenery and semi-jokes: “It’s all empty, dude. There’s nothing there. This is what all the fuss is about?”

Today she’d like to rectify her earlier apprehension: she categorically does get it now. “I felt so stupid and ignorant, because if I was someone who thought of Glastonbury as the biggest deal ever, and then someone was to headline it who had no idea about it, I’d be like, “Man, what the fuck’?,” she tells NME in her London hotel a week before her headline set. “I feel I owe it to everyone to put on a good show because of that. I’m so honoured to be a part of it.”

Billie Eilish
Credit: Matty Vogel

The homogenised US festival scene hadn’t prepared her for something as weird, wonderful and unifying: “It’s heart-warming to see how much people care about it and think that this is going to be the best weekend of their lives.”

It may well be that way for Billie, too. This evening (June 24), she’ll close the first night of the festival’s comeback – and belated 50th celebrations – by headlining the Pyramid Stage; Sir Paul McCartney and Kendrick Lamar will follow on Saturday and Sunday respectively. Eilish’s slot is a bold, momentous booking: she’ll become the festival’s youngest ever solo headliner, and the first born this side of the millennium to top the bill – the Gen Z takeover of the world’s most beloved festival has begun. This week’s cover feature will also be printed in a 1000-run limited edition magazine to celebrate the historic date: more details are available here.

The booking comes amidst a gigantic world tour for her Hollywood glamour-themed second album, ‘Happier Than Ever’, released last July. A smattering of UK dates surround tonight’s show, taking on arenas in Manchester, Birmingham and a whopping six shows at London’s 20,000-capacity O2 Arena; tomorrow night she’ll return to the capital for her fifth and sixth show at the latter, dashing the hopes of anyone bumping into Billie in the South East Corner’s wee hours. Next time, perhaps.

“I’m so honoured to be a part of Glastonbury”

She is a perfect Glastonbury headliner: a strikingly unique pop star with a cross-generational reach, beloved equally by the festival’s youngest goers and the parents who accompany them to her shows. In 2019, NME called her ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’ a “memorable and game-changing debut album”, and rock royalty have queued up to co-sign her: Dave Grohl, Thom Yorke, Billie Joe Armstrong and more have all lauded her disruptive streak.

And yet the gig has the element of risk that all great Glasto headliners come with. She has only two albums worth of material to draw from, and if we’re being honest, it’s not the type you’d usually hear from the main stage’s speaker stack: these are weird, sometimes remarkably hushed concoctions that revel in oddness. Upon its announcement in October, festival boss Emily Eavis said the booking “feels like the perfect way for us to return”.

Billie Eilish
Credit: Matty Vogel

It’s notable that, when she first appeared on the Glastonbury bill in 2019, Eilish was booked to play an afternoon slot on the John Peel Stage, the taste-making new music haven. Following the release of her debut album, she was bumped up to The Other Stage due to burgeoning popularity. She stepped up to the task and pulled a gigantic crowd in the blazing heat, giving many Britons their first glimpse of a star quickly becoming a global phenomenon. If you nipped off early or were too hungover to make it, “you fucked up big time”, NME’s review said.

It wasn’t as effortless as it appeared. “It was a quite busy time in my life,” Eilish says, “but after the fact I realised how big a deal it was and was like, ‘Oh, shit!’” It was an intriguing show, too. The tunes, visuals and live show had worked perfectly in dark rooms, but the blazing late-afternoon sun offered a new challenge, washing out the stage’s screens and drawing focus solely to her. “It was a real mixed show – so many things weren’t working, so many technical issues that were just driving me mad,” she says. Did she feel like the show was going badly in the moment? “It’s really hard. You’ll be on stage during a show and think, ‘This is the worst show I’ve ever done’, but the crowd could care less; they’re just happy to be there.”

Billie Eilish on the cover of NME
Billie Eilish on the cover of NME

This slot, alongside an even bigger crowd at Reading and Leeds Festival two months later, was when the ascent started to feel real. “It was happening a lot. You plan your stuff many months in advance, and things move faster than you plan, and we’d plan all these shows to do and then the time would come and it felt like an underplay.”

The rise to headliner status now provides Eilish with some bizarre realisation. When we point out that alongside being the youngest, McCartney will be recognised as the oldest ever solo headliner, having turned 80 last weekend, she throws her head back in astonishment: “It doesn’t matter how old you are, where you’re from, what you look like or who you are: you can do this shit.

