Billie Eilish at the 2019 iHeartRadio Music Awards in Los Angeles, California. Photographer: Sthanlee B. Mirador/TNS.
It was late 2015 when Billie Eilish, then 13, posted her debut single on SoundCloud, the do-it-yourself streaming platform. Now, a mere 3.5 years later, she has a No.1 album — with the second-biggest opening of 2019, according to Billboard, behind Ariana Grande's ‘Thank U, Next’ — and a prime performance slot at last weekend's Coachella festival in California, USA.
In truth, the 17-year-old’s rapid ascent has come with help from the powers that be. Interscope, which signed her at age 14, has given a major push to her instant-smash album, ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’
Eilish is an increasingly rare example of the old-fashioned process known as artist development, in which a record company spends time and money — neither as plentiful as it used to be — cultivating an exceptional talent.
Yet her secret weapon is that her music doesn't feel like a carefully honed product of that system. Morbid but funny, tender yet wise, ‘When We All Fall Asleep’ presents an idea of teen pop dramatically different from those embodied by the many young women who've come before her.
Her music addresses death and depression along with the promise (and the torment) of fresh romance; her songs put minimal beats under whispery vocals that never even approach Christina Aguilera-style belting.
And at a moment when rock has ceded its youth-culture prominence to hip-hop, Eilish describes the influence of dramatic guitar bands like Flyleaf, Hawthorne Heights and Nirvana — the last of whose Dave Grohl recently said that Eilish's energy reminds him of Nirvana's during the ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ days.
Despite Interscope's involvement, the singer comes across as someone adhering to an intensely personal vision, which has created an intimate bond between her and her fans. "This album is the world to me please take care of it," she wrote on Instagram when the record came out late last month.
Eilish made ‘When We All Fall Asleep’ with her 21-year-old brother, Finneas, in their parents' house in Illinois; both kids were home-schooled by their parents, Maggie Baird and Patrick O'Connell, who worked as actors and encouraged the children to pursue their artistic passions.
In that spirit, Eilish learned to sing as a member of the Los Angeles Children's Chorus, which is why she now has "no chest voice at all," she said as she sat on a picnic bench outside a Burbank rehearsal studio. She wore baggy pants and a lime-green shirt emblazoned with the name of a pet-supplies distributor; Baird, who travels with her daughter as a kind of guardian-assistant hybrid, set a large stack of photos on the table and asked her to sign them while we talked.
In her music and especially her videos, Eilish is drawn to unsettling imagery, as in the clip for her song ‘Bury a Friend’, in which disembodied hands poke needles into her back. With a laugh, she said she's "not trying to be Billie Eilish, the scary girl." And indeed, along with the dark stuff, her album contains broadly comedic bits, including one song that samples ‘The Office’.
But part of her success — which follows that of such proudly moody artists as the Weeknd and Lana Del Rey — is connected to the way she uses her dead eyes to register her distaste for the shiny-happy customs of traditional pop stardom.
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