Billie Eilish remarks, “This is kind of dark, but I was reading Kurt Cobain’s suicide note recently.”
The pop sensation, 21, is tucked into a black-and-red-haired couch in a Los Angeles studio. She puts the acai bowl down in her palms and begins to explain.
“That’s terrifying.” It’s the most sad s— I’ve ever heard, really. She spoke of the late vocalist of Nirvana as “such a pure person and talent, and I feel so much deep, deep, deep sorrow for him and his life and where it went.” “I have everything in the world, and I absolutely hate it,” he writes in the letter. That he wasn’t enjoying it made him feel so embarrassed.
She continues, “And I understand why he was feeling that way.” “It’s simply not what you anticipated.”
As she has been since her 2019 debut song, “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?,” went quadruple-platinum and made her the youngest person in history to sweep the four major categories at the Grammy Awards in a single night, Eilish did not wake up this morning feeling the need to whine about being a world-famous celebrity. She is well aware that complaining from a position of affluence might come off negatively, while being praised for adding a much-needed dose of melancholy to the otherwise upbeat Top 40.
Eilish is talking about the emotional conditions that produced her most recent song, the gloomily beautiful “What Was I Made For?”, but only because I begged her to. Over the most depressing piano chords ever, Eilish sings of having lost how to be joyful. She and her brother-producer, Finneas O’Connell, often turn to Cobain, who passed away in 1994, for his insight into the isolation that accompanies fame.
She describes it as having a feeling of an existential crisis, where you may be sitting among people you love in a room and suddenly wonder, “Oh my God, what the f— is going on with my life?”
Is it surprising that this song about a young woman’s disappointment became a component of the Hollywood blockbuster “Barbie”? Music abounds in Greta Gerwig’s pretty-in-pink blockbuster, with tunes from Dua Lipa, Charli XCX, and Nicki Minaj and Ice Spice. The majority of the movie’s songs have smooth surfaces and a bubbly vibe, but “What Was I Made For?” is distinct—it’s slower, smaller, and considerably more contemplative.
“Barbie’s heart song,” or rather, “the song that is deep inside her core that she doesn’t even completely know is there but that she starts to hear more clearly throughout the film,” is what Gerwig claims she requested Eilish and O’Connell to create. The filmmaker remembers getting the siblings’ demo, which consisted of simply O’Connell on piano and Eilish on vocals. “It completely broke me,” Gerwig declares, going on to reveal that she showed it to everyone involved in the film’s production as well as her co-writer, Noah Baumbach, right away. Their judgment? “Everyone sobbed.”
They’re not the only people the song has an affinity for. “What Was I Made For?” is a nine-week No. 1 hit on Billboard’s alternative music chart. It has had over 500 million plays on Spotify and YouTube, and it was recently nominated for five Grammy Awards, including record and song of the year. It is now eligible to compete in the March 96th Academy Awards for best original song.
“It turns out it got really big,” remarks Eilish, who took home the Oscar for best original song in 2022 with “No Time to Die,” the opulent and melancholic theme she and her brother wrote for the James Bond movie of the same name. Not far from Dodger Stadium today, I wonder what some other bright spots of pop stardom might be. The singer looked genuinely thrilled to have earned one of the highest honors in show business when he accepted the prize that night at the Dolby Theatre. “We promise not to lose these,” O’Connell joked as he hoisted his statuette. Has she attended a baseball game when her face was splattered on the enormous video screens?
Yes, says the native of Los Angeles. “I adored it.” When I was a child, it was my actual dream. To be honest, attending events like that is pretty wonderful when you’re famous. She grinned. “While there are terrible aspects of fame, there are also amazing aspects of it.”
Eilish claims she didn’t write “What Was I Made For?” with herself in mind when she composed it earlier this year. As a SAG-AFTRA member, she was prohibited from discussing “Barbie” on this day weeks before the actors’ strike was ended. “I was contemplating a character from her perspective,” she adds, referring to Barbie, who learns during Gerwig’s movie that perfection isn’t real and that she wouldn’t want it even if it were.
“It became a theme for Barbie’s whole awakening,” says Gerwig of the song.
“However, while listening to it with a friend, she was essentially staring at me and saying, ‘Dude, this is your life,’” Eilish chuckles. The singer now realizes that, after a depressive youth, the external reinforcement she got as a well-known adolescent sensation seriously damaged her sense of self-worth.
