V121: Billie Eilish by Pharrell
This article appears in the pages of V121: The Anniversary Issue on newsstands August 26. Pre-order your copy at shop.vmagazine.com.
“I’m excited for the whole thing,” Billie Eilish told me the first time we spoke. She was 14 and had never done an interview before, already prefiguring the adventure that was to become her life. Now 17, she has over 30 million Instagram followers, a number one album, Calvin Klein campaigns, and the adoration of multiple generations. Having made backyard music videos since she was a toddler, she dreamt of becoming exactly what she has—the new pop archetype, arguably the Britney Spears of Generation Z. Thanks to her and her insatiable fans—including Julia Roberts, Kaia Gerber, and Katy Perry—“alt-pop” is no longer alt; it’s the future. As are Eilish’s idiosyncratic fashion and lifestyle choices. A sober vegan with post-male-gaze style, she embodies her generation’s mandate of self-love and empathy over personal gain. But, at least for now, she’s an individual entirely unto herself. Here, she and fellow maverick Pharrell Williams chat art, clairvoyance and sleep paralysis.
BILLIE EILISH Hi! How are you?
PHARRELL WILLIAMS I’m good man, how are you?
BE I’m alright, I just woke up. I am on the bus, somewhere. I don’t know where. Shit is so crazy right now, but I am good.
PW So much has happened since the last time I saw you. You were on your own vibe then, but it’s so cool to see you[‘ve] stuck with [it]. [You’re] inherently who you are; [you haven’t] changed or modified [that]. I think that’s such a beautiful thing; When you can just… be.
BE That’s kind of the goal; it’s just to not be really anything artificial because I think sometimes things can start out being real and then [that authenticity] fades away, into dirt. Hopefully I don’t ever do that. You’ve [avoided] that well—stayed just “Pharrell.” You are Pharrell, bro. That’s not just a name, that’s you.
PW Wow! Well listen, I am honored that you even see it that way. This is a [nonsequitur], but... when is your birthday?
BE December 18! What about you?
PW Oh, a Sagittarius... I’m an Aries. So, you are a fire sign? It makes all the sense... I am too! I have some questions in front of me, but I might stray off the path... That’s what us fire signs do! So when and where did you first hear one of your songs in public?
BE I was actually in a vegan ice cream shop in the middle of nowhere and it was completely empty. [It was] me, my brother, and my dad, and we just wanted to go get some vegan ice cream. [The place] felt really abandoned... But as we were ordering, “Ocean Eyes” started playing. I started dancing around the room because no one was in there. It was kind of surreal... For what you make in your little space—your bedroom, studio or whatever—to end up in some random vegan ice cream shop. For me, it was super impactful and meaningful: That’s my song, that’s my creation.
PW Were your dad and your brother losing their shit?
BE Yes! We were all jumping around. It could have been playing anywhere... It didn’t matter that it was just some little ice cream shop. Even that was a huge deal for me. It’s the same thing with shows; you can do a show that’s a thousand people and maybe you don’t enjoy it as much as a little tiny room with like 400 people where the energy is through the roof. It’s really not about the quantity or the quality of stuff—it’s more just the energy in the room and the actual connection there.
PW I agree. It’s a magical thing to just feel the energy... Okay, two questions that I’m sure you’re asked a lot: Where are you from? And how old are you? I know people can do the math, but I guess hearing you say it is different...
BE I’m from Highland Park, L.A., and I never have moved in my life. And how old am I? I am 17 as of right now... Age is a weird thing for me; I don’t remember ever being young. I always thought I was older than what I was.
PW So, intellectually, and [in terms of] your instincts, you feel like you are beyond your years?
BE I just think you can have as much knowledge as [you ever will] at any age... I guess I can’t [back that up], since I’ve never been older than 17... But I think anyone at any age can do anything and say anything.
PW You also seem like the kind of person who knows how blessed you are—who takes nothing for granted.
BE Oh my God, for sure. I try my hardest to [remember that], because it’s so easy to forget. It’s insane how fast your body can adapt [to certain experiences], [which then] become not as fun anymore. Or just, the experiences feel more familiar. Your body is like, “Uh, I did this before” [so on] a weird, [physical] level, gratitude [becomes less second nature]. So I just [have to] keep my eyes open, man, and catch myself when I complain. [That said], all pain is relative, and just because somebody is hurting more than you doesn’t mean that you aren’t allowed to hurt as well. But I still have to check myself sometimes, because I do have an amazing, crazy thing [going]. It gets horrifying, it gets miserable, but it’s kind of priceless [regardless]. You have to remember that.
