Buy a print copy of the Billie Eilish issue of The FADER, and order a poster of her cover here.
Maybe as a kid you pictured the house of your dreams, before your dreams had to do with being terrifically rich. It didn’t have to be too big, but there’d be a yard, and the yard would definitely have a treehouse, and maybe the tree would be strung with lights, a rusted chandelier dangling from one of its branches like a vision from a Lewis Carroll tea party. And inside it’s messy but there’s art everywhere, old paintings alongside baby pictures and scribbled inside jokes, and musical instruments scattered through every room. The attic’s full of racks upon racks of the craziest old costumes from your parents’ theater days, and you’ve got to pull a rickety ladder down from the ceiling to get there, unless you happen to know where the secret trap-door is. (It’s in your brother’s room.)
Maybe your middle name, also, is Pirate.
I am standing in the backyard of Billie Eilish’s childhood home — which is to say, her home, having only recently turned 17 — and I can’t shake the sense of being on the inside of my dreamiest childhood reverie, the kind of setting where you might imagine you can do anything you put your mind to and actually believe it. It’s a cool midwinter evening in Los Angeles’ Highland Park neighborhood, with nearby lemon trees and an outdoor trapeze rig framing a banger of a sunset that looks like an airbrushed t-shirt from the mall. A stocky, good-natured old dog, Pepper, grunts around, doling out five-second increments of attention.
Billie Eilish — Eilish being one of her middle names, the other one being, yes, Pirate — is sitting quietly in the corner of it all. Quietly because her head is fully inside of a ziploc bag, which I am told by the styling team is designer, because apparently a designer ziploc bag is a thing. You can tell she is alive by the cloud of condensation where her mouth would be; it is a similar surface-texture to the pair of foggy Invisaligns plunked onto the kitchen table, with which you will become intimately acquainted if you spend enough time with Billie, and which she will later attempt to locate, calling: “Mom! Where’s my teeth?” (“Dude, the day I got my Invisaligns I had a Chanel fitting,” she tells me later. “And then I had Takis, and I wanted to eat them so bad, but I couldn’t. I just licked them. Trash.”)
In between sitting for photos for this story, Billie props her phone against a tree and films herself dancing to a song by Mac Miller and Anderson .Paak — I guess I need to hold on to (dang!) the people that know me best, it goes — in a pair of comically oversized Dsquared2 sneakers, shoes you can picture Goofy wearing were he a hypebeast. Just an hour ago she’d been hunched over her DMs, brow furrowed, having been informed by a well-meaning fan that there’d been a leak of Billie’s personal information, including her home address. It’s a nightmare, but it’s being dealt with. And for now, if things aren’t fine, they appear to be. Because this is Billie Eilish’s life, and this is how it goes, and what else are you going to do?
If you still don’t know who Billie Eilish is, there’s a good chance you are old. I’m very sorry, but it’s true. And if you do know who Billie Eilish is, you probably feel old anyway, because what were you even doing with your time while then-13-year-old Billie and her then-17-year-old brother, Finneas, were writing “Ocean Eyes” in their bedroom? That song, now platinum in a couple countries, wasn’t the first one the siblings had written together and uploaded to SoundCloud without much expectation. There had been “Fingers Crossed” before it: a cinematic little number about love in the time of zombie apocalypse that racked up maybe a couple thousand plays, an achievement that felt, back then, pretty mind-boggling. “Oh, ‘Fingers Crossed’ was trash, bro. That was the first song I wrote,” Billie tells me dismissively. She is notoriously hard on her own work, but also, she was literally 12.
“Ocean Eyes” was a game-changer for Eilish’s career, even if she didn’t know it at the time. In the final months of 2015, Finneas had been workshopping the song with his band the Slightlys, but it wasn’t sounding right. Billie heard it from across the narrow hall dividing their rooms and knew she could make the song her own; conveniently, she was nursing a crush on a blue-eyed boy. “If you’re using ancient standard gender roles, it’s kind of a feminine song,” Finneas tells me later over coffee. “I wrote it about myself, but I always thought it would sound better with a girl singer.” Eilish recorded her vocals over two weeks, re-working the same parts for hours; the duo posted the track to SoundCloud with the intention of sending it to Billie’s dance teacher for potential choreography.