“My name next to theirs and being on the same level as them… it’s bonkers. I remember Kendrick headlined a festival I went to when I was 14, and I couldn’t believe he was headlining this small festival because he was so huge. And now I’m headlining the same festival as him and Paul McCartney… are you kidding me? The Beatles were what raised me. My love for music I feel 95 per cent owes to the Beatles and Paul. It’s insane to think about.”

“The Beatles raised me. My love for music, I feel, 95 per cent owes to the Beatles and Paul”

A highlight of the pairing arrives off-stage, too. Both Glastonbury and Eilish have used their platforms to champion for climate change causes at their events. The festival has a long-standing association with Greenpeace, and has been at the forefront of making live music events more environmentally friendly. Eilish’s O2 Arena stand is accompanied by OverHeated, a series of talks and a documentary (starring Emily Eavis) to “discuss the climate crisis and the work they are doing to make a difference”. The O2 Arena also went fully vegan in its food stands to show their commitment.

“I take my mom [Maggie Baird] everywhere, and she’s always asking people at festivals and shows ‘What are you guys doing to help the world?’ and making sure that people are thinking about it,” she says. “To be part of a festival that’s thinking about this, and taking action and steps in the right direction of being conscious about that is really important to me.”

Billie Eilish
Credit: Matty Vogel

And so what to expect from tonight’s show? The Happier Than Ever tour thrives on unpredictability and its inherenhant oddness. Between well-known hits (‘Bad Guy’) and gentle heartbreakers (‘Ocean Eyes’) lies a discography that finds her refusing to take the easy way out: ‘Oxytocin’ could feasibly be dropped in the Dance Village’s raviest sets, while ‘NDA’ sparks and crackles with a woozy beat and, live, retina-melting visuals help recreate her most iconic videos (‘When The Party’s Over’). Although she’s accompanied by just brother Finneas on guitar and keys and Andrew Marshall on drums, you can expect to be pleasantly surprised by the ferocity of the title track’s heavy second-half breakdown; you’ll be able pinpoint the moment in the song where the fireworks will let rip behind the Pyramid Stage.

She’s going to give everything she has, but needs the crowd to be engaged from the jump. “I’m really crossing my fingers that it’s a good vibe out there,” she says. “I’m hoping that the crowd is ready to have as much fun as I am ready to have, and not just be there to watch – I need energy coming back from the crowd to bounce off”. She’s coy on the show’s further details: she’s “not sure” about potential guests, and says she’ll have to “wait and see” what comes through in the final planning stages.

It’ll likely be Eilish’s most challenging crowd in years. Since she landed on these shores in 2017, an army of fluorescent-haired teens and die-hard supporters have screamed their way through shows. Now, she has to win over casual listeners who want to check what the fuss is all about, or even the naysayers hoping for a slip-up.

“I’m going to have to prove myself, which is part of doing festivals and part of headlining them all over the world,” she says. “I have to prove it to myself, too. I often feel like I don’t deserve to be here right now doing this show and on this stage. Any time in the last year I’ve headlined a festival, I’ve felt like, ‘Why would you choose me?’ With that in mind, I’m going to go even harder to prove to myself that I can do it and not to half-ass it… I will be going out and full-assing it.”

Imposter Syndrome – the feeling that one does not deserve the praise or position they hold – is something that Eilish has struggled with through her career, and it’s common for those with a rapid rise like hers. She was only 13 when ‘Ocean Eyes’ went viral on SoundCloud, and 18 when she was pictured juggling five Grammy Awards at the 2020 ceremony. Surely a booking like this helps dispel those thoughts?

“It does, but it’s mixed, though,” she explains. “Half of me is like, ‘This is so stupid and so humilating that I’m here, I shouldn’t be allowed to be up here or ready for this’. And then the other side says, ‘No, you’re here; they chose you and they’re here for you’. I have to convince myself that I’m not a huge loser and accidentally there… I find it very hard to process this life sometimes.”

“I felt trapped in the persona people had of me, and then I changed it to fuck with everyone”

But even Billie never thought she’d be at this point: although Glastonbury’s lineup is more varied than most, only three other women have headlined the festival in the 21st century: Beyoncé (2010), Florence and The Machine (2015, replacing Foo Fighters) and Adele (2016). Last month, a study found that just 13 per cent of UK festival headliners were women, and that 80 per cent of festival headliners were all male. Change has come – powered by projects like ReBalance and KeyChange – but remains painfully slow.

“It’s so cool to be a young woman and headline festivals, because it’s so male-dominated,” she says. “I went through a rough patch in 2017 and 2018, feeling hopeless about the future of women in music. I would see these line-ups for festivals and it was all dudes. And it was all artists I liked, but it was just like, ‘When will women be involved?’

