Billie Eilish On Speaking Up, Staying Hopeful And Keeping Busy During Lockdown
You might think that sitting down with two of music's biggest superstars would be kind of intimidating — that someone who has spent the last year breaking sales records and accepting countless awards would maybe be hard to relate to. But within about 30 seconds of hanging out with Billie Eilish and her brother and creative partner, Finneas O'Connell, you could almost forget that these are two of the most influential artists on earth right now. You don't forget, of course, because they approach their music with the utmost thoughtfulness and professionalism – but their openness, ready laughter and casual ease that comes with being not just siblings but lifelong friends reminds you that at the core of it all, they're still two young people having a lot of fun doing what they're doing.
It all really started in 2015, when Eilish had a viral hit with "Ocean Eyes," a song the pair made in one of their childhood bedrooms and posted to Soundcloud. A EP followed, and then Billie's 2019 debut When We All Fall Asleep Where Do We Go – an album that was hugely successful, sweeping all the major categories at the 2020 Grammy Awards.
In February, Eilish released the new James Bond theme that she and O'Connell wrote together, and more recently, they've each put out new singles and are now recording albums in the basement studio of the home O'Connell shares with his girlfriend, Claudia Sulewski. In this episode of World Cafe, we talk about how Eilish and O'Connell have been spending their time in quarantine, how their process of collaboration has changed over the years and what makes them hopeful about the future.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Raina Douris: It's getting close to the end of September and we're still, for the most part, stuck at home. I'm making World Cafe from my house right now. Where am I speaking to each of you? Where are you right now?
Billie Eilish: We are where we've been making music lately, which is my brother's basement that he has turned into a very pleasant studio. So we've been spending most of our time down here. After this, we'll probably be making some music as well.
And that's in the kind-of-new house, right Finneas?
Finneas O'Connell: Yeah, I've been here for a little under a year now, but the studio has only been done since the end of February.
Now I know that part of how you've been keeping busy is by making music – but outside of music, how have you been keeping busy over the last few months?
Eilish: I don't really know yet; I haven't really nailed it. I mean, it's pretty hard; I don't have an answer for you.
O'Connell: Billie rescued a dog right at the beginning of COVID-19 so she's been being a dog parent for the duration of all of this.
Eilish: I have. I definitely feel like I would've gone insane if I didn't have two foster puppies for the first entire half of quarantine and then a full-grown dog for the second half. It's really helped my brain to not wander off.
Billie, you were supposed to be on tour right now, and you only a got a few shows in to your Where Do We Go tour before the pandemic closed everything down. After such a busy couple of years – obviously you wanted to be on tour, but has it been kind of relaxing to suddenly be at home?
Eilish: It was for the first two weeks. And then it was not anymore. I mean, the first two weeks, it was great because I was really like, "This will only last a couple of weeks and we'll be right back on tour, but we will just have a tiny little moment to breathe."
O'Connell: I joked that if quarantine had been five weeks long and no one had died, it would've been, like, the best thing that ever happened. Everyone in the world would've been like, "Wow, that five-week break was so cool and we all just sat around with our families." Instead, it's been the worst.
Eilish: It's been pretty horrible lately. I've been trying to make the best of it and be like, "Well, this is the most time off I've had in five years" – more than that! Since everything started, I haven't even had a breath to take, so it's nice to a certain degree and then it's like, "OK, let's get back to my life please."
Another thing that was thrown off by COVID-19 is the new James Bond movie, No Time To Die. It was supposed to come out in April; now they're planning to put it out in November. You did the theme song for it. When the James Bond people first came to you and asked you to write the theme, what was your initial reaction?
Eilish: Oh, dude, it was – I mean, this is something that we had talked about without it even being a realistic goal. For years, we've always talked about how cool would it be to make a Bond theme. And so, when they came to us with, you know —
O'Connell: "We'd love to hear what you would make."
Eilish: — yeah, it was pretty surreal and very exciting. I mean, it was pretty boring and difficult at first, because we didn't really know where to start, but once we figured out where we were going with it, it was so much fun and so satisfying.
