“Hey, Billie?” says Billie Eilish’s mom, standing in the kitchen of their Los Angeles home. “Are you going to clean your room?”
“Yeah,” says Eilish, 17, stretching her reply into two no-duh syllables. Even from the couch, her eye roll is audible.
Her mom turns to me. “Can she clean her room while you talk? Is that OK?”
The Eilish home sits on a leafy block in L.A.’s Highland Park, a gentrifying neighborhood where discount party suppliers and muffler shops sit alongside cafes and fancy pet stores. The two-bedroom bungalow is cramped and homey, with overflowing bookshelves and, currently, five occupants: Eilish’s mom; Eilish’s dad; their rescue cat, Misha; their rescue dog, Pepper; and the biggest, most exciting new pop star of 2019.
Eilish’s debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, was released this past spring and has already been streamed more than 2 billion times. The week it came out, she had 14 songs in the Top 100 — more than any other female artist ever. Last week she was touring Australia, tomorrow she leaves for a festival in the U.K., and for the rest of the month she’s playing amphitheaters and arenas across the U.S. — every one sold out.
But this afternoon is a rarity for Eilish: a day at home with not much to do. So she’s doing what any good 17-year-old would: wasting time on the internet while not cleaning her room.
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“Did you know broccoli is a man-made food?” Eilish, staring at her phone, says to no one in particular. “It doesn’t grow naturally.”
“Well, I picked broccoli as a kid,” says her mom.
“No, you did not,” counters Eilish. “I’m looking at it on Safari.”
Eilish was born in December 2001, making her the first artist with a chart-topping album to be born this millennium. She’s so Gen Z, she makes twentysomethings feel ancient. She’s never bought a CD. She says things like, “I’m never gonna be 27 — that’s too old.” She’s also probably the only pop star who still sees a pediatrician. (“It’s weird,” says her mom. “There’s a waiting room full of four-year-olds, and then there’s Billie Eilish.”)
Eilish has conquered the music world in part by doing everything she’s not supposed to. Her music is darker and weirder than that of most teen pop stars, with a gothy, punkish, vaguely sinister edge and nary a hint of bubblegum. For her core teen-girl fan base, she’s like the cool senior in art class who dresses and acts the way they wish they could: stylish, outrageous, maybe a little dangerous. (As her hit single “Bad Guy” puts it, “I’m the bad type, make-your-mama-sad type. . . might-seduce-your-dad type.” You get the sense that she’d love to be a “Parents Beware” segment on the 11:00 news.) Her vibe is both semi-nihilist and joyously defiant, a perfect soundtrack for a generation facing a half-dozen existential threats before first period. But she’s also playful, mischievous, vulnerable, alienated, melancholy — in other words, a teen.
Unlike previous generations of pop idols — your Nickelodeon alums and Simon Cowell constructs — Eilish also got where she is more or less organically. Four years ago, she uploaded to SoundCloud a gorgeous ballad called “Ocean Eyes,” which she sang and her older brother, Finneas, now 22, wrote and produced. The song was meant for Eilish’s dance teacher, who’d asked for a song to choreograph a routine to. But when it went viral essentially overnight, the industry came calling. She had a billion streams on Spotify before her album had even come out.
Not that Eilish is impressed with it all. The first sound on her album is the adolescent slurp of her taking out her Invisalign, and that zero-fucks authenticity sums up her style. Her music — written and recorded by two siblings in their bedrooms — stands out in a pop universe where everything is made by the same seven or eight pros. And her lack of pretense and disregard for bullshit surely have a lot to do with her success. “We often have to tell Billie why something is important,” her mom says. Her dad — who says Eilish “has no tolerance for people she’s not interested in and doesn’t give a shit whether you like her or not” — recalls a time recently when a bunch of record execs from her label gathered to give her a plaque. “A different artist would be completely gassed to get a gold record with their name on it,” he says. “But Billie’s response was, ‘What am I gonna do with a fucking plaque?’”
Eilish’s fame has jumped exponentially this year, and she’s still figuring it all out. It’s a steep learning curve. A few weeks ago, she came down with multiple rashes, and a doctor said it was her body’s way of telling her she was exhausted and needed to rest. Recently, her family’s home address leaked online, and three fans showed up in a single day, including a creepy older guy who’d driven all the way from San Diego. For a while they had a bodyguard sleep in the living room. “It was really traumatizing,” says Eilish. “I completely don’t feel safe in my house anymore, which sucks. I love my house.”
