Monday January 27, 2020

Teenage rampage: Billie Eilish profiled

From producing homemade music in her bedroom with her brother, Eilish has risen to become one of the most influential new artists in the world today

Nadine O’Regan

Arts Editor and Columnist

@nadineoregan
25th August, 2019
2

Factfile

Name: Billie Eilish

Age:17

Appearance: cartoonish and changeable; favours baggy clothes, bright colours, gothic make-up and spiky jewellery

Newsworthiness: plays the Electric Picnic festival this coming Friday; her music has amassed over two billion streams and publications across the US have called her the future of music

Billie Eilish loves trainers, but she doesn’t know what to do with them anymore. When companies such as Adidas and Nike discovered that Eilish liked their gear, they began sending her trainers: boxes and boxes of trainers. The problem is that Eilish lives in a two-bedroom bungalow in Los Angeles with her parents. For years, until she was six and her older brother Finneas was ten, they all slept in the same four-person bed. Not only is there no room for trainers, there is hardly room in the house for four people.

If it’s an unusual conundrum for a 17-year-old, it’s just one part of a bigger puzzle called fame which Eilish is rapidly having to put together. From producing homemade music in her bedroom with her brother, Eilish has risen to become one of the most influential new artists in the world today. She has been praised by everyone from Thom Yorke of Radiohead to Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters, who has compared her ascent to Nirvana’s dominance in the 1990s.

Eilish has been profiled by the New Yorker, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Her latest single Bad Guy reached No 1 in the US charts last week, finally knocking Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road (Remix) from the top spot after a record-breaking 19 weeks, and has already been No 1 in more than a dozen countries.

Two months ago, she had 25 million Instagram followers; today she has 35 million. Her debut album has been streamed more than two billion times.

Next weekend, you can guarantee that while Electric Picnic festival-goers may enjoy performances from artists such as the Strokes and Florence and the Machine, it’s Eilish’s performance on the Friday night that is most anticipated. At the recent All Together Now festival in Waterford, Eilish’s music was blaring from the campsites, and she was the artist who festival-goers could be heard discussing, even though she wasn’t actually playing the festival.

If her movement from musical unknown to all-conquering pop juggernaut is a remarkable feat, it’s all the more so because Eilish is still just 17 years old and creating songs that tend towards skinny, elegant goth-pop, sometimes appearing to take their influence as much from Trent Reznor as Ariana Grande. “I’m the bad guy,” Eilish sings on her latest single - as blood drips down her face in the video. With her ice-blue saucer eyes, kaleidoscopic hair colourings and baggy clothes aesthetic, Eilish is the visual antithesis of the uber-slick pop stars who have gone before. When she appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, the editors called it as they saw it: “Billie Eilish and the Triumph of the Weird” ran the caption.

In an America polarised by Donald Trump, mass shootings and Twitter wars, and riven through with anxiety, Eilish may just be the musical hero the country didn’t know it needed.

***

It probably couldn’t have been imagined that Hanson - the bright-eyed, floppy-haired group that gave us Mmmbop in 1997 - would be responsible for creating a pop star for the modern era. But according to Eilish’s father Patrick O’Connell, when he heard that Hanson were home-schooled, he decided that in order to foster a similar creativity in his children, his son and daughter (whose proper name is Billie Baird O’Connell; Eilish is her second name) should escape the rigours of the classroom to pursue their natural interests.

Eilish and her brother Finneas, 21, grew up in a sketchy, now-gentrifying area of Los Angeles with plenty of friends and an unusual freedom. Home-schooled by their parents, they could explore whatever they wanted in a given week - whether it was art classes, museums or science programmes at CalTech. O’Connell and his wife Maggie Baird were actors – Maggie was Melissa McCarthy’s first improv teacher – and they encouraged their children towards the creative arts, so Billie and Finneas would stage photo shoots in the backyard, direct pretend films and make music together.

Finneas taught himself piano at 11 and Eilish began performing Happiness is a Warm Gun at talent shows at the age of seven. It wasn’t long before the pair began experimenting by recording tracks on an iMac.

Finneas initially looked like he would be the one to break out of the familial bubble first – he won roles in the TV shows Glee and Modern Family, appeared in a film with their mother, and formed a band. By her own admission, Eilish was furious at the attention he was getting. Then she and Finneas recorded the song Ocean Eyes in 2015 and uploaded it to SoundCloud for Billie’s dance teacher who wanted to choreograph a routine to original music. The delicately lovely synth-pop track went viral – streaming hundreds of millions of times – and Eilish’s life was transformed.