O'Connell: It's a very big deal to have your song be in a Bond movie. They don't just offer it to a person; they're in discussion with you, and they tell you a little bit of information they think would be helpful for you to know and then they say, "We'd love to hear what you would come up with." I don't think we were the only ones coming up with something, but we were very passionate and it was a life-long dream of ours, so we didn't take the opportunity to put our hat in the ring lightly.
James Bond themes always kind of have a common theme or common thread. When you hear a James Bond theme, you're like, "This is a James Bond theme." Do they come to you and say, "Here are the rules," or are they like, "Just go for it?"
O'Connell: They didn't have any rules. They allowed us to know a little bit about the plot of the film.
Eilish: Which was very helpful; we wouldn't have written the song we wrote if we hadn't read the first scene of the movie.
O'Connell: And the other thing that was just important to us — and this was not, they didn't decree this — but I just felt that we needed to have the song title be the film title. That was more because my favorite Bond songs are the film title, right, "Live And Let Die," "Goldfinger" and "Skyfall." Listen, no offense to Jack White, especially because I could not have written a song called Quantum of Solace. No matter how hard I try, I couldn't have written a song called Quantum of Solace. So, I get it. But we lucked out because they already had No Time To Die as the title and I was like, "We can write a song called 'No Time To Die.'"
Billie, you've directed a bunch of your own music videos, and I know directing has been something you've been interested for a long time. Did your interest in directing influence how you approached writing a song for a soundtrack?
Eilish: I don't think it did. It's really different for me; making music versus videos is such a different part of my brain and part of the way I work. Which is kind of interesting to think about, because you assume it's all in the same realm, but it's really not. For making the Bond song — if you're talking about a character or a plot of a movie: There it is; there's what you're writing about. So it's kind of easier in a way, but also more of a challenge at the same time.
The two of you were home-schooled – so, I guess, kind of like classmates. We know that you work together very well now, but was there ever a feeling of competition when you were growing up?
O'Connell: I didn't feel any competition, I would just say that we worked together very poorly when we first started making music. I feel like we've gotten much better at collaborating. When we first were making Billie's first EP, back in 2017, we were just, like, tearing out our hair and crying every day; it was so dramatic. It was all because I didn't know what I was doing —
Eilish: — and I wasn't confident.
O'Connell: Yeah, we had no confidence and we didn't know what we were doing, so it was stressful and scary and we felt so much pressure. I feel like now, we just know what we want to make and we make that. And if something's not coming on a specific day, we don't force it. The experience has gotten so much more enjoyable and our relationship is healthier than it's ever been and that's just a virtue of repetition and age.
Once you sort of know where you're going with something, you've a better idea of what you want to make.
O'Connell: Yeah, and there's something about making an EP and then making your first album – there's a kind of Sisyphean feeling to it. You're like, "I can't do this, I can't possibly make this EP. We've never made one, how could we ever make one?" And then when you make one, you're like, "Oh my god, we did it!" And then you're like, "Oh my god, we only made this six-song EP with two songs that are already out, we can't make an album, this is ridiculous, this is crazy, we can't do it, we can't make an album." Then you make an album and you're like, "Oh, we can do that again." And then when you're making it again, you're like, "Wow, we're really liking this, how many of these are we supposed to make before we run out of good ideas?" [Laughs.]
Now that you're working on new albums, how has it changed? When you go sit down and write, how does it feel?
O'Connell: What do you think, Bill?
Eilish: It's been feeling really good. It's feels very natural, I think. I mean, quarantine and COVID-19 has been so terrible, but I think if we're thinking about the good aspects, we would never had made the music that we've made in quarantine if we weren't in quarantine. And not that they're all about quarantine at all.
O'Connell: They're really not.
Eilish: It's felt really good and real and so satisfying. As much as I've loved everything we've ever made, with this project, there isn't one song that I'm like, "Eh, you know, this is not my favorite, I still like it but I'd rather listen to these." Every song we've made is just, I love it.
Finneas, you said you wanted to make Billie a superstar really, really early on. And I know, Billie, you said that it was a joke. But Finneas, what was it about her even back then that you felt like people needed to see and hear?
