Thinking back Tuesday night at the Grammy Museum on her debut at this past spring’s Coachella festival, Billie Eilish noted, “Performing 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.”
It’s quite possible the 17-year-old pop luminary was thrown slightly out of sync by the Clive Davis Theatre’s intimate 225-seat capacity. During two three-song performances by Eilish and her brother, producer and stage collaborator Finneas O’Connell, which bookended the evening, the diminutive singer-songwriter blanked on the lyrics of “Bellyache” and muffed a transition in “Bad Guy.”
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But no one in the sold-out audience — 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) — appeared to mind the miscues for an instant, and they squealed in delight as Eilish hit the high note that concluded the night’s final song, “When the Party’s Over.”
The facility was familiar turf to the O’Connell siblings, Highland Park natives who were initially schooled in songwriting by their mother and participated in writing workshops at the museum. “We grew up coming here and listening to artists in this room,” Eilish recalled. “I came here and saw Stevie Nicks when I was 9. We came here all the time.”
Still riding a crest of massive popularity off the debut album “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?,” Eilish and O’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 “Bad Guy” and immobilized by two sprained ankles, Eilish mulled the first hit of her professional career, the Soundcloud single “Ocean Eyes,” with wry humor.
“The moment we thought it blew up was not the moment it blew up,” she recalled. “I was at my dance class, and Finneas called me and said, ‘You got a thousand plays on “Ocean Eyes.” And dude, that’s like a lot of people.’ At the time it was like just the biggest deal, and I thought that was my moment, and then it would be over forever. And I was wrong.”
After that DIY start, the musicians set about cutting Eilish’s first EP, “Don’t Smile at Me,” in a studio. Eilish described those sessions as “just the worst experience on planet earth … just miserable.” To put themselves out of that misery, she and her brother opted to skip the studio option and record “When We All Fall Asleep” as they had “Ocean Eyes,” in the family home. “Why not?” Eilish asked. “It worked… You don’t have to fix something that’s not broken.”
“There’s perks to the childhood bedroom,” Finneas added. “The place you sleep is there, so if you’re tired you can just go to sleep. We had a private chef, named Our Mom.”
“We could pet our dog,” Eilish added. “It was great to be in my room, have an idea, and immediately record it. Don’t have to go get in the car.”
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. “As soon as he picked it up, a song was written, immediately,” she said. “It was so annoying, how good he was. I was Little Sister: ‘I want to write, too. My brother did it. I want to do it, too.’ I’m a lot slower at it, and because he’s always been so good and so quick, it made me feel like I was bad.”
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. “If you have an argument, it’s not like it’s over forever,” Eilish noted. “You can’t, like, break up with your brother or your sister. You know you can’t. Maybe you want to sometimes, but you can’t… If he doesn’t like something I come up with, he can be, like, ‘No!’ When collaborating with someone you’ve just met or whatever, if you don’t like something, it’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.”
Finneas added, “We’re being super-straightforward, and that saves a lot of time. And because we’re related and there’s no hurt feelings in there, the other one can go, ‘Well, I love it!’ And the strength in your position and how much you’re invested in it is really important. I was producing a thing for someone last week. It’s for their record, and they were like, ‘It should be this way.’ And I’m hired. So I was like, ‘OK!’ And they’re wrong! I love that Billie and I get to say that.”
In the end, Eilish said, “We never compromise. One of us wins… Don’t compromise. If you want something, go for it and fight for that thing and you get it. If it’s a decision where you’re trying to work with somebody, let them win, and then they should let you win.”
But she noted that coming out on top in a struggle of wills isn’t always a win, as a fight about the song “All the Good Girls Go to Hell” proved to her: “We both had very strong feelings about what the intro should be… 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 it’s way better. So I lost!”
Talk turned to the freakazoid style of Eilish’s in-your-face videos, which have been critical in developing her edgy public image. She acknowledged that reaction has not always been positive.
“The Christians in [YouTube’s] comment sections — oh, my God! Zero offense at all, but they’re so mean. Damn, I’m trying to make a song about global warming, and they’re like, ‘She’s Satan!’ No offense, though. Everyone should have their own beliefs.”
When interviewer Goldman squeamishly asked how the spider-infested video for “You Should See Me in a Crown” was made, Eilish recalled dryly, “I said, ‘I want to make a video where a spider crawls in my mouth. Find someone.’ And they found someone… Turns out spiders really like being in dark, wet places. It’s weird, man, but it rolls. Even if you hate it, you gotta respect that it’s different. It’s weird, though. I apologize.”
(During the audience Q&A session later, she told a very young girl, “I have a pet tarantula. You should come over and see him. He’s blue, and he’s very cute. They’re fun. They’re not gonna hurt you. They’re cool. They have personalities.”)
The conversation took a heavier turn when Eilish spoke about the close identification she enjoys with her young audience and her investment in them. “People don’t have things to help them,” she said. “If I can be that on even a microscopic level, I want to be that.”
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.
“I do meet-and-greets where I see scars all over girls’ arms. It hurts me so much to see it because I used to be there. I know what it’s like, and I know how it feels. I know exactly what it’s like. I don’t talk about it. I just look at them and I grab their shoulders and [I say] ‘Please’… 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, ‘Whatcha do?’”
She continued, “I want to be theirs. I don’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 don’t understand. People at my meet-and-greets at shows tell me stuff, and I’m like… whoa! It just makes me want to scream for them, and grab them and hug them, and take them with me.”
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.
“The last two years were kind of the worst mentally for me,” she said. “It 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 I’ve ever been. I was in Europe for a month, and I felt like nothing. There was no point to anything at all. I don’t know how I got out of it.”
Choking up, she recalled the pain that online accusations of “fake depression” inflicted on her. “It hurt so bad to see that when I literally was bleeding on the bathroom floor. It tore me apart… It made me never want to go outside again.
“The last two months of my life, right now, have been the happiest places I’ve ever been in,” she added before pausing to comment, “This is so embarrassing — I’m really the worst.”
She concluded, “It’s OK. I think I was just patient. To be honest with you, I didn’t think I would make it to this age, but I have, and I waited, and I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life.”