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COVER STORY: Billie Eilish and the Pursuit of Happiness

The pop superstar’s new album is a stunner. But she had to walk a dark road to get there

Brittany Spanos Jul 19, 2021

Photo: Yana Yatsuk for Rolling Stone

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From the outside, the house isn’t terribly different from others on the block: a cozy bungalow in L.A.’s Highland Park neighborhood with an old lilac tree blooming near the entrance. In fact, it’s legendary: the place where a prodigal teenager and her older brother recorded the album that made Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell the queen of Gen-Z pop. 

It’s a location familiar to any Eilish fan, and at first glance on an absurdly beautiful day in April, not much appears to have changed about the house in the couple of years since it became famous, along with its teenage occupant. The O’Connell family’s rescue dog, Pepper, trudges through the backyard, now joined by Eilish’s year-old rescue, Shark, a gray pit bull. Signs of home-schooling linger in common areas, like an old-fashioned pencil sharpener attached to the wall and dingy supplies precariously placed on a desk. 

But look closer, and plenty is different. For starters, contemporary pop’s most famous home studio, set up in the childhood bedroom of Billie’s brother Finneas, is no longer a studio. Instead, the siblings’ mom, Maggie Baird, has taken over the space. “It still looks similar. There’s just no equipment,” Billie insists as she greets me in her kitchen, gathering ingredients and utensils for the cookies she wants to bake. Her mom’s added a blue rug to the bedroom and sleeps there with their cat, Misha. “We kept [the studio] for a while, then we were like ‘We don’t need this,’ ” Eilish says.

Finneas moved out a couple of years ago, settling down in Los Feliz with his influencer girlfriend Claudia Sulewski. He constructed a new studio in his basement, where he and Eilish began recording music last year. Eilish is, at first, cagey about admitting that she’s moved out as well. “I’m secretive about what’s really going on,” she offers conspiratorially, rummaging around the cabinets of her parents’ kitchen like a college student visiting home on a long weekend. “It’s been a couple of years now where I’ve been doing my own thing. But secretly, because nobody needs to know that.”

Eilish hasn’t been totally lying about where she lives; she still spends a lot of nights in her childhood bedroom. “I just love my parents, so I want to be around them,” she says, shrugging. Maggie and her husband, Patrick O’Connell, buzz in and out of the kitchen, commenting on the cookie baking and helping Eilish use the old oven. Eilish is sporting her new blond-bombshell look. A 180 from her formerly signature black-with-green-roots ’do, the new hair caused an uproar when she debuted it on Instagram in March. Today it’s damp from a shower, and she’s cozied up in a black T-shirt from her own merch store, along with a pair of matching sweats. On today’s menu are vegan, gluten-free peanut-butter-and-chocolate-chip cookies. She’s reading off an old recipe displayed on a food-stained printout that has clearly been well-utilized over the years. Eilish used to make them whenever she was sad. “It was a therapeutic thing for me,” she explains.

Billie Eilish, photographed in Los Angeles on April 13th, 2021.
Photograph by Yana Yatsuk for Rolling Stone. Fashion director: Alex Badia. Market editor: Emily Mercer. Hair by Benjamin Mohapi for the Benjamin Salon. Makeup by Robert Rumsey with A-Frame Agency. Styling by Dena Neustadter Giannini. Shirt by Burberry. Opening Image: Cardigan by Helmut Lang. Slip Dress by Gucci (Custom)

It’s been a while since she’s made the cookies (“You’re seeing history,” she teases). She’s found other ways to process her feelings, namely through writing her second album, Happier Than Ever, which is due out July 30th. The title is no fiction: She has, in fact, felt happier than she ever had before. But like a lot of things in her life, it’s not quite that simple.

“Almost none of the songs on this album are joyful,” Eilish explains, refuting the possibility that her second album is the bright, cheery counterpoint to 2019’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? The Babadook-inspired debut conjured up vivid memories of night terrors and lucid dreams over textures ranging from industrial electro-pop to jazzy ballads. Her videos were just as dark, full of spiders and black tears covering her face.