“I was absolutely unstoppable in 2019—the year I colored my hair green,” she adds. It seemed as if I was on the moon. And I recall thinking, “I’m finally happy,” at the moment. I simply wanted to remain joyful since I had never been happy before. Then a few years passed. COVID took place. “Another album happened,” she says, mentioning “Happier Than Ever” from 2021. As I grew older, I reverted to my human state of not always being joyful and experiencing both good and terrible times. It became pretty awful last year. I couldn’t stop thinking, “God, I miss 2019 so much.” When will that feeling return to my life?
She finally realized that she had been “basing all my happiness on all these things in the material world that you have no control over and that will inevitably change” after talking with her brother and her friends. She scoffs. That’s a big part of this song. She begins, “‘I used to float,’ that’s what 2019 felt like,” citing the first line of “What Was I Made For?” and then adding, “Now I just fall down.”
Going blond-bombshell around “Happier Than Ever”—a drastic departure from the edgy goth appearance that helped make her such a sensation—Eilish felt she’d come up with a strategy for bliss. She turns to face a mirror on the studio wall and remarks, “At first it was fun.” “There’s a seed stuck in here, hold on.” She moves the seed aside and continues. “I was ecstatic about the blond era; I thought Blond Billie would be amazing.” However, things did not turn out as I had hoped.
The singer said that wearing the hair started to seem like a costume that made her lose her individuality. She admits, “I had no idea who I was at all.” “I just got sucked into this whole aesthetic that I came up with.” She moved from having blonde hair to dark for a while, including a stint hosting “Saturday Night Live” two Christmases ago, which was considered an improvement. “Now that I think about it, I wonder, ‘Who is this brunet?’” she exclaims. “A bulwark! I wasn’t there. Her creative spark was finally reignited when she returned to black, and she was able to channel her feelings of hopelessness and disillusionment into a song that was, coincidentally, inspired by one of the most recognizable blonds in popular culture.
A voice memo that Eilish and her brother recorded that night in January, “What Was I Made For?” is played; it sounds nearly identically like the final product. She says of the song, “I didn’t want it to become this big thing.” “I didn’t want to rip it because it’s like a delicate butterfly wing.” The film’s music was overseen and created by Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt, who also provided a romantic orchestral arrangement reminiscent of Nelson Riddle. However, people are still drawn to Eilish’s singing, which she acknowledges need refinement.
It’s this very light, but highly enunciated, voice that comes from the back of her skull, she explains. “My voice has developed to the point where I can play it like an instrument, which is very awesome. How much I’m loving the f— out of it is beyond words.
As she and O’Connell complete production on Eilish’s third album, Eilish, who just survived a well-publicized separation with vocalist Jesse Rutherford of the L.A. rock group the Neighbourhood, has been reflecting a lot about adulthood. “It feels really different from everything else I’ve ever released in some way,” she claims. “It’s strange that I’m in my 20s now because I’ve never released music as an adult before.” As she prepares to return, I inquire as to whether she has listened to any of the major pop hits that have come to characterize 2023. “SOS” from SZA? “Excellent—I adore it,” she replies. Guts by Olivia Rodrigo? “Dearful.”
Is there a connection between her and Rodrigo, who was born 14 months after Eilish and achieved comparable fame as a teenager with her hit song “Drivers License” from 2021? Everybody’s experiences are so unique, in her opinion, she explains. Nobody knows that another person has lived their life. But I do feel a sense of duty to safeguard Olivia. From my last album, I had a song called “Goldwing” that is something about her. I have never told anybody that. It goes beyond just her. While I was composing it, she was on my mind. She laughed and said, “She was coming up, and she was younger than me, and nobody had ever been younger than me.”
The song “Goldwing” begins with a few lyrics from a hymn that Eilish sang in the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus when she was little. Later, she paints a picture of impending exploitation that Barbie could be familiar with:
They’re gonna tell you what you want to hear
Then they’re gonna disappear
Gonna claim you like a souvenir
Just to sell you in a year
Regarding the artist who began her career in the Disney world, Eilish explains, “Olivia was getting big, and she was just, like, this little dainty child.” “I was so anxious. She was causing me concern. People are so strange in the performing industry where she rose to prominence. I’m not sure; I was simply too protective of her. And I think that of everyone. She brings up Ariana Greenblatt, who portrays a melancholic middle school student in “Barbie,” a pivotal part. She adds, “She’s sixteen, and sometimes I really want to cry about her.”
“I simply recognize all of these young females as myself. And, dude, it’s the chicks. Boys are self-sufficient. They don’t have to cope with it as we do because they are guys. with a sigh. “All I want is to hold everyone inside a tiny glass box and keep everything from ever touching them.”