Thinking back Tuesday night at the Grammy Museum on her debut at this past springâ€™s Coachella festival, Billie Eilish noted, â€œPerforming in front of 100,000 people is less intimidating than this. All of these people are very close. Yo, you guys can see all of my pores, for real.â€
Itâ€™s quite possible the 17-year-old pop luminary was thrown slightly out of sync by the Clive Davis Theatreâ€™s intimate 225-seat capacity. During two three-song performances by Eilish and her brother, producer and stage collaborator Finneas Oâ€™Connell, which bookended the evening, the diminutive singer-songwriter blanked on the lyrics of â€œBellyacheâ€ and muffed a transition in â€œBad Guy.â€
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But no one in the sold-out audience â€” which included recently installed Recording Academy president Deborah Dugan, Grammy Awards telecast producer Ken Ehrlich and several other industry names (many with their teenage children in tow) â€” appeared to mind the miscues for an instant, and they squealed in delight as Eilish hit the high note that concluded the nightâ€™s final song, â€œWhen the Partyâ€™s Over.â€
The facility was familiar turf to the Oâ€™Connell siblings, Highland Park natives who were initially schooled in songwriting by their mother and participated in writing workshops at the museum.Â â€œWe grew up coming here and listening to artists in this room,â€ Eilish recalled. â€œI came here and saw Stevie Nicks when I was 9. We came here all the time.â€
Still riding a crest of massive popularity off the debut album â€œWhen We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?,â€ Eilish and Oâ€™Connell charmed the house during a wide-ranging conversation with moderator Scott Goldman that found the singer playful, at times unsurprisingly provocative and frequently, stunningly candid.
With her hair streaked with a green slash, garbed in a typically blousy, oversized T-shirt emblazoned with the glittery legend â€œBad Guyâ€ and immobilized by two sprained ankles, Eilish mulled the first hit of her professional career, the Soundcloud single â€œOcean Eyes,â€ with wry humor.
â€œThe moment we thought it blew up was not the moment it blew up,â€ she recalled. â€œI was at my dance class, and Finneas called me and said, â€˜You got a thousand plays on â€œOcean Eyes.â€ And dude, thatâ€™s like a lot of people.â€™ At the time it was like just the biggest deal, and I thought that was my moment, and then it would be over forever.Â And I was wrong.â€
After that DIY start, the musicians set about cutting Eilishâ€™s first EP, â€œDonâ€™t Smile at Me,â€ in a studio. Eilish described those sessions as â€œjust the worst experience on planet earth â€¦ just miserable.â€ To put themselves out of that misery, she and her brother opted to skip the studio option and record â€œWhen We All Fall Asleepâ€ as they had â€œOcean Eyes,â€ in the family home.Â â€œWhy not?â€ Eilish asked. â€œIt workedâ€¦ You donâ€™t have to fix something thatâ€™s not broken.â€
â€œThereâ€™s perks to the childhood bedroom,â€ Finneas added. â€œThe place you sleep is there, so if youâ€™re tired you can just go to sleep. We had a private chef, named Our Mom.â€
â€œWe could pet our dog,â€ Eilish added. â€œIt was great to be in my room, have an idea, and immediately record it. Donâ€™t have to go get in the car.â€
Eilish credited the example of her 22-year-old brother, who began penning music four years before she did, with inspiring her own decision to write songs.Â â€œAs soon as he picked it up, a song was written, immediately,â€ she said. â€œIt was so annoying, how good he was. I was Little Sister: â€˜I want to write, too. My brother did it. I want to do it, too.â€™ Iâ€™m a lot slower at it, and because heâ€™s always been so good and so quick, it made me feel like I was bad.â€
She celebrated the assets of working with a sibling as a producer and co-writer, and the unique and positive chemistry of such a creative relationship.Â â€œIf you have an argument, itâ€™s not like itâ€™s over forever,â€ Eilish noted. â€œYou canâ€™t, like, break up with your brother or your sister. You know you canâ€™t. Maybe you want to sometimes, but you canâ€™tâ€¦ If he doesnâ€™t like something I come up with, he can be, like, â€˜No!â€™ When collaborating with someone youâ€™ve just met or whatever, if you donâ€™t like something, itâ€™s a whole 40 minutes of trying to tell them nicely. Sometimes [Finneas and I] go a little too far being mean, but it gets it done quicker.â€
Finneas added, â€œWeâ€™re being super-straightforward, and that saves a lot of time. And because weâ€™re related and thereâ€™s no hurt feelings in there, the other one can go, â€˜Well, I love it!â€™ And the strength in your position and how much youâ€™re invested in it is really important. I was producing a thing for someone last week. Itâ€™s for their record, and they were like, â€˜It should be this way.â€™ And Iâ€™m hired. So I was like, â€˜OK!â€™ And theyâ€™re wrong! I love that Billie and I get to say that.â€
In the end, Eilish said, â€œWe never compromise. One of us winsâ€¦ Donâ€™t compromise. If you want something, go for it and fight for that thing and you get it. If itâ€™s a decision where youâ€™re trying to work with somebody, let them win, and then they should let you win.â€
But she noted that coming out on top in a struggle of wills isnâ€™t always a win, as a fight about the song â€œAll the Good Girls Go to Hellâ€ proved to her: â€œWe both had very strong feelings about what the intro should beâ€¦ That was an ongoing fight for months, like yelling at each other. I would not stop. I won that one, and I listened to the other version a couple of weeks ago, and itâ€™s way better. So I lost!â€
Talk turned to the freakazoid style of Eilishâ€™s in-your-face videos, which have been critical in developing her edgy public image. She acknowledged that reaction has not always been positive.