On the surface, Happier Than Ever is a different kind of nightmare. Emotional abuse, power struggles, and mistrust — stories drawn from Eilish’s life and the lives of people she knows — take up much of the lyrics, alongside musings on fame and fantasies of secret romantic rendezvous. The sound is mellowed out from the haunted-house sprawl of her debut: lush, somber, mesmerizing electronic soundscapes trickle down your spine, right along with Eilish’s words. 

And yet, even on the darkest songs there are moments of reflection, growth and, most important, hope. This is an album from someone who began to heal long before she wrote it. Or at least tried to.

“Have you evegotten stung on your head by a bee?”

Eilish mentions she got stung “like 20 times” on a camping trip when she was eight or nine. It’s a story she’s told before. “I don’t know why that popped into my head,” she says. “Why did that pop into my head? I have no idea.”

She posed the question after a bit of mesmerized silence as we watched Shark go to town on an empty can of peanut butter. Eilish doesn’t like silence; she even narrates the cookie baking like a food vlogger. She shows me how to make oat flour (“It’s literally oats on their own; pour them in this thing [a Vitamix blender], full power”) and figuring out the right chocolate chip to peanut-butter-dough ratio. (“Some people like too many. I like too little.”)

“I can’t go to the bathroom without watching something on my phone,” she says. “I can’t brush my teeth. I can’t wash my face.” Over the past year she rewatched a lot of things:Sherlock, The Office “probably like six times,” New Girl “like four times,” Jane the Virgin.There was also time for Good GirlsKilling Eve, The Flight Attendant, The Undoing, andPromising Young Woman “like four times.”

“It’s all on my phone,” she explains. She rarely watches anything on TV, except The Twilight Saga, which she took in for the first time recently, with a friend. “I just watch it while I do anything because it takes my mind off the reality of life. I should go on My Strange Addiction,” she says, coincidentally referencing her 2019 song of the same name (which, by the way, samples dialogue from The Office).

Eilish can’t really go outside anymore. There are paparazzi and creeps waiting for her every move, and some have threatened her safety to the point that she needed a restraining order against them. The instant recognizability of her When We All Fall Asleep-era look — bright-green hair, oversize clothes, saucer-like ocean eyes — helped keep her caged. She grew resentful: “I was a kid and I wanted to do kid shit. I didn’t want to be not able to fucking go to a store or the mall. I was very angry and not grateful about it.”

Photograph by Yana Yatsuk for Rolling Stone. Fashion direction by Alex Badia. Prop Styling by Brian Mayfield. Shirt by POLO Ralph Lauren. Bra by La Perla

When We All Fall Asleep and the image she projected at the time marked her uniqueness from the rest of the pop world. But those things also cemented a view of her she’d love to leave behind. I mention an instruction during a musical challenge on a recent season of RuPaul’s Drag Race where a competing drag queen was told the song she was performing was “very Billie Eilish.” 

“What do they think when they think that? Do they think what the internet thinks, which is whispering or whatever the fuck people say? Anytime I see an impression on the internet, it just reminds me how little the internet knows about me. Like, I really don’t share shit. I have such a loud personality that makes people feel like they know everything about me and they literally don’t at all.” She wants people to understand a few things: “That I can sing. That I’m a woman. That I have a personality.” Happier Than Ever offers a statement on all of the above.

“Anytime I hear somebody say, ‘Oh, your songs sound the same,’ it gets me. That’s one thing I really try hard to not do. I think the people that say that have literally only heard ‘Bad Guy’ and ‘Therefore I Am.’ ” Both of those songs feature Eilish’s tendency for muted, moody sing-rapping. These days, she’s channeling the jazziness in her voice, a timbre honed from years of touring, on songs like “My Future” and “Your Power.”

Eilish’s privacy was more precious than she had initially realized. She put a lot of herself out for the world to consume early in her career, when she was an “annoying 16-year-old” (her words) trying to engage with her fandom the way she wanted her favorite artists like Justin Bieber to do back when she was a preteen fan. “It’s sad because I can’t give the fans everything they want,” she says. “The bigger I’ve gotten, the more I understand why [my favorite celebrities] couldn’t do all the things I wanted them to do.”