O'Connell: She always just had such a great voice. And if I'm putting myself back in the brain and body of me at 18, it was just that I was aware that Billie had this angelic, beautiful voice. And she had a great sense of style and put herself together well. I just thought, "Man, if this is something she wants, who wouldn't love this artist," you know what I mean?
Eilish: Lots of people.
O'Connell: But I think that was kind of in my hyperbolic sense; that was kind of my life: "Yeah, let's make some music and see how this goes." I just knew that I would want to hear her album, and so that's been our rule of thumb for every song we've ever made — especially as time as gone on. At the beginning, you kind of second-guess yourself and you're like, "What do people want?" And now all we ever do is like, "What do we want? What do we want to make? What are we trying to do?"
In 2015, you had the big viral hit breakthrough song, "Ocean Eyes." Finneas, you wrote that for your own band, but you asked Billie to sing on it. Billie, what was your reaction when he asked you to do that?
Eilish: It felt so normal; I don't remember being like, "Really?" I don't know why; I just had a feeling about this song. I remember growing up in that same little house, we were like three feet away from each other in our rooms, so any song either of us were writing, the other one could hear it. So Finneas came into my room and was like, "Dude, I wrote this song and I want to sing it for you." And I was like, "Yeah, I know. I could hear it. I've been hearing it the entire time you've been writing it." And I was 13 and I remember reading off the lyrics and reading a bunch of the words wrong; I didn't know what napalm was so I was singling like "nahpalm skies." [ Laughs.] Right away we just fell in love with that version and I remember we went into the living room and our parents were like having an argument about, like, taxes and we were like, "Guys, shut up! Listen to this song!" [ Laughs.] And we sang them the song and then we recorded and put it out right away.
What did your parents say when you did that? Did it end the argument?
O'Connell: They under-reacted. They were like, "Cool."
Eilish: We got to give them credit, they've always supported us and been so supportive, but that was one of those ones where they were like, "Yeah, cool."
O'Connell: No, they've always supported and been present. But, you know, when you're a kid and you try your first bite of something and you're like, "I don't know." And you've had that meal like twice more and you're like, "This is actually my favorite food."
Eilish: The best food in the whole world.
O'Connell: Our parents are like that with a lot of our songs. Like, "We've written this song, we love it, check it out!" And our parents sit there and they're like, "Hm." And we're like, "Love it! You guys have to love it!" And they're like, "Yeah, it's really good." And then like, two weeks later —
Eilish: But they never ever ever... They literally have never insulted anything we've done —
O'Connell: No, but their first impression is like —
Eilish: — so Finneas is just butt-hurt that they didn't give him more of a reaction.
O'Connell: What happens is we are super excited about something and we're like —
Eilish: — Well, I don't play any of my music for any of my friends unless literally, like, I know for 100 percent fact that they're going to like [it] or if they beg me. I don't send music to people; I don't want to hear that s***.
O'Connell: Me neither, I don't know why people do it.
Eilish: And sometimes, I even am like, "You know what, I'm just going to send this to my friend because I think that they'll like it." And even if they say a bunch of nice stuff, they didn't give me exactly what I wanted and it ruins my whole week. So, with our parents, it's like a little bit similar, but it's more our own problem because we can't stand hearing a reaction from someone in person that isn't exactly what we want.
O'Connell: I'm just saying that usually — and you can disagree if you want to — but especially with our dad, he'll be like, "This song is cool. What is that? What are you saying there? I couldn't understand what you were saying?" And we like repeat the lines. And he's like, "Oh, OK, cool." And then two weeks later when we're like in the middle of, like, three other songs, my dad will come to me and put his hand on my shoulder and be like, "That song you played for me two weeks ago is dope."
Eilish: It's very true.
O'Connell: And I'm like, "Oh, thanks. I'm glad you like it."
Eilish: It's really delayed.
O'Connell: But it really grows on them and I get that. Part of the reason I'm dating my girlfriend is she is the best reactor to music ever.
Eilish: Yeah, I love a reactor.
O'Connell: Yeah, she gasses us up. She comes down to the studio and she listens to the song and she says words like "whoa" and "oh my god."
