Rolling Stone

Billie Eilish’s Happiness

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

- By Brittany Spanos

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

Senior writer Brittany Spanos wrote the Issa Rae cover story in the May issue.

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-withgreen-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-chocolatec­hip 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.

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 ever gotten 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 Girls, Killing Eve, The Flight Attendant, The Undoing, and Promising Young Woman “like four times.”

“It’s all on my phone,” she explains. She rarely watches anything on TV, except The Twilight Saga,

“I have such a loud personalit­y that it makes people feel like they know everything about me and they literally don’t at all.”

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.”

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.”

“It’s OK to be traumatize­d by something, but there’s no excuse for abusing people. I feel like everything is excuses, excuses, excuses.”

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?”

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?”

“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, selfharm, 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 infor

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