And then it blew up, which in itself isn’t so strange. The shocking part was that Billie was 13, singing of burning cities and napalm skies with near-perfect control of her Lana Del Rey-ish falsetto. In the video, released a few months later, Billie barely breaks eye contact with the camera, the flutter of her hands letting you know she’s a dancer without ever panning below her shoulders. The whole thing’s more than a little bit haunted, her ice-blue eyes straight out of a Mark Ryden painting. But in that moment one thing became clear: she is a star.
That was three very long years ago. In the time since, Billie has released her debut EP (2017’s sullenly-named don’t smile at me), racked up a billion streams on Spotify, collaborated with Khalid and Vince Staples, performed on Ellen in a “BILLIE”-print tracksuit, toured the world, gotten her driver’s license, and nearly completed the Invisalign process. She is preparing to release her first album — which she wrote and recorded, just like always, with Finneas in his little bedroom studio, and which she’s calling WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? And she is famous on a level that her brother has referred to, earlier in conversation, as “debilitating.” Currently her Instagram followers clock around 12.5 million, though it’s likely that by the time this magazine is on stands, that number will have grown.
“My whole job is being looked at,” she remarks with a sad little laugh, between sips of hot chocolate, when we meet for lunch in Highland Park the morning after the photoshoot. “That’s like the only thing I do.”
In terms of maintaining any semblance of stealth, it doesn’t help much that Billie dresses like a cybergoth anime raver, her closet spilling over with baggy, PaRappa the Rapper-esque silhouettes in hues of construction-site neon, often of her own design. It is the precise embodiment of that particular teenaged paradox — notice me, but don’t fucking look at me — taken to its dripped-out extreme. Arriving at lunch (along with her mom, her brother, and her publicist, Alex), she is dressed like if Jigsaw from Saw was a big fan of Ski Mask the Slump God: baggy red shorts, a droopy-sleeved red and black button-down covered with safety pins, and her usual tangle of skull-studded silver chains.
There are a few havens left in Los Angeles where Eilish can exist unbothered; the Highland Park vegan café Kitchen Mouse is one of them. The spot was a family favorite before her face was on billboards — the Baird-O’Connells are longtime vegans — but these days, the too-cool-to-care ambience is a blessing in itself. If the mid-morning crowd recognizes Eilish, no one lets on.
I tell Billie that constantly being introduced as “The Young Girl” probably gets old. “It does,” she says, matter-of-factly. “But my age is a good thing. People are more impressed if you’re younger and good at something. Half of me doesn’t really want to age, because I don’t really want to not have that.”
She considers this particular clusterfuck for a moment, spreading sriracha on a tofu-scramble toast.
“But I really do wanna be an adult. Growing up rocks,” she pronounces with dry sincerity. “Well, okay: growing up doesn’t rock, but being grown does. Being able to drive? Uhh, fire. Being able to go to the store and just buy the thing that you want? That’s crazy!”
Maggie, Billie’s mother, interjects, reminding her daughter of her habit of watching old home movies and reminiscing on the fun they all used to have. A former actress and a gently intense presence, she appears as the watchful guardian of their family’s remaining normalcy, perhaps in the tiniest bit of denial as to how much has already slipped away.
“Dude, as soon as you turn nine, it’s TRASH. Nine and up is garbage,” Billie continues. “For me, it was literally nine and then just bad, badbadbad, worse, horrible…”
“What was it about nine?” I ask, trying to dredge up a working memory of the age and coming up with only a vague kaleidoscope of abject misery.
