Fans her own age will especially love “Billie Eilish,” a sumptuous book of photographs chronicling her life and career from infancy to the present. The book comes out just after Eilish’s striking Vargas-girl-style, blonde-bombshell photos in British Vogue appeared — inevitably causing controversy and consternation among those more accustomed to the obsidian-and-emerald-haired girl in baggy T-shirts and cargo pants; on Instagram, Eilish responded to the criticism, calling her Vogue look “proof that women can change their minds and reclaim autonomy over their own bodies.”
“Billie Eilish” offers a more vulnerable portrayal of the star. A stand-alone audiobook provides commentary by Eilish and her parents, Maggie Baird and Patrick O’Connell, actors who home-schooled their two precocious kids in Los Angeles. Early photos depict a seemingly idyllic childhood: adorable 4-year-old Finneas kissing his newborn sister; towheaded Billie (born Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell) displaying her singularly emotive face from the get-go. “I just have always loved cameras,” she said in a recent Vanity Fair interview, “and I loved being on camera . . . since I was a little kid.” Maggie Baird recalls filming her daughter’s first steps. “The minute she knew that she was on that camera, she wanted to see it. She wanted the camera, so I just backed up and she walked to me.”
Millions of parents have done something similar, of course. But Eilish never stopped walking — and dancing, and singing — toward the camera. She and Finneas, who is four years older, learned songwriting from their mother, who appeared on such shows as “The X-Files” and “As the World Turns.” Both siblings were in the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, and Eilish studied dance until an injury sidelined her at 13. “Any talent show, ever, I was a part of,” Eilish says in the audiobook commentary. “All I wanted to do was perform, in any way I could. So I did.”
At her first talent show, she sang “Tomorrow,” from the Broadway musical “Annie.” For her second, when she was 6, she covered the Beatles’ “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” Her parents recall: “It wasn’t funny. She really liked the musical elements of that song . . . [but] then, how far do you go?” Her father says: “She wanted to go all the way. I was like, ‘I’m not sure that’s right.’ But she did it anyway, because she’s Billie Eilish.” The accompanying photo shows an indomitable-looking girl, arms crossed as she faces the mic stand and stares intently at the audience. She may be only 6, but she’s already Billie Eilish.
Little written text accompanies these pictures. This may not matter much to younger fans, who’ll no doubt love (or skip) captions such as: “Signing my record deal! This was after a year of a million boring meetings with adults who had no idea how to talk to a fourteen year-old.” But adults may prefer to skim the pages while listening to the commentary, which provides some context if not much insight into Eilish’s career. For that, check out R.J. Cutler’s fantastic “The World’s a Little Blurry” (available to stream on Apple TV Plus), one of the best music documentaries of the past few years.
Really, though, just listen to the songs. These can skew dark — the infamous music video of a tarantula crawling from Eilish’s mouth for “You Should See Me in a Crown” has doubtless caused a few nightmares. But dark isn’t a bad thing in pop music, especially when leavened by Eilish’s ethereal, often whispery soprano, a sound made supple by years of training, and highlighted by Finneas’s ingenious production (his gift for minting earworms extends to work with performers such as Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber, his sister’s idol since childhood).
While various professionals contribute backstage and concert images to “Billie Eilish,” in particular Matty Vogel and Kenneth Cappello, the most affecting ones are by her family: an exhausted Eilish and Finneas passed out on a tour bus; Eilish mugging in front of a billboard for her 2019 full-length debut, “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” That album, recorded and produced by Finneas (again, in his childhood bedroom), featured multiple-platinum-selling songs co-written by the siblings, topped worldwide charts in its first week, and swept the 2020 Grammys: six awards, including producer of the year (nonclassical) for Finneas.
“I was never trying to be scary, I was trying to just make . . . art,” Eilish says in the audiobook’s commentary. It’s difficult to believe that someone so young could have accomplished so much before her 20th birthday — in addition to writing and performing, she directs some of her music videos. The pandemic brought her sold-out world tour to a halt after only three shows, and while one might hope she got some well-earned rest during the past year, she hasn’t been idle. Her forthcoming album, “Happier Than Ever,” will be out in July. A gorgeous, chilling, deeply unsettling and personal new song, “Your Power,” dropped on April 29 and garnered nearly 38 million views in less than a week. It’s about an abusive man who grooms a young lover. In it, she sings: “And you swear you didn’t know, you said you thought she was your age. How dare you? And how could you?” In our world, as in Billie Eilish’s music, there are much scarier things than spiders.
Elizabeth Hand’s most recent book is a story collection, “The Best of Elizabeth Hand.”
By Billie Eilish
Grand Central Publishing, 336 pp. Hardcover $35, e-book $16.99, audiobook $16.25