PW Everything that you just said is a reflection of someone who is cognizant. Someone who has meta-cognition and is aware of their situation, aware of their environment, and aware of their positioning in life. [And] at 17, by the way. At 17! It’s not just your visuals or lyrics of your songs. It’s like your third eye—your essence. And I think it’s so cool. That is what we want for all kids, for all of our youth—for them to be awake. So many of them are asleep to so much [of the] crazy shit going on [right now]. Not to get all political, but voices like yours are so necessary.
As we think about how women’s rights are under attack, it’s minds like yours that are going to set not only girls free, but a generation free.
BE I hope so, I really hope so. I don’t even have words to say about what is going on in the world. I go deaf because of the shit that I hear...
PW By the way, I am not trying to involve you in that in any way shape of form.
BE No, no. I got you.
PW I am just saying we just need more clear minds like yours. More lucid, where all the light bulbs are on. It’s a beautiful thing. So I wanted to ask you about the pressures of having a large platform. But what I love about you is, pressures [don’t seem like your] kind of issues, because you are very clear about what you think and what you feel. The question is whether you are prepared to share them or not. It’s not as if you don’t know what’s out there and what’s in the world; you are super clear. What do you feel about my assessment?
BE I feel like people automatically associate [stardom with pressure], which is kind of sad. I don’t know. There has been a whole world of young, especially female artists, and every artist (not just young) being used and manipulated by the stereotypical label or industry. There’s kind of this weird name on everything now where it’s like, people expect that. I remember the first time I had any sort of meeting with a label or management, I was 13. I think the only people that didn’t look at me like I was going to have a horrible career were the people that I ended up working with. Everyone was just like, “Oh, you’re 13, yikes, you’re going to be used,” and this and that. And I am like, “Yo, y’all are the people that would use me in the situation you are talking about.” So, I don’t know what that is supposed to mean. The only people who didn’t say that shit were the people that I felt an energy and connection with. I am really, really lucky and grateful that I have had the experience that I had with my label and with my team and everyone, because I never had any issues with people trying to pull me in a different direction, one in which I would not want to be headed. I think that might just be because I have always been the kind of person that knows what the fuck I want, and if it’s not what I want, then I am not going to do it.
PW It needs to move you.
BE Yes, exactly. It’s really helped me and I think I describe it in different ways where it’s like, I think it’s my best quality and my worst quality, how strong-willed I am, because it has brought me here. It literally has created who I am because I was just like, “You know what? I am going to do this and that’s that,” you know? But then it’s bad sometimes, too, because I shouldn’t do shit and I do it anyways. So I don’t know.
PW So I would say this is proof yet again that it’s not about one’s age. Your answers have already illustrated that. And understanding that requires a lot of self-awareness. To me, not only is it not about age—it’s not about the flesh. It’s about the spirit. And your spirit is definitely an older one. You have been here many times.
BE Man, you are a gem.
PW Listen, you are super kind but that’s you, man. You are definitely something else, you are “other” for sure. 100 percent. Let me ask you a question: what are people’s biggest misconceptions about you?
BE Oh man, I have thought about that a lot. There are a lot of misconceptions. I think the one that’s more recent, and I don’t know if it’s a misconception or just something that I really don’t like, which is that there is a whole kind of…you know [the way] I dress is very not necessarily feminine, or girly, or whatever. I wear baggy shit and I wear what I want; I don’t say, “Oh, I am going to wear baggy clothes because it’s baggy clothes.” It’s never like that. It’s more, just, I wear what I want to wear. But of course, everyone sees it as, “She’s saying no to being sexualized,” and, “She’s saying no to being the stereotypical female.” It’s a weird thing because I know a lot of what I hear is a positive or people trying to be positive about how I dress; how I am never really out there wearing nothing, or wearing dresses. I’ve heard that. [Even] from my parents, [the] positive [comments] about how I dress have this slut-shaming element. Like, “I am so glad that you are dressing like a boy, so that other girls can dress like boys, so that they aren’t sluts.” That’s basically what it sounds like to me. And I can’t [overstate how] strongly I do not appreciate that, at all. And they aren’t specifically saying that, but it feels like that. I have never ever looked at a girl who feels comfortable in her clothes, body, and skin and thought, “Ew, that’s gross, she is showing too much,” or, “I wish people wouldn’t wear that.” I have never in my life felt that way. I have always supported and fucked with and just loved when a woman or a man or anyone in the world feels comfortable in their skin, their body, to show just whatever they want. I don’t like that there’s this weird new world of supporting me by shaming people that [may not] want to [dress like me].
