No one told 16-year-old singer-songwriter Billie Eilish any of this before she started, though she had a vague idea: She was raised in Los Angeles, and her older brother Finneas O’Connell, who is now her producer and collaborator, used to appear on “Glee.”
A few years ago, Eilish recorded her own version of one of O’Connell’s songs, the moony ballad “Ocean Eyes,” and uploaded it to SoundCloud. She didn’t expect anything to happen, but of course it did. It eventually went platinum (as did a follow-up single, the Khalid collaboration “Lovely”), and Eilish dropped her major label debut EP, “Don’t Smile at Me,” last year.
Eilish is made for these times: She’s surly and magnetic, friendly and wary, foul-mouthed and earnest. She knows how to tap dance, assiduously cultivates her devoted fanbase, and wouldn’t mind one day being like Donald Glover, because he works hard and does what he wants. In a video announcing her tour, a giant tarantula crawled out of her mouth.
In a recent phone conversation, she broke down the weirdness and tedious trashiness of fame. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation:
Q: Your shows are all sold out or close to it, right?
A: It’s all sold out. It’s been sold out since two minutes since they went on sale a month ago, which is … crazy. Two years ago when this was all starting, I remember thinking, “Wow, what if I do a show one day?” I grew up as a fan, and famous people do shows. I remember hearing about (their concerts) being sold out and thinking, “That’s never going to happen to me. It’s never going to have that little ‘sold out’ logo.” It’s insane how everything has become — whatever … it’s become.
Q: Did you have a picture in your mind of how fame would look?
A: No, I didn’t think anything would happen. I didn’t really decide I wanted anything to happen, I was just making music because I wanted to, and then people liked it. I was trying to deal with it whatever way I possibly could. There’s not a class you could take in how to deal with this (stuff). I still haven’t even mastered it. I’m still trying to figure out how to do it.
Q: I’ve interviewed a lot of teen music stars, and everybody’s trained to talk about how “blessed” they are. I’m guessing you ignored your media training.
A: (Laughs) I totally ignored it. There are some artists I know who are a PR dream. They’re like, “I’m so happy. I’m so blessed. It’s all been really good for me.” I’m like, “This … is really miserable, but a lot of it’s cool.” I’m just going to be honest.
Q: Did you really think it would be better, though?
A: It’s kind of like what you thought your first kiss would be, or your first boyfriend, or whatever. When I was young, me and my friends would talk about how our first kiss was gonna be this magical thing, an out of body experience. But it’s really like, your face on another face. It feels like it would feel if you were kissing a knee. … It’s a very hard world and it’s a lot of work. I’m really lucky for a lot of things I have, of course. I don’t have to deal with a lot of struggles I used to have to deal with, but there’s so much new (stuff) that I never thought I’d have to deal with. But the shows make it worth it and the fans make it worth it. The rest of it is trash.
Q: A lot of people expect fame to fix them, to make them happy.
A: Yeah, no. I never expect anything to make me happy.
Q: Do you feel comfortable performing yet?
A: I’ve always loved performing. I love being onstage, I love being on camera, I love being watched and looked at. But when I first started doing shows, the first couple were weird. I didn’t know what the hell was going on. The first year of this happening, I didn’t know what was going on. It was going over my head. I had just witnessed it, I had never been in it, and then I suddenly was, and it was terrifying. I was 13, 14, and I was trying to figure out how to make it not be, I guess.
Q: Are you good at maintaining some distance between you and your fans?
A: I’m not really good at it, to be honest. I’m trying to figure out how to take care of myself and figure out what I need, my space and autonomy. I’m still figuring it out, but hopefully, it gets better. I’m doing whatever I can to make it not horrible.
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