“Everything,” Billie emphatically replies, digging in her water glass for a handful of ice. “Suddenly you hate things about yourself. Before I was nine I wasn’t thinking like, ugh, I’m too fat, are my eyebrows weird? Of course not: I was running around naked and barefoot and tripping and coming up with grass stains on my legs…”
Billie Eilish Pirate Baird-O’Connell was born three months after 9/11. Her part-time-actor, full-time-artist parents, Maggie Baird and Patrick O’Connell, committed to the idea of homeschooling their two super-creative kids in the formerly affordable enclave of Highland Park. The parents helped teach classes like Music Together, which invites young children to sing constantly; they took nonviolent communication courses, which Finneas describes as encouraging expressions along the lines of, “I’m not having my need for empathy met right now.” Billie became immersed in contemporary dance and joined the reputable Los Angeles Children’s Chorus at the age of eight, where she learned music theory and how to sing without destroying your vocal chords.
Side note: if this all seems to be painting a picture of the whimsical world of the covertly rich, it isn’t like that. Certainly the Baird O’Connells had enough to get by, until the recession, when they sort of didn’t. In a 2018 Apple mini-doc, Maggie describes a 10-year-old Eilish working shifts at a local ranch in exchange for horseback riding lessons. To this day, Maggie and Patrick sleep in the living room, having graciously allocated the hundred-year-old house’s two bedrooms to Billie and Finneas. Closet space is a bit of a free-for-all; the parents store clothes in Finneas’ room, which they’ve preserved as a studio space even as he recently moved into his own apartment. Overflow spills into the attic, where costumes from Maggie’s days in The Groundlings improv troupe gather dust.
Finneas explains that the one thing I need to know about homeschooling is that the slight edge of boredom is a good thing. In a day that’s otherwise jammed with obligations, any respite from the schedule invites the numbing relief of total leisure. Plus, being bored meant you could be creative. “I’ll watch home movies of myself and notice that the things that I was interested in when I was three or four are my life now,” Eilish explains. “I loved colors, patterns, and textures. I’d make music videos to my favorite songs. I was always singing, dancing, jumping, and moving — I could never sit still. It’s so interesting to see what I liked then turn into what I am now.”
She’s fascinated by babies, and them right back at her; back at the house, she chirps melodies to her publicist’s six-month-old son, clearly enraptured by the sensory buffet that is Billie’s turquoise hair and sparkling rings. “I can just see where he wants to go,” Eilish muses quietly. “I mean, obviously I can’t, because he’s gonna decide his own future, but…” Her own baby pictures hang throughout the kitchen and dining room, scattered alongside fan-made paintings and hangers of self-designed T-shirts and hoodies that her parents are fond of wearing.
Talking with Finneas, I note something that makes me feel like an asshole as soon as I say it out loud: “It seems, from the outside, like you guys never really experienced the urge to rebel against your upbringing.” Thankfully, it makes him laugh.
“I didn’t, no,” he replies. “I don’t know if Billie did; I think the things she’d probably want to rebel against more than her upbringing would be, like, her fame. Other things that are intense to deal with.”
“Dude I give such a fuck.” —Billie Eilish
It’s possible that the wildness of Eilish’s early songwriting was an extension of her art-filled childhood, or simply out of necessity. A 13-year old singer-songwriter might have a huge range of feelings, but not a ton of lived experience with which to frame them. On “bellyache,” a loping and cowboy-ish number with a touch of deep-house bounce, she sings from the slightly dazed perspective of a homicidal maniac. “Sittin’ all alone, mouth full of gum, in the driveway,” she lilts, relishing in the impending freak-out, “My friends aren’t far — in the back of my car lay their bodies.” I mean, damn.
“Remember being younger and wanting to be the one that dies in the game?” Eilish says excitedly, smacking my shoulder absentmindedly as she often does in conversation. “I always wanted to be the bad guy in every game I played. They were the coolest. Obviously, I’m not a bad guy in real life — so let me put on this mask. When you’re little, songwriting is the same thing as playing a game. You can be whatever you want.”
Her tendency towards the macabre is fairly well-documented; in last year’s video for “you should see me in a crown,” the forthcoming album’s first single, a small herd of spiders make themselves at home on her face. Eilish’s eyes are stuck in perma-roll throughout, as if having her mouth probed by tarantula legs is the only thing keeping her from dying of terminal boredom. (Maggie is quick to emphasize that Eilish was very attuned to the spiders’ needs — no arachnids were harmed in the making of the video.)
