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Billie Eilish’s Teenage Truths

How the unfiltered 17-year-old singer with dark visions became pop’s new conscience

BIllie Eilish at home in Los Angeles.

Billie Eilish, at home in Los Angeles.

Jessica Lehrman for Rolling Stone

Two days ago, Billie Eilish celebrated her 17th birthday at a roller rink here in L.A., and yesterday she got right back to work, which meant hunkering down at “a random-ass hotel” to shoot a video for her new single, “Bury a Friend.”

“It smelled like pee and horses,” she says of the hotel, “but we fucking nailed it, dude.” Wearing recently blue hair that she’s now dyeing gray, Eilish sits in the backyard of the bungalow she’s called home since birth. She wrote the new song, she says, “from the perspective of the monster under your bed. Anything could be the monster — it could be someone you love so much that it’s taking over your life. I think love and terror and hatred are all the same thing.”

This is the sort of observation that Eilish rattles off casually in the course of conversation: Her sweet, sleepy singing voice and taste for setting catchy melodies over acoustic and electronic beats belies a brain full of dark visions. To that end, she has made a string of creepy videos, notching hundreds of millions of views, in which black tears pour from her eyes and spiders crawl into her mouth.

For “Bury a Friend,” she says, “I had this idea where I’m naked. Like an abduction-type thing, completely not in control, just a helpless body, and people putting syringes up my arms and in my neck. That’s one of people’s biggest fears — needles — and that’s what I’ve been doing recently: honing in on people’s fears.”

It was a long shoot, physically demanding to the point of injury. “There were a lot of people’s hands, gripping me and throwing me and choking me and pulling my hair. We did a bunch of takes and every time I’d get a headache or someone’s finger in my eye, and I couldn’t see out of it, and my earring kept getting pulled out, so we had to glue it into my ear. And I loved it. I enjoy being fucked with and hurt and tossed around, almost. It feels good to me for some reason.”

Eilish’s dad brings us glasses of water from the kitchen. The family dog, an affectionate pit mix named Pepper, takes a shit in the grass a few feet away from us. Eilish points and laughs — “Bro, that sucks for dogs” — then gives her masochism a shrugging diagnosis. “It’s some weird shit,” she says.

Eilish is as offhandedly funny as she is reflexively dark. Her devotion to “weird shit” manifests not as some goth-y affectation but as an eminently reasonable reaction to a moment when, as she puts it, “shit is messed up.” With an EP and several standalone singles to her name, she’s now putting the finishing touches on her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? which she says constitutes a reaction to our topsy-turvy dystopian present: “There’s a line on there about hills burning in California. That’s a natural thing to have now — a huge part of L.A. on fire and there’s nothing you can do. The skies are all gray and orange, and that’s natural. There’s school shootings all the time and that’s normal. That’s fucked! This is our normal world and it’s not weird to us because it’s what we’ve always had. It’s like, things are so fucked, I’m just gonna make art about it.”

Heading inside, Eilish shows me the bedroom of her older brother, musician Finneas O’Connell, where they have collaborated on all of her music. In 2016 the pair posted a moody electronic love song called “Ocean Eyes” to Soundcloud and were stunned when it took off — and landed her a major-label contract. Eilish turns into her bedroom, crammed with clothes that various luxury designers have sent her in the hopes she’ll wear them on Instagram for her 13.3 million followers. She hops on her bed and pulls aside a curtain draped over the wall, revealing a swarm of lyrics and stray thoughts she’s written there in black marker. I’m a void, the epitome of nothing; I’m gonna drink acid; Eat shit.

“This is my brain — my inspirations of whatever the fuck,” she explains. “My room is all clothes and shoes, but you lift this up and it’s a big, dark, fucking shit-hole. People who send me stuff don’t realize that I grew up poor and I don’t have a house that can fit things for rich people.” Her parents store their own clothes in Eilish’s dresser, because there are no more bedrooms in the home and they sleep on a futon in the living room. Both are actors, appearing in supporting roles on crime dramas and doing voiceovers for commercials — “It wasn’t like, ‘My movie star parents’ at all,” Eilish says of her L.A. youth. “They’re working actors who I wish had had more of a career. I wish they were famous and that’s why I became famous. But that’s not how it is.”

INGLEWOOD, CA - DECEMBER 09: Billie Eilish performs onstage during KROQ Absolut Almost Acoustic Christmas 2018 at The Forum on December 9, 2018 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

Eilish at a radio show in Inglewood, California in December. She kicks off a bigger U.S. tour in April. Photograph by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

Eilish says her album will continue in the vein of her previous music, exhibiting a relaxed attitude towards genre, an overcast emotional atmosphere, and a literary approach to lyrics. “Finneas and I like writing from other people’s perspectives. Half the songs are fictional and half are things I was going through, and no one will ever know which is which.” That blurriness has no bearing, she emphasizes, on how her songs resonate with fans. “Kids use my songs as a hug. Songs about being depressed or suicidal or completely just against-yourself — some adults think that’s bad, but I feel that seeing that someone else feels just as horrible as you do is a comfort. It’s a good feeling.” Eilish lets the curtain fall back over the big, dark shit-hole that is her brain. “It’s someone to scream with,” she says.

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