“Women have to have a million back-up dancers and a million costume changes and their hair done, and crazy costumes and stage set-up. I love male performers, but they barely have to do shit to have a show that people like, and women are expected to have the biggest show. I’m tired of feeling like we have to do that to feel adequate. If you want to do that, then that’s so great, but I remember thinking that I would never be able to headline anything because of those expectations.”

Billie Eilish
Credit: Matty Vogel

After tonight’s show, 20 dates remain on the Happier Than Ever tour, completing a run that started in February and wraps up in Australia this coming September. This is, she says, the most fun she’s ever had on the road and Eilish says that she’s “in the best shape of [her] life” right now. “I’m stronger and just… buff.”

During the tour, she’s been able to work with Finneas (who co-writes and produces all of Billie’s material) on new songs. One such creation was ‘TV’, debuted at her Manchester show earlier this month, a wistful acoustic track written in the midst of a recent split with actor Matthew Tyler Vorc. The heartbreak is laid bare in the track: “All of my friends are missing again / That’s what happens when you fall in love”, she sighs. Its recency is confirmed by the line “the internet’s gone wild watching movie stars on trial / While they’re overturning Roe v. Wade”, a reference to both Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s explosive defamation trial and a leaked report from the Supreme Court that suggests that access to safe abortions in the US is under threat.

“I was in this state of depression, losing my own rights to my own body, and then I’d go on the internet and it would be people giving their take on this trial,” she says. “Who fucking gives a fuck? Women are losing rights for their bodies, so why are we talking about celebrities’ divorce trials? Who gives a shit? Let them figure it out on their own. The internet bothers the shit out of me sometimes…”

“I’m going to have to prove myself at Glastonbury”

The sibling duo felt the urge to perform the track to recreate the magic of their early tours, when Eilish didn’t have enough material to hold songs back and wait for them to be recorded and released before performing them. “I just wanted to go back to my roots: to put a little guitar song back out, and feel like how I used to. I was just missing that feeling and missed doing a song that no-one had heard yet.”

Thoughts on a third album have been fleeting, because “if I think too much about it I’ll freak myself out”. But Eilish knows how she wants it to feel: “I don’t want the next album to be a specific aesthetic, in the way that ‘Happier Than Ever’ was very one-style for a while. For the next one I want it to be current and to be whatever I’m feeling at the time.”

The feeling she’s chasing is more of contentment, rather than attainment. She says that she’s in a “real transitional period in my personal life”, and that “I’m trying to find myself again. I don’t want to live the way that I lived last year; I want to live differently. I want to trust my gut more and listen to myself more. Last year, I was a little complacent in my life and accepting of things that weren’t very fulfilling and I want to change that.”

She points to ‘Happier Than Ever’s promo cycle and the British Vogue cover, which saw her debut bright blonde hair and ditch the oversized tees and shorts for corsets and dresses. She says that she “had no idea who I was” around that time, but today, in baggy blue jeans and jet-black hair, she appears, ahem, happier than ever.

“Before that, I was one kind of person and wore a certain type of clothes and made a certain type of music… and that haunted me, as people only thought of me in one dimension and I didn’t like that,” she says. “I felt pretty trapped in the persona that people had of me, and then I changed it completely to fuck with everyone. I wanted to have range and to feel desirable, and to feel feminine and masculine – and I wanted to prove that to myself, too. Now I finally feel comfortable in the person I actually am and being all of those things at once.”

The goals she has for the period after this tour are simple: “Make my house look cute; get some more furniture and new lighting; ride my horse; and make new friends, hopefully”. The latter, sadly, appears to be not on the cards at Glastonbury, as her time on site is limited and her goal of meeting “new people and cute British boys” will have to wait for next year.

Though her knowledge of the festival was once rudimentary, Billie longs for the idea of the full Worthy Farm experience of mud, magic and music. “Back in the day I would have loved to have done that shit with my friends,” she says wistfully. So we’ll all have to have a Glasto knees-up in her honour: get stuck in, get pally with the group in the tents next to you, and if you’re a returning veteran, extend a welcome to the newcomers and the next generation coming through. You never know when they might come back, or what they might go on to do.

Billie Eilish headlines Glastonbury Festival tonight (June 24). 1000 copies of a special limited edition magazine with Billie’s cover feature will be available soon. Stay tuned to NME.com and socials to find out how to get your hands on a copy very soon.