Photo: Jamie Luca
Sporting a black bomber jacket, oversized Adidas basketball shorts, layered gold chains, and a palpable air of humble confidence, Billie Eilish sits down at the Moonshine Grill patio for our interview at SXSW. As soon as we begin conversing, all of the premeditated age-related questions start to melt away in my mind. How could a barely-teenage girl write a song as profound as “Ocean Eyes?” How is that now 15-year old girl handling all the success (and pressure) that’s being thrown at her? As I soon found out, the secret key is a supportive family, an innate talent and artistic sense, and a healthy dose gangster rap every now and then.
Eilish emerged in early 2016 with “Ocean Eyes” and “Six Feet Under,” and she has since amassed over 20 million combined streams, garnered high praise from tastemakers like Zane Lowe and Vogue Magazine, landed her latest single “Bored” on Selena Gomez-produced Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, and the best part? She’s only getting started. Born and raised in Los Angeles by actor/musician parents, Billie works with her older brother and best friend, Finneas O’Connell, to write songs far beyond her years in metaphoric lyricism, polished instrumentation, and the main attraction: Billie’s ethereal vocals.
In our Q&A below, Billie Eilish offers valuable advice to young artists, gives us more insight on her songwriting thought process, and drops a line about her favorite hip hop up & comers. Listen to more Billie here.
OTW: How’s the SXSW experience been so far?
Billie Eilish: I mean, it’s been really fun. I’ve never been to Austin or SXSW at all, so it’s really new for me. It’s weird though, because it’s just surprising–I thought that it was going to be like a festival, like you’re there the whole day and then you leave. But SXSW is everywhere, all day, every day.
OTW: Any stand out moments or performances you’ve seen?
Billie: I went to Vince Staples a couple nights ago–I’ve seen him live before, and he’s just like unreal.
I wasn’t feeling good, so I was just like, I’m gonna go mosh because I need to get it out, so I did.
OTW: Amazing! What showcases have you been playing?
Billie: I did like little tiny, kind of secretive ones. I don’t even know if I’m supposed to say, but they already happened, so whatever. I played at this little like Sour Patch Kids House like in the corner of the yard. Then I had a show at Apple with Beats 1. Today I had one at Paradigm, and then later I’m at the Presbyterian Church, so that should be fun.
OTW: Busy! Any words of wisdom for new artists here?
Billie: I think the only thing I can say is that I feel like the audience isn’t going to be totally tuned into you the whole time.
It’s just something to learn, growing as an artist, that you’re going to have audiences that don’t care about you at all. So you’re just going to have to not care about it.
OTW: Totally. So your whole family is involved in the arts–what have you learned from them?
Billie: I mean, my mom is always taking my crap because I’m a lot to deal with, especially for her. She’s really good at that, which I feel like if I was her, I’d just be like, “I need you to leave…forever. Please go away.” She’s totally the best, and my whole family is super supportive.
It’s always been really good to have them as my ground and to keep me sane because this stuff can really get to your head and like make you go crazy.
Photo: Jack McKain
OTW: And you work with your brother, right?
OTW: What is that process like?
Billie: It’s so refreshing because I’ve had sessions with artists that I don’t even know, or writers I have no idea exist, and producers I don’t even care about. If you don’t know the person, you can have different tastes, and it’s hard to be like, “I don’t like this. Let’s make it different.” With my brother, I can just be like, “This is bad. I don’t like it.” And he’s cool with it because he does the same, and we don’t get offended. We can kind of start working whenever because we live right next to each other. We’re best friends.
OTW: So do you try to distinguish between your family, friendship, and professional career?
Billie: It’s all kind of the same thing, no matter what.
OTW: So your breakout song, ”Ocean Eyes”–you put it out on Soundcloud with no expectations and it blew up. What was your reaction to that?
Billie: At first, I actually thought it was getting attention because my popular friend reposted it. It was really weird because when it happened, my brother called me, and he was like, “Dude our song has like a thousand plays, like we made it. This is our whole career. We’re done.”
We totally thought that was it–a thousand plays, and we were the most famous people in the world. It was really surreal, and I feel like everything is still really surreal.
OTW: So did that kind of ignite your interest in really pursuing it professionally?
Billie: I think so, yeah. I mean I’ve always wanted to do it, so it kind of came hand in hand.
OTW: I’m sure you get this all the time, but you’re so young, and your songs get pretty deep about love and heartbreak. Where did you pick up on these things?
Billie: Yes, I’m young and I’ve been through stuff, and I’m sure I haven’t been through the amount of stuff as someone much older than me. But, you know, everyone goes through it, and I think a lot of people don’t really have a way of getting out their feelings. What’s so great about being an artist is that I can just take all of the anger and all of the longing and despair, and I can just write it down and sing it. My brother goes through a lot of the same things I do, even though we’re four years apart, we still have like the same kind of mindset.
I feel like a lot of songs right now–the lyrics are just so boring. It’s about the same thing. “I love you and you don’t love me and it’s sad.” You can say that in a different way that’ll make it way more interesting and way deeper, more meaningful. So I always try to write in a way that I never heard before.
OTW: Yeah, that totally applies to “Bellyache”– very farfetched storytelling! Where did that come from?
Billie: So yeah, backstory for that: me and my brother really try to write songs as a character because it’s fun to put yourself in a place you wouldn’t be before. You don’t have to be going through something to write a song about it–you can literally write a song about anything you want. So that song is about a psychopath who does a lot of shit that they shouldn’t and knows it.
But it kind of has a deeper meaning that’s like, if you do something to impress somebody else or because your parents want you to or because whatever, you’re going to end up alone one day…with a bellyache.
If you’re not happy with what you’re doing, don’t do it.
OTW: So what is the game plan for the year?
Billie: Putting out stuff. That’s my main goal, because I only have three songs out right now. And I have like a bazillion that I need to just get out in the world.
I’ve written songs like two years ago that aren’t out, and I want it out; I want people to hear it.
So I’m really trying to just move forward and also work on videos and fashion stuff because I like designing clothes.
OTW: Okay, last question: who are your top Ones To Watch right now?
Billie: There’s this artist, XXXtentacion. He’s wild. He’s a terrifying person, but he’s the coolest. He’s in jail. He’s getting out in a few weeks though, so…free X.
Then there’s this artist, Rejjie Snow, that I found. My friend showed me him.
And then, my homie, Khalid. I love Khalid.
Then Ski Mask The Slump God is really good. He’s like X’s friend. They met in jail, so… [Laughs].
OTW: [Laughs]. You’re all about that hip-hop, huh?
Billie: Yeah, I really like rap. So, those are my new artists that I’m watching.