This afternoon, the family is hectically packing, getting ready for a month on the road. Her dad makes a run to their storage space to pick up Eilish’s electric scooters, while her mom does Eilish’s laundry and fixes her lunch in between packing her suitcase. At one point she comes over holding a portable Bluetooth speaker and asks, “Honey, are we taking this?”
“No,” Eilish says, “I’m taking my backpack.” (She has a backpack with built-in speakers.)
“Well, do you want this one as a backup?”
“You’re 100 percent sure?”
Eilish sighs dramatically. “You can bring it,” she says. “But I don’t need it.”
“OK. So I’ll bring it, then?”
Eilish throws up her hands. “Oh, my God.”
Truth be told, Eilish isn’t really looking forward to this tour. In fact, she’s kind of dreading it. She hates being away from her friends for so long — she knows when she gets back, they’ll all dress differently and have new inside jokes. “It’s annoying,” she says. “I have this amazing thing in front of me, and I don’t want to hate it. And I don’t hate it. But I hate certain parts of it.”
Eilish has always been afraid of things: the ocean and deep water; dark places like her closet or the garage at night. To this day, she stills jumps the last few feet into bed in case there’s a monster underneath waiting to grab her. She’s been deft at incorporating these fears into her work — songs like “Bury a Friend,” a sonic nightmare about cannibals and stapled tongues, or videos like “When the Party’s Over,” where she weeps black ink like in a Japanese horror flick.
But ever since her career took off, her nightmares have gotten way more intense. “I actually had to stop watching horror movies, because everything started flipping me out,” she says. “I saw creatures outside my windows. I had sleep paralysis. I’m done with the fake shit — real life is way too scary.
“I’ve loved attention my whole life,” Eilish goes on, “but I don’t think anyone knows what fame actually is. Because if I did want to be famous — it wasn’t this kind.”
In photos, Eilish rarely smiles, but in person, she’s funny, goofy, and entertainingly dramatic. She makes great faces, and even when she’s being bratty, it’s usually with a wink. Her hair, often blue, is today dyed a deep espresso, and her signature streetwear look — hoodie, basketball shorts, Air Jordans — is fashionably oversized and androgynous. Her fingers are spiked with silver rings (“She’s a pain in the butt at airports,” says her tour manager), and her nails are tipped with frightening two-inch acrylics that look like dragon’s talons. “They’re supposed to be skin color, but they’re turning pink, and I hate it,” Eilish says. “I tried to re-color them, but I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.”
Eilish is actually her middle name. Before she was born, her parents, Maggie Baird and Patrick O’Connell, saw a documentary about conjoined Irish twins, Katie and Eilish Holton, and decided if they ever had a daughter, they wanted to name her Eilish. But when Maggie was pregnant, her father, Bill, passed away, so they named her Billie after him instead. Meanwhile, Finneas, who was four, insisted on calling her “Pirate,” and that stuck, too. And thus, her full name: Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell.
(As for her actual last name, Eilish never liked it. “It sounds like if a goat was a person,” she says. “Billie Goat O’Connell.”)
Eilish was a sensitive kid with severe separation anxiety. She slept in her parents’ bed until she was 10; her dad says until she was 12, one of them was with her literally around the clock. “Both kids were hard, but in different ways,” says her mom. “Finneas tortured you, but he was tortured himself, so you felt bad for him. Whereas Billie enjoyed torturing you. She had no sympathy at all. She was like, ‘Oh, you’re crying? You’re weak.’ ”
“I was horrible,” says Eilish. “My goal was to get you to scream.”
Her brain always worked a little differently. As a child, she was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome, which for her manifests as barely noticeable tics: a slight bulging of her eyes, a twitching of her head to one side. She’s usually able to suppress them, though certain things seem to trigger her attacks (e.g., math). She also experiences synesthesia, the neurosensory wire-crossing in which senses seem to blend together. “Every person I know has their own color and shape and number in my head, but it’s normal to me,” she says. Finneas, for example, is an orange triangle, although the name “Finneas” is dark green. And her song “Bad Guy” “is yellow, but also red, and the number seven,” she says. “It’s not hot, but warm, like an oven. And it smells like cookies.”
Maggie and Patrick were “mostly unemployed” actors (his words) who put their careers on hold to home-school the kids. They had no formal curriculum: Instead, they let Eilish and Finneas explore whatever interested them that day or week — art classes; museums; science programs at Cal Tech. “Our whole stance was, general knowledge is all,” Patrick says. “You need to know why the sky is blue, but you don’t need to memorize a bunch of esoterica you’ll never use.” (Eilish passed her high school equivalency exam and graduated at 15.)
For a long time, Eilish seemed more interested in visual art. She’d borrow her dad’s digital camera and stage photo shoots in the backyard, little dramas with her toy animals in the grass savanna. Her dad made slide shows and set them to music; he still has a folder on his computer called “Billie’s World.” As Eilish got older, she graduated to shooting and editing home movies with her friends. Both of her parents thought she’d grow up to be a director. (“She was pretty bossy,” her mom says.)
She tried acting a few times, but it didn’t take. “I went on, like, two auditions,” she says. “So lame. This creepy, cold room. All these kids that looked exactly the same. Most actor kids are psychopaths.” She had more fun looping — recording background dialogue for crowd scenes. “I did Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Ramona and Beezus, X-Men,” she says. “It was fun — a bunch of kids in a room yelling random things, and then we’d have a break and get snacks.” In a way, it’s not too dissimilar from what she does now.
Meanwhile, there was always music. The family had three pianos in the house, including a junky old grand that Patrick scavenged for free off the internet. Maggie played guitar and taught both kids the basics of songwriting: This is a verse, these are chords. “We kind of had a rule in the house that no one would ever make you go to sleep if you were playing music,” she says. “Music trumped everything.”
If they were trying to create an incubator for musical prodigies, it worked. Finneas asked for his first drum kit for Christmas at age three and taught himself piano at 11. As for Eilish, she wrote her first song on the ukulele at four, was performing “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” at talent shows at seven, and joined the prestigious L.A. Children’s Chorus at eight. As she and Finneas got older, they started writing together, eventually recording their songs on an iMac that Finneas — a former child actor with small roles on Modern Family and Glee — had saved up for.
When Eilish signed her first record deal, her label tried to relocate her to a real studio and get her to collaborate with more seasoned songwriters and producers. She was not a fan. “I hated it so much,” she says. “It was always these 50-year-old men who’d written these ‘big hit songs!’ and then they’re horrible at it. I’m like, ‘You did this a hundred years ago. Ugh.’ No one listened to me, because I was 14 and a girl. And we made ‘Ocean Eyes’ without anyone involved — so why are we doing this?”
When it came time to record her album, Eilish stuck with the formula she knew. She and Finneas co-wrote 11 of the 13 songs, while he wrote the other two and produced them all. They worked in spurts, for 45 minutes or all night long, just sitting in each other’s bedrooms trading lines. Eilish recorded her vocals on Finneas’ bed, singing into a mic while surrounded by flower pillows. “It’s crazy,” Finneas says. “Most people need to stand and open their diaphragms, but Billie sounds amazing just slumped on the bed.” They kept a progress chart scribbled on his wall, right above where they used to mark their heights as kids.
Sonically, Eilish’s music is genre-omnivorous: post-Lorde confessionals, bouncy Benny Blanco pop, skittering-808 trap beats and Yeezus-era-Kanye abrasion. Vocally, she recalls everyone from Lana Del Rey to early Eminem, her singsongy nyah-nyah raps giving way to beautiful, hushed ballads over a minimalist bottom end. “Billie has this specific vocal range, sort of between a whisper and a hum,” Finneas says. “If you play a lot of instruments in that range, her voice sounds foggy — but things like bass, kick drums, and low, clocky snares can co-exist and not conflict.”
A few months ago, Finneas bought himself a new house. It’s only four minutes away — but his bedroom studio is still here, untouched. “If my parents were like, ‘We need the room, take out all your stuff,’ I’d be like, ‘That makes sense. I have a house now!’ ” he says. “But their very kind argument is: ‘If Billie still lives at home, and she still wants to make music with you, we want you to be able to do that here.’ ”
“Mom?” says Eilish, sitting on the couch and gazing out the window while Maggie makes tea. “Can you get my notebook?”
Her mom brings it in. “For a while I wrote down literally everything I was thinking or feeling in this book,” Eilish says. “I actually haven’t done anything in this book for a while — because I’ve been hiding all my emotions?” She laughs, but not really.
Eilish flips it open and shows me a few pages — sketches of optical illusions, of spiders, of the Babadook. (“I got so much inspiration from the Babadook,” she says.) On one page there’s a creature she sometimes dreams about, a cross between a scary snake and the xenomorph from Alien. “This is literally how I got the whole concept for the album,” she says. “It’s kind of what I imagine I look like in my head.”
But most of the book is filled with words: snippets from her favorite rap songs, draft lyrics for songs she never put out, lyrics for songs she did. Plus, she says, “some stupid 14-year-old shit.” (On one page: “You really know how to make me cry.” On another: “I just want to hold you,” with the “hold” crossed out and replaced with “fuck.”)
Eilish turns the page. “And this page . . . oof. This is just me depressed,” she says. Scared, broken, and alone. And: I’m sad again. “Yeah,” says Eilish. “This is when I was . . . not good.”
Eilish says it started with a dance injury when she was 13. She’d been dancing seriously for several years: ballet, tap, jazz, hip-hop, contemporary. When she was 12, she joined a competitive dance company. It was a lot of “really pretty girls” who were all in school together, all friends. “That was probably when I was the most insecure,” Eilish says. “I wasn’t as confident. I couldn’t speak and just be normal. When I think about it or see pictures of me then, I was so not OK with who I was.”
She was also self-conscious about her body. “At dance, you wear really tiny clothes,” she says. “And I’ve never felt comfortable in really tiny clothes. I was always worried about my appearance. That was the peak of my body dysmorphia. I couldn’t look in the mirror at all.”
Then, just as she was starting to get pretty good, catastrophe struck. “Basically, before you’re 16, the cartilage in your hip isn’t firm yet,” she says. “It’s still growing. I was in a hip-hop class with all the seniors, the most advanced level.” She was already injury-prone, and one day, she ruptured the growth plate in her hip.
The injury was devastating. She had to quit dance altogether. “I think that’s when the depression started,” she says. “It sent me down a hole. I went through a whole self-harming phase — we don’t have to go into it. But the gist of it was, I felt like I deserved to be in pain.”
Ironically, at the same time, her career was starting to take off. “It’s funny,” Eilish says. “When anyone else thinks about Billie Eilish at 14, they think of all the good things that happened. But all I can think of is how miserable I was. How completely distraught and confused. Thirteen to 16 was pretty rough.”
Eventually, she got better. “I haven’t been depressed in a minute, which is great,” she says. “Seventeen has probably been the best year of my life. I’ve liked 17.”
But the sadness is still with her. “Sometimes I see girls at my shows with scars on their arms, and it breaks my heart,” she says. “I don’t have scars anymore because it was so long ago. But I’ve said to a couple of them, ‘Just be nice to yourself.’ Because I know. I was there.”
While she’s home, Eilish wants to see about a horse.
“We’re trying to find ways to help Billie relax,” says her mom. “The one thing she’s always really loved is horses.” There’s a stable near their house where she learned to ride as a little girl. Her family couldn’t afford to pay, so Eilish worked in exchange for lessons — bridling the horses, brushing them afterward. But she stopped coming around after a couple of years because she “couldn’t take being the poor girl around the stable.” “I made a couple of friends,” she says. “But otherwise nobody was very nice. Horse people don’t like poor people.”
But now that she has some money, she wants to have access to a horse when she’s home. “It’s more for my mental health than, like, a hobby,” she says.
Outside, her new car is parked on the curb: a matte-black Dodge Challenger she’s nicknamed the Dragon. “Look at her fine ass,” Eilish says. “I love this car so much.” The Challenger — her dream car since she was 13 — was a 17th-birthday gift from her label. But until five days ago, she wasn’t allowed to drive it without one of her parents. She just passed her driver’s test on Friday; today is Wednesday.
“Check this out,” Eilish says, opening her wallet. She proudly shows off her license. Name: Billie Eilish O’Connell. Eyes: Blue. Hair: Other.
Eilish shifts into gear and makes her way through the neighborhood. “I’m trying so hard not to speed right now,” she says. I tell her not to drive differently on my account, and she shakes her head. “It’s mainly because my mom is up there.”
Outside the stables, the owner greets Eilish with a hug, and they go inside to discuss her options. The owner says she can do something called a “half-lease,” which would give her access to a horse whenever she wants. The cost would be $1,000 a month. “We can’t really afford that,” Eilish’s mom says. “But she can.”
Afterward, Eilish walks through the barn to visit the horses. She still remembers most of them: Rosie, Clover, Frenchie, Captain America, the ponies Jellybean and Tinkerbell. She nuzzles each one, letting it smell her head.
Eventually she gets to a gorgeous black mare named Jackie O, and Eilish practically swoons. “I was literally in love with this horse,” she says. For a while she took lessons on her. “But then this other girl with more money wanted to ride her” — and since she could afford to pay, she got priority. Eilish was so crushed, she quit riding altogether. She couldn’t bear to see someone else on Jackie O.
“But even after I stopped riding,” she says, “I came here just to be with her.” She strokes Jackie O’s neck and smiles. The horse seems to remember her, too.
And then, just like that, Eilish is on the road.
She starts in San Francisco, makes her way through the Pacific Northwest, and eventually arrives in Utah, where I meet up with her at a venue called the Great Saltair, on the banks of the Great Salt Lake.
When I get there, Eilish is running around taking pictures on the salt flats in head-to-toe neon green: neon-green T-shirt, neon-green shorts, neon-green sneakers, and a neon-green Spring Breakers-style balaclava.
Eilish comes in for soundcheck, then recruits her dad and Finneas and a few crew guys for some Frisbee on the grass, which quickly devolves into a wholesome hip-hop dance party. She heads inside to cool off with a gluten-free vegan burrito (a lifelong vegetarian, she has never eaten meat — although she did once accidentally swallow an ant in a glass of soy milk). She washes it down with sparkling water, because her mom doesn’t like her drinking soda. The Stones in ’72 this is not.
Eilish’s dirty little secret is that, for all her boasts about villainy and dad-seducing, she’s actually a pretty good kid. She doesn’t drink. She’s never even tried drugs. Her song “Xanny” is all about how pills are dumb. True, she curses like she’s auditioning for Veep. But improbably, her album doesn’t feature a single curse word. Finneas says that’s by design. She’s an antihero who’s safe to listen to with Mom and Dad in the car.
Late in the afternoon, a few dozen fans are ushered backstage for a meet-and-greet. Almost all are teen or preteen girls, accompanied by their parents. Several are dressed like mini-Billies — high-viz neon, multi-colored hair. There’s lots of giggling and nervous tugging at sleeves; several of them cry. When they get to the front of the line, each girl hands Maggie her phone, and she films as Eilish doles out compliments and hugs: “You’re so pretty!” “Your hair is fire!” “That belt is sick!” “You look good as fuck!” As they leave, Eilish tells them she loves them and to take care of themselves.
Eilish’s tour manager, Brian Marquis, is a vet of the hardcore scene who used to work production at Warped Tour. He says Eilish’s music reminds him of some bands he loved in the Nineties: Portishead, Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails. For him, touring with Eilish is especially cool, because so many Gen X icons have kids who are just the right age to be Billie Eilish fans, and they’ve come backstage to say hi and be hero dads for a night: Dave Grohl, Billie Joe Armstrong, Thom Yorke. Marquis says Grohl and Armstrong were the sweetest guys ever, but Yorke was a little tough. “He was just as you’d expect — curmudgeonly, perturbed.” According to Marquis, Yorke went up to Eilish and mumbled, almost grumpily, “You’re the only one doing anything fucking interesting nowadays.”
Eilish’s response: “. . . thank you?”
(Said Finneas later, “That’s the coolest thing anyone’s ever said to you.”)
Eilish is familiar with all these guys, but she’s not exactly star-struck. After the Seattle show, Eddie Vedder came backstage with his 14-year-old daughter. “Billie was nice to him and nice to his daughter,” her dad says. “And then she got out of there as fast as she could.”
It’s all a far cry from Eilish’s first tour, just two years ago. That was six of them in a van — Eilish, her parents and brother, Marquis, and a merch person. Their hotel budget was $100 a night; Eilish and the family usually shared a single room, and frequently one bed. “It was fun, sort of,” says her dad. “It was miserable,” says Eilish. “Horrible Motel 6’s. Tiny little green rooms. We took it slow on purpose, so it would be more impactful when we got here — but we took it way slower than we needed to.”
During the Salt Lake City show, the audience looks to be about 80 percent fans and 20 percent moms. (Many of whom, to be fair, are also fans.) For a lot of the kids, it’s probably their first concert ever. Eilish’s mom watches from the crowd, while her dad stands side-stage. Partway through the show, he sends her a text: Billie has a really good voice.
Maggie and Patrick met in 1984 during rehearsals for a play in Alaska. They dated for 11 years before they got married. By the time Eilish came along, Maggie was 42 and Patrick was 44. At the time, both had solid if unexceptional careers: Maggie had appeared on Friends and Curb Your Enthusiasm and was in the comedy troupe the Groundlings with Will Ferrell (she was also Melissa McCarthy’s first improv teacher); Patrick had been on Broadway and booked small parts on The West Wing and NYPD Blue. But after they moved to L.A. and the kids were born, the jobs started to dry up. They also got less interested in chasing them.
“Acting is superweird,” says Eilish. “You can work for years and years and be the best in the world and never get a role, and you can be mediocre, do one audition, and become a huge star. For years, I saw my parents beat up over the fact that they didn’t have it better. And that drove me insane — because they were really good! My dad is the best actor I’ve ever seen. And my mom can do all these voices and characters — she’s incredible. So I wish they’d had more recognition. I actually want to make a movie and put them in it — I’ve never told anyone that.”
As their careers slowed, they found other ways to make ends meet. Patrick worked as a handyman, Maggie taught classes in aerial (the acrobatic discipline that uses fabric and trapeze), and both took on a lot of voice-over work. By 2007, they’d scraped together enough money to buy a house across the street, which they fixed up and flipped for a profit. But when they tried to flip another one, the market collapsed, and they lost everything, barely keeping their own house. “It was bad,” says Maggie. “It was a really tough time.” As Eilish, who was six, says, “We were poor as fuck.”
In dire need of steady work, Patrick got a job in the wood shop at Mattel, where he built sets for Barbie dolls and other toys. “I enjoyed the work,” he says. “But I felt pretty miserable and sorry for myself that my life had come to this.” So when Eilish booked her first tour, he quit, and became her one-man crew — driving the van, teaching himself how to do lights. “I thought, ‘When is this ever gonna happen again?’ ” he says. “I wanted to be a part of it, because it’s pretty darn cool.”
And even now that they have four buses and a crew of 37, the road is still a family affair. Patrick works as a kind of utility man, using his carpentry skills to fix whatever needs fixing. As for Maggie, she’s a cross between the tour den mom and Eilish’s actual mother, passing out dried mangoes to the crew and generally being a warm, maternal presence. Most important, she’s Eilish’s psychological gatekeeper, running interference on everything people want to bring to her. “I just understand how things will fit into her mood better,” she says, “and not fuck up her day.”
Both earn a salary on the road. It’s not a lot — just enough that they don’t go broke being out of work for months at a time. But neither earns a commission, or in any other way profits off Eilish’s success.
They worry about her, of course. “When it first started, my biggest fear was that they would exploit her fast and be done with her,” says Maggie. Thankfully, that didn’t happen — but Patrick says they’re always vigilant. “Her teenage years were wrested from her,” he says. “She was being shuttled all over the country at 14. That’s really young. So although this has all been pretty wonderful and extraordinary, we try to put a buffer between Billie and the ravenous industry. Because it’s too much.”
After the show, Eilish takes a few minutes to be alone and drink some water. She spends a while choosing her outfit for the next day, then does a smell test on some dressing-room candles. (“Too cupcake-y.” “Too my mom.” “Ooh, I like that.”) Eventually she retires to the bus, where she curls up on the bed with Patrick and debates which pictures from the salt flats to post to Instagram.
Sometime around two a.m., the bus starts rolling, and the family turns in. But in the middle of the night, Eilish wakes up and stumbles over to Maggie’s bunk.
“Mom?” she whispers in the dark. “I had a bad dream. Can you come sleep with me?”
One afternoon, Eilish and I sit down in her dressing room to talk. She sinks into a brown leather couch, and her mom brings her a plate of Tater Tots with mustard and ketchup. She spears a few with her talons, then pushes them away. “They taste like diabetes,” she says.
Eilish says when we met at her house, she was having a much harder time than she’d let on. “I’m fine now,” she says. “But that was one of the hardest weeks I’ve ever had. I’ve never felt more hopeless in my life.” She says she’s never been one to suffer from anxiety or panic attacks. (“I have a lot of problems, but not those.”) “But that week,” she says, “I had a panic attack every single night. I cried for two hours every night. It was really, really bad.”
Eilish says it all came back to the tour. “I just couldn’t take the fact that I had to leave again,” Eilish says. “It felt like an endless limbo. Like there was no end in sight. And, I mean, it’s true: There really is no end in sight with touring.” She has shows planned all over the world well into next year. “Thinking about that literally made me throw up,” she says. “I’m not a throw-upper, but I threw up twice, from the anxiety.”
She often gets this feeling before a tour. “But it’s never been that bad, ever,” she says. “There was a moment when I was sitting on my bathroom floor — this sounds depressing, because it was — but I was sitting on my bathroom floor, trying to think of something I could look forward to. And I could not think of one thing. I thought for a long time, too. I was like, ‘There has to be something.’ But there was nothing.”
She was also scared to be by herself. “Every time I was alone, I would break down and kind of crumble,” she says. “It got to the point where my friend would say, ‘I’m going home, see you,’ and I’d get this feeling in my stomach like a knife being twisted around. I felt unsafe with myself, even for an hour.” She mentions her history of self-harm: “I don’t trust myself when I’m alone.”
Eilish knew she had to get better before she left. “I have a job that doesn’t allow me to break down,” she says. “I can’t go cry somewhere, I can’t go scream and be mad. I have to work.” She’d tried seeing a therapist a few times last year and found it so-so, but she forced herself to go again. “I just was in such a bad place. It was too much on me. I was too much on me. I don’t want advice, because I’m not going to take it anyway. I just wanted to be heard.”
So Eilish went to see a therapist. And slowly, she felt better. Other things helped, too: She spent time with friends. She drove the Dragon. She rode Jackie O. “It’s funny,” she says, not laughing. “It was literally just a week — but it was so intense it feels like a whole year of my life I’m talking about right now. It was just a completely random week of bursting misery.”
For this tour, the entire operation was built around making Eilish’s life better. She has more off days between shows. She got a fancy new bus with her own bedroom and a shower. (Jokes Maggie, “We basically upgraded to a bus that’s way better for Billie and worse for everyone else.”) Eilish also chartered an extra “friends bus,” so her friends from back home can come hang with her on the road. “It cost a lot of money, and I don’t know if we can even afford it,” she says. “But I needed it for my mental health, you know?”
Before she left, she and her mom also sat down and made specific plans for which friends were coming to visit. “I had to really secure: When are they coming? What are the dates, exactly?” Eilish says. “ I booked the flights and put them in the calendar, and now I can know that and hold on to it.”
And much to her surprise, she’s enjoying the tour so far. “It’s been cool,” she says. “The shows have been amazing. We brought the scooters, so we’ve been scootering around. We played Ultimate Frisbee and I beat everybody’s ass. So yeah. I’ve been pretty happy. I’m really trying hard to make it as good as possible for me, because I want to love what I do. I don’t want to be miserable, because it’s not a miserable thing. But when there are things that make you miserable . . . it’s miserable!”
In the end, Eilish knows how lucky she is. “I have an amazing job, dude. I really do. The things I get to do in my career have just been unbelievable. Like this shit, bro? Can you believe this is real?”