Lately, she’s been mining even creepier territory: her own subconscious — hence the stoner-philosophical bent of the album’s titular question. (Billie, for the record, doesn’t smoke.) “I mean, dude. Where the fuck do we go?!” she yelps. “I’m sure somebody’s gonna be like, oh, it’s your brain doing this — but, like, you cannot give me a good explanation. I do not understand. Dreams are a really intense part of my life. I’ll go through a month where I’ll have the same nightmare every single night — a dream that’s so bad that the whole day is off, or a dream that’s so good that none of it’s true.” On lead single “bury a friend,” the haunted jock jam from where the title originates, Eilish sings from the perspective of the monster under the bed, tracing the invisible line between the subconscious and the real world: “Step on the glass, staple your tongue, bury a friend, try to wake up.” The nightmare is bad, the reality’s worse.
Not that her life sucks or anything. By Eilish and Finneas’ standards, they’re doing exactly what they love—making music that millions of people genuinely fuck with, and they’re gearing up for a North American tour this spring. (Finneas tours with Eilish, and will continue to until she asks him not to.) “We both try to remind each other that, no matter the complications, the [music] that [fame] is the side effect of is not something we want to go away,” Finneas explains. “It’s like a medication that saves your life, but makes your hair fall out.” “It is like a medication,” Eilish agrees. “But it doesn’t make me feel better.”
And when asked if there is any normalcy left to her life, she doesn’t hesitate. “Not at all. Not even a little bit. Everything is different. It isn’t good or bad. It just is what it is.”
“Don’t you feel, though, like our home life is normal?” Maggie offers gently. “Our Christmas was normal…”
“But I’m not,” Eilish counters plainly, tracing a finger through her chains.
After lunch, we head back to the house for Eilish’s scheduled Skype meeting to finalize designs for merch that will accompany the tour announcement. Driving the family minivan, Maggie reminisces on the old Highland Park — back when Eilish was little, before Time Out deemed it the ninth coolest neighborhood on the planet. “I feel like I’m beating a dead horse, but sometimes I just sit here and go, where are we?”
“Sometimes I can’t believe the sayings you use in sentences,” Eilish teases. “Beating… a dead… horse? What the fuck! Mom, you have to stop saying that. She says things like that all the time.”
“Well, ‘beating a dead horse’ is horrible. Because it implies that of course you would beat a live horse,” Maggie agrees. “But I grew up saying that.”
“And I grew up saying ‘big dick energy,’” Eilish tosses back with perfect comedic timing. “Different generations.”
Before the meeting, Eilish gives me a tour of her small, impeccably-organized bedroom, the majority of which overtaken by racks of bright, cartoonish sneakers. A small, clearly beloved selection of fan art is taped to the wall, including the bleak pen drawing that inspired Billie’s treatment for the “when the party’s over” video; small plastic sculptures of ridiculously-stacked anime vixens decorate the dresser beneath her mirror. Her reverence for the ultra-femme comes up often, despite her own style being on the opposite end of the spectrum. “I don’t fuckin’ wanna be a girl, bro,” she claims. “I mean, I am. But I don’t wanna be like… A GIRL.” Eilish shows me a t-shirt from her closet adorned with a cartoon stripper. “But then, people who are like that — fuckin’ fire! I fuck with bad bitches wearing tiny little clothes. Long acrylics are sick. Full faces of makeup — fire.”
At this moment, Eilish is nearly the same age Britney Spears was when she released ...Baby One More Time, though I imagine this bit of trivia probably means more to me, an Old Millennial, than it does to herself. The world isn’t exactly lacking in exposition on the subject of teen-girl idols — you could write a book on the Greek tragedy of Britney’s VMA performances from 1999 to 2007 alone — and it’s almost too tempting to place this precocious, blue-haired badass in direct comparison, a neat diorama of What Pop Means Now.
But I don’t think 17-year-olds actually care about What Pop Means Now. Pop is rap, Instagram, everything, and nothing at all. I’m not even sure what to call the kind of music Eilish makes. Her own cultural vernacular hews closer to Tyler, the Creator and Denzel Curry than it does to the bubblegum days of Lou Pearlman, and you could probably write a book on all that implies, too. (It should be noted that Eilish has put several of her rapper friends on to Avril Lavigne’s first album; they fuck with it.)