She struggles to find the right way to frame it. “It wouldn’t make sense to people who aren’t in this world. If I said what I was thinking right now, [the fans] would feel the same way I did when I was 11. They’d be like, ‘It would be so easy. You could just do it.’ No. It’s crazy the amount of things you don’t think about before it’s right in front of you.”

Eilish describes her life as “normal as hell,” and at times, it is. She’s watching Twilight.Going on first dates again, as discreetly as possible. Getting first tattoos (she got a giant black dragon on her right thigh in November and “Eilish,” in an ornate, gothic font, in the middle of her chest the day after the 2020 Grammys). “That’s why it’s hilarious when I see, like, ‘10 reasons why we think Billie -Eilish is in the illuminati,’ ” she says. “I’m like, you know how regular I am, dude?” 

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She wants to share more details with her fans, but the thought makes her nervous. The songs on Happier Than Ever are buzzing with the fear of “interviews, interviews, interviews,” of the names of abusers or toxic friends being forever tied to her, of her own words coming back to haunt her. 

“I wish that I could tell the fans everything I think and feel and it wouldn’t live on the internet forever. And be spoken about and called problematic, or called whatever the fuck anybody wants to call any thoughts that a human has,” she explains. “The other sad thing is that they don’t actually know me. And I don’t really know them, but obviously we’re connected. The problem is you feel like you know somebody, but you don’t. And then it’s like, yeah. It’s just a lot.”

We move outside, to the sole picnic table in the yard, and enjoy the warm, crumbly peanut butter cookies. Shark finds a particularly bright patch of sunlight to lie in. Suddenly, he hops up and runs along the fence, in response to the barks of a neighbor’s dog that he desperately wants to befriend. Eilish is a bit jealous. 

“Don’t you just wish that was you?”

Photograph by Yana Yatsuk for Rolling Stone. Fashion direction by Alex Badia. Shirt by Burberry

“My mom was saying this yesterday,” Eilish says. “When you’re happier than ever, that doesn’t mean you’re the happiest that anyone’s ever been. It means you’re happier than you were before.”

After an adolescence plagued with depression, body dysmorphia, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts, Eilish started feeling better in the summer of 2019, while on tour in Europe. It was shortly after the release of When We All Fall Asleep, and she was seeing a therapist, had just broken up with a boyfriend, and was joined on the road with one of her best friends (as well as, of course, her parents and brother). “I was thriving,” she says. “I felt exactly like who I was. Everything around me was exactly how it was supposed to be. I felt like I was getting better. I felt happier than ever. And I tried to continue that.”

Early 2020 was a whirlwind. Eilish swept the Big Four categories at the Grammys and started a headlining tour that would have eaten up most of her year. She was more excited than she had been for previous tours, which left her with sprained ankles, shin splints, and chronic pain. She played all of three dates before the pandemic forced her to cancel the rest.

Eilish kind of got to say goodbye to the When We All Fall Asleep era (and the look that helped make her famous) at the Grammys this year, performing the one-off single “Everything I Wanted” with Finneas. Happier Than Ever was nearly complete, but she wasn’t yet ready to show off her new blond look. So she hid it beneath a green-and-black wig. “It was weird,” she reflects. “I was playing this former Billie Eilish with green hair, singing a song from a year and a half prior, while I have 16 new songs that I haven’t put out yet. The fans didn’t really even know that it was a goodbye to an era. That’s kind of heartbreaking but endearing at the same time.”

Recorded as the world went on pause, Happier Than Ever was an opportunity to dig into her personal trauma. “I went through some crazy shit, and it really affected me and made me not want to go near anyone ever,” she says, though she declines to give details.

Like everything Eilish does, the lyrics are sure to spark debate, side-eye emojis, and conspiracy theories as people ponder who she’s singing about. The songs are a mosaic of experience, ripped from her own life and those of people she knows. They juggle deadbeats, secret lovers, emotional abusers. Eilish won’t name names or get into specifics, and she’s quick to remind that this is not just her life she’s talking about. But she also says the stories in the new songs are more honest than When We Fall Asleep, which she describes as “almost all fictional.” 

