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Billie Eilish finally remembers who she is

Billie Eilish's third album, created as always alongside her brother and collaborator Finneas, is titled <em>Hit Me Hard and Soft.</em>
William Drumm
Courtesy of the artist
Billie Eilish's third album, created as always alongside her brother and collaborator Finneas, is titled Hit Me Hard and Soft.

Billie Eilish

On Eilish's new album, Hit Me Hard and Soft, her voice resounds with new confidence when a song calls for it, though she can still return to her signature whispered vulnerability when she wants to devastate. The song "Lunch" is one of the catchiest songs she and her brother and collaborator Finneas have ever served, with openly lustful lyrics that are equal parts silly and sultry. "Skinny," meanwhile, is a delicate masterpiece, with Eilish exposing inner thoughts about her body while turning the public's gaze back on itself.

Morning Edition host Leila Fadel talked with Billie Eilish and Finneas about how their years of collaboration have changed them, as artists and as people, and the new sides of their creativity that have surfaced on Hit Me Hard and Soft. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Leila Fadel: I want to start with your voice, Billie: You seem more confident pushing your voice in different ways. What's different about this album?

Billie Eilish: So many things. You know, I started recording when I was 13 — my voice was very young, and I could only do so much with it. And of course, at the time, the way we always do, I was like, "This is my voice, and this is how it's going to sound forever." I didn't think about how you grow up and everything changes. Over time, touring for many years and getting back into voice lessons, my voice has completely matured and changed and grown. I'm able to do things that I never thought I would be able to. It's been the most amazing journey ever.

Hit Me Hard and Soft was really the first time that I was aware of the things that I could do, the ways I could play with my voice, and actually did that. That's one thing I feel very proud of with this album — my bravery, vocally.

Fadel: Is there any one song where you were like, "Hey, I did that with my voice?"

Eilish: "The Greatest" — that one, for sure. But I think the main one that I couldn't even believe that I hit was "Birds of a Feather" — there's a belt on the last chorus. I was playing around with different melodies because I wanted it to be a little different than the others. And I remember being like, "Oh, I should probably go up there, but I really don't think I can," and trying everything else that I could possibly do instead of that, to get away from it. Then I was like, "You know what? I'm just going to have to try."

Fadel: You told Rolling Stone about the making of this album, "This whole process has felt like I'm coming back to the girl that I was. I've been grieving her." What do you mean by that?

Eilish: I think that a big part of us being able to finish this album was me needing to be shoved out of my comfort zone: I had to be pushed out of it to figure out what I was doing and what I wanted and who I was. I started out really young, and people decided who I was for a long time, and that made me feel insane — so I really wanted to prove everyone wrong all the time. For this album, I finally got over the need to prove everyone wrong. I just figured it out myself, and it wasn't about explaining myself — it was about expressing myself. I think that's what we did.

Fadel: Has that been hard? I mean, it's kind of incredible what you've done at just 22, all that you've already created and been recognized for. But you've grown up very much under scrutiny in the public eye.

Eilish: You know, so much of my life is f***ing awesome, and I'm so aware of how privileged I am. But becoming an adult in front of everyone is very scary and stressful and really means that you never grow up, in a way. I'm not complaining, but I also am: It's kind of horrible, you know, starting at 13, and then "Bad Guy" came out when I was 16. It was a lot, and it still is a lot. Every day I struggle with figuring myself out. Instead of just getting to feel how it feels to learn something about myself, I have to hear about what everyone else thinks about it.

Fadel: Finneas, some of these arrangements are spare; some are very lush and layered. I'm interested to know about the secret sounds a producer layers into a mix.

Finneas: What I always try to go for when I'm working with any artist — but Billie and I obviously work the closest, she's really in the room for 99.9% of everything that I'm doing, production-wise — it's to inspire her. If there's drums that we're writing on a song like "Lunch" — or "Skinny," where I'm sitting with an electric guitar playing as we're sitting there writing — to me, it's just about helping to articulate the story and the sentiment of the song. If there's a line that I think should suddenly be three-part harmony, it's because of the content or the emotionality of it. I think production is all about context.

The thing that was novel for me on this album, as opposed to our other albums, was the incorporation of a string quartet [the Attacca Quartet]. I've spent a fair amount of time in the last two years composing for film and have had the opportunity to write parts for string quartets and have loved doing it, learning that craft.

Fadel: How has your approach to working together changed since "Ocean Eyes," that first single of yours?

Finneas: I think that it hasn't changed in some ways — and it's changed immensely. The real truth is that we've just gotten better and better at communicating and articulating. Like Billie is talking about with her vocal confidence, I had barely ever produced anything. Now, we've made her albums together, I've produced music for other artists, and I feel more confident. I've just had more hours behind the keyboard, so to speak.

Making this album felt, for me, like two people who had the opportunity to learn their craft over the last seven years. We were just kind of having fun with it, with all the tools that we developed.

Fadel: I'm one of five kids — and I love my siblings, but we also fight like crazy. I feel like that's part of love. Do you guys ever get sick of each other? Do you ever fight over the process?

Eilish: We don't get sick of each other, but we definitely fight — I mean, we're siblings, that's going to happen. But honestly, it's almost better that it happens. I feel like when you work with somebody who isn't a sibling, when you have a disagreement, it's really hard to say it. You really don't want to offend them. What if they never want to work with you again? With your family, it's much harder to burn a bridge and break up. It takes a lot of effort. I think that when Finneas and I have a disagreement, we don't waste time trying to be nice. We, politely-ish, say, "I don't like that." And then, if we do get into an argument, we're siblings and we'll get through it because we love each other. It's nice, honestly.

Fadel: Is there any specific song on the album where you kind of duked it out, and the finished product was a product of you guys working through it?

Finneas: I feel like "Blue" was a song that really puzzled us.

Fadel: And I hear you singing on that one, right?

Finneas: No — we wrote that part in a different key, and then we shifted it into the key that it was in. When you shift the vocal, it changes the formant. It's just Billie's voice pitched down — but I'm prepared for everybody to think it's me.

"Blue" has elements of a piece of music from before Billie's first album came out. It has elements of a piece of music from Billie's second album that never came out. I don't know that we had it out or anything, but we were both so puzzled by it that we had a debate about what to do for various parts. It was something that was driving Billie crazy. We always knew we loved the second half, but the first half, we were like, "It doesn't feel right." I remember I just layered tons of drums on it, and it changed the whole vibe.

Fadel: We have to ask about "Lunch." It's about raw, animal attraction. What inspired that song?

Eilish: This was one of the first ones that we made for the album. We only had the hook, and then, honest to God, like a year later, we came back and we wrote the rest of it.

As soon as we wrote that hook, it was like, "Oh, OK, we got something here!" — but we were stumped on it for a long time. It's really hard to know that something could be really good, and also could be bad if you make it bad. We put a lot into that one once we finally got back to it. I love that song. It's so fun and it's silly and it's ... I don't know. Life is so unserious. It's important to remember to have a little fun with it.

Fadel: How do you stay so open and vulnerable in your music as you also deal with being so public, because of what you chose to do in life?

Eilish: When we write a song, I'm not really thinking about, "Everyone's going to hear this and have something to say!" That headspace can really block you. I think it's important to write songs with the idea, "I don't have to put anything out if I don't want to." You should just be as vulnerable as you can without thinking about how people are going to hear it, and then go from there. Make the song while thinking, "No one's going to hear this." Then, if you love it and you feel comfortable, you discuss if I'm OK with this out in the world.

Finneas: Two things. One: She makes music with her brother. You know I'd never play anyone anything that she was uncomfortable with. And then the other thing is, sometimes a song can feel incredibly vulnerable the day that you write it, because you're living through it. And then that song comes out a year later, and you have perspective. The situation has become history.

Fadel: It must be a blessing to have that safe space with somebody you've known your whole life, that you know you can trust in those moments when you're figuring it out with the music before anybody else ever hears it.

Eilish: Oh my God, it's such a blessing. I can't even. When I talk to fellow artist friends of mine and they say they're in the studio with some random person they don't know for the next two weeks, I'm like, "How the hell are you going to do that?" It's so crazy to me.

Having Finneas is the coolest thing in the world for me. I'm an open book — maybe to a fault — in my life. But I also am not super-comfortable with vulnerability or weakness. Being with my brother and having him be someone who knows me so well, sometimes he can see something that I'm doing or feeling before I even know that I'm doing or feeling it, and that is really powerful and special. I think without that, it would be really different.

This story was produced for broadcast by Mansee Khurana and adapted for the web by Phil Harrell.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Phil Harrell is a producer with Morning Edition, NPR's award-winning newsmagazine. He has been at NPR since 1999.
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