Billie Eilish: From "Ocean Eyes" to the Mosh Pit

It begins with a tale of remarkable implausibility: When a dance teacher needs original music for choreography, his 14-year-old student posts her song on SoundCloud. It strikes a wondrous chord with music discovery website Hillydilly which shares it to massive response. Sung by Billie Eilish and written and produced by her brother, FINNEAS (aka Finneas O’Connell), “Ocean Eyes” surpasses 80 million plays on Spotify alone and is certified Gold by the RIAA.

When management steps in to help with career navigation, she and her brother deliver a collection of cryptic, hypnotic songs for a debut EP, dont smile at me, released by Darkroom/Interscope Records. Billie and FINNEAS enlist a drummer and hit the road, performing in venues from clubs to massive festivals across the U.S. to Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Billie’s duet with Khalid, “Lovely,” is heard on Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why and ranks Number One on the Hollywood Reporter’s Top TV Songs chart.

At this juncture, Billie, now 16, and FINNEAS who just turned 21, are writing and recording her full-length debut between tours across North America, Europe and Asia. MC caught up with the wonderfully unfiltered Billie Eilish back home in Los Angeles for this exclusive conversation.

Music Connection: You just performed last weekend at the Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee. How was the show?

Billie Eilish: Bonnaroo was fucking hot! I got to see a lot of my friends who are artists that were performing the same day, which was the best part of it. The show itself was tight, there were so many people in the crowd it was crazy. It was my first Bonnaroo and my first time in Nashville.

MC: Did you get to spend any time exploring Nashville?
Eilish: God no. I got to the hotel the night before, super late; we were at Bonnaroo the whole day and we left the next morning, first thing.

MC: Reviewing your tour schedule, and from our recent conversation with your brother FINNEAS, we note that you have some time off after your shows in Japan for some sight seeing.
Eilish: Really? Do I? I don’t know my schedule and I don’t really want to, because I feel like if I did I’d go insane. In everybody’s normal life, you make plans and then you do the plans, and then you don’t have the plans anymore. Then you get to keep making plans throughout the free time in your life. You don’t know what you’re going to be doing in a year.

Right now, I have plans for the next three years. It’s all planned out––it’s so weird. But it’s good to be home for a little bit of time, finally.

MC: We saw an online picture of a girl who was graduating from high school in Highland Park, the Los Angeles neighborhood where you grew up, wearing a hat made out of your EP cover.
Eilish: Yeah! I posted it. What are those called? Those graduation things that go on top of your head? (Mortarboards). She made a yellow one with my EP cover drawn on and on the top it said, “idon’twannabehereanymore”––based on my song title “idontwanabeyouanymore.”

MC: She commented how inspiring it was that a girl from her neighborhood is now making such an impact. Highland Park is the new hipster capital, but it was not always that way.
Eilish: Oh yo! We moved here only because it was affordable. A lot of people who don’t live in L.A. think that in order to live here you have to be rich and live in some really nice neighborhood and have a lot of money. It’s not true. I grew up in Highland Park when it was very sketchy and there were lots of gunshots. It was fine, it wasn’t horrible and miserable, and I wasn’t scared for my life.

MC: Both your parents are actors; your mom is also a songwriter, and you and your brother FINNEAS were homeschooled. Your folks were working in the business, but they were not celebrities.
Eilish: I didn’t grow up in a family that was privileged, and that was fine. You don’t have to be privileged or unprivileged to get successful.
Some people think you have to grow up with a horrible childhood, to make it and make a difference. Some people think you have to grow up successful to become successful. None of that is even true. It’s a matter of what your life is like. Who you are now is all the fuck that matters. None of that makes any sense to me. So I wouldn’t be the way I am without living here? I don’t really feel that. I’m me. It doesn’t matter where I’m living.
Oh my god, that’s literally a Neighbourhood lyric that I said. I didn’t mean to! (“I’m happy ‘cause of me, doesn’t matter where I’m living” from “West Coast.”)

MC: We saw you interviewed at the ASCAP “I Create Music” EXPO and you said that sometimes people have had ideas for famous collaborators that you might consider working with. Can you elaborate?
Eilish: It’s not like people have been forcing stuff on me this whole time. I’ve got a great label and great managers who are always doing the best they can. I’m grateful for it, I know a lot of other people have issues with management and labels and don’t have enough control, which sucks. I’m lucky. But still there’s that element of, “Work with this person,” or “We’ve got to get this mixed and mastered by some very high-quality person. You have to do this and work with this writer who made this hit, and work with this artist because…” Whatever. I’m not where I am right now from doing any of that.

MC: We can go back to “Ocean Eyes” which certainly set your course.
Eilish: “Ocean Eyes” is the reason that I’m anything now. That song wasn’t either mixed or mastered. My brother made and finished it however he wanted to finish it, and we put it out. And there was nobody helping us. And we didn’t need it. We weren’t looking for it. Which is fine. I feel like once you get somewhere, all people want to do is to put you in the room with someone else that’s made it big. I don’t know I can’t be trusted to make something equally as good as what I made before any of this happened.

MC: Your eye-popping videos are a huge complement to your songs. We understand that you conceive of these images and storyboards as you are writing, correct?
Eilish: I think of myself more as a visual artist than anything else. That comes first in my mind when I’m writing or recording. All of the visual aspects are already in my brain. All of my videos are my treatments. All my merch are my designs and I sit and work on them in Photoshop.