Eilish says she’s letting go of the Old Billie, who would tuck away her own emotions to make others feel better. “There’ve been times where I’ve been really affected by somebody, and I said to them, ‘I need to tell you how you’ve made me feel.’ And they said something that was like, ‘I can’t handle this right now. I just can’t handle this right now. This is going to be too much for me.’ ”

She says she spent so long “being fucked with” and had to realize that while the toxic traits she sings about were often born out of pain, that doesn’t make it OK. “I was talking to a friend about their life, and they told me all this crazy traumatizing shit that happened to them. And I’m like, ‘Oh, right, you don’t have to treat everyone like a piece of garbage, just because you’ve been hurt.’ It’s OK to be traumatized by something and have bad instincts, but also, there’s no excuse for abusing people. There just is not. I feel like everything is excuses all the time. Excuses, excuses.”

Album opener “Getting Older” was particularly harrowing to write. “Wasn’t my decision to be abused,” she sings over a delicately plucking synth beat. By the end, she lays bare what’s on her mind. “I’ve had some trauma/Did things I didn’t wanna/Was too afraid to tell ya/But now I think it’s time.” Eilish recognizes how shocked listeners may be by the rawness of the song. “I had to take a break in the middle of writing that one, and I wanted to cry, because it was so revealing. And it’s just the truth.”

The title track, which starts like a mopey breakup song, then fires off into an electric-guitar-driven rager, was the first thing she started writing for the album, back on the European tour where she felt like she was thriving. The rest of the songs bare different kinds of catharsis, teetering between sexy, electronic beats and warm folkiness, reminiscent of her earliest music. Each song is delicate, sensuous, and balancing naked vulnerability with a bit of self-protective confidence posturing.

Writing about her deepest emotions wasn’t easy for someone who had painstakingly kept the details of her relationships under lock and key. “I’ve been in two [relationships],” she says. “I’ve experienced a lot in what I have done. But I’ve never been in something really real and normal.” The news cycle and fan response to her Apple TV documentary, The World’s a Little Blurry, earlier this year cemented her decision not to name names or get specific about details in the new songs. People are like “ ‘Well, you’re an artist, so when you put something out there like that, you can’t expect people to not dive into it more.’ Yes I can,” she says. “You should absolutely respect me giving you this much information and saying, ‘This is all you get.’ The rest is for my own brain.”

Photographs by Yana Yatsuk for Rolling Stone. Fashion direction by Alex Badia. Cardigan by Helmut Lang. Slip Dress by Gucci (Custom)

The most the world has gotten to see of Eilish’s romantic life was in The World’s a Little Blurry, which spanned from the final weeks of recording When We All Fall Asleep in late 2018 through the 2020 Grammy Awards. Eilish wasn’t necessarily psyched for it to come out. “I don’t like to share that part of my life, and I was not planning on sharing that part of my life ever,” she says. 

Her ex, Brandon Adams, an artist who performs under the name 7:AMP, played a pivotal role in the film. The World’s a Little Blurry showcases a painful give-and-take between Eilish and Adams, who was then in his twenties. In the aftermath of the documentary, fans went after Adams and his family on social media. 

Many have assumed Eilish’s chilling single “Your Power,” which mentions a relationship between a teen girl and an older man, is about Adams. Eilish — who released the song in late April, along with a statement saying, in part, “this is about many different situations that we’ve all either witnessed or experience” — strongly objects to this notion. “Everybody needs to shut up,” she says. The documentary, she insists, “was a microscopic, tiny, tiny little bit of that relationship. Nobody knows about any of that, at all. I just wish people could just stop and see things and not have to say things all the time.” 

Eilish describes herself as “clingy,” but since she and Adams broke up in 2019, she’s spent the past two years trying to learn how to exist on her own. “I didn’t know how before,” she explains, “which is ironic because I had never been in a relationship that allowed me to really exist with that person anyway. My emotion always is because of somebody else’s, and that had been such a big pain in the ass.”

She’s still trying to grow out of that. “You heal eventually.”

Eilish and I actually weren’t supposed to meet at her parents’ house. She wanted me to see where she recorded Happier Than Ever, in Finneas’ basement studio. But a pipe burst, nearly destroying the space. “The room had to be completely rebuilt,” he explains later over Zoom. “But my hard drives, synthesizers, and guitars and stuff were all fine. I feel very lucky for that.”

