Billie Eilish On the State of Pop: ‘A Lot of Music Is Catchy But So Bland and Boring’
Aside from her big, sleepy baby blues—literal "Ocean Eyes"—the most immediately striking thing about Billie Eilish is her age. At only 15, it's almost too easy to refer to the young singer-songwriter, who broke onto the landscape of off-kilter pop with the aforementioned track in 2016, as precocious or ahead of her years. But to do so would be a disservice to both her youth and her peers. After all, if we've learned anything over the past year or so, it's that the kids are alright—in fact, they're kinda running shit.
After making waves—pun intended—with last year's dreamy, swirling "Ocean Eyes," a melancholy love song penned by her songwriting partner and brother, Finneas O'Connell, it quickly became clear Eilish was destined for music stardom. She cemented her pop destiny early in 2017 with the release of "Bellyache," a madcap slice of slick, syncopated psycho-pop. Its video, a sort of Thelma & Louise micro-Western, was just as maniacal and melodramatic as the song itself, featuring the artist on the run with a wagon full of (presumably stolen) cash.
While Eilish's desert adventure concludes with the singer facing off against a smug, nonplussed cop, her real-life journey is far from over—it's actually just beginning. With magazines and blogs crowning her the Next Pop Princess, the teen is already well aware of the expectations that come with her shiny new tiara, but she's not letting that weigh her down. Ahead of an exciting summer—new singles! a tour! an EP!—the rising artist discusses keeping her music all in the family, her fashion design aspirations, horror movies and how she's fighting the good fight against "boring" pop.
A lot of people have been calling you pop's new “It Girl” and the next big pop star. It’s impressive, but does that make you nervous in terms of living up to an expectation?
Honestly, not really! I think it just makes me want to do it more. Because I don’t really get nervous at all with anything. I either get really excited or I just don’t want to do something. It’s great because it’s validating. I am trying to live up to it I guess.
I know you and your brother have a really interesting working relationship and that you guys write together. How does that dynamic play out?
Yeah, it is really good. Of course it has not-so-great parts, too, just because when you have a sibling you either get along with them really well or you do not. Or you sometimes do and sometimes you don’t. Everyone has arguments or whatever. With writing, I think it is refreshing because when you are in session with somebody who you have never met, or just like a stranger who you do not really know anything about, it’s like you don’t really have the connection or you don’t feel comfortable saying all of these things because songwriting is honestly therapy.
Also, with someone you don’t really know, it is hard to just be like, “No.” You feel like you constantly have to be all, “Oh, wow!” [Laughs] With my brother I think it saves a lot of time, because we can be really honest with each other and no one is going to get hurt by it.
You don’t have to tiptoe around each other’s ego. When you’re working with someone you haven’t met before, you have to be very careful to buffer what you say, I guess.
Right! I mean, you buffer a little with anybody, but with him we can be honest about not wasting time.
So what did you grow up listening to? Who were the artists that you had on repeat as a kid, in your household?
My parents encouraged a lot of different stuff. My dad used to make mixtapes and stuff for me and my brother and we just played them in the car all the time. It was just like a bunch of different artists. Avril Lavigne and the Beatles were like, classic. [Laughs] My brother really liked Green Day and My Chemical Romance. Honestly, I really like Justin Bieber. I did not know anything about what I should like or anything deeper than oh, I hear a song and I like a song, so that’s great! Now I just like digging into songs and try to find every song in the world that nobody even knows exists. But I think I was like twelve when I fell in love with rap. I think the lyrics are so smart in rap because everything is a reference to something and everything rhymes and flows. I’ve been pretty much mainly into rap and hip-hop and oldies lately.
I feel like you share a lot of hip hop influence in your music as well. Is that a reference for your sound?
I’m trying to figure it out! A lot of the new music that is coming out soon is definitely influenced by hip hop and in the production and also the way we write even. I think a lot of the lyrics that me and my brother write together, we try to write in that hip hop way. You really have to listen to the lyrics to understand them and be like oh, I get that! It’s like poetry.
I heard you love horror movies, and I do too. I am very interested in stuff that is a little bit twisted, things that people maybe shy away from. What are some of your favorite horror titles?
I always try to find really amazing ones I should watch, but I honestly don’t even know what the main good ones are! But I really like The Babadook. That was so good. I used to love The Walking Dead. I love American Horror Story. And Get Out was really, really good. I’m not even sure if that was really horror but it was so good, dude. Anyway, I need to watch some more. I have seen like, a lot and a lot of them are terrible! Oh my God, The Human Centipede is really hilarious
A friend gave me a bootleg copy to watch a few years ago and I was was just like, how the f--- did this movie get made!?
I know, oh my God. [Laughs]
Your video for “Bellyache” has a little bit of a twisted vibe. It reminds me of like, Kill Bill meets Thelma & Louise. Two of my favorite films! Can you walk me through the creative behind that?
