Back in November, I waited outside New York’s Irving Plaza in a long line of teenagers that snaked around the block. All of us were there that night to attend a sold-out concert for Billie Eilish, and for many of those teenagers, the evening served as their very first concert experience. Most were fidgety, shuffling side to side in their place, anxious to get through security and secure a spot in front of the stage. Others listened to Eilish playlists on their phones, sharing their headphones with a friend and singing out loud to warm up their vocal cords. A few even got their parents to learn the words.
Waiting amongst them, I tried to find the words to describe the energy that surrounded me. I think I might’ve posted an Instagram story with the emoji of those two wide eyes. That barely conveyed what was happening. I texted friends words like wild, incredible, overwhelming, but those also didn’t quite capture this movement, this entity that is Eilish’s fanbase. It weirdly felt like déjà vu, and later it dawned on me: While I couldn’t fully articulate it, I had felt this before — many, many years ago when I was 16 and attending my first concert here at Irving Plaza.
There was something poetic about that realization, as if we were all connected in some cyclical way, and we were. When Eilish took the stage later that evening, the response was massive. The crowd swayed, screamed, and sang in time with the 16-year-old, like a wave under the pull of its divine moon — and Eilish’s glow grew brighter with every song. That intangible, kinetic, and blood-warm energy is exactly what drives Eilish. She is as powered by her supporters — a word she prefers to use over “fans” — as they are by her. It’s been this way from the very beginning.
Born to a Los Angeles family of musicians and actors, Eilish released her very first single, “Ocean Eyes”, in 2016. Countless singles followed — from “Bellyache” to “&Burn” with Long Beach rapper Vince Staples — leading to her debut EP, Don’t Smile at Me. Along the way, she earned the praise of critics and steadily gained a very loyal following of teens who felt empowered by her music. Sure, it’s fun to see rich 17-year-olds on MTV and in Hollywood, but it’s probably way cooler to see someone just like you, who could be your best friend or biology classmate, up on stage.
“We’re just growing up at the same time,” Eilish says. “We’re the same.” Speaking on the phone with her earlier this month, she curses with enthusiasm and never shies away from cluing me in on the un-glamorous parts of fame and touring the world. Eilish is very self-aware when it comes to her answers, often taking long pauses to find the right words. But when she does, she talks with a nonstop flow, clauses running into one another, like she’s swept up in the moment, in that raw feeling again, probably because that moment has never stopped for her.
While the first two years of her young career have been monumental, 2018 saw Eilish take her biggest leaps forward. She sold out tours around the globe — from LA to Tokyo, Singapore to Toronto — performed at Lollapalooza and on Ellen, and drew in nearly 10 million followers on social media. Eilish also released “lovely” with Khalid, perhaps her most popular single to date and one of our favorite songs of the year. If 2019 continues to move at even half this year’s pace, a domination of the pop music landscape is a very real possibility.
Eilish is very close to finishing her debut album, which is due out next year. The pressure on her to deliver is unsurprisingly high, but she continues to stay grounded. She is proudly not your average teenage pop artist in that she’s realer than real, without taking herself too seriously. Some might see it as a bit clumsy, but there’s something so refreshing about an artist — especially one this young and at this level of popularity — who lets the energy, the intangibles guide her. Hopefully, some of that shines through in her following conversation with Consequence of Sound.
How is the new album coming along? Is it almost done?
I feel like really in the past week we’ve made the most progress. [We are] very, very, very close, and that’s still such a satisfying thought. We spent so long trying to make this work, but we’re almost there, and it feels like this big, huge accomplishment that’s about to happen.
The fact that you just finished wrapping up your tour, and instead of taking a break, you’re home and still working. That’s admirable, and I can’t say I was that disciplined back in high school.
[Laughs] You kind of have to pick what you spend your time on. I’ve been on tour for like a year now basically … it’s weird because touring and working and shit is really exhausting, and some of it is miserable. But then you get home, and you’re like, “Now what?”