MC: You have discussed the condition you have, a perceptual phenomenon known as Synesthesia. How does that play into your creativity?
Eilish: My brother has it too. So when we’re making a song we already have the color in mind for every single song. So how do we make a song that has a melody that sounds like the way that green looks? Here’s one way of putting it: People might ask, “So what inspires you?”
I get inspiration from everything. It’s mostly visual things. If I am walking down the street and I see a pattern on a wall, the type of paint they used has a texture, and I like the texture or I don’t like the texture. I can be like, “I want to make a song that sounds like the way that this pattern feels on my hand.” The way that matte feels on a car and it’s black. How would that sound if it was a sound? Which is really weird, but that’s how my brain works, and that’s how music works in my brain.

MC: When we were speaking to you at the ASCAP Pop Awards you mentioned the importance of physical contact with your audiences. Do you always go out into the crowd?
Eilish: As much as I am allowed to. It certainly depends on the venue. But at every single show I jump off of the stage, and if there’s a barricade I run up to it, and lean over, and hug whoever is there. And I sort of reach out as far as I can to anyone who can grab my hand. If people are pretty far back they run up. I want to have physical moments with them. I don’t ever get to see them again. They might see me on the Internet, and I might see their picture once or twice, but I feel like physicality is so important and being able to touch someone to feel their arm, or their hair, or their presence, feeling their breath near you. Not in a crazy way, but it’s so much more important than them liking your picture on Instagram, you know?
That’s all that I want: to be with them, and to feel them, and hear them and be in the same room with the same feeling and the same vibe with everybody as much as I possibly can. So I try everything to be able to do that.

MC: Live, your sound is much more raucous.
Eilish: Oh yeah. It’s a lot of the hip-hop and rap style of performing. That’s just the way that I’ve grown up feeling the happiest, jumping around and moshing. I would always go to concerts and squeeze myself all the way to the front, and if there was general admission and VIP I would hop over the general admission gate and go to the front of VIP so I could be at the front of the pit with everyone else. It’s kind of sad now, because I can’t do that anymore, which kind of sucks, because when I do that people who know who I am are weird about it. The thing I’ve always loved about it, it’s girls and guys, mostly guys because a lot of girls are afraid to do it, which makes sense.

MC: What is it about this experience that appeals to you?
Eilish: It’s all about not having to say sorry. So much in life is being cautious of everything around you, so that you don’t even do what you want to do, necessarily. What I’ve loved about moshing and being in a pit and dancing with people is it’s where everyone does what they want to do. And you all of you want to do the same thing, go crazy and have as much fun as possible. And if the artist comes up and you have a moment, it’s so special. And that’s all I want to do and provide: I want my shows to be the most fun and insane experience that you can have.

MC: You are working on your new full-length. Is it done?
Eilish: No––it’s very not done. We’re working on it and when it’s done it’s done. When I want to release it I’ll release it. There are no dates. I’m making exactly what I want and not letting pressure happen. People ask, “So where’s the album.” I’m like bro, chill! Frank Ocean made people wait for four years, and he’s still the king. I don’t know how to explain it, but not having written the album that I know I’m going to write, it’s exciting. I haven’t created something that’s going to be a big part of my life yet, and I don’t know what it is, but I know it’s going to be special.

MC: How does the onstage experience inform the new songs?
Eilish: That’s the main thing about this album. I want it to be so much fun to perform, and to be at the show, in the pit, and feel it in the moment. That’s the main thing you learn doing live shows, that it’s fun to perform, and the audience reacts. But I’ve learned a lot from touring which makes me change stuff.

MC: Like what?
Eilish: What I said about schedules? I can’t think about the future or the past at all. I think about what I’m doing when I am doing it, and doing the best that I can for me, not for anybody else. If I’m speaking for other people I would so jump off the fucking cliff, because that’s what people want me to do anyway. I’m doing exactly what I want, and why wouldn’t I do what I want, because I live with me?

MC: You can easily go from club bangers to ballads live, with a marked contrast.
Eilish: I don’t like the idea of genres. I don’t want to be a genre––that I only make alternative music, or hip-hop or pop. I think that’s so stupid. What I look for in an artist is not one song and repeating that song over and over again. I like when a rapper will make a rap album, and then have a song with guitar and be singing on it. Childish Gambino is one of those artists with everything combined, everything he can possibly be and more. I admire that. I’m going to make something that’s fun to play and loud and crazy and I’m going to make something to cry to. And it doesn’t matter what the hell genre it is, if it’s good it’s good. If you like it, you like it.

MC: “My Boy” feels almost like a jazz standard. We note that your parents played you songs from the Great American Song Book standards and Broadway musicals.
Eilish: Oh my god yes. I love that stuff so much. I get so many impressions from that: Sinatra and Peggy Lee.

MC: Peggy Lee! Are you familiar with her?
Eilish: Yeah dude. Peggy Lee. “Fever” is a perfect song.

MC: Since this is Music Connection magazine, we like to ask what advice you would offer for someone who is young and creative, and wants to make a musical impact. Thoughts?
Eilish: I just say when people ask me for advice, I don’t want to give it. I’m not saying everyone should be like me, but it’s the way that I grew up, and who I am. I never want to hear people’s opinions. I want to know what they think, of course, but stuff that I want? I don’t care how someone else got it.

MC: We have seen and heard many artists, but never anyone like you, Billie.
Eilish: I’m different from everyone else. And everyone else is different from me, and everyone else is different from everyone else. Advice people give you might have worked for them, but it doesn’t mean that it’s going to work for you. You are the only person that is going to make you be what you want to be.
Give yourself some advice and just follow that.

Contact Alex Baker, High Rise PR, [email protected]