Billie Eilish Is Pop's Most Impressive 15-Year-Old
How the Los Angeles native transitioned from dancing to writing searing, wise-beyond-her-years singles like “Ocean Eyes” and “Bellyache."
“Sittin’ all alone/ Mouth full of gum/ In the driveway,” Billie Eilish sings to open new single “Bellyache”; it’s a line that makes sense for a 15-year-old singer-songwriter. The follow-up? Not so much: “My friends aren’t far/ In the back of my car/ Lay their bodies.”
Eilish, a tiny teenager from Los Angeles with wispy blonde locks and a warm laugh, just released a (great) song from the point of view of a conflicted serial killer. She wrapped the macabre lyrics around a delectable pre-chorus hook and a steady acoustic pattern that eventually gives way to a sizzling drum machine. She knows that a song like “Bellyache” is going to get her more sideways glances than Top 40 airplay, and that’s fine with her.
“It’s really fun to put yourself into a character — into shoes you wouldn’t normally be in,” Eilish explains to Billboard. “You don’t have to be in love with someone to write a song about being in love with someone. You don’t have to hate somebody to write a song about hating somebody. You don’t have to kill people to write a song about killing people. I’m not going to kill people, so I’m just going to become another character.”
The Lorde comparisons are going to be inevitable with Eilish—partly because her swirling, darkly lit pop music is reminiscent of the “Royals” star, but it’s also due to a knack for smart, affecting songwriting that betrays her age. Eilish posted her debut single, the understated and heartbreaking “Ocean Eyes,” online in November 2015 as a one-off collaboration with her older brother Finneas for her dance class. Since then, the song and its various remixes have earned over 30 million streams on Spotify, while Eilish kept recording with her brother, and signed to Interscope Records for a debut album expected in 2017.
What’s been the most surprising part of her short run? "I think it’s the fact that people like my music,” she says. “Not that I doubt myself, per se, but I wrote [‘Ocean Eyes’] with my brother, we put it out, thinking, 'Oh I’m just going to put it out so people can hear it.’ You never really think this is going to be a song people are going to love and listen to and reach out about. It’s so weird because people reach out to me all the time about it, and I’m like, “What the hell?’”
Although Eilish grew up as part of the Los Angeles Children’s Choir, her focus had long been on contemporary dance, spending 11 hours a week in the studio and competing as part of a company. Her brother had been tinkering with production software when Billie asked him to help her record a song; a growth plate injury last year put a hasty end to her dancing, and Eilish’s focus turned toward a recording career. She performs with Finneas behind her, on guitar and backing harmonies.
As she prepares her first album, Eilish is committed to producing her songs in addition to writing them. “It’s really difficult to communicate what I want, because I always know what I want, but I don’t know how any of it works,” she explains. "I’m trying to teach myself so that I know. My brother is totally for it.”
With the “Bellyache” video released on Wednesday following a trip to South by Southwest, Eilish will continue creating songs (and characters within them) that exist well outside of her personal experiences as an L.A. teen. She calls her writing process “nonstop,” and a mixture of the real and imagined.
“Even though you go through the smallest thing that doesn’t really mean anything, it still gives you a lot of emotion,” says Eilish. "Even if it’s little stupid thing like, ‘Oh, this person said this thing about me,' you still are going to feel a certain way about it. There are alway going to be bad things. But you can write it down and make a song out of it."