Billie Eilish prides herself on being intimidating.
“I think I have a vibe that makes you not even want to ask me anything,” she says with a laugh. “You don’t want to say no to me.”
And so far, that vibe is working. At just 17, the LA-raised singer-songwriter makes music that is both haunting and oddly inviting. Her angsty, platinum-selling singles house dark electropop and her viral music videos toe the line between lurid and alluring.
Born Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell to a family of entertainers, Eilish has spent her entire life singing, dancing and writing music. She was 13 when she jump-started her music career by uploading “Ocean Eyes,” a soul-stirring track produced by Finneas O’Connell, her older brother, onto SoundCloud. The pair wrote and produced the song right in O’Connell’s bedroom and shortly after it went online, “Ocean Eyes” gained millions of plays. Since then, Eilish has signed a record deal and released her debut EP, 2017’s don’t smile at me, all while maintaining the same formula of making music at home with her brother.
Two years later, Eilish is continuing to create a sound that defies category but dominates the charts with her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, due out on March 29.
Eilish and O’Connell joined NPR’s Michel Martin to discuss the album, their dedication to staying original, the inspiration behind Eilish’s shocking music videos and more. Hear the radio version of their conversation at the audio link and read on for extended interview highlights.
On creating a unique sound in pop
Eilish: I don’t think I really tried hard to have my sound. So I think that’s why it happened. I think when you don’t try super hard, things just tend to happen faster.
O’Connell: I think when we first started, we were trying to make music that sounded like the music that we liked. And so, that music probably sounded a little bit derivative to people. And I think as we progressed, we stopped trying to make music that fit with any other music or was in comparison and any other music.
Eilish: I mean, that’s the thing about everything in life, you kind of have to try certain things out to figure out what you want. You can’t just be born and be completely original. You don’t know enough to do that. So, when you’re younger, you try out different personalities because you don’t know which one is you, to be honest. So you can’t get mad at an artist’s beginning [because] they’re doing things that you’ve heard before. Obviously, they have and that’s what you need to do to grow and to get where you need to be. You should always be able to have that moment of figuring out who you are by using a bunch of different things that you’ve heard already. And then, instead of still doing that for your whole career — which I think some people do — you have to take that and digest it and then come out with something that’s everything combined and it’s your own thing.
On the intensity of her music videos
Eilish: I just love the idea of glorifying people’s biggest fears. You know, people are freaked out by needles, people are freaked out by things under the bed and people are really afraid of the dark … I just really wanted something that’s going to kind of make you jump a little bit.
I’m sure you’ve seen the video with the spider coming out of my mouth, which is for “[you should see me in a] crown” I have a big tarantula crawling out of my mouth — which is real.
Everything is really important that it’s all real to me. Like, the the black tears for “When The Party’s Over” video, that’s all real. The tarantula coming out of my mouth is real. When my eyes are black and very frightened, those are real contacts. I just hate doing everything CGI.
On getting constant feedback from fans on social media
Eilish: I grew up with the internet, so it’s not a new thing, which is kind of trash, but it’s also like, it is what it is. The thing that’s scary is that anybody can say anything and everyone might believe them. That’s what’s scary to me is that anybody could just be like, “You know what, this happened,” and it didn’t. There’s a lot of lying going on in there. The whole internet is very gullible because they want to hear drama.
O’Connell: I also think as true as it is that we’re in an era of extreme feedback, I think popularity mixed with art has always elicited extreme responses and passionate responses. If you trace back to The Beatles, like John Lennon said something that a group of people didn’t agree with or didn’t align themselves with and there were riots and Beatles albums burnings. I think art has always elicited passion from people. That’s why art is important and I think people’s opinions are equally important.
On being on the cusp of stardom
Eilish: At the moment, I feel like right where I am and we are like right now, I think it’s pretty much perfect — meaning not, like, right now is perfect, but I know it’s kind of about to be. I feel like things are gonna be unreal in a second.
O’Connell: We’re in a culmination period. I think if you look at the sort of three-year lead up of us working together and making music and Billie making videos and content and art design and several national and international tours we’ve done, I think it’s a culmination period of this thing that we put a lot of time in and love and care into coming out.