Eilish speaks with relief at how much less draining the recording process for Happier Than Ever was compared with her debut. It was partially due to some peak-mom advice from Maggie early in the pandemic. After nearly a month of lockdown, Maggie suggested that her kids get on a weekly schedule. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday, Eilish would drive her matte-black Dodge Challenger over to Finneas’ house. Some days they would write songs. Other days they’d play Animal Crossing or Beat Saber. Every day they would eat good meals: “A lot of Taco Bell, homemade pizza, taro boba, Thai food,” Eilish lists. “Crossroads and Little Pine. Nic’s once. Fatburger once. It was such a reward.”

Also See  Billie Eilish Announces New Album ‘Happier Than Ever’

In The World’s a Little Blurry, the teen’s misery is palpable as she finishes When We All Fall Asleep. Eilish and Finneas had been largely left to their own devices, but pressure still loomed from the label. There were deadlines (the album was due right around her 17th birthday), constant meetings, and an expectation that a star was about to be born, thanks to a couple of years of growing buzz. “I hated every second of it,” she admits. “I hated writing. I hated recording. I literally hated it. I would’ve done anything else. I remember thinking there’s no way I’m making another album after this. Absolutely not.”

This time, there was no pressure. No notes from the label. No meetings. No rush to meet deadlines. “No one has a say anymore,” Billie says. “It’s literally me and Finneas and no one else.” On April 3rd, 2020, the first day of their new weekly work schedule, they wrote “My Future.” Within a couple of months, they realized that they were making an album. 

She pulls out a clear acrylic sign holder with the track list written in marker, songs clearly erased and moved around. “I think I’m going to frame this,” she says, smiling. There are some water stains on it, since it got drizzled on when Finneas’ studio flooded.

The 16 songs on the album are the only 16 they worked on. The pair are completists: Once they start a song, they have to see it through with meticulous precision until it’s perfect to them. The way the album sounds is a testament to that, each song a unique, avant-pop soundscape that elevates the baroque trip-hop-ness of her debut. 

Photograph by Yana Yatsuk for Rolling Stone. Fashion direction by Alex Badia. Sweater by POLO Ralph Lauren

“I admire artists that can make, like, three songs in a day and keep doing that over and over,” Eilish muses. She compares songwriting to running, in that it would be “fucking exhausting” to do all the time. “Songwriting is like that for me. I’m pretty good at it, but it takes a lot out of me. I feel like I just ran a marathon whenever I write a song.”

Finneas saw the change in his sister this time around. She liked writing songs, feeling less tortured by the process than before. “It’s been awesome as a big brother to see her become more confident and feel more ownership and just to be more excited than I’ve ever seen her about the music that we’re making,” he says. “I also just think she has objectively gotten even better. That’s my opinion. If she were an Olympic gymnast or something, she would’ve gotten better. She’d be able to do a higher vault or something.”

Since “Bad Guy,” Finneas has become one of pop’s most in-demand producers, working with everyone from Tove Lo to Selena Gomez. He also has his own solo career that’s taken off, though the studio flood came at the worst time possible for it, as he was working on his debut album. Eilish has found Finneas’ career outside of being her creative partner to be “fucking great” and easy for them to adjust to. “It doesn’t interfere at all, and it’s fun for him,” she says. “He only does what he wants to do. He’s not a slave to it.”

“I scratch a lot of itches working with Billie,” Finneas continues. “I think my primary goal was to just go deeper. This was Billie’s sophomore album, you just . . . you have the opportunity to go further inward and further down in your Mariana’s Trench.” 

Finneas says that their process is “50-50” creatively, and he speaks proudly about the gated tremolo and distortion that elevate songs like “Oxytocin” and “NDA,” two tracks that look at romance and hookups through the lens of a very famous person attempting to have both under the radar. 

“Billie Bossa Nova” takes that theme one step further, building a fantasy around the life of a touring pop star. “We have to do a lot of goofy bullshit when we go on tour, where we enter through freight elevators in hotels and stuff, so that paparazzi doesn’t follow us to our room,” he explains. 

“And so we acted as if there was also a secret love affair going on in there of Billie being like, ‘Nobody saw me in the lobby/Nobody saw me in your arms,’ as if there was a mystery person in her life during all of that.”

“I write songs with my brother, and we kind of have to plug our ears when we’re writing about desire for other people because we’re fucking siblings,” Eilish says later. Songs like “Oxytocin,” named for the hormone released in the bloodstream due to love or childbirth, has her wondering “What would people say . . . if they listen through the wall?” over a slinky beat. The folky “Male Fantasy” features her distracting herself with pornography, then meditating on the effect porn has on men. 

“The thing is, we’re very open about both of our lives, so it’s not weird, really,” she continues. “It’s just fun. It’s songwriting and it’s storytelling. We just have to think about the art of it and not think too hard about [the lyrics].”

As 50-50 as they are, Finneas drives home the fact that everything is under Eilish’s name for a reason. “In many instances we’ve been asked about our relationship as a duo when it’s billed as a solo artist,” Finneas says. “It’s her life. It’s all her world. I’m helping her articulate that, but it’s really her experiences that she lived through, and on this album she let me into it a lot. But I don’t know what that’s like to go through.”

He quotes his friend, the singer-songwriter Bishop Briggs, who says writing is how she copes with everything. Finneas agrees. “Billie making this album was her working through a lot of this stuff.”

When Eilish releases a new song, she can’t listen to it again. It disappears into the universe, only to be heard by its maker if she happens to catch it as it’s played on radio every hour on the hour. “It’s not because I don’t like it anymore,” she explains. Happier Than Ever has become Eilish’s favorite album in the world, but she’s already mourning the loss of it, months before it even comes out. As we talk, it’s a couple of weeks before the first single is even public knowledge.

“I don’t know how to explain this, but all the songs on the album feel like a specific time, because they feel like when I wrote them and made them,” she explains. “It’s so funny that to the rest of the world it’s going to feel like a certain moment for them, and it’s going to be so different than mine. That’s such a weird, weird thing to wrap my head around. And I will fucking love it. I love it. That’s the reason you do this. It’s for that.”

When Eilish and I speak one last time, “Your Power” has been out for a few days. It spurred reflective conversations online, with many women sharing their own experiences with sexual or emotional abuse. The lyrics about an older partner taking advantage of a younger woman struck a particular chord, and Eilish herself is still processing that reaction.

Photograph by Yana Yatsuk for Rolling Stone. Fashion direction by Alex Badia. Cardigan by Helmut Lang. Slip dress by Gucci (Custom)

“I feel like people actually really, really listened to the lyrics,” she says, flopping around her room in an oversize Powerpuff Girls shirt. “I was scared for it to come out because it’s my favorite song I’ve ever written. I felt the world didn’t deserve it.”

She broke her own Instagram “like” record that weekend as well: Her shoot for British Vogue showed her in more revealing clothes than she had ever been pictured in, channeling Forties boudoir shoots. The images were a topic of internet obsession for days: Was it a betrayal of her more “modest”-seeming fashion before? Did she make the decision herself? But it’s not like her body hadn’t been up for debate even when it was clothed: Her baggy outerwear was used to shame her peers, and she was subjected to belittling, fatphobic assumptions from the too-curious. “I saw a picture of me on the cover of Vogue [from] a couple of years ago with big, huge oversize clothes [next to] the picture of [the latest Vogue]. Then the caption was like, ‘That’s called growth.’ I understand where they’re coming from, but at the same time, I’m like, ‘No, that’s not OK. I’m not this now, and I didn’t need to grow from that.’ ”

Like her fashion experiments, Happier Than Ever is not about resetting who Billie Eilish even is. It’s about expanding the definition and range. But like she feared, she stopped listening to “Your Power” after it came out. “I don’t know. Something changes,” she says, still confused by her own habit. 

The song has already taken on a life of its own, so she doesn’t have many expectations for how people will react to the rest of the as-yet-unheard songs. She’d like to make a visual for each track, and plans to embark on a world tour at some point. 

She has one other wish for her new music. “I hope people break up with their boyfriends because of it,” she says, with only the slightest tinge of humor. “And I hope they don’t get taken advantage of.”

From Rolling Stone US.

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