Eilish: You got to be surrounded by some gassers.
So after "Ocean Eyes" happens, you've got the success, labels come running – which is exciting, but labels often also have this idea of what they want you to be or what they think should work. Was there pressure to work with more seasoned producers or songwriters at the beginning?
Eilish: Um, yes. [ Laughs.] But we were very strategic about who we were trusting, and we spent my entire year of being 14 going to meetings every day pretty much. With labels, publishers, producers, writers, with every single type thing that you could have meetings with. But it was for a good reason. It was so we could meet a bunch of people so that we really could tell who was trustworthy, who we could rely on and who actually likes me the way that I am instead of [having] an idea for who they think I could be. And nobody was making us do this; this was something we wanted to do. I'm not going to let somebody be like, "This is her parents exploiting her." My parents, every day, would be like, "Billie, you know that you don't have be doing this; we can easily just stop going to these." And I wanted to do it, I wanted to have this be my life and I wanted to be going to these meetings even though they were super boring and I was 14 and I didn't know how to talk to grownups yet.
O'Connell: Grownups, by the way, don't know how to talk to kids, it turns out.
Eilish: For sure. [ Laughs.] We were really lucky with the people that we signed with. I mean, we were put in sessions with a bunch of random producers, random writers and artists and stuff. Even though I wish I had spent my year doing other things, I think it was really really beneficial to figure out what I did not like to do and what I did like to do. And I think it just solidified the fact that me and Finneas work best together. I think it just made us realize that even more than we knew before.
I want to talk about your song "Everything I Wanted." Could you take us into the room when you wrote this one together and tell us about writing this song?
Eilish: We started writing [it] in September of 2018. I was in a really unhealthy place mentally. And the night before, I had had this dream, which is the dream that I talk about in the song. I told Finneas about it and it was really messing me up; you know when dreams ruin your day? It was one of those dreams and I couldn't do anything about it but talk about it and write about it, so we started writing this verse. It suddenly stopped being us writing and started being Finneas really worried and nervous. He pretty much made it clear to me that he was really uncomfortable writing about this because he hated the idea of, you know, the lyrics being real life. Then my mom was involved and it just kinda became this family, almost, like, argument. And it ended with me telling my family something that I had never said out loud and then locking myself in a bedroom. And so, that was kind of how that night went. We basically didn't get back to writing the song until six months later, because it kind of just hit a nerve every time.
Me and Finneas go through our phone all the time and just look at random voice memos we took or, you know, lyrics we wrote down to see if there's anything we forgot that we made. And we kept coming across this one voice memo that we didn't know what it was. And I remember coming across it multiple times. And then playing it and being like, "What is this?" And then you hear: "I had a dream. I got everything I wanted." And every time we would hear that, we both would be like, "Ooh. We've gotta do something with that." It was pretty hard to write because it was a hard subject to think about, but as soon as we decided that it was going to be more about not giving in to your bad thoughts and just being there for each other, I think that was really fun and satisfying.
There's a lyric on that song where you sing, "Everybody wants something from me now and I don't want to let them down." Billie, you've always been someone who's been very generous with your fans, but what do you do to preserve yourself when you're feeling the weight of expectation?
Eilish: I think honestly just not looking at my phone is something that helps me a lot.
Social media, you mean.
Eilish: Yeah, everything that's in there. This is a weird thing, but something that always makes me feel more relaxed and not worry so much about my life and the way I'm perceived and all the people that don't like me and all the people that do, and all the stress about everything and every part of everything — something that always eases my mind for some reason is just the fact that I'll die one day. [ Laughs.] I don't know; I don't mean that in a negative way. I just think, like: We'll all die. And the world will end eventually. And there won't be people left. And that's like, to be honest, I know it sounds crazy to think that's soothing to me, but I like that thought. It puts me at ease and it makes me not worry so much about everything going on. It's important to be who you are and it's important to live the life that you want and be happy, but also know that it's not that deep. You know?
