Imagine worrying that you’d reached your creative songwriting peak before you could even legally order a beer. That’s the existential dread Billie Eilish said she suffered before Barbie director Greta Gerwig came knocking with an assignment.
“I honestly was concerned that it was over for me. We’d been trying and it wasn’t doing what it usually would do in me. I was honestly like, ‘Damn, maybe I hit my peak and I don’t know how to write anymore?,’” Eilish told The Hollywood Reporter for its Hit Squad songwriter roundtable, where she talked about inspiration, frustration, first songs and cringe-y lyrics with fellow songwriters/singers Dua Lipa, Olivia Rodrigo, Jon Batiste, Cynthia Erivo and Julia Michaels.
Eilish, 21, said she was struggling to find fresh inspiration before the call came from Gerwig in January with the Barbie soundtrack assignment. The result, of course, was Eilish’s haunting ballad “What Was I Made For?,” which not only hit Nov. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100, but also garnered the seven-time Grammy Award winner another five nominations for the 2024 Grammys.
“Greta saved me, really, honestly,” Eilish said of the track she wrote with songwriting partner brother Finneas. “It brought us out of it and immediately we were inspired and wrote so much more after that.” And though we have not year heard what else they cooked up for Eilish as-yet-untitled third album, the story of struggle opened the door for Eilish to describe the making of the song in greater detail.
Eilish said she and Finneas were in the studio on a rainy January day the day after they first saw the movie — whose soundtrack garnered 11 Grammy nominations overall — at a time when they were super-stuck. “It was just a day of nothing. It was just idea after idea after idea of just no ideas. Nothing was happening. It was the least creative,” she said of the unproductive six-hour session.
Then Finneas suggested they try to write the Barbie assignment, which Billie was not psyched to take on after such a frustrating day. “I was like, ‘What? You think after the day of garbage we’ve just made, we’re going to make a perfect song for something that needs something really good?,’” she asked. “I was like, ‘I don’t even have that in me.’”
Though the siblings had struck Oscar gold before with their James Bond theme “No Time to Die,” Eilish didn’t think she had “something astounding” in her. But once Finneas began playing the piano, Eilish — sitting on a couch with a handheld mic — started singing as the brother and sister talked about the “floating elegance of [Barbie] and her ability to be so smooth and beautiful and perfect all the time. And then the juxtaposition of her suddenly falling and [she] can’t do everything perfectly.”
That inspired the line “I used to float, now I just fall down,” which led to the song’s title and a breakthrough. “Then we were both asking the question after that and we did that in probably five minutes. It was like it was God. It was just the most perfect example to me of true inspiration and connection,” she said. “It was living in me that whole day, but it wasn’t coming out of me. We didn’t go into it knowing at all what we were going to make or if we were going to make anything. And it was just so clear that we needed to.”
Rodrigo, 20, weighed in on how writing the song “Can’t Catch Me Now” for the new Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes prequel took her out of her comfort zone in the best way. “It was so much fun. Most of my songs are very diaristic in nature and kind of about my life. It was such a fun challenge to watch this movie through the eyes of this character and try to capture herperience through my words and my voice,” she said. “There’s so much inspiration in restricting yourself sometimes.”
Lipa said her experience writing the Barbie song “Dance the Night” was, from the beginning, “the most fun experience. It was something that I hadn’t done before.” She said soundtrack producer Mark Ronson DM’d her on Instagram saying the script was hilarious and he wanted her to write a song for its iconic dance sequence.
“I was like, ‘This is an absolute no-brainer. One thousand percent yes,’” she said. “It’s so much about stereotypical Barbie having an existential crisis and finding out what it’s like to experience the human condition and the way that we are as people and the emotions that we feel. And constantly striving for perfection but not quite reaching it, striving for something deeper in a way. Greta was saying how inspired by disco she was. I just thought about disco and the community it brings, and the way it brings people together. It was always a genre of music that was such a release when things weren’t going well in the world.”
The discussion also had Erivo dissecting the first lyric she wrote at 16 for a South African girl group and Rodrigo’s first effort, a “feminist anthem” called “Superman” she wrote at 14 about how she didn’t need a Superman to come and save her. Dua Lipa remembered a song she wrote at 4 or 5 in her native Albanian she’d sing around the house with lyrics about wanting to be just like her mom.
As you might expect, Eilish’s first attempt, at 8, featured some typically dark lyrics: “I’m going down, down, down into the black hole, sweeping up your soul today …”
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