Los-Angeles pop artist Billie Eilish began writing and recording music at the young age of 14, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to her. Her lyrics are seasoned with insight carried by a voice that softly and soulfully stretches over dreamy soundscapes. The result is a compelling collection of contrasts, both musically and lyrically, which is on full display on Billie’s debut EP, Don’t Smile At Me (Billie’s debut EP, Don’t Smile At Me (Interscope Records/Universal Music Canada)). Co-written and produced by her brother Finneas O’Connell, the Eilish siblings prove they have no shortage of talent.
When we spoke to Billie she was on the road and had just begun her North American tour.
G—You started singing at the age of 4, what at that time got you interested in music so early on?
BE—I started singing before I could talk, and since then I have been singing all the time, every day. Music has always been part of my family, I guess a part of the way that I think, so it has never come as something separate from my brain. Music and my brain are just one and the same.
G—Now, at the age of 15 you have a debut record out on a major label and are in the middle of a world tour. What would you attribute to keeping you grounded and so focused?
BE—To stay grounded and focused you just have to put yourself in a mindset. You have to know yourself. I know myself, and I know what I am capable of and what I am not, especially with feeling things – what I can do and what I can’t-do – and I think that is the key. And of course I have my brother, which is really helpful, and my parents who are crazy supportive. My whole family is the main thing that keeps me sane. Other than that I think the responsibility to stay grounded is on me.
G—You collaborated with your brother for a big part of this record. What do you value most in your working relationship? Are there challenges working so close with a family member?
BE—Of course, there are challenges, but there are never “not” challenges. Anyone you work with there is going to be something that is difficult or something that is more difficult than it is with someone else. I have worked with some people that I have loved working with, but working with my brother, it just makes everything easier and more real. We have a lot of similarities, we always have, and we have always been really close. I have always had this trust with him and can tell him anything, and he can tell me anything, and there is never that “I don’t know if I trust this person enough to tell them about something.” It is just easier, and of course, we are not going to get along, and we are going to bicker and argue. You can’t have a sibling without doing that, and that doesn’t bother me, I love it, and it is fun. He is also my best friend, and we just have a great time.
G—You started working on Don’t Smile At Me over a year ago which was released this August. How does it feel now that it’s out?
BE—Definitely satisfying. I would say it is a relief most of all, just because it was a lot of work, and to say that it all went smoothly and perfect would be a lie. It took a long time and a lot of focus and determination, but we did it and its finally here, and its pretty much exactly how we wanted it. I am so glad because we went through a lot of little stages of being like “wow, this is such a mess, and I want to die” but it came out perfect, and I am so glad it is out right now!
G—What would you say was your mindset during that time? Was there was one particular mood or subject you were interested in dealing with while making this record?
BE—When we decided on making the EP, such as the number of songs, which songs were going to go on it, and which order, we had already written all the songs. We never had to go in and write exactly the songs that were going to go on this particular EP. We write all the time, so we always have new stuff. At the time we were thinking what do we want out there in the world? I mean, I knew what I wanted immediately. One night, Finneas was out late and I remember texting him “OK, so these are the songs that are going to be on the EP, this is the order of them, this is how each one is going to be spelled and how it is going to look, and the EP is called ‘Don’t smile at me,’ and the cover is going to be me in all red, on a red ladder, in front of a yellow background….” and I remember him texting me back, “ok. Sure…go ahead.” So that is how that happened and all the songs came from just different states of mind. They were written over time and different things were happening at different times. Some songs are fictional or just metaphorical, and some of them come straight from my life.
G—Since the release, how do you think you’ve grown both musically and personally?
BE—Well since I’m 15, I am growing as a person as well as an artist. It’s kind of weird because, since the EP, a lot has changed. My mental state has changed, and just the way I am is different. That is going to happen because I am a teenager but also an artist, and with this project out that I worked really hard on, it is kind of different, but it is still the same. So I don’t really know how to put into words what it’s been like, it’s just…new.
G—What is your writing process like, do you start with lyrics?
BE—It is always different. There is never really a specific way. Sometimes there will be something in my mind that I want to say and I will just have a sentence that I want to make into something, or I will have a melody or I will hear a beat, and I want to write to it. I can start from some chords on the piano or the guitar. It just depends, it completely depends.
G—Are there particular autobiographical things that you think are too personal to write about? Or do you feel like everything is fair game?
BE—I think a lot of people think that you have to write about only what you have been through and you can’t write about things you haven’t been through or things you know nothing about, and that is so wrong. Songwriting is like telling a story. It doesn’t have to be about you, and it doesn’t have to be about only what you’ve been through. It is like writing a book. You can write about anything. What’s cool about that is its just being creative and it is fun to be someone that you’re not, or who you’re never going to be, or to even be like someone you know. Put yourself in a place and be a character. You can also write about your own feelings, so you could write about the craziest thing that you could ever think. Maybe you don’t want to say it out loud, but you can write a song about it and never know if it is real or not. Some of my songs are fictional and some are not. I have written songs from the perspective of someone else, who I’ve hurt, that is towards me. I think everyone is focused on themselves so maybe don’t focus on yourself.
G—What has touring this record been like?
BE—Right now I am in a car driving from San Francisco to Portland and this car ride is 9 hours long. We only left home two days ago, because my first two shows were close to home, so we have only done two actually out on the road. Also in Australia and New Zealand which was really cool. It has been really fun. I love all the different crowds from places I have never been and all the different dynamics. Meeting the fans has been the best part.
G—What is the biggest takeaway you would like listeners to have from this record?
BE—Sometimes you can hear a song, and you feel like it’s your song. You don’t have to have written it, but you are like “oh. That is MY song.” And when it comes on the radio, you are like, “hey, guys, it’s my song.” You know? Whenever I used to hear people say that I thought, “that’s not their song, they didn’t write it, they don’t own it” but the thing is I have felt that way about a ton of songs. What’s weird is that you can feel that way about something and someone else can feel the same way about the same song, and it is like “no, that’s my song, that can’t be your song.” It is something that is really special to you, and no one ever tells you that it can be yours. Everyone is like “no, it’s the artist’s song.” But with me, when I write and make music or art if you feel like my song is yours because it is how you feel, then it’s yours! It belongs to you. That is what I want people to take away from my art is to take it in your own way. Don’t even listen if someone tells you a certain song of mine is about something and you think it is about something else. Don’t even listen to them. It is about whatever you think it is about.
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