PW Yup, I’m so glad you are calling that out. It’s an old mentality—people trying to compartmentalize for their own safety and their own understanding. So if you are not doing something that everybody else is doing, then there certainly must be this equation for why you are[n’t] doing it. Meanwhile, you’re doing it because that’s what you like, that’s what you’re into. Like you just stated, any way the wind blows is cool with you. You are just living and being. You know what’s funny about people? We are called human beings; “human” meaning flesh but being meaning spirit, and I just don’t understand how the “being” part always gets lost. I think that’s the funny part about people’s assessment of you, that they don’t understand that. You are just being you; you are just being. And I think it’s so beautiful that you make that distinction. You’re going to set some more girls free, you are going to set some more boys free. And hopefully, you will set some of these old ass people who keep trying to govern and control people and put everybody in a fucking box; hopefully they will read this too and learn something today. They have got it all wrong and you represent even more freedom than their initial preconceived notions might have assumed for you.
BE Fuck yeah!
PW They wanted me to ask you, with the album name [When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?] in mind, what do you dream about?
BE What do I dream about? Oh my God. I have never had a good relationship with sleeping or anything involving sleeping. From since I was really young, I’ve had nightmares and sleep paralysis. It takes me hours to fall asleep. I only last year started having sleep paralysis, but I would say that might be one of the worst things in the whole world. I just have been imprisoned in my nightmares, night terrors, lucid dreams, and sleep paralysis. At a certain point I was like, “Yo, this is ruining my personality.” There was a point where I was having the same nightmare for two months, and it was getting into my head. It was making me talk different, it was making me treat people different, and kind of maneuver different. It was weird to see that because it’s literally a fake thing in your own mind, but it affects you in this insane way. Instead of letting myself suffer in it, I was like, “You know what, I’m going to take this shit and I am going to turn it into art,” and I literally did. I made a whole album out of it and I made a video. I made an experience and exhibit about it. The thing is, my dreams haven’t changed. If anything it made it worse, because I kind of spooked myself. Like I kind of creeped myself out because, after we shot the “Bury A Friend” video, which is very kind of horror movie-esque, I started having these horrible nightmares. I saw [things] outside my window and I couldn’t sleep for days. I may have sabotaged myself but at least I made a fucking work of art out of it.
PW I understand the poetry and thinking that it could have been some kind of selfsabotage but what if, because you had these dreams first, what if you’re just simply clairvoyant and you just kept seeing what your first videos were going to look like? Do you believe in the possibility of clairvoyance?
BE Yo, yo, you are genius. Because it’s actually been like that. I was in London like a couple of months ago and I had this dream. I woke up from it and we were with a couple of people from my creative team, and I was like, “I dreamt the video for ‘Ilomilo’ last night.” I wrote it all down, and I explained it all, and I made a whole mood-board and we are going to create that video soon. So literally, what you just said is completely accurate and it’s fucking crazy.
PW So now it seems you have nothing to be afraid of…well, I know you are not afraid of it right? Because there’s nowhere you can run anyway...But maybe it’s not such a bad thing, you know? Maybe it would be a little scary if you didn’t have these dreams because you wouldn’t be reading the future so accurately. It sounds like a gift to me.
BE I am going to keep thinking of it [that way]. That’d make me feel better.
PW Yes! It is though because you dreamt it and that shit happened. Did you have any training or education in fashion?
BE No! Not even a little bit. I just loved fashion always, growing up. And it wasn’t even fashion like high fashion, I just liked clothes. I just liked dressing and matching and having people look up when I walked by. The thing that’s interesting is, now something I hear from the people I am closest to in my life is, if I go out, I can never go out anywhere without being recognized, which I know that you experience, too.
But it’s like, I do kind of bring it on myself because I have always been a person that wants to dress loud. I always wanted to look loud, I’ve always wanted people to look up at me, I’ve always wanted people to notice me. And that’s been a part of me since before any of the fame shit happened. So that’s something that hasn’t changed, but I think it’s looked at differently, because now it’s like, I’m walking around dressed like I want to be recognized. But it’s not that, I’m just walking around dressed how I always wanted to [be] dressed, how I always wanted to be looked at, but now there’s a name attached to that. You know? So people see it as a name, they don’t see it as looking up and having a feeling when you see something, which is funny. I don’t know, I do it to myself, I really bring it on myself. I just love clothes and I just don’t feel comfortable wearing regular ass shit, I really don’t. My comfort zone is outside of my comfort zone. I like to be a little uncomfortable.
PW Do you see Blōhsh going into beauty? It should...
BE I don’t know, I think I see it going any way that it goes. I don’t see it not going any way that it goes, if that makes sense. Not that I expect it to go anywhere, but just that I don’t have a line that I am not willing to cross in that kind of realm.
PW Good! That’s the answer that is very you... Lastly, I just want to say it has been amazing to see what you’ve done since I last saw you. The whirlwind that is your career, your fans, the music, the visuals, the incredible freedom that you represent. And oh my goodness, the meta-cognition that you have, the self-awareness, it’s so impressive that I pray it just becomes so contagious to this generation. I pray they look at you and go, “Wow! I can be me, just like her.”
BE My God, thank you!
PW No, thank you! And have a blessed day.