But that sense of disbelief starts to fade -- replaced by obvious understanding -- the moment you tune in to the singer’s drawling, Lorde-meets-Lana Del Rey vocals and simmering, dark pop sound.
Take the new “COPYCAT,” a smoldering, hip-hop influenced track Eilish (pronounced eye-lish) wrote with her older brother and songwriting partner, Finneas, about her impatience for lack of originality -- among friend circles, the music industry and otherwise.
“I knew exactly what I wanted to write about. It’s really cliché of this to happen, because yeah, as you get more recognized and [are] more of a big deal, then people start copying everything you do,” she explains. “But if you’re going to do everything I do, what’s the point of even trying to be you, if you’re not even you at all?”
Though the song's trap-like feel stems from Eilish's interest in hip-hop, particularly XXXTentacion and Tyler, the Creator, its signature grungy bassline was Finneas' invention.
“He played this weird, creepy bass sound, and I thought it was so cool.” She makes a guttural crushhh noise through her teeth. “You know?” It’s the sighing piano bridge that gets people, though, when after a weepy, sugar-sweet apology, Eilish turns on the listener with a cruel whisper: “Syke!”
To fans of Eilish’s previous work, the track’s darker vibe shouldn’t come as a surprise. She turned heads -- and raised eyebrows -- at 14 with the single “Six Feet Under,” and in the more recent “Bellyache,” she takes on the persona of a conflicted serial killer. (At first listen, fans may well have interpreted “COPYCAT” as a reference to the 1995 horror flick.)
“[People] feel like you have to write about what you’re going through, and how you feel, and it can’t be anything else -- and that’s just so untrue,” Eilish says of her music’s unusual characters. “You don’t have to be in love to write a song about being in love. You don’t have to hate someone to write a song about hate. Writing music is just like writing a book.”
Trust Billie -- despite her tender age, she's been doing this quite a while. The homeschooled daughter of two actor and musician parents, Eilish began singing in the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus at 8 years old.
In fact, Eilish and Finneas have “like, a million” songs in their unreleased arsenal that take on a range of personas, from the perspective of a boy Eilish “broke the heart” of to the fictional Oliver Twist character Nancy. “It can make you more forgiving in a way, because it’s like, ‘wow, maybe I should put myself in their shoes,’” she explains.
Eilish says each track off dont smile at me will follow a distinct plot. The only tie-together? “I’m pretty sure I don’t have any songs that are about how much I love someone,” she says, laughing. “They’re all either about like, ‘I hate you,’ or ‘you make me hate me.’”
As for the EP's intimidating title, anyone who follows Eilish on Instagram is aware that the singer hates to smile in photos -- "I have an ugly little tooth," she jokes. But like most things Billie Eilish, it goes deeper than that. "I like to be in control of how I look and how I feel and how I act and the obligation is to smile back at someone if they smile at you," she writes Billboard later over email. "Therefore, DON’T SMILE AT ME."
And even as the hype surrounding her name (and youth) continues to build, Eilish says she feels little anxiety over living up to expectations with her EP. In fact, it’s still settling in for Eilish that she has listeners at all.
“It’s really weird,” Eilish says, at a loss for words for the first time during our call. “Because I don’t think of myself as anything, except me.”?
Billie Eilish's debut EP dont smile at me is out August 11 via The Darkroom/Interscope. Stream "COPYCAT" in full below, and check out the singer's fall touring schedule.
Billie Eilish Fall North American Tour Dates:
Oct. 4 - Santa Ana, CA @ Constellation Room
Oct. 5 - Los Angeles, CA @ The Echo
Oct. 7 - San Francisco, CA @ Rickshaw Stop
Oct. 9 - Portland, OR @ Holocene
Oct. 10 - Seattle, WA @ The Crocodile, Back Bar
Oct. 12 - Chicago, IL @ Schubas Tavern
Oct. 14 - Toronto, ON @ The Drake
Oct. 16 - Brooklyn, NY @ Baby’s All Right
Oct. 19 - Cambridge, MA @ Sonia
Oct. 20 - Philadelphia, PA @ World Café Live, Upstairs
Oct. 21 - Washington, DC @ Rock & Roll Hotel