Definitely! Well, the whole video was my idea. It started out with me wearing a yellow jumpsuit in a bright room with a bunch of plastic bags surrounding me. They were supposed to be really big and the size of a body, so it would look like there were a bunch of bodies lying around. Then I had the idea of me like, walking on the side of the road, some desolate highway. Anyway, the label was like, well, maybe not dead bodies. Maybe that’s a little much. [Laughs] So then it became money, and I wanted the color to be really, really bright and super saturated and pleasing to look at. But body parts would have been cool, right?
It definitely would have! [Laughs] I love the narrative of being on the run after doing something insane.
The song is kind of about a psychopath who, in my mind, knows what they are doing and knows that it is terrible but does it anyway because they’re bored or just wants to do crazy things. I think the mindset is like, doing things in the moment that you just want to do is relatable. Because if you think about it it’s like, “F---! I know that I am going to regret this but I don’t really care.” So, then you do it and then you have a belly ache, you know. In the video I tried to portray somebody being really mad at themselves because they know they shouldn’t have done it, but they did it anyway.
I think it says a little something about the human condition because we fall into these destructive cycles sometimes that are hard to break. You can see yourself doing the thing that you shouldn’t be doing over and over again—like falling in love with the wrong person or whatever—but you can’t stop. Or you choose not to. Anyway, I both love and hate that it ends on a cliffhanger. I want to know what happens next! Do you have plans to continue the story with another video?
No, I hadn’t thought about it, but now that you say that, I feel like that would be cool. ‘Cause in the video, the cop doesn’t even really try to get me because he knows I can’t escape! At first I wanted a full police force in all the cars make a road block, and then they would all chase and grab me, but I think it’s cooler like this because anything can happen.
The donut is so funny. It kills me every time.
That wasn’t even planned! [Laughs] They literally had donuts on the set and everyone took a break and got one and then the actor [playing the cop] took one because someone on set was like, “Oh, dude, you should be holding the donut!”
I also noticed yellow is a huge color in that video and I’ve seen you wear it a lot, at events and in photo shoots. Is there symbolism behind that color for you? It strikes me every time.
Actually, yellow is my favourite color! I think of myself as yellow because I think a lot of people used to maybe doubt yellow or not like it because it’s one of those colors that people just sort of hate. Nobody likes it and it’s such a good color! I don’t even know how to describe it. I just feel like I am yellow. I do and say what I want and I don’t really care if people like it or not. That makes me yellow.
You also have a new song called “Bored,” which is on the 13 Reasons Why soundtrack. Do you get bored often or easily?
You know what? I don’t. I had a period in my life where I decided that I would never be bored again and that if I had any free time at all I would make plans and I would always be doing things. It actually was great for a year or so but then I lost all of my friends. [Laughs] Time is kind of an amazing thing because you can do so much with it. I think people underestimate time… I don’t want to just sit on my phone for hours.
I always want to create and do things, or draw… I went to New York City recently and the flight was delayed seven and a half freaking hours and there was a lot of time being wasted over the weekend because of just travel and whatever. But I used that time! I wasn’t mad and I was wasn’t upset or bored. I just got out my notebook because that is where I write everything down… I love fashion and making clothes, so I actually came up with a whole collection of designs. I have so many designs and video ideas and lyrics in my head, so I always try to be productive.
I’m impressed. That’s is a really empowering perspective to have. So, what’s something that you don’t hear a lot about in pop music that you’d like to? I’m talking about themes or lyrical content. For instance, “Bellyache” is a fictional fantasy, which is a bit unusual and more conceptual. It ventures outside of the typical framework, I think.
A lot of music right now is catchy and the production is cool, but then if you really look at it, it’s just so bland and so boring. Also, it’s all about the same thing: “Oh, I like this girl and I am sad!” You can say that in a song, sure, but say it in a different way that is more interesting and maybe has a different meaning. I try to do that when my brother and I write. You take a certain premise for a song and you give it a double meaning… It’s fun to decide like, “Oh, I’m going to write a song about a belly ache!” But it actually has a deeper meaning that you can turn into whatever you want it to be. Not a lot of people do that, but I think Melanie Martinez does that really well.
I think she is really talented. Her album is really excellent and emotive, in my opinion. Anyway, I’m guessing you have your own album coming out—hopefully this year, no?
Well, I think I’m coming out with one more single before my EP, which will come out in a few months. There’ll be a bunch of videos for that, and then I’ll probably go on tour towards the end of the summer. I’m going to try to do a lot of shows and just get a ton of music out. I have so many ideas and just need them to be made and out there! [Laughs] I’m even designing merch shirts for my shows. I already made three, which is cool. Anyway, I’m just being creative and getting stuff done and not worrying about what anybody thinks.
Meet the Alternative Girls of Pop: