Billie Eilish prides herself on being intimidating.
"I think I have a vibe that makes you not even want to ask me anything," she says with a laugh. "You don't want to say no to me."
And so far, that vibe is working. At just 17, the LA-raised singer-songwriter makes music that is both haunting and oddly inviting. Her angsty, platinum-selling singles house dark electropop and her viral music videos toe the line between lurid and alluring.
Born Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O'Connell to a family of entertainers, Eilish has spent her entire life singing, dancing and writing music. She was 13 when she jump-started her music career by uploading "Ocean Eyes," a soul-stirring track produced by Finneas O'Connell, her older brother, onto SoundCloud. The pair wrote and produced the song right in O'Connell's bedroom and shortly after it went online, "Ocean Eyes" gained millions of plays. Since then, Eilish has signed a record deal and released her debut EP, 2017's don't smile at me, all while maintaining the same formula of making music at home with her brother.
Two years later, Eilish is continuing to create a sound that defies category but dominates the charts with her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, due out on March 29.
Eilish and O'Connell joined NPR's Michel Martin to discuss the album, their dedication to staying original, the inspiration behind Eilish's shocking music videos and more. Hear the radio version of their conversation at the audio link and read on for extended interview highlights.
On creating a unique sound in pop
Eilish: I don't think I really tried hard to have my sound. So I think that's why it happened. I think when you don't try super hard, things just tend to happen faster.
O'Connell: I think when we first started, we were trying to make music that sounded like the music that we liked. And so, that music probably sounded a little bit derivative to people. And I think as we progressed, we stopped trying to make music that fit with any other music or was in comparison and any other music.
Eilish: I mean, that's the thing about everything in life, you kind of have to try certain things out to figure out what you want. You can't just be born and be completely original. You don't know enough to do that. So, when you're younger, you try out different personalities because you don't know which one is you, to be honest. So you can't get mad at an artist's beginning [because] they're doing things that you've heard before. Obviously, they have and that's what you need to do to grow and to get where you need to be. You should always be able to have that moment of figuring out who you are by using a bunch of different things that you've heard already. And then, instead of still doing that for your whole career — which I think some people do — you have to take that and digest it and then come out with something that's everything combined and it's your own thing.
On the intensity of her music videos
Eilish: I just love the idea of glorifying people's biggest fears. You know, people are freaked out by needles, people are freaked out by things under the bed and people are really afraid of the dark ... I just really wanted something that's going to kind of make you jump a little bit.
I'm sure you've seen the video with the spider coming out of my mouth, which is for "[you should see me in a] crown" I have a big tarantula crawling out of my mouth — which is real.
Everything is really important that it's all real to me. Like, the the black tears for "When The Party's Over" video, that's all real. The tarantula coming out of my mouth is real. When my eyes are black and very frightened, those are real contacts. I just hate doing everything CGI.
On getting constant feedback from fans on social media
Eilish: I grew up with the internet, so it's not a new thing, which is kind of trash, but it's also like, it is what it is. The thing that's scary is that anybody can say anything and everyone might believe them. That's what's scary to me is that anybody could just be like, "You know what, this happened," and it didn't. There's a lot of lying going on in there. The whole internet is very gullible because they want to hear drama.
O'Connell: I also think as true as it is that we're in an era of extreme feedback, I think popularity mixed with art has always elicited extreme responses and passionate responses. If you trace back to The Beatles, like John Lennon said something that a group of people didn't agree with or didn't align themselves with and there were riots and Beatles albums burnings. I think art has always elicited passion from people. That's why art is important and I think people's opinions are equally important.
On being on the cusp of stardom
Eilish: At the moment, I feel like right where I am and we are like right now, I think it's pretty much perfect — meaning not, like, right now is perfect, but I know it's kind of about to be. I feel like things are gonna be unreal in a second.
O'Connell: We're in a culmination period. I think if you look at the sort of three-year lead up of us working together and making music and Billie making videos and content and art design and several national and international tours we've done, I think it's a culmination period of this thing that we put a lot of time in and love and care into coming out.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And finally, today, when you think of teen pop, you probably aren't thinking of this.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BURY A FRIEND")
BILLIE EILISH: (Singing) What do you want from me? Why don't you run from me? What are you wondering? What do you know? Why aren't you scared of me? Why do you care for me? When we all fall asleep, where do we go?
MARTIN: That's "Bury A Friend" by Billie Eilish. Her synth pop sound has received a lot of attention from fans and music writers alike even before she dropped her first album. One called her a pop prodigy and intimidating as hell. Her songs have streamed more than 1 billion times on digital platforms.
About that album - it's called "When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?" It was produced and recorded at her home with her big brother, Finneas O'Connell.
And Billie Eilish and Finneas O'Connell are with us now from our studios in Culver City, Calif. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.
EILISH: Thank you for having us. How are you?
MARTIN: Well, I'm a little scared (Laugher).
EILISH: (Laughter) A little scared?
MARTIN: I mean, intimidating as hell, it's a little scary. Plus the video, kind of scary. What do you think when people refer to you as intimidating? Do you feel intimidating?
EILISH: You know what? I like that people think of me like that. I mean, I'm really not when you know me. But I think I have a vibe that's just, like, makes you not want to even ask me anything. You don't want to say no to me I feel like a lot of the time.
MARTIN: So it's working for you?
EILISH: Yeah, it's working. It's cool.
MARTIN: Finneas, what about it? Is your sister intimidating?
FINNEAS O'CONNELL: I'm in favor of it because I think anything that makes a 17-year-old girl perceived as intimidating is, like, that just means that they're doing something right, I think. I think that's a level of powerful that I'm in favor of.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD GUY")
EILISH: (Singing) White shirt, now red, my bloody nose. Sleeping, you're on your tippy toes. Creeping around like no one knows. Think you're so criminal.
MARTIN: How did you come up with your own sound? Like, you sound so much yourself.
EILISH: Do I?
MARTIN: Does that make sense? Yeah. Like, I can't think of anybody else who sounds like you.
EILISH: I don't know. I don't think I really tried hard to have my sound. So I think that's why it happened. I think when you don't try super hard, things just it tends to happen faster.
O'CONNELL: I would say this, though. Like, you know, I think when we first started, we were trying to make music that sounded like the music that we liked. And so that music probably sounded a little bit derivative to people. And I think as we progressed, we stopped trying to make music that fit with any other music or was in comparison to any other music.
Like, making this album, like, we wanted it to feel cohesive. And so most of the songs, we were just listening to, like, the other songs on the album to sort of help tie it all together.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD GUY")
EILISH: (Singing) So you're a tough guy. Like it really rough guy. Just can't get enough guy. Chest always so puffed guy. I'm that bad type. Make your momma sad type. Make your girlfriend mad tight. Might seduce your dad type. I'm the bad guy, duh.
O'CONNELL: There's a really great John Mayer quote, that's "originality is failing to sound like whoever you're trying to sound like." I've always really liked that
MARTIN: That's nice. Well, singing covers, though, is a way that a lot of people kind of get to where they want to be. Like, they sort of listen to the artists that they like...
MARTIN: ...And then they dig into their work and think...
MARTIN: ...I like this. Why do I like it?
EILISH: Well, yeah. That's the thing about everything in life, kind of, is that you kind of have to try certain things out to figure out what you want. So it's like you should always be able to have that moment of, like, figuring out who you are by using a bunch of different things that you've heard already. And then instead of still doing that for your whole career, which I think some people do, you have to take that and, like, digest it and then come out with something that's everything combined. And it's your own thing.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ILOMILO")
EILISH: (Singing) Where did you go? I should know. But it's cold. And I don't want to be lonely. So show me the way home. I can't lose another life.
MARTIN: I get that sense of being real is something deeply important.
EILISH: It's very important for me. I just feel uncomfortable having things be disingenuous. Like, I just have a big thing about honesty and, like, real...
MARTIN: OK, but what about the whole, like, talking about some deeply personal things. Is that something you feel you have to do? Like, you've talked about depression and anxiety. You've talked about Tourette's - I mean, Tourette's syndrome. Is that something you feel you have to do?
EILISH: Well, for Tourette's, it was kind of - that was more about, like, I felt pretty out it because - or I kind of just felt...
EILISH: ...Misunderstood maybe, I think, because, I mean, that's what my whole life has been like with Tourette's is that a lot of my tics look like I'm trying to make a gesture towards somebody or look like I'm making some sort of facial expression when I'm really actually just - it's Tourette's And a lot of times when people don't know I have Tourette's, they're, like, what was that face for? Like, why'd you do that? Why did you...
O'CONNELL: Or they'll be like, you're being so funny right now.
EILISH: Yeah. They're like, oh, my God. Make that face again. That's so funny. But it's not like that. And the reason I talked about it and shared when I did was because there started to be all these compilations of my tics that were made by the fans, which they just thought it was, like, goofy Billie is making a bunch of faces. And they're funny. Let's make a video about it, which is, of course, out of love. And they think that's funny. And they didn't - they don't know, you know?
O'CONNELL: Especially if they think you're doing them on purpose, then it's totally out of love.
EILISH: They think I'm doing it on purpose. But I felt almost, like, attacked in a way, which was kind of stupid. But it's something like I've lived with my whole life and, like, not been open about because I didn't want it to label me, you know?
MARTIN: Sure, you don't want the whole - that to be the second sentence of every every paragraph about you.
O'CONNELL: Yeah, Billie Eilish, who has Tourette's syndrome...
EILISH: Right, which since I announced it, which I only announced it because I was, like, this needs to be cleared up. And of course, I said in that thing that I don't want it to define me or be who I am or whatever. And of course now, it's everything everybody talks about all the time. So it's great. And people keep asking about me about it in interviews.
MARTIN: Sorry. Sorry. Well, one more sticky issue. You got some pushback from a song - on the song, "Wish You Were Gay." And people were hoping it would become an anthem for the LGBTQ community. But some people are actually not pleased about it. They feel that it's - there's pushback about it. And how do you think about that?
EILISH: You know what I think is that everybody has a right to feel exactly what they feel. And it's not anyone's place to tell somebody that their being offended is not correct, you know? It's, like, that's a thing that you can't control. And if somebody doesn't feel OK with something, then you have to respect that and understand that and not try to fight that.
And so I knew writing that song that - it wasn't meant as an insult. And it wasn't meant to be offensive in any way. So for me, I didn't even really think about it because it was so not at all...
O'CONNELL: Controversial to us.
EILISH: ...Controversial in my mind because I thought of it as almost like a positive thing.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WISH YOU WERE GAY")
EILISH: (Singing) I just kind of wish you were gay to spare my pride to give your lack of interest an explanation. Don't say I'm not your type. Just say that I'm not your preferred sexual orientation. I'm so selfish.
MARTIN: How does it feel right now, both of you? I want to hear from both of you. Like, is this where you wanted to be? Does it feel right?
EILISH: You know what? At the moment, I feel like right now, I think it's pretty much perfect - meaning not, like, right now is perfect. But I know it's kind of about to be. I feel like things are going to be unreal in a second, which they have been for this whole time. But it's, like, really getting insane.
O'CONNELL: We're in a culmination period. I think if you look at the sort of three year lead up of us working together and making music and Billie making videos and content and the several national and international tours we've done, I think it's a combination period of this thing that we put a lot of time and love and care into coming out.
And I think back to like being 12 and having an album come out from Green Day or Coldplay or the Foo Fighters and how excited it made me. I think if anyone feels remotely similar to that, I'm just grateful to be here for it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY STRANGE ADDICTION")
EILISH: (Singing) Don't ask questions. You don't want to know. Learned my lesson way to long ago to be talking to...
MARTIN: That's Billie Eilish and her big brother and producer, Finneas O'Connell. Billie Eilish's debut album is called "When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?"
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY STRANGE ADDICTION")
EILISH: (Singing) Bad, bad news. One of us is going to lose. I'm the powder, you're the fuse. Just add some friction. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.