Looming from atop a shelf is a rather creepy bust of Eilish’s own face splitting in half, a relic left over from another photo shoot. She sat perfectly still for the full hour of its casting, breathing through two tiny nose holes; she explained to the crew that her living with Tourette syndrome might complicate matters, but it didn’t feel like anyone listened. Eilish hadn’t necessarily ever planned to make her diagnosis public, but after video compilations of her facial tics popped up on YouTube, she addressed it an Instagram story last November: “ive never mentioned it on the internet because nobody thinks im deadass,” she wrote, “as well as the fact that ive just never wanted people think of tourettes syndrome everytime they think of me.”
Having a neurological disorder isn’t really something Eilish thinks about, as it’s been a part of most of her life. “It’s confusing when someone is making a weird face gesture or throwing out their neck,” she explains to me with great patience. “The internet hasn’t really seen the bad ones, because I’m really good at suppressing them. The thing is, the longer you suppress them, the worse they get afterwards. I’m sure one day everyone will see the tic attacks that happen when I’m stressed and haven’t slept. But it could be a lot worse, and it’s not, and I’m grateful for that. And you know what, it’s fucking whatever.”
From a hiding place near her closet, Eilish removes the beat-up journal in which she writes all of her lyrics. The journal started off as Finneas’; flipped upside-down, the book becomes hers, painstakingly scrawled with song lyrics and morose one-liners, the text arranged in the shape of a maze. “This is from when I was 13, being dramatic as fuck,” she points to one section. On some pages, she’s drawn terrifying images from her recurring nightmares — leering, pencil-drawn faces of monsters with resemblances landing somewhere between The Babadook and Studio Ghibli. Some pages just look like fog. They are legitimately stunning.
Partially hidden behind the draped fabric of her canopy bed, a tapestry hangs on the wall. Eilish lifts it for a moment to reveal the Sharpie’d sketches underneath: drawings of the same eerie monsters as well as No-Face from Spirited Away, melancholy koans written in the dark, a few R.I.P.s. A set of markers is taped to the wall, so she can wake up in the middle of the night and document her nightmares without hesitation. Equal parts art project and private therapy session, with the tapestry lowered you’d never know it was there.
When I first dove into her YouTube, I’d assumed that the appeal of Billie Eilish was that she gave no fucks — a pop star posed in the anarchic shrug of a Soundcloud rapper. Paging through her journal, I get a different impression: a girl whose life depends on this music shit to the point where she recorded more than 90 takes of the first word — “don’t” — of “when the party’s over,” just to get the right sound.
“There’s people who say, I don’t even care. I’ve caught myself doing that: Whatever, I don’t give a fuck. Liar! Everybody gives a fuck,” she admits. “Dude, I give such a fuck.”
Seated around the dining room table for the merch meeting, Eilish rubs her face against the family cat plopped beside the laptop screen, scrolling through a selection of hoodies in lime, orange, black: “Yeah, I’m not huge on this page. I don’t want any text on the sleeves.” “It’s played out,” agrees a disembodied Australian voice from the other side of Skype. “Now, do you want this orange this bold, like, Kanye-Wyoming orange?” “Mmm… that’s kinda O.D.,” Billie replies. “It could be more rusty.” Proposed designs include metallic tribal patterns and hardcore-band typefaces — abstract signifiers of “the Billie Eilish aesthetic” — but she pushes the idea of incorporating the dream monsters from her sketchbook instead, politely stressing: “It’s kind of what the whole album’s about.”
The designer grinds away in Photoshop as Eilish scrolls through Instagram, pausing for a second to show her manager the screen. “Look — somebody just commented, ‘I know this bitch’s dick is hella big.’” She giggles with delight. “True. My dick is huge.”
Hair by Joseph Chase for Exclusive Artists using Oribe Haircare, makeup by Robert Rumsey using Hourglass Cosmetics. Agency is Exclusive Artists Management.