It’s a good time to be Billie Eilish. And for one of the first times in her life, the 17-year-old singer-songwriter is finally comfortable admitting this.
“Because trust me, I am not somebody that is going to lie about my happiness,” the no-nonsense Eilish, one of music’s most undisputed breakout stars this year, said when calling from her native Los Angeles on a recent afternoon. “But recently it’s just been true. I can’t lie.” Her life in recent times, Eilish said, “has been pretty much indescribable. It’s just all so good.”
Part of that stems from her meeting and making fans of so many of her musical idols, including Tyler, the Creator, Lana Del Rey, Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande and the producer Timbaland.
But if Eilish has cause to be feeling so blissful it’s more likely thanks to the world-dominating success of her No. 1 debut album: upon its release in late-March, “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?,” instantly shot to No. 1 on the Billboard 200. (She’s the only artist born in the 2000s to achieve the feat.)
And nearly every one of its dark and moody singles, most notably “Bury A Friend,” “Bad Guy,” and “When the Party’s Over,” quickly rocketed to the top of the streaming charts. (Through April, Eilish’s songs had been streamed 3.79 million times.)
“I feel like the couple weeks after the album came out were pretty much perfect,” admitted Eilish, who with her delicate voice and propulsive, almost grimy beats, has single-handedly changed the perception of what pop music sounds like in 2019. “It’s all pretty weird because I never thought anyone would even care about what I was doing.”
She’s not simply being humble: Eilish may appear to be a fully-formed mega watt pop star suddenly arriving at our doorstep. But in reality her career began four years ago, at age 13. Working out of a small bedroom in her family’s two-bedroom home in Los Angeles’ Highland Park neighborhood, Eilish emerged in 2015 when her hazy ballad “Ocean Eyes,” written by her brother, Finneas O’Connell, now 21 and her sole co-writer, suddenly exploded on SoundCloud.
“I started doing this with no expectation at all,” Eilish recalled. “It’s not that I didn’t have a hope because you always have a hope with everything you create. But I never was like, ‘I’m going to do this so I can get this thing or so this can happen.’ So I just did exactly what I wanted. And people cared. A lot.”
Yes, these days Eilish has a rabid following of both teenagers and young adults alike, all who seem to have a frenzied appetite for her unorthodox brand of pop music in addition to her boundary-less approach to all things creative from her hip-hop indebted music to equal parts street-wear and punk chic aesthetic.
Not that she hasn’t worked hard to get here: One year after “Ocean Eyes” went viral, Eilish released her “Don’t Smile at Me” EP, which cracked the Top 20 on the Billboard 100, toured relentlessly and, in the months leading up to her album’s release, released a slew of singles all when not engaging in a whirlwind press tour.
She doesn’t get into specifics, but Eilish admits there was a time when the stress of her burgeoning career made her feel “miserable and horrible.” But now that she’s released an album she loves and, more importantly, one that didn’t require her to compromise any of her creative license she said she’s nothing short of thrilled.
“That I feel like is the most shocking thing,” she said of her ability to create without sacrifice. “It’s not only that people like me — they like me even though I’m this weird person.”
Speaking to her anxiety around her music, Eilish says she had low commercial expectations for the propulsive, bass-anchored “Bury a Friend.” “I remember falling in love with it when we made it and thinking it was so dope, but I did not think anyone would like that song,” she said of the song that would become one of her biggest hits to date. “I remember talking to my mom about it. She said she was surprised people liked the song.
When asked why she said, ‘I didn’t think people would be that cool.’” Eilish laughs at the memory. “People usually don’t like things that are considered different,” she offered, “but I think that’s just because everyone’s usually afraid of it.”
Having now found success beyond her wildest dreams, if largely by refusing to let outside opinions sway her, Eilish says she doesn’t plan to alter her formula. The singer still exclusively writes music with her brother, who has a solo career as the independent singer-songwriter Finneas. And while the music-industry has expectedly rallied around her in a major way, and her record label, Darkroom, an imprint of Interscope Records surely hopes she releases more music to capitalize on her moment, Eilish is pressing on in her typically methodical manner.
“Literally right now I have maybe one song that I’m working on and that’s it,” she said. “There’s nothing that I’m just sitting on. I’ll see an artist in the studio and they’ll have 40 songs that are unreleased and are just sitting there and done. Whereas if I want to make a song, I’ll make it and then I’ll finish it and then we’ll put it out.
“It really proves to me how high my standards are with everything,” she continued. “I don’t feel good enough if I don’t work completely tirelessly on one song. And it takes a long time for me to make music because of that. I’m so particular about everything and it has to turn out exactly how I hear it in my head.”
When the Tribune called, Eilish was headed out on her North American “When We All Fall Asleep” tour that runs through mid-July. To hear her tell it, that’s exactly where she belongs right now. “Honestly I am the most comfortable on a stage. I always have been that way,” she said. “Whether it’s dancing, singing, performing. It’s where I’ve always felt OK.”
As evidence of this, Eilish, who has Tourette’s syndrome added, “When I’m onstage I don’t tic at all. And that’s the only place in the world like that. That tells me something: that I feel free.”