On a freakishly cold October Saturday in Texas, Billie Eilish is proving to a sold-out crowd at the Austin City Limits festival just how hard you can rock in a surgical boot.
The 18-year-old has been performing with two sprained ankles for weeks, barely slowing down after hurting one by falling down stairs right before her concert at the Greek Theatre in Hollywood, and the other months later in a distracted moment while jumping onstage in Milan, Italy.
Now she’s bounding across the boards as she launches into her hit Bad Guy, her singing barely audible above the slightly flat-pitched sound of thousands of young, mostly female voices chanting along.
Most artistes would save their best-known song for last, maybe even an encore. But nothing about Billie is by the book. Unlike most contemporary pop fare, her songs often venture into dark lyrical territory, with titles like Bury A Friend and Six Feet Under.The visuals during her live shows are animated, nightmarish and Tim Burton-esque, featuring graveyards, creepy dolls and sinister silhouettes in dark forests. Ariana Grande she isn’t.
Billie is uncompromising about her artistic vision.
“I didn’t realise that I was saying and touching on aspects in life that were deeper than the average song. I didn’t try to do that -- I just did it, ” she says.
“When I was starting out, one of the only things I heard was that the music was too dark, too sad, too depressing, that it wasn’t happy enough. There was this period where all I was hearing was, ‘Smile! Talk about how much you love yourself!’ – and I was literally at a time when I didn’t love myself.
Now I can, but then, I was a little 14-year-old. I didn’t know anything about self-love or self-care. All I knew was the stuff that I knew, and a lot of it was bad and negative. That’s what I wanted to write about, and that’s why people relate to it. I mean, even the Beatles has songs that are just like, ‘I’m miserable!’”
Born Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell, the young artiste has racked up platinum certifications over the past two years for her debut EP, Don’t Smile At Me, and multiple singles; her double-platinum album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? easily soared to No.1 in 17 countries upon its release in March, 2019.
She won two American Music Awards in November, including best new artiste, and is up for six Grammys to be held this month.
Bad Guy has been streamed almost a billion times on Spotify; three of her other songs have crossed the half-billion mark.
Her touring business is even stronger. She’s headlined some of the world’s biggest festivals and her recently-announced 2020 global arena tour immediately sold out its North American dates and most other territories, moving more than half a million tickets in the first hour.
An enormous percentage of the audiences at her shows is wearing her official merchandise, much of which she designed herself, apparel income she can count alongside endorsement deals with Calvin Klein, Nike’s Air Jordan and others.
Ask the people around her why she’s hit it so big, and the default adjectives are that she’s “real” and “authentic” and “unique”.
From the beginning, she showed a talent far beyond her years.
“Even when she was 13, it was very clear that Billie was not just a great singer but had a keen eye for images and social media, ” manager Danny Rukasin recalls.
“She only had like 10 posts on Instagram, but they all were cool. And based on how fast Ocean Eyes was growing, it was clear they were going to need a team.”
Thus began a long and careful cadence of song releases, streaming-service-stoking and constant touring, much of it internationally, that climaxed with the release of her album When We All Fall Asleep. The payoff was much bigger than anyone expected, and although it came with a cost, Billie insists that things are much better now. “I worked really hard for a long time, and I’ve gotten to where I don’t have to work as hard anymore, ” she says.
“I don’t even need to talk about how bad it was because I’m so happy in it now – it’s actually, like, great and I’ve been enjoying the shit out of it, and I just want it to get bigger.”
A staple of any Billie Eilish concert is the gaggle of wide-eyed fans, many accompanied by parents, who line up for the nightly VIP meet-and-greets.
Each fan gets a minute or so with her, which usually consists of a big hug, a photo and a brief chat that Billie often leads with compliments on a gift or along the lines of “Your shirt/hat/nails/shoes is/are fire!”, and closes with send-offs like “Be good to yourself!” Many leave weeping.
“I forget sometimes that they’re not literally my friends, ” she says of her fans. “It’s weird, like, that’s probably the biggest con in it all: that people I’ve never met think I’m really close friends with them.
“And then they forget that I’m not, and sometimes say stuff at meet-and-greets or post things that are joking or sarcastic about how bad I look in (a certain) photo, and I’m like, wow, that’s so mean.
“But then I remember that it’s just part of being friends – you make fun of your friends as a joke, and they make fun of you back – so it’s all love, and I really, really don’t want it to change.”
Pausing to toy with a lace on her Gucci kicks, which are bedazzled with green jewels that shoot reflections all over the room, Billie continues: “But then also, I have to be careful. If I say anything back, there’d be articles about me being mean, and also, I know from experience that when (you meet) somebody you’ve looked up to your entire life, even a joke can really mess you up.”
It doesn’t take a psychologist to posit the theory that Billie’s relationship with her fans is in some way replacing the teenage friendships that most young people experience in school, which is something her family and team have monitored all along.
At times over the past couple of years, one of Billie’s friends would accompany the tour for a couple of weeks at a time, so she’d have a companion who wasn’t family, an adult or a fan.
But as time has passed, the team has largely become family. “Bringing a friend on a couple of tours really helped, I think, ” Billie’s mum Maggie Baird says.
“But most people her age are in high school, and she was finding they don’t have a lot in common. But somewhere in there she crossed over: She’s friends with people on the crew and (her team) now. If she could, Billie would have the entire team travel on one giant bus.” – Reuters
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