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Billie Eilish is a Grammy-winning pop star with an airy, soulful voice. By communicating what is inside of her and sharing her music with the world, she inspires us to follow our passions and love all parts of ourselves.
Keely Cat-Wells is an entrepreneur and disability rights advocate. Keely’s activism helps people understand what it’s like to live with a disability, and how to support others. She brought us the story of Grammy-winning pop star, Billie Eilish!
This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Joy Smith with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written by Sara Weiss. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Keely Cat-Wells. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!
Billie Eilish was exhausted. She was thirteen years old and already felt such a weight on her shoulders. Her whole body ached and she’d just been told that she couldn’t dance any more, which was her favorite form of expression.
What was she supposed to do with all the shapes, sounds and dreams swimming through her mind?
She picked up her notebook and pen and tried to jot down some of her thoughts — her fears and frustrations; her questions and heartache. And then she did the bravest thing she could think of…
She shared it with the world.
I’m Keely Cat-Wells. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the real-life rebel women who inspire us.
On this episode, Billie Eilish, a Grammy-winning pop star with an airy, soulful voice. By communicating what is inside of her and sharing her music with the world, she inspires us to follow our passions and love all parts of ourselves.
Billie grew up in a two-bedroom home in Highland Park, California, that was cluttered with family photos, artwork, books and knick-knacks. There were instruments everywhere – three pianos, plus multiple ukuleles and guitars. Billie’s dad played the piano and the ukulele, and Billie’s mom wrote and sang her own songs. She loved talking to Billie about creating music. She explained how the lyrics built off of each other and the notes became a bridge to take the listener on a journey.
Billie and her older brother Finneas were homeschooled and encouraged to explore whatever it was they loved. Billie and Finneas both gravitated to music — they felt like it was in their blood. Billie grew up going to dance classes and singing in the Los Angeles Children’s Choir. She was very young when she started writing her own songs too. She’d jot down images or dreams she’d had on a notepad. Or she and Finneas would share bits of ideas and half-formed lyrics.
They experimented and improvised, putting together strings of nonsense words and trying out different melodies. They didn’t focus so much on what they were making, but rather how. Songwriting was a beautiful escape for them both — a cozy, creative space where they could explore words, sounds, and meaning together.
It was not always easy, though — especially for Billie. She felt like her body had a mind of its own sometimes. Billie had little tics, which are movements that happen involuntarily. She often found herself wiggling her ear back and forth, raising her eyebrows or clicking her jaw without meaning to. As she got older, these tics seemed to get more intense and Billie felt like she couldn’t stop. So, when she was eleven, her parents took her to a doctor to help figure out what was happening.
Billie was diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome, which is a neurological disorder that causes involuntary physical tics, like blinking, shrugging, grunting, or tongue clicking. Billie only did some of these things, but she felt exhausted from trying to control her muscles and be still.
Her body was in pain too. Something was not right. Dance had always been a way to channel her emotions into movement, but now her joints ached and her muscles burned. When she was 13, she found out the pain was from a growth-plate injury. Her doctor said she had to stop dancing or she might do irreparable damage.
Billie was heartbroken. In her mind, she could still see herself leaping across the stage and feeling the music dance with her. She wanted to scream at her body—how could you do this to me?
She sat down and started writing about her feelings of anger and confusion; her longing to be at peace with herself. She also started sharing some of these words with Finneas and figuring out how they could be matched with notes he played on the piano. They pieced together chords and melody riffs. And slowly, thoughtfully, they created a piece of music that felt emotional and true.
As Billie says, “To have a song that is describing exactly how you feel is just the best feeling in the world…It makes you feel…like you’re not alone.”
Soon, Billie’s passion for music became much more public. Her dance teacher, who was a big fan of Billie’s talents, asked her to record something. Finneas handed Billie the idea for a song he’d written called “Ocean Eyes.” They worked together to weave in drum, bass and synthesizer sounds on the computer, and layered Billie’s voice so that it sounded as if she had a chorus of singers behind her.
Billie and Finneas posted the song online with a free download link so the dance teacher could access it. They expected a few friends to listen. But they got one like, then another, and then a music discovery website called Hillydilly found the song and reposted it. Billie and Finneas stared at the computer screen, stunned, as the number of views and likes skyrocketed. Their song was going viral! They even had a manager who wanted to help them get a record deal!
So, Billie and Finneas dove heart-first into writing and recording more songs. Their studio was Finneas’s bedroom, where he tinkered on the piano and adjusted sound levels on his computer. Billie sat on his bed with rainbow pillows and a microphone. She often started by thumbing through a book of sketches and lyrics she’d penned. Within these pages, she’d bared her soul. She felt a bit scared to let go of something so private, but she was also excited to share more of herself with the world.
But there was no denying that singing and songwriting were empowering and even healing for her. Billie realized that when she was singing, her involuntary tics lessened, and sometimes disappeared completely. She was in a state of flow — truly engaging her heart and mind. Everything else simply faded away.
In 2017, Billie and Finneas released a collection of singles that was shared and applauded all over the world. Next, Billie had the chance to record her first full-length studio album. She and Finneas had so much fun putting that album together. He was her music collaborator, co-writer, producer and best friend. Sometimes, they made each other laugh until they cried. Other times, they were completely focused on the music and in the zone. Even when Billie felt stuck in self-doubt or confusion, she knew together, they could push through and create something beautiful.
In 2019, when Billie was 17 years old, she and Finneas released an album called, “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” The album was a massive success and she got to tour globally, performing to packed houses. Listeners loved how open Billie was in both her voice and her message. And the following year, she won five Grammy Awards! Billie became the youngest artist and the first woman to win all four of the awards’ major trophies: Best New Artist, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, and Record of the Year!
At the same time, Billie definitely struggled with processing her new fame. She had devoted fans who really connected with her songs and supported her. But she also had critics who’d noticed her tics. A few people posted videos of her head nods, eye twitches and eyebrow movements that she still did involuntarily at times.
Billie hadn’t told many people that she had Tourette’s syndrome. She didn’t want this fact to define her as an artist. Now, she felt like she had to say something. “I would love to get this straight,” she wrote on social media, “I have diagnosed Tourette’s.”
She was nervous to see how people would respond, but people started coming forward, sharing their own stories. Many of her fans had Tourette’s, too, or other conditions, and hearing Billie’s story made them feel seen. Billie came to understand that her voice was powerful. Her willingness to be vulnerable was a gift. And she could help people see that living with a neurological disorder might be part of her, but it didn’t define her.
Billie continues to sing and speak out. She opens up about her passions and fears, because she knows this is the way to a deeper connection. And her fans feel her bravery in every note they sing with her.
Rebels, it takes courage to share all parts of ourselves, even our struggles. And yet, it can be so rewarding. Whether it’s the start of a song or a secret wish, see where it leads you. You may find that just like Billie, you inspire others more than you know.