It might be hard to believe, but there was a time not too long ago when all Billie Eilish did was dream an impossible dream about being… well, Billie Eilish. Before the 17-year-old dark pop phenom released her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? — which moved 312,000 equivalent album units in its debut week to easily top the Billboard 200 albums chart for the second-biggest week of any artist so far this year — she tells Apple Music’s Beats 1’s Zane Lowe that she thought she’d never realize her dreams of fame.
“I was 12, I think, and I was sitting in the nosebleed seats in Matilda, the musical in New York, on Broadway. I was miserable. I was like, ‘I don’t care about musicals. Why am I here?'” she recalls in the hourlong chat in Paris, in which she’s accompanied by her close collaborator and brother Finneas O’Connell. “I remember just falling in love with what I was watching. … I was completely against the idea of it, and I just loved it. I remember at the end when everyone was bowing and then little Matilda got up, and everyone stood up in the crowd, and everyone was cheering. I remember a tear rolling down my cheek, because all I’ve ever wanted is to be on a stage and have people cheering for me.”
Eilish then recalls a moment at a show in Stockholm recently, what she called one of the “peak” points of her career so far, where she soaked in the moment while looking at the crowd and telling them about how she used to sit in her room at home “and cry because I wanted this… I never thought in 1,000 years that that shit would happen.” Things are so peak, in fact, that O’Connell says every show on the singer’s current tour feels like the final date because the audiences are so enthralled with his little sis.
Though she exudes an unshakable confidence onstage and in her videos, Eilish and O’Connell both say Billie was very shy as a kid, never wanting to be “the singer” when someone asked her to belt a tune at a party. In fact, she would often put a pillow over her face when she sang, not wanting to come off too show-y. “I perform like I’m right in the pit,” she tells Lowe, describing how she would jump the fence from GA to VIP to get closer to Lil Wayne and Tyler, the Creator years ago, a no-barriers vibe she hopes her music now transmits to her fans.
In just a few short years, though, Eilish has gone from jumping that barrier to be right under her favorite artists to being the one whose barriers are being jumped and touring the world with Finneas at her side. She says they’ve talked about how this level of intense fame can’t last forever, realizing that everyone has to keep living their own lives as well.
“We can’t have this be the rest of our lives. We were talking about it the other day, we’re just like, ‘I’m 17, dude.’ I can’t have my life exactly like this forever, and he can’t either,” she says, noting that her brother just bought a house with his girlfriend and got a dog. “It’s a weird balance, because I want to grow in my life, and grow up and have a life. But I already have my career. … Having been on tour, I know how it works. I know that you leave and it’s a little bit of your friends being sad. Then, you’re gone for long enough that life moves on and they keep doing things. It’s the same way as if someone dies. You have to keep going. You shouldn’t be mourning them every two seconds for the rest of your life. You have to keep going.”
Eilish also responded again to the backlash to her song “I Wish You Were Gay,” which she admits might offend some people, but which she continues to stress was not at all meant to ruffle feathers. “I’m not saying that something isn’t offensive. Obviously that’s up to whoever is being offended by it, but I just mean it’s so clear that it’s not an insult,” she says about the song in which she wishes a boy who didn’t love her back was gay. “I also feel like you can relate to it, no matter what. I grew up with this girl that was a best friend of mine, and she liked girls, and when we made this song, she loved it because she was in love with a girl who didn’t like girls. It’s the same kind of thing. I wish you were gay.”
With so many songs that tackle dark, personal topics with often bleak imagery, Eilish tells Lowe that “there’s only a few people in the world that can understand this,” referring to life-changing events like becoming a parent, losing a loved one, fame or depression. “You just can’t understand it, and you can’t act like you do. When someone you love loses someone very close to them, you can’t say, ‘I feel you.’ You just can’t. That’s okay,” she says, encouraging listening rather than trying to empathize in a way you may not genuinenly be able to. “I feel like some people just try to act like they know, but just listen. It’s not about trying to up their depression. It’s not about who’s sadder, who’s gone through worse. It’s about listening to people and actually just caring about them.”
Watch the full interview below.