***

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Eilish’s career to date is the power she enjoys in her relationship with her record company. She signed to a boutique label called Darkroom in 2016, which was run by 28-year-old Justin Lubliner in partnership with Interscope Records. Lubliner said he envisaged Eilish as “a new breed of pop star”, working to usurp the more traditional talents of artists such as Camila Cabello and Rihanna.

Far from controlling her and pushing her into deals, her label adopted a hands-off method by necessity: she wouldn’t tolerate it any other way. Her label did once attempt to persuade her to collaborate with seasoned professionals, but she wasn’t having it.

“I hated it so much,” she told Rolling Stone magazine. “It was always these 50-year-old men who’d written these ‘big hit songs!’ and then they’re horrible at it. I’m like, ‘You did this a hundred years ago. We made Ocean Eyes without anyone involved – so why are we doing this?’ ”

Eilish and her brother have continued to record music in their bedrooms rather than using expensive studios and veteran producers. For her sparsely instrumented, synth-led debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where do We Go?, the pair co-wrote 11 of the 13 tracks, with Finneas writing the other two songs and producing all of them. Eilish’s vocals were recorded on Finneas’s bed, not that you’d know it listening to her poise. “It’s crazy,” Finneas told Rolling Stone. “Most people need to stand and open their diaphragms, but Billie sounds amazing just slumped on the bed.”

Her voice is a remarkably supple instrument – highly nuanced and often quite velvety, sometimes even straying into the terrain of jazz stylings. But while the likes of Norah Jones might sing about love and relationships, Eilish will also add in lines about prescription drugs and Xanax. “I don’t need a Xanny/To feel better,” she sings. She also works through her fears about her friends taking their own lives (“I can’t lose another life/I worry”).

To an America struggling with school shootings and cascading anxiety, Eilish connects in a way that more obviously manicured performers don’t always manage.

But there’s a lot of humour and amusingly knowing brattiness in evidence too. The record begins with a slurping, sticking noise as Eilish removes her dental brace. “I have taken out my Invisalign and this is the album,” she announces, roaring with panicked laughter. It’s a smart moment because it acknowledges the stress of the expectations on her and also, with that icky slurp, reminds her public that she might just not give a damn.

Eilish’s confidence is unusual in one so young, and it has served her well in her touring performances. Live, she’s an uncannily instinctive performer, equal parts nonchalance and unbridled enthusiasm, and with few vocal flubs: that voice commands attention. At Glastonbury festival, her performance was remarkable and the crowd’s reaction even more so. In an era when audiences are known for turning their backs to the stage, the better to grab Instagram selfies, at Eilish’s performances, the predominantly female audience sang along to every word.

In terms of cultural impact, it felt like a Spice Girls for Generation Z.

***

Like many artists who have been formative influences in our time, Eilish is a self-described control freak. “I would rather not do anything at all than not be in control of it all,” she has said.

That controlling interest extends past music. Eilish also designs her own clothes and, as anyone familiar with her Instagram account will know, her style is highly customised. A Billie outfit is baggy, often bright, and deliberately a-sexual – having previously suffered from body dysmorphia and engaged in self-harming, Eilish has said she wants to avoid being characterised in terms of her body, a situation that has often created hardship for female stars on the internet.

Thinking on her aesthetic, the names that come to mind are obvious: artists including Prince, Michael Jackson and Madonna are all examples of artists who insisted on controlling their visual and musical approach from their teens. But if control is often what drives success, artists can find that they pay a cripplingly high price to bring their vision to life.

Two Vanity Fair YouTube interviews with Eilish, set one year apart, appear to show the pressure she must be under: she looks healthy and robust in the first interview and stressed in the second one. Eilish has experienced contact dermatitis problems in recent times, and she has been upset that the Tourette syndrome she lives with – which means she has involuntary eye-rolls – has been highlighted by fans online, with a number of them making compilation videos of the eye-rolls for YouTube. “I don’t expect anything from the internet any more,” she has said. “It has disappointed me time after time.”

The internet generation is not forgiving – even when they’re your fans – and Eilish has withdrawn somewhat from social media in recent times, still posting pictures to her Instagram account, but dialling down any commentary around them. “One wrong Instagram comment and you’re hated on for the rest of your life,” her mother has noted.

In a matter of months, Eilish will turn 18 and be in full control of her legal affairs, but until then she is legally a child, and it’s clear her family are incredibly protective of her and ready to step in whenever she needs them.

Her father Patrick has described Eilish’s ascent as “a train, or a river, or a vortex, and we’re all flying down”. Her brother Finneas added: “But travelling it safely feels much easier than trying to bail out.”

The ride for all of them appears to have only just begun.

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