She pulls out her phone and shows me a photo of the crowd at her Portland show — 20,000 screaming fans. “Are you kidding me? Like, that’s what I get to do? Come on, bro! So I do love it. And, like, I do like fame. Fame is pretty cool. If I’m putting on my third-person cocky hat, the shit is fucking amazing. Going anywhere and being looked at because everyone knows who you are? That’s crazy! So I really cannot complain. But I do anyway.”
The next morning, everyone wakes up a little tired. Today’s show is at Red Rocks, the legendary amphitheater outside Denver. But the ride over the Continental Divide was rough, and it’s overcast and a little chilly. Eilish shuffles into the greenroom and microwaves herself a burrito, then plops down into a massage chair, feeling queasy with a headache. Patrick thinks it might be the altitude. Maggie goes off in search of aspirin.
After a while, someone brings Eilish an oxygen tank, and she holds the mask up to her face and breathes. Marquis comes in and tells her she looks like an old lady, with her recliner and her oxygen tank, and she laughs. Then he says there might be storms tonight, and Eilish perks up. “Really?” she says. “I hope it rains.”
One of her closest friends, Zoe, is here, too. She flew in from L.A. this morning. Eilish and Zoe have been inseparable since they met at a home-school park day as toddlers. Zoe was in the audience for Eilish’s first show ever: an open-mic night at a local wine bar the Sunday after Thanksgiving, right as “Ocean Eyes” started taking off. Recalls Zoe, “She kept saying, ‘I’m not nervous at all — I just have a terrible stomachache.’ ” She laughs. “I was like, ‘Are you sure?’ And she goes, ‘Yeah, I don’t get nervous. I just really have to go to the bathroom.’ ” Now Zoe is here for the next three weeks — the rest of the U.S. tour. She says her job is to just hang out with Eilish and make her feel good.
“I’m like her therapy dog,” she jokes. “Her emotional-support human.”
Eilish and Zoe spend the afternoon together, riding scooters and playing Uno. Then Eilish gets her wish, and the skies open up. There’s lightning and dangerous winds; they have to evacuate the venue.
By showtime, it’s been raining on and off for hours. Eilish takes the stage in a white hoodie, white gym shorts, and white Air Jordans, her cheeks apple-red in the wind and cold, looking like a Hypebeast Snow White. She opens with “Bad Guy,” and the fans scream every word so loud you can’t even hear Eilish. It’s one of the loudest crowds I’ve heard at a concert, ever — until the chorus hits, and it’s twice as loud.
Eilish bounds around the stage, which is slick with rain, as Patrick scurries behind her mopping up wet spots. During one song, she slips and nearly breaks her neck, then laughs and keeps dancing. As the rain increases, more and more crew guys try to keep things dry with rags and towels, but it’s a Sisyphean task. Eventually Eilish abandons the stage entirely and moves to a railing a few feet from the crowd. The kids go crazy, and she’s loving it too. After “Ocean Eyes,” Eilish smiles and says, “Red Rocks, watch this!” then moonwalks across the stage. She cackles with delight and quotes a Vine from a few years ago: “I’m a bad bitch, you can’t kill me!”
Maybe it’s the weather, or the setting, or the crowd, but the whole vibe is pretty magical. Eilish feels it too. Near the end of the show, she turns sincere. “I just want to thank you,” she says. “This has been one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever experienced. I keep wanting to cry, but that’s dumb. I’ll cry afterwards.”
In December, Eilish will turn 18. She’s really looking forward to it. “I think she has this magic number of ‘When I’m 18, when I’m 18 . . .’ ” Maggie says. “She thinks she’s going to move out and have all her friends live with her. But I’m like, ‘When you’re 18 . . . you’re still just 18!’ Most people would be in the middle of their senior year of high school. So she’s still just a kid.”
After the show, Eilish’s greenroom is full of industry hangers-on who flew out from L.A. for the night. Label people, tour people, people from her management. As they schmooze and talk shop, Eilish and Zoe run around giggling, playing Frisbee with gluten-free tortillas. Eventually they disappear into the bathroom, singing to themselves as Eilish takes a shower.
Gradually the entourage trickles out, and it’s just Eilish, her mom and Zoe left. The girls gossip and reminisce for a while. Then they crawl into a recliner together, curled up like kittens, and silently scroll Instagram on their phones, while Maggie, smiling, sits at their feet, packing Eilish’s suitcase for another day on the road.