It’s a weird kind of addiction. Touring is … you’re there, and it’s hard and it’s great and it’s horrible and it’s awesome, and then you come off, and you’re like, “Well, I’m bored now. Let’s do some crazy shit!”
I recently watched that video interview series you did with Vanity Fair, which was filmed 12 months apart. In it, you mentioned how much you enjoyed playing in Tokyo. What is it about the city that you love so much? Any other places stand out to you?
There’s nobody that I know that doesn’t like Tokyo. It’s almost like … I don’t know what the word would be, but it definitely doesn’t feel like it’s part of Earth. When you’re in the core of Tokyo, you think, “This is not real.” It doesn’t feel real. It’s just so dope, and the fashion there is really insane. The colors and the designs, and I like anime a lot. There’s nothing like Tokyo. There’s nothing like Japan.
I’ve been fucking everywhereeeee, bro. But honestly, you don’t get to see much — the walk from the bus to the venue, which is like five feet. [Laughs] I really liked Singapore, Atlanta, Toronto…
Well, I’m from New York, so you’re gonna say New York at some point, right? [Laughs]
Hell no. [Laughs] I’m in New York way more than I want to be.
Speaking of New York, I attended your concert at Irving Plaza the other month. It was incredible. I mean, seeing you was obviously incredible, but seeing your fan base was truly something else — wild, even. Funny, short anecdote: When I was 16, I saw my very first concert at Irving Plaza. At your show, I overheard some of your fans, who were there with their parents, say that your concert was their first. Your first concert is always such a special experience, and I imagine even more so for your fans, as they get to see someone their own age take the stage in front of them.
It [her connection with her fan base] is so raw. I feel really grateful. I literally don’t have words to describe it. We’re just growing up at the same time — we’re the same.
So many celebrities are in their 20s and 30s, and their fans are young girls, like Justin Bieber for example. It’s crazy to me that I am a young girl, and there are young girls my age, if not older, at my shows, listening to me … it’s just beautiful and I love it.
I bet you get a lot of fan mail and messages on social media.
I get many, many letters at shows. Or maybe they’ll bring a bag of Takis or bring a stuffed animal. They’re super creative and bring things they know I like that nobody else knows I like. Like certain things that I enjoy. They’ll draw me pictures! It’s just so beautifuuul, bro … it’s so cute.
In the beginning, the notes that I would be given I saved all of them from the first couple of shows. And I read all the letters, which is like hundreds and hundreds — this was from my first tour about a year ago. I read all the letters, and I put them all up on my wall. I was like, “This is great, I’ll do this forever!” [Laughs]
You may need a couple of more bedrooms, then.
I would need like five more houses. [Laughs]
I read them when I can. It’s less about reading the letters; it’s more about them giving me the letters and me having the letters. ‘Cause I don’t need to necessarily know exactly what you’re saying. I just need to feel the energy.
I care less about words than the feelings of things. If I feel you, if i’m holding a letter of everything just going on in your life, I just want to hold it to my chest. I don’t care about reading through it over and over. It’s more about the energy and the love. And I feel like they [the fans] know that.
But I still do read as many as I can. And I keep all of them.
As you were just on tour for a good chunk of the year, I’m guessing maybe your experience being on the road and traveling somehow made its way into your new music. Or, what would you say are some of the topics you explore on the new album?
I … don’t fucking know. [Laughs.] I don’t fucking know. It is what it is. I write in characters a lot, so it’s not necessarily anything that I’m going through at all. It’s just art … like you don’t have to be going through it to write about it, you know? You don’t have to be feeling it at all.
A lot of songs on the new album are fictional and from a perspective that’s not you, which is what I like to write the most about. I don’t necessarily want to write about my life — there’s only so much going on in my brain! So it’s just coming up with new characters and new everything. It’s kind of fun … even taking stuff from your life and putting it in a different way.
Telling stories from different perspectives takes a good bit of emotional maturity and the ability to be a pretty sympathetic and empathetic person.