â€œThe Christians in [YouTubeâ€™s] comment sections â€” oh, my God! Zero offense at all, but theyâ€™re so mean. Damn, Iâ€™m trying to make a song about global warming, and theyâ€™re like, â€˜Sheâ€™s Satan!â€™ No offense, though. Everyone should have their own beliefs.â€
When interviewer Goldman squeamishly asked how the spider-infested video for â€œYou Should See Me in a Crownâ€ was made, Eilish recalled dryly, â€œI said, â€˜I want to make a video where a spider crawls in my mouth. Find someone.â€™ And they found someoneâ€¦ Turns out spiders really like being in dark, wet places. Itâ€™s weird, man, but it rolls. Even if you hate it, you gotta respect that itâ€™s different. Itâ€™s weird, though. I apologize.â€
(During the audience Q&A session later, she told a very young girl, â€œI have a pet tarantula. You should come over and see him. Heâ€™s blue, and heâ€™s very cute. Theyâ€™re fun. Theyâ€™re not gonna hurt you. Theyâ€™re cool. They have personalities.â€)
The conversation took a heavier turn when Eilish spoke about the close identification she enjoys with her young audience and her investment in them.Â â€œPeople donâ€™t have things to help them,â€ she said. â€œIf I can be that on even a microscopic level, I want to be that.â€
In a powerful moment, the Davis Theatre became intensely quiet as Eilish spoke about her own struggles with self-cutting, offering her empathetic reaction to her female audience members who grappled with their own issues.
â€œI do meet-and-greets where I see scars all over girlsâ€™ arms. It hurts me so much to see it because I used to be there. I know what itâ€™s like, and I know how it feels. I know exactly what itâ€™s like. I donâ€™t talk about it. I just look at them and I grab their shoulders and [I say] â€˜Pleaseâ€™â€¦ When you see something that, you do not comment. Do not talk about the scars people have on their arms, ever. I had Band-Aids all up my wrists for months, and it was always, â€˜Whatcha do?â€™â€
She continued, â€œI want to be theirs. I donâ€™t want them to be mine. I want to be theirs. I know that a lot of people have messed-up family lives, and parents who do not care about them, which I donâ€™t understand. People at my meet-and-greets at shows tell me stuff, and Iâ€™m likeâ€¦ whoa! It just makes me want to scream for them, and grab them and hug them, and take them with me.â€
In response to a question from the audience near the end of the night, Eilish offered an affecting recollection of her battle with severe depression, which began in her early teens and continued even as she found international fame.
â€œThe last two years were kind of the worst mentally for me,â€ she said. â€œIt sucks to say that and feel that and know that, because I had such an amazing career. I had these crazy things happening all around me, and I was so not there for them because of what my brain was telling me. The beginning of this year I was I think the most depressed that Iâ€™ve ever been. I was in Europe for a month, and I felt like nothing. There was no point to anything at all. I donâ€™t know how I got out of it.â€
Choking up, she recalled the pain that online accusations of â€œfake depressionâ€ inflicted on her. â€œIt hurt so bad to see that when I literally was bleeding on the bathroom floor. It tore me apartâ€¦ It made me never want to go outside again.
â€œThe last two months of my life, right now, have been the happiest places Iâ€™ve ever been in,â€ she added before pausing to comment, â€œThis is so embarrassing â€” Iâ€™m really the worst.â€
She concluded, â€œItâ€™s OK. I think I was just patient. To be honest with you, I didnâ€™t think I would make it to this age, but I have, and I waited, and Iâ€™m happier than Iâ€™ve ever been in my life.â€