At Home With a 15-year-old Pop Star
“I don’t like smiling,” says 15-year-old Billie Eilish, shoving a piece of faded violet hair from her face, a thick gold chain hanging around her neck. “It makes me feel weak.” It’s a sentiment that characterizes her controlled aesthetic. In photos, she frequently tilts her head down and meets the lens with an icy blue gaze that looks either like a glare or an eye roll or both. While talking to me, she makes no attempt at an ingratiating smile, though she is not impolite. Billie, who released her debut EP fittingly called Don’t Smile at Me in August, sits at her kitchen table in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Highland Park, jammed between a china cabinet and an electric keyboard. Her mom, Maggie, is making dinner.
Everyone is surprisingly relaxed, considering that tomorrow Billie embarks on her first-ever tour. Over five weeks, she’ll perform to sold-out shows throughout North America (tickets in Seattle were gone in less than half an hour) and in Europe, the U.K., and Australia. When I ask whether she’s nervous, Billie leans back in the kitchen-table chair, absent-mindedly twirling her phone between her fingers. “I like being judged, even if it’s bad,” she says. “Because then, at least, I’m still in your head.”
Billie produced her first single, “Ocean Eyes,” with her collaborator, her 20-year-old brother, Finneas O’Connell. The song came about at the suggestion of her dance teacher. He knew that Billie and Finneas, a former actor on the TV musical Glee, made music in their free time, and he wanted an original backing track for his class routine. In the fall of 2015, they uploaded a song for the teacher to Billie’s personal SoundCloud. Hillydilly, a music-discovery website, picked it up, and the song took off. What followed was management, a label (Interscope), and play on everything from Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why to Kylie Jenner’s Snapchat. “Ocean Eyes” has been streamed more than 140 million times.
Billie’s music, which has been compared to the moody pop of Alessia Cara and Lorde, doesn’t rely on a snappy hook or omnipresent bass to sell the track, though many of her songs have both. Her lyrics put a surprisingly mature voice to teenage logic. In “Party Favor,” Billie sings about a possessive guy and offers a novel solution: “If you don’t stop, I’ll call your dad.” “COPYCAT,” one of Billie’s more personal songs, about a girl who cribbed her style, includes the choice line, “You got your finger on the trigger, but your trigger finger’s mine.” But perhaps her most inspired lyric comes in “My Boy,” when she deadpans, “All right, dude, go trip over a knife.” Her adolescence is her art.
Billie tells me she never intended to become a pop singer. When I ask her what she thought she’d be, she mulls for a minute, shoving her lavender hair from her face, before punting the question to her mother. “I always thought she was going to be a director,” Maggie says, dish towel in hand. “She always knew how she wanted everything to look.”
Billie shrugs. “I just know what I want. So I just let people know.”
Take Finneas, for example. Billie tells him what she hears in her head, and, as her producer, he engineers it to match. “I’ll tell him, like, ‘Can you make it a sharper sound?’ Or, ‘Can you make it rounder?’ And he just gets it.” They were both home-schooled by their actor parents — Maggie taught them songwriting, and their dad had them listen to everything from the Beatles to Avril Lavigne. “Plus, it’s not like I can break up with him,” Billie says. “We live together.”
Don’t Smile at Me took shape in a middle-of-the-night bout of texts to Finneas. Billie selected which of their songs would go on the EP, decided on their order, and gave the songs their unique titles (see “idontwannabeyouanymore”). Also: “I wanted the cover to be a yellow background with a red ladder and me on top of the ladder with a bunch of chains on,” she says. A variation of that tableau graces the cover of the EP as well as much of the tour merch, which Billie designed herself. As her mom said, Billie has a firm grasp on how things should look. That extends to her edgy, androgynous fashion: monochromatic jumpsuits, oversize athleisure, and high-top sneakers. Her 388K Instagram followers routinely voice their approval with comments like, “I fuck with this fit.”
“They have created me, basically,” Billie says of her online fans. “They deserve as much as I do.” She thanks them with likes, comments, and DMs, like any responsible citizen of the internet. “It’s getting kind of out of hand to respond to everything now,” she says, sounding more earnest than at any other point during our conversation. “Some people don’t think I try, and I am like, ‘But I do!’ ”
“You good?” Billie reflexively asks the audience between every song at her Los Angeles show, the second of her tour. The Echo is filled with the usual crowd of 20-somethings as well as a large contingent of impossibly cool-looking teens — including a few of Billie’s dance friends — in bomber jackets and ball caps. Moms hang out on the sides. Billie, all five-feet-four inches of her, stands at a mic in a large bright orange down vest, an orange half-zip, and navy joggers with high-tops. The only other person onstage is Finneas, providing backing on everything from vocals to drum machine.
The siblings make their way through the EP (and a ukulele rendition of Drake’s “Hotline Bling”), sometimes dancing goofily at the instrumental interludes like siblings at a cousin’s wedding. Billie’s raspy voice sounds even better than on her album — which is to say, very, very good. But often the members of the crowd overwhelm it, having memorized all 26 minutes of her EP. Two-thirds through the show, someone hands Billie a bouquet of daisies. She happily accepts them and sets them on an amp behind her. Then she turns back to the crowd and asks again, “You good?” without cracking a smile.