I know what you mean. It puts things into perspective. When you do have these expectations and you have a voice and you have a platform the way that both of you do, it means that you'll face extra scrutiny. I've talked to a lot of artists lately about the reaction they've gotten from fans when they've spoken out about politics, which is something that you both have done. First, Finneas, I want to ask about your latest song, "What They'll Say About Us," which you wrote after going to a protest. Could you tell us about that?
O'Connell: There was this period in June where we were going to protests and at the same time, I was coming home every night to check on how Nick Cordero was doing. Nick Cordero was a Broadway singer, actor, songwriter who I have to admit to not being aware of prior to COVID-19. I only really became aware of him and his wife, Amanda, because I heard that he had had his leg amputated from COVID-19. And so, in June, I was feeling very hopeful and optimistic because protests have a tendency to make me feel hopeful and optimistic — so I was writing about the duality of [this] social movement in the country at the same time as all these people were dying from this brand-new illness.
It seems to be, in general, a hopeful song. And Billie, your new song, called "My Future," also carries a lot of hope. Billie, you performed "My Future" at the DNC back in August. Why was that the right place to perform it publicly for the first time?
Eilish: It's just really important, especially right now with the biggest election so far, coming up. It's a really scary time. And as much as your instinct and my instinct is to just not say a word – I don't want to be involved; I don't want the opinions of either side coming after me; I don't care; like, I literally would rather, like, gouge my eyes out than be a politician. It's funny because when I performed at the DNC and I was posting, "Please, please vote, blah, blah, blah," any sort of facts about the monster that's in the White House currently, I would see comments that are like, "Shut up and stop trying to be a politician. Stop talking politics." And I literally would laugh because I don't want to be doing this. I would rather be doing anything else than be talking about politics. But that should show you how vitally important it is right now to speak up.
O'Connell: I would argue that human rights issues being labeled political is hilarious and a total misnomer. I think it's like, if you look at the great movements of our time and of the last 100 years, I don't get the feeling that the suffragettes cared all that much about politics. They cared about human rights and the fact that they weren't allowed to vote. I don't get the feeling from Martin Luther King that he was all that interested in politics. I think he was interested in human rights. The idea that saying that we think that racism is structurally implemented by the law enforcement in this country, we should do something about that, and people are like, "You had to get political!" And I'm like —
Eilish: No, I didn't.
O'Connell: Politics has to get racial.
What is giving you hope right now for the future? In this song, there's a line, "I'm in love with my future." What do you see for the future that's making you hopeful, that's making you love your future?
O'Connell: I have a very dark answer.
OK, you go first.
O'Connell: I think this is a pretty bad year and I think things would not have to get all that much better for me to be like, "Wow! Stuff is so much better!" I think the idea that a year ago, you would've told me that some day when I'm allowed to go to the Americana in Glendale with my friends, I'll celebrate that. [ Laughs.]
Eilish: Yeah, it's like, why would we care?
O'Connell: The other thing that makes me hopeful is, like, people like Claudia Conway. You know, I think there are these really smart young people that are 15, 16, 17 who are just growing up in a time where they're really feisty and that makes me really excited. I think because of the structure of the internet, and how much kids are growing up on the internet and living on the internet, they're so much more aware of stuff than I think I was when I was 16. Like, a lot of me and my friends' reaction to the systemic racism discussion this year has mainly been eye-opening in that we weren't paying attention to it enough in years past. But I think, you know, things that make me hopeful are young people.
Eilish: I don't know. I've always loved thinking about the future and thinking about what's going to be different about me and what's going to change and, you know, it's an exciting thought. It's also a pretty scary thought because you don't know the bad things that are going to happen, either. But I think it's important to look forward to the unknown, whatever it is. I think also, because right now is such a limbo-feeling time, the idea of anything new is exciting to me. You know?
And also, young people. A lot of young people are being enormous idiots right now, with not wearing a mask and partying and all that s*** — which I want to puke on every one because of. [ Laughs.] Otherwise, the people that give me hope are the people that are really outspoken about injustices in the world and speak up for not just their own rights but everyone's rights. I've learned a lot this year and I've tried to be even more open this year and listen to other people. It's nice to see the people that really, really care and want to fight. And I love that so much. And I'm going to fight with them, you know?
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