Yeah, 100%. That’s kind of why I started doing it. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt this way, but have you ever done so much damage in a relationship that even coming back to say sorry would be too far? Just leaving for good and not saying anything is the best thing for everyone in the situation? This was like two years ago maybe … and that’s how it was and how I felt. And I knew I couldn’t do anything about it, and I knew I did something wrong and that I couldn’t fix it. So, I got on my bed, and I got out my ukulele, and I wrote a song to me from the [viewpoint of the] person that I hurt.
It was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. Because people don’t really want to see how they’re perceived in other people’s heads. Especially if you hurt somebody, you don’t want to know how they feel about it. But you should, and you should force yourself to be like, “Ok how are my actions affecting other people?” And just opening your mind up to it and just becoming them. It took a lot out of me to write this song, and it was kind of depressing to write it, but it helped a lot, and it helped me see things from a different point of view.
In terms of being a storyteller and creating characters, where do you get your inspiration? Any specific movies, TV shows, or books —
[Laughs] Yeah, I wasn’t too huge on reading when I was in high school aside from the required stuff.
I’ve been so influenced by movies growing up and TV shows. Favorite movies are stuff like The Babadook, We Need to Talk About Kevin, and Fruitvale Station. Favorite TV shows are Twin Peaks, Black Mirror, and American Horror Story.
I’ve always loved horror movies. What I’m working on right now … is CRAAAZYY … and very inspired by horror. You will understand what I mean when it’s out.
Oh, also Spirited Away! All of my drawing inspirations have come from that movie. Studio Ghibli and shit. You can get inspiration from anything if you let yourself.
Personally, my favorite film genre is horror. Some friends don’t really get it and think I’m being too morbid. I have a hard time sort of explaining it to them, even though I know for myself, in an abstract way, why I love it. Why do you?
It’s just like … I don’t know … That’s a hard question. I like being scared. I’m sort of a masochist, I like being hurt, I like being scared, I like being flipped out. It’s like a high for me for some reason. Some people just can’t stand being scare. They don’t want to see anything that’s gonna make them flip out. They don’t want to do anything that just freaks them out a little bit. But I — and especially recently and stuff I’m working on now — am completely the opposite, where the videos and the stuff we’re working on right now, all the things that have sort of flipped me out, I’ve started to get closer than I’ve ever gotten to anything before.
I just love being scared. And if a horror movie is done right, the shots are dope and the story line is told well, like nothing beats it. The Babadook for instance is my favorite movie. All the shots are genius.
I totally understand what you mean about the thrill of fear. This is what I tell my friends when I try to articulate my love of horror: Nothing feels the same way as being scared. If you watch a romantic comedy, you’ll be laughing or feeling happy. The fear is a different sensation. It almost makes you feel alive in a really weird way.
YUP! EXACTLY! UGH.
What is the best or most recent advice you’ve gotten from a fellow musician or celebrity?
The more I’ve gotten further into whatever I’m doing right now — “my career or whatever the fuck you wanna call it” [Laughs] — nobody knows what they’re doing here. Like nobody. There’s no artist that has it figured out and knows what they’re doing. I think you get to a point where you know how to not know what you’re doing in a way that sort of shows everyone that you actually do, but you actually don’t. Nobody knows, and it’s the same way with parents, which I’ve noticed as I’ve grown up.
My parents aren’t anything different from anyone else. I mean they are my parents, but they’re just as vulnerable as anyone else’s. They’re not invincible. Everybody is just dealing with things.
And advice is an interesting thing. I don’t really believe anyone can give advice to anyone because you’re the only person that can give advice to yourself. You’re the only person that’s gonna do it the right way for you.
This is something that I think about a lot. I just don’t really think anyone can give you the right advice that you could just not figure out yourself.
Your 17th birthday is in less than a week. How are you planning to celebrate?
I think we’re gonna rent out an ice skating rink and have me and my friends skate around ’cause it’s cute and ’cause I can’t necessarily go there in public. Then we’re gonna go have dinner at this place — since I was very young, it’s been tradition to go there. Nothing huge.
I think my friends want to throw me something huge … but [Laughs] I have nothing to do with that.