The O’Connells look like any other family on a trip as they bustle into their New York hotel. Mum and dad Maggie and Patrick, flustered but relieved to arrive; older brother Finneas, looking cool in a motorbike jacket and distracted with his girlfriend in tow; 15-year-old Billie, tired and moody after a late night; and her manager.
They look like any other LA showbiz family, I should have said. Maggie, Patrick and Finneas are all actors, with small roles in Iron Man, Six Feet Under, The West Wing, Glee and Modern Family between them. It’s little sis who’s centre stage right now, though, launching a singing career that should make her a household name by the time she’s old enough to drive. She performs as Billie Eilish, (the latter, pronounced like “eyelash”, being her middle name) and already appears to share Lorde’s knack for dark-hearted pop that deftly articulates the teenage experience.
Check out her song Bellyache, from her debut EP released in August, a mix of energetic acoustic strumming and rubbery electronic bass over which she casually imagines that she has murdered all of her friends. It has quite the opening line: “Sittin’ all alone, mouth full of gum, in the driveway/My friends aren’t far, in the back of my car, lay their bodies.”
I’m also very taken by Party Favor, a wistful ukulele ballad structured as an answerphone message to a boy that she’s dumping. Halfway through, she makes a deliciously cruel reveal: “And I hate to do this to you on your birthday/Happy birthday, by the way.”
I’ve travelled to meet her because my experiences of interviewing new teenage musicians are mixed, to say the least, and I thought she’d be rubbish on the phone. Turns out she’s more confident than me. On the possibility of following the rest of her family into the acting profession, she says: “No offence to acting, but I’m not gonna work for something really hard and then not get it. If I’m working, I’m gonna get there.”
Box-fresh white trainers up on her dressing room sofa, she’s already a fashion influencer to her 279,000 Instagram followers. Today she’s wearing a mustard gold Stussy tracksuit and a gigantic furry Joyrich coat that she’s turned inside out. She also tends to wear hoodies backwards so that she can put her hands in pockets behind her back. “I always wear the kind of stuff that makes you overheat and die,” she says. “I really wanted to be a model when I was little. I loved photography and I loved being on camera. But I was short and chubby so I couldn’t. Anyway, being an artist is way more interesting than just being a model because it’s about you and what you want to be. You’re not being treated like a clothes hanger.”
Her long hair is currently dyed grey, which naturally makes her look older. She’s quick to puncture any thought that her age might limit her ability. “Everybody makes a huge deal about it. It’s cool. But I don’t tell people my age if they don’t know. You’re always gonna judge someone if you hear how old they are,” she says. “I wrote my first song at 12 and remember someone asking, ‘What were you going through at 12 that you could write about?’ I get what you’re saying, but 11, 12, 13 were the hardest years of my life. You learn everything. You learn how horrible things feel. You might see a 13-year-old and think they’re annoying, but probably in their head they’re like, ‘I hate this, I hate the way I am, I hate all these people, I don’t know what I’m doing or what I’m supposed to do.’ Obviously a 50-year-old has gone through more than I have, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t felt the same pain and the same joy.”
She gets annoyed when she has to play concerts which won’t allow under-18s to attend, as they currently comprise most of her fanbase. At the show I see, in a hip Williamsburg club called Baby’s All Right, I’m a head taller than almost everybody in the 280-capacity crowd and I’m not particularly tall. She struts and flicks her hair in another giant coat, while Finneas, who co-writes and produces the songs, pushes buttons at the back.
She and her brother were homeschooled by their parents, which may account for some of their confidence on stage and on film, though she says mum and dad were never pushy. Essentially, having been allowed to dictate her own education, it means she knows a lot more about horses than she does about maths. In any case, the music career happened almost by accident. She was taking dance lessons and was asked to submit an original song which would work for a choreographed routine. She and Finneas recorded a song he had written for his own band called Ocean Eyes, a wispy slowie with a gorgeous chorus. They put it on Soundcloud and the internet did its thing. She signed a major label record deal with Interscope in August 2016, age 14.
Finneas is in the room while we do the interview, but sits with his back to us on his phone. He’s now a lot taller than the boy you may recognise as the pupil who threw a basketball at Cameron Diaz’s head in Bad Teacher. I force the 20-year-old into the conversation anyway, asking why they haven’t made this an equal billing sibling project, like Haim, or a duo with a band name like Sylvan Esso or Sofi Tukker. “It was very conscious,” he says. “I’m her producer and co-writer, sometimes I’ll sing backing vocals and obviously we perform together, but the music we make never sounded like a duo to me. Billie has the most clear-headed, succinct vision. It is so her. I love and respect that so hard. So I’ve never felt, ‘Hey! What about me?’ It’s a clearer message to say, ‘Check out this 15-year-old girl icon.’ I don’t want to dilute that.”
For Billie, continuing to work with her brother was a no-brainer after a few unsuccessful sessions with more established songwriters. “Just going into a room with someone you’ve never met before, you don’t know what they like or dislike, there’s no connection,” she says. “Writing a song is so personal. You have to have some trust with someone you’re working with, otherwise you’re not gonna come out with something that’s really you. With my brother we’ve always made the realest stuff with each other. It’s always exactly what we want to say.”
The result is music that’s not just great for a 15-year-old. It’s great full stop. Six years spent wearing a red sweater vest in the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, which she’s only just quit, have left her with a beautifully expressive singing voice. Building a young fanbase, at a time when she’s not long over stalking Justin Bieber herself, has left her certain of the right way to behave when proper stardom comes.
“You have to have a real relationship with the people who are making you what you want to be,” she says. “Not that I don’t want to be bigger and play bigger venues. I just want to be close to them all. I want to be able to hug them and be with them and feel them.”
Fans had better make the most of that opportunity for proximity while they still can, at her intimate Islington show next week for example. For Billie Eilish is going to be massive.
Nov 2, O2 Academy Islington, N1 (0844 477 2000, o2academyislington.co.uk)