When Billie Eilish met Stormzy
The two artists, beacons of excellence in pop, come together to discuss failure, rejecting the role model label and Stormzy's favourite Billie track.
Billie Eilish’s story originally appeared in i-D's The In Real Life issue, no. 364, Autumn 2021. Order your copy here.
In the weeks leading up to the release of Billie Eilish’s second, hugely anticipated record Happier Than Ever, the subversive pop artist found herself speaking to a similarly game changing artist: Stormzy. The duo, separated by the Atlantic and then some, may be an unlikely pairing to those not in the know, but they’ve been acquaintances and mutual admirers of each other’s work for some time now.
There is a clip on the internet from February 2020’s Brit Awards, in which Stormzy gatecrashes a red carpet interview of Billie’s, both politely and out of love. He’s dumbfounded, and excited to see her: “You are the fucking greatest!” he says, dressed in a white turtleneck, drink in hand. “Every time I listen to a new song of yours I go on AZ Lyrics and read it. Brilliant pen! Brilliant pen!” They embrace, Billie’s 5’3” dwarfed by his 6’4”, and as he scurries off and apologises, Billie too, looks shook.
There is a throughline here, and it’s partly to do with Billie’s restless creative desire to make music that sounds everything and nothing like what may be expected of her. She’s a Gen Z teenage girl, plagued by the same pangs of anxiety that shape that demographic’s daily existence, only exacerbated by the fact that 90 million others are watching her go through it, and that’s on Instagram alone.
But young women in music are also the kind usually consumed by record labels, made malleable and sexed up without permission, and forced to make the kind of art label heads (usually men) think audiences want, rather than what the artist themself is interested in. Billie, however, built a loyal blueprint from her bedroom, one that may have helped change the industry for the better. Thanks to her, the star-making machine is questioning its purpose.
Two-and-a-half years after the release of her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? her fame is still singular and stratospheric. She has seven Grammy awards, two albums, and two global arena tours that sold out in seconds under her belt, although one was cut short by a pandemic.
We learned of Happier Than Ever back in March, in the way most pop stars should debut an era but seldom do anymore. Ten days after she won her latest two Grammys, she posted a photo on Instagram of her new hair: shock-peroxide blonde; the kind of hairdo gossip rags hold multiple meetings about in an effort to come up with new terms to describe it and contextualise it.
It’s funny how much she represents the antithesis of pop star perception: having total control over image and sound, knowing she possesses the power to send whole industries into a tailspin. That, really, is the sign of a true star.
The music that has since followed it – alluding to everything from body image to pornography to the trialling nature of being famous and holding down a relationship – is as diaristic as her previous work. That too, binds Billie and Stormzy together. They share that endless pursuit of frankness, are powerful and talented enough to do as they please.
They exist in the rare space that sees immense fame crossover with artistic genius. In a cultural landscape that usually separates the two, seldom allowing them to coexist, they are anomalies: artists making the greatest work of their career to date — the kind we’ll look back on even more favourably in years to come – who also have to grapple with tabloid fuckery. Alas, they’re at a stage now where ubiquity isn’t everything. The fact that their names are everywhere is just a testament to the hard grind they’ve already put in.
And so what better pairing to unpack Billie’s new album than two people who know their art, industries and aggressors inside out? This is what happened when Billie Eilish met Stormzy.
Stormzy: Hey Billie! Can you hear me?
Billie: I can hear ya.
Stormzy: How are you doing?
Billie: I’m good.
Stormzy: Can you remember how we first met? I think it was the 2019 Brit Awards…
Billie: It was 2020, dude.
Stormzy: Was it? Oh yeah. You’d just finished performing “No Time To Die”. It was the first time you’d performed it. You were waiting by the stage to give Dave his award for Best Album. You were surrounded by security. I’d probably had a couple to drink so I was feeling a bit too confident and I asked to get a picture with you, and you were kind enough to let me. Then I saw you backstage after, and said hello again. There’s this video of it and I watched it back the other day, I must’ve been overwhelming.
Billie: It was very cute! You ran over and started singing my song to me. It was a beautiful moment. It was actually really special because you really came over and wanted to talk about the music, you dissected shit. You knew the lyrics, knew the melodies, it was so specific, you honed in on my songs. It was not overwhelming, it was amazing. It felt like you gave a shit and weren’t just bullshitting me. It made me feel good! It was a very pleasant surprise.
Stormzy: That’s the way I am. There’s a calibre of musicians and artists who I can’t be fake around. You, Frank Ocean, Jay-Z, Beyoncé… If I see them I have to take that moment! I feel like, without going on a long one, as artists what we do is so… people digest it so quickly, there’s always a new singer and new music is always coming out and the public doesn’t always get the time to understand how great something is. Every time I feel that way about an artist I feel like if I see them I have to let them know that. I’m happy you received that.
Billie: Thank you! There are some people who don’t want compliments and I don’t really understand that. I want to hear how people feel about my music and how it’s affected them. It’s so selfless and very raw to do that because people have this weird pride about saying how a piece of art has made them feel because they think it makes them vulnerable. I love that you don’t care about that, that you can be a fan, because we’re all fans. I’m a huge fan of so many artists.
Stormzy: I want to ask you something then, Billie, because I’ve seen how you work. Has Covid been an ideal situation for you because it’s you and Finneas at home making music? Or has being forced to stay home changed things?
Billie: We made my first album in our childhood bedrooms. My brother’s room is tiny, there’s not that much equipment and we didn’t have a vocal booth or soundproofing, and that’s how we made everything up until working on Happier Than Ever. And for that record my brother built this home studio in the basement of the house, so we’ve been recording down there. It’s a step up because it’s actually a studio even though it’s still also at home. But the problem was always that it was home. It was hard to switch from being at home and feeling lazy to trying to work and be creative. But I also hate proper recording studios. They are dark and sad and the days go by and time goes by. Studios make me depressed. I want to know how you are feeling about the return of shows – the return of touring and playing in front of crowds again and everything?
Stormzy: I really miss playing live. I can’t wait for the moment when I first hit the stage again because that’s going to be something that no artists before us have ever experienced. Of people being locked away for a year and a half and finally experiencing live music again. I don’t know what it’s like in America, but here in Europe, I don’t think it’ll be this year. Every time I get excited to perform I feel like corona comes back and pops the bubble, so I’m trying to contain my excitement a bit. But you’ve got a world tour booked! How are you feeling?
Billie: I’m really excited, but the whole last year has felt like we’ve been waiting to go back to normal. I’m keeping the excitement in as much as I can until it is 100% actually going to happen. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. That first big show back, being back on stage, it’s going to be amazing. I’m going to explode on stage.
Stormzy: I feel very honoured to have been sent the record and to have heard it. And for anyone reading this, an album by someone like Billie Eilish isn’t just getting sent out to anyone before it gets released! So I was privileged to hear it. It’s always very interesting listening to an album when you are an artist yourself, because there’s what you understand it as and there’s the truth and perspective of the artist as well. I hate to do this because I hate getting asked this, and an album is so many different things, so many different layers, that trying to sum it up does it an injustice, but if you could try: what do you hope this album tells people?
Billie: Happier Than Ever is kind of a lot of things. The title track was originally a song called “Away From Me”. It was the first thing we did. We’ve been writing the album since summer 2019 and this was the only thing from the beginning that we worked on that stuck. On the first album, all of those songs were three or four years old by the time they were recorded, but these were all new songs. “Happier Than Ever”, the song, is the oldest one. It was written first in summer 2019 and then the next summer we finished it. And I knew from the beginning that it was a really important song for me. When you’re making an album, there’s always a moment when it clicks in your head and you realise where it’s meant to go, what it’s meant to feel like, what it’s going to say. You have all these songs and you’re trying to work out the order of them and how they work together and how they can coexist. And Happier Than Ever just felt like such a perfect encapsulation of the last few years of my life. It has so many meanings, it’s a bit sarcastic but it’s also the truth, and it doesn’t mean happier than you’re ever going to be, or happier than anyone else, it just means happier than before. It means doing better. And I think that’s my life the last few years. I’m growing up, changing, getting better as a person, getting better mentally and creatively. It seemed perfect.
Stormzy: I felt the sarcasm of it, but also when I hear it I believe you are happier than ever so there’s also a sweet irony to it. It translates.
Billie: How is it for you when you’re making an album?
Stormzy: I think it’s quite similar. That moment hits where you know exactly what you want to say and how you are going to say it. With that title track – to talk about live shows again quickly – that sounds like the big live show moment.
Billie: Do you think about how your music is going to sound live when you’re making it?
Stormzy: That’s a funny question, because I’ve been making my third album for the last year and a half, and I had a meeting with my team about a festival show in August, and they wanted to know what new music I want to perform. I realised that I’ve been away from performing for so long that I hadn’t considered performing at all when I’ve been making the album. There’s nothing about this album where I was thinking or worried about performing it live. I used to! But this time I’ve just been dedicated to making something that is so honest, that is all of my truth. I think all we can do as artists is tell our truth. All it can be is what’s inside me. I’ve taken the pressure off myself and allowed myself to say how I feel.
Billie: Absolutely! What does success and failure mean to you?
Stormzy: How I define success has changed. When you’re younger it’s easier. It’s cars, money. Now it’s so different. My idea of success is having time. Do you know what I mean? Having time to make music. Having time to spend with my family, to chill with my bredren. Time to go on holiday, see new places. A lot of people think success is something you have to sacrifice time for, that success is being busy and having no time to see any one or do anything, but I want to spend time with my nephews, with my mum. I want to have a week to relax.
Billie: Time is priceless. It’s underrated and under appreciated. I think success, for me, is joy. I’ve learned recently that if you do these things because they’re a cool idea, they pay a lot of money, or they’re gonna get you this big campaign, but they make you miserable? That’s not success. It’s different if you really care about something and the process is miserable but it makes you happy after the fact. Then that’s valid, and worth it. But why make yourself miserable? Success is internal. It has nothing to do with anyone but yourself. Joy and love for yourself.
Stormzy: What about failure?
Billie: I’ve felt like a failure a lot in my life. And it’s really easy to feel like a failure when so many people are looking at you and telling you you are one. It can be hard not to believe them. I grew up with the internet. I use social media for the same reasons everyone else does, and you come across these videos saying you’re ugly and you suck and you’re terrible and that makes me feel like a failure. There are other things too, more concrete things, like when I disappoint myself, when I don’t feel how I said I was going to feel, or do the things I said to myself I was going to do… but failure is an interesting thing because, like success, it’s really only in your head. You can literally physically fail at something but it can still be a success, and vice versa. Success and failure are all only about your perspective.
Stormzy: You mentioned online life and growing up with the internet. How do you deal with that? I’m a strong believer that social media, especially for someone in your position, can manipulate your psyche and warp your mind. How do you deal with people always having an opinion on you?
Billie: It’s tough and I’m still figuring it out. I like the internet. I like memes and shit like that. But no matter what I do, I can’t avoid myself. I’m everywhere. I feel sorry for all the people who hate me because they can’t avoid me either.
But I don’t want to read about Billie Eilish doing this or that from someone who doesn’t know shit about me. Like, please. I want to make music. I get annoyed about it. But it’s funny. Why do people need to have an opinion about everything I do or say or wear or look like and fucking feel. I just want to make music. I’m just a random girl who likes to sing. It’s not that deep. Just listen to the music and shut the fuck up about my life.
Stormzy: I’m not on social media anymore. I did it in an undramatic way but I came off it. It felt very necessary to come off it. And I think whatever goes on social media, never believe it as being anything more than some shit on the internet, some bad energy. You have to remind yourself that you’re fucking Billie Eilish, you know what I mean? You’re lit. That’s the reality of being you and you have to believe in the reality of who you are. It’s not easy to do that with social media. When I was still on social media I’d have to remind myself that what I was seeing wasn’t true, that I was a G.
Billie: Do you feel like you have a responsibility to your fans to share? I feel conflicted about it. I don’t always want to tell the world intimate details about my life, I don’t really want people to know everything about me, but at the same time I want people to be able to feel seen and heard if they’ve experienced the same things I have. I want to be helpful. I want people to realise that it’s OK, that everyone goes through this. You can speak for people who don’t have a voice. But also, it’s conflicting, because sometimes you also don’t want to talk about it. It’s a tough responsibility because it’s also not my responsibility. I don’t owe anyone anything.
Stormzy: At the beginning of my career I had all this responsibility that I’d never had before, and I thought, alright I’ll take this, I can be a role model. Then as time went on I realised it was too much. It was too much pressure and too much responsibility and there’s way better role models than me out there if you need a role model. There’s times when I really reject being a role model. I get road rage – this is a good example actually. Someone might cut me up on the road and I’m half out the window of the car shouting at another driver, and in that moment I’m not a role model. What if a mum drives past, and is like… But I am also ready, always, to do good by my people. I do want to put positive things out there. There’s loads of things that me and my team do to help people. We’re trying to be pillars of the community but it’s tough to navigate that because we are just human. As artists we get elevated to these positions, but everyone is human. Everyone you look up to and anyone who has ever been looked up to is human. They have flaws, they make mistakes, they have bad days. I’m a man and I do good things and I can also be a piece of shit. And that’s the truth. So if you ever see me hanging out my car shouting at someone else to get out their car and fight me – hold me accountable!
Billie: I think that’s what a role model needs to be. It should be realistic. The problem is when people have unattainable role models, or dream of an unattainable life, or an unattainable face and an unattainable body, and that’s not healthy, for kids especially. We’re all real people. I think when people see celebrities on the internet, or social media, they don’t see them as real people or human beings – and I catch myself doing this too – they see them as characters. When really we’re all just random people in our cars trying to keep it together.
Stormzy: Even the term “giving back” I kinda hate, because it feels like you’re on a pedestal and you’re giving back because you’re better than people. So I say I’m just trying to spread love and positivity. I don’t even want to reel off the good things we’re doing… We’ve got a platform, we’ve got resources, and in whatever way we can spread that love and positivity we do. I think the thing I’m most proud of is Merky Books, and we publish people who might not have been picked up by the literary mainstream otherwise… But it’s really just an extension of myself and my team and our love. I don’t know if it’s a recent thing or if it has always been there, but there is definitely a pressure now for artists to be activists. But can people not just want to sing or rap or dance or play football if they want to? Why must they have the burden of being an activist too?
Billie: It’s conflicting though, because you think about people who don’t have any way to be heard at all, and you think about them, and you think about it from their perspective and they see people in the limelight and you can imagine how antsy they feel about others who have the opportunity. It’s tough because it’s a little unfair that everyone in the limelight is expected to be an activist and to change the world because we can’t! We can say stuff and people can listen and we have a platform but we can only do so much. That’s conflicting. I feel for the people who have such strong determination to change the world but aren’t afforded the same privileges as me. But then of course artists should be allowed to just make art. I don’t want to be cocky but I feel like I have done, or at least I’ve tried, to spread, as you say, love and positivity, and I’ve gone out of my way to use my platform to the best of my ability, and often I don’t think anyone gives a shit. You try to help and spread a message but someone’s still going to call you a fat cow in the comments. Can you remember what made you want to become an artist?
Stormzy: I was always singing, always MCing, always rapping. I don’t know if I have the time to explain grime to you properly right now, but I was doing that from, like, 11 years old, and then I started making songs or just rapping on beats really – not even songs. If you went back in time and said to 14-year-old me that you’re going to become a musician, I wouldn’t have believed you. I couldn’t play anything, I had no knowledge. All I had was a love of music. And it developed from my love of music. It was slow and gradual. Different to you right, as you’ve been in the studio forever.
Billie: I loved singing, too. Since I was a little kid I was singing all day. My parents were like, “Shuutttt uppppp!” But still to this day I don’t really think of myself as a singer. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s impostor syndrome? When I was a kid my favourite thing to do was sing, but I’d never have told you that. I thought of all the other kids who were singing as singers, but never myself. I was just like, I like to sing! It’s not like a thing. It’s just something I love to do. My mom wrote songs, and she taught me and my brother to write songs, and we’d write by ourselves, and then one day we just started writing songs together. That was when I was 13, and that’s when we did “Ocean Eyes”. We put it on SoundCloud. I wasn’t trying to be an artist. It was a fun thing me and my brother did, and it just grew and grew and grew… And then I began, more and more, to feel more like me. I feel more like myself now than I ever did before. I never thought anyone would give two shits.
Stormzy: You were 13 when you did “Ocean Eyes”?
Stormzy: That’s ridiculous.
Billie: It’s weird now looking back at it. It gives me the shivers. I felt so old, so grown up, when we did “Ocean Eyes”. And I was not. Oh my god.
Stormzy: I feel like your writing, even then, was so seasoned. It’s really mind blowing. Can we talk about the new album? It’s amazing. I just want to say that. The second album is such a difficult task. You’re split between sticking to what you know and venturing out and you’re figuring it all out. Because if the world loves you for the first album it makes it difficult to know how to approach a second album. But listening to this album it doesn’t feel like that. When I listen to my second album I can hear the growing pains in it, I can hear the stuff I was trying to figure out that I hadn’t quite figured out. But your album – fuck difficult second album syndrome. You’ve smashed it out the park. This question sounds bait, but as a fan, as a musician, how did you make this album? What’s the nitty-gritty?
Billie: You’re too sweet! The process was good. When I was 15 and 16 and writing the last album, I was crazy. I don’t think it was a very fun age. In fact, it was a terrible age. And then this album just came from such a perfect spot for me, emotionally and mentally. And physically too, actually. It all felt right. We started making this album ages ago, before anyone from the label was thinking about it. There was no pressure, no people telling us to do this or that. We were just inspired. We put aside time for ourselves to make music and we started to make the album and it almost just made itself. It wasn’t easy but it almost felt easy because I love it and all the songs on it. It’s almost like I don’t care if people hate these songs, because I love them so much. As it gets closer and closer to coming out, I almost don’t want it to be released. I feel sad because this album is my baby and people almost don’t deserve it, because I love it so much. I want it to just be mine. It’s like my secret.
I’m trying to let it go, to let people love it or not love it.
Stormzy: I’d also love to know what your favourite song is.
Billie: I think it changes all the time. For a while it was “Lost Cause”… then it was “Oxytocin”… then “Male Fantasy”… I love “Getting Older”… I love “Your Power”… I could speak about every single song in detail because they all feel so important to me.
Stormzy: I wanted to talk about “Male Fantasy”. I love that song. Could you break down that song for me? Before I tell you my perspective I want to hear yours.
Billie: The other day I was talking about how stupid and unrealistic porn is so much of the time. How unrealistic, misogynistic and totally ridiculous the world of porn is. I decided that it was actually a really good idea for a song to talk honestly about pornography because it’s an uncomfortable thing to talk about. Pornography can make you feel violated and good at the same time and this conversation turned into the song. It was hard to write because we wanted it to be as revealing as possible. It’s difficult to be vulnerable and honest and open about my life right now. I find it much easier to write about my past and how I used to feel and to find a new perspective on something that happened to me, to take myself out of a situation. I don’t usually write about what I’m going through in the moment because it’s hard to process it. So this was also about saying how I felt. It was hard and satisfying and revealing and exposing and also incredibly cathartic too.
Stormzy: It’s a song I’ve listened to a lot. When I listen to any music I need to have the lyrics too; to see what you’re saying. You are always saying something important. You have a really interesting perspective on things that I never considered before. If I had to sum up the album, I think my takeaway from it would be that you have an ability to be classic and timeless and also to be incredibly forward thinking too.
Billie: It is actually something that I strive for, that versatility. The biggest insult is to make the same song over and over. I really try to have such a wide range. I want to be an album artist, not a singles artist. I don’t think there are a lot of album artists, but I love albums that sound like a complete work. An album is the opportunity for a musician to make the largest scale of artwork they can – not just a bunch of songs in a playlist. An album is a beautiful thing. And lyrics are an important part of that. They do feel under appreciated sometimes, or that people don’t try as hard. When a song has good lyrics, I really appreciate it.
Stormzy: That all translates into your art, trust me. Everything you’ve just said, I hear it in your music. Your attention to detail, your lyrics… I’ve got to say this, but in today’s climate when an artist is popular that doesn’t necessarily mean an artist is great or pushing things forward… but you can feel your dedication to the art in this album.
I find it inspiring. I’m always trying to be more dedicated to my artwork. And I think anyone who wants to be a musician should be inspired by you. It doesn’t feel like you have sacrificed a part of yourself to become successful. You’ve done it on your own terms. I promise you I listened to this album and I was blown away. I was expecting you to put up some defence and stay in your comfort zone but you’re doing whatever the fuck you want.
The attention to detail across the album… I’m excited for you! It’s amazing. I know how it goes, you make some music and you release it and you think some people miss something about it, or people don’t pick up the line or the melody you love… So I wanted to talk about the song “Everybody Dies”, because I can hear every breath in between takes, and usually the engineer would chop the breaths out but you left them in…
Billie: Oh my god, I love you for noticing that! It’s a classic thing to take that out. There’s so many things that are so standardised in making music. There’s the standard way of editing vocals, the standard patch for the synth or the piano, and my brother, who is a producer and works with other artists now, I say to him, “I know this is the way you’re supposed to do it, but can we leave the natural sounds in? The sounds of my singing, or me moving when I’m singing, me breathing, let’s leave the sound of the room in there.” My brother is a genius at this. He’s the same as me. I think you don’t have to do something the way it’s always been done. Do whatever you want. We make it how we feel it.
Stormzy: There’s so much range in the way you use your voice across the album.
Billie: I think that’s partly also because my voice has changed so drastically since I started making music. I just have more range now. Going through puberty, you don’t have a lot of range and I was going through puberty when I was making my first album. My voice hadn’t fully matured yet. I listen to my older music now and my voice is completely different on this record to how it was then. I can sing in ways that I used to not be able to before; I can hit notes I couldn’t hit before, I can sing more quietly now, I can sing with my chest now – I have these options. When I was younger and making music, I didn’t. My voice was my baby voice and I worked with what I had, so I wanted to do all the things that were possible for me to do with this album.
Stormzy: Thank you Billie. And thanking you for having this conversation. Thank you for letting me hear the album before everyone else. I feel honoured and privileged, because I know that’s your baby. Honestly, as an artist, I know what it takes to do what we do: the detail, the effort, the bravery, the decisions. When someone makes an album like this, I’m in awe of it. I’m excited to see what you do with your third album and fourth album. You are the true definition of an artist. You say what you want and do what you want and express yourself how you want. You’re a testament and an inspiration and you’re a fucking G.
Billie: You’re the best, I love you dearly. I’m going to send you some flowers and a cake.
Stormzy: Next time you’re in London let’s link up.
Billie: Thank you. I’ve got love in my heart. It’s been a dream.
Photography Glen Luchford
Fashion Alastair McKimm
Hair Benjamin Mohapi for The Benjamin Salon.
Make-up Rob Ramsey at A Frame Agency using BITE BEAUTY.
Set design Gideon Pointe.
Lighting director Jack Webb.
Styling assistance Madison Matusich and Milton Dixon III.
Art coordinator Jenn Lee. Leadman Brad Zoellick.
Producer Gabe Hill. Production manager Suzy Kang.
Production coordinator Dani Fernandez.
Production assistance Noah Ponte and Jake Torres.
Special thanks Amanda Merten.
Casting director Samuel Ellis Scheinman for DMCASTING.