Vogue US March2020

(Ben Green) #1
through dance class, gymnastics, and
horseback riding. There were countless
activities, and Eilish had scores of friends.
But because the O’Connells had little mon-
ey, her parents would barter their time:
Patrick did handiwork in the gymnastics
center, Maggie taught Music Together
class, and Billie brushed and bridled horses
at the San Pascual Stables in South Pasade-
na. She remembers the looks that the rich
girls gave her—not mean but strange—a
lesson in the ruthlessness of class that
her own outsider identity began to form
around. “I was never bullied,” she says. “It’s
just a vibe you get. You can tell somebody
doesn’t like you; of course you can. I had
an entire childhood of that, and now it’s
interesting, because I’ll meet fans where
I’m like, if I was in class with you when I
was 11, you would have hated me.”
Eilish’s participation in the Los Angeles
Children’s Chorus was the true formative
musical experience of her childhood. It
was strict and serious: Choristers could
not touch their faces or look at their phones.
She learned music theory, and she learned
to stand still. Like every other girl, she wore
a red sweater vest and tights and a skirt and
flats and had her hair pulled back and tied
in a black bow. “Holy fuck, I hated that
shit,” she says. “But I can’t lie. Chorus was
my favorite thing in the world.” Eilish didn’t
make the chorus’s prestigious chamber
singers when she was 13, which effectively
ended her tenure there just as her profes-
sional career was beginning. “It was really
emotional for me. I knew that if I left, every-
body would form new friendships without
me. When I think back to me crying about it
then, I was crying about the future and what
I thought would be, and you know what?
I was totally right. You can’t stop people
from moving on when they have to. When
you go on a trip, you can’t expect people to
sit still until you get back.”
While Eilish has been open about her
depression, which first struck at around
this time, she insists that her penchant for
dark material preceded and has generally
been independent of her mood. For years
she liked to say that “Fingers Crossed”—
inspired by an episode of The Walking
Dead—was the first song she ever wrote,
as part of a songwriting class that her moth-
er taught for a group of homeschoolers.
But recently she came across a cache of
songs she wrote at 11, including one called
“Why Not,” a melody built from the only
five chords she knew. The lyrics of the song
had a simple, morbid premise: If she killed
herself, everything would be the same; the

stars would still shine, the sun would still
come out, the seasons would still change.
So why not? Her friends loved it. “That was
the song, at 11,” she says, scarcely believing
it now. “And I was totally happy. I had never
felt suicidal, and I didn’t want to feel that
way, but I liked the idea of writing a song
about something I didn’t know about.”
It would be an error to regard as contra-
dictory Billie the grounded girl with a happy
family and Billie the artist with a head full
of demons, when these may simply be the
poles of modern teenagerdom. In any case,
her songs are never strictly autobiograph-
ical. She and Finneas enjoy developing
characters and writing from the perspec-
tive of those characters: the monster under
the bed in “Bury a Friend”; a girl who has
just killed her friends and is grappling with
guilt in “Bellyache.” Eilish notes that many
artists she admires—Lana Del Rey; Tyler,
the Creator; Marina and the Diamonds;
Aurora—have created dark alter egos in
their songwriting. “Just because the story
isn’t real doesn’t mean it can’t be important,”
she explains. “There’s a difference between
lying in a song and writing a story. There are
tons of songs where people are just lying.
There’s a lot of that in rap right now, from
people that I know who rap. It’s like, ‘I got
my AK-47, and I’m fuckin’ . . .’ and I’m like,
what? You don’t have a gun. ‘And all my
bitches. . . .’ I’m like, which bitches? That’s
posturing, and that’s not what I’m doing.”

Although she insists that her songs have
never glorified death, fans who are suffering
connect to these grim lullabies, which for a
young artist can be a burden and an almost
overwhelming responsibility. “People tell
me at meet and greets, ‘My daughter was
hospitalized five times this year, and your
daughter’s music has been the only thing
that kept her going,’” Maggie explains. A
young Finnish fan once sent a letter to the
house explaining that she had a ticket to an
upcoming concert but wasn’t sure she would
survive to see it. Maggie was able to connect
with her through social media and ensure
that she got help. “These are girls for whom
Billie is their lifeline. It’s very intense.”
For her part, Maggie has rarely taken
the necromancy of Eilish’s songwriting
(or Finneas’s songwriting for her—Eilish

says that her brother can almost read her
mind with his lyrics) as an urgent expression
of suffering, though there are exceptions.
“Listen Before I Go,” off last year’s album,
alarmed her: “If you need me, wanna see
me, you better hurry, I’m leaving soon,” Eil-
ish sings. “I needed to understand that this
was essentially creative writing,” her mother
explains. “Parenting a teenager can be hard-
er than parenting a toddler. You have to be
there at 2 a.m. to talk them down, then they
roll their eyes at you and tell you they hate
you. There were things Billie did that totally
worried me in terms of her behavior. The
stuff she used to write on her bedroom walls
scared me: ‘Why am I alive?’ The things
she did on social media—DM’ing with a
stranger purporting to be a boy in Florida.
It’s a scary time for kids online. But not the
lyrics. The really dark stuff is fiction.”
Eilish connects her own depression to a
concatenation of events in her early ado-
lescence, including a dance injury, a toxic
friend group, and a romantic relationship
with someone who treated her poorly. But
above all, she was pained by her appear-
ance. “I just hated my body. I would have
done anything to be in a different one,” she
explains. “I really wanted to be a model,
really bad, and I was chubby and short. I
developed really early. I had boobs at nine. I
got my period at 11. So my body was going
faster than my brain. It’s funny, because
when you’re a little kid, you don’t think of

your body at all. And all of a sudden, you
look down and you’re, like, whoa. What can
I do to make this go away?” She engaged in
some self-injurious behavior that she does
not elaborate on. She thought of suicide.
But by June of last year, after some changes
in her life that she prefers to keep private,
the fog began to lift. “When people ask me
what I’d say to somebody looking for advice
on mental health, the only thing I can say is
patience. I had patience with myself. I didn’t
take that last step. I waited. Things fade.”
Though her repertoire of capacious
leisurewear began simply as a strategy to
obscure or distract herself from the body in
which she felt uncomfortable, Eilish always
loved fashion. A highly particular little girl,
at age four she chose to wear a onesie with
her underwear outside it. At 13 she started

“You can tell somebody doesn’t like you; of

course you can. I had an entire childhood of that”

Photographed by Ethan James Green



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