A Portrait of Eilish Gilligan [Interview]

Updated: Mar 23, 2020

Interview with Eilish Gilligan

When we speak to Australian singer-songwriter and producer Eilish Gilligan, she may have just written her saddest lyric ever.

The nearly-finished song that it came from emerged in a co-writing session with Gabriel Strum, also known as Japanese Wallpaper, and Lachlan Bostock from Mansionair. “I was writing the lyrics and I was like, ‘Aw, man, I think I’ve hit something really good’,” Eilish reveals. “Basically [it’s about] when you’re really missing someone so badly that you’re so deep in the hole and you just can’t see it ever getting better.” It’s already a standout track for her, pushing her melodic structures to a new place.

And recently, when it comes to words, the indie pop artist has been thinking more carefully about every phrase. “I’ve been trying to brush up on my songwriting skills,” she says. “I think a good song is a balance between real specificity and general universal sentiment. So I’m always trying to walk that line of being specific, but not too specific that you’re calling out people. But also…everything that you’re writing about has been felt by millions of people before you, and will be felt millions of times after you, so it’s important to acknowledge that you’re not that special in feeling these feelings. And then I feel like the relatability comes from those specific moments that you include.”

Of the few singles a year she’s been drip-feeding us since her 2016 debut “Here”, her latest, “I Just Want to Look at You”, might be her most specific yet. The title didn’t originate in fantasy, but was spoken to her word-for-word. “It was a really nice thing to have said to you,” she expresses. “It was one of those great times when the universe just hands you something on a platter.” Capturing the essence of that feeling, the track blissfully floats and shimmers around a beat, with clouds of synths merging through gradual curves.

Bringing the song to life was surprisingly effortless, with the sounds coming into existence as naturally as the lyrics materialized in that moment. “It didn’t need to be handled all that much,” she recalls of the two-day production process. “It was more a case of trying to keep it really intimate and special. I didn’t want it to have the same hard-hitting, super dynamic pop feel that my other music has. [It has] this beautiful intimacy and daydreamy-ness [that’s] kind of a new thing for me. A lot of the time it takes a really long time for me to get my big singles ready because there are so many elements to them, and like most artists I think, I’m a bit of a perfectionist. But there just weren’t that many elements in this song, which I’m really proud of. It feels lush and full, but there’s not all that much going on."

Her affinity for production was developed from a young age after placing in a competition that gave her prize money to spend at the local music shop. “It was actually amazing, because otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to get any of this stuff,” she relates. “It was enough [to get] a MacBook, and an audio card, and a microphone, and it was like a whole world opened up, because I started making my own music, recording it, uploading it, producing it myself. That MacBook computer lasted for ages, and the microphone only just died about two months ago [after 10 years].” Despite some sentimental ties to the equipment, which got her into uni to study composition, and became the tools she relied on all throughout, she did treat herself to a better mic.

Looking back even further, Eilish’s creative inclinations meant that she hardly considered doing anything but music. “I grew up in a pretty artistic family,” she laughs. “I always knew that I wasn’t going to be a banker or anything like that. When I was really little, before I started school, I would play the piano at my grandmother’s house, and my parents put me in lessons, and I think it was honestly then that I knew. I just loved it so much that it was like, ‘Well, maybe this is the art that I choose to follow’. My big sister is a visual artist, and my little sister is in fashion. I think it was kind of written in the stars already.”

Besides making and sharing her artfully-crafted songs, she also has worked as a music publicist – only just wrapping up this past week, in fact. “It’s funny, I had this conversation with a stranger at a dinner party the other week,” she tells us. “They were like, ‘Oh, well do you make your money from music?’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah, I do!’ Everything that I’ve ever needed or wanted has come from music, whether it’s through doing music publicity as a day job, or lecturing at universities and things like that. The music industry has always sustained me. I think that’s what annoys me when people say, ‘Oh, there’s no money in music, or there are no jobs’. It’s like – it’s a difficult industry, that’s absolutely true, but there are absolutely jobs, and there is absolutely money.”

Maybe it’s this passion and motivation that she possesses that allows her to create such an easily recognizable image; one of both strength and elegance. “I’m so proud of the work that Giulia, my photographer, and I have done over the years,” Eilish says of the visuals for the project. “She’s one of my best friends, and it is so special to share something so unique with her. When I’m really old and retired and sitting in my lounge room, I’m going to look back on those photos and be like, ‘Wow, we really did something amazing with those photos’.”

The early single covers were a “textural conversation”, featuring striking images of what she describes as “woman and animal working together in cohesion and harmony”. Her personal favorite? The glossy, magnetic green of the “Patterns” artwork featuring frogs delicately placed on her hand and shoulder. “The contentedness of the frogs in the image is just so special,” she says. “They were live frogs, and they were the sweetest little things. I’ve always really liked frogs, I don’t know why. I had a phase when I was a kid about frogs. They were happy to just sit on me, and I think that was the most positive experience that we had.” An photo session with a kookaburra, on the other hand, will never see the light of day due to excessive pecking.

More recently, the pair have been curating solo, but still very textural, portraits of Eilish. “As someone who’s not super confident all the time, I think it’s in my photos that I feel the most powerful,” she observes. “So that has been the focus recently – wanting to display a really assertive feminine power.” On the cover for “I Just Want to Look at You”, curls of ombré fabric drape around her outstretched hands as she contemplates the camera, all against the backdrop of a hazy sky.

It’s a statement for sure – and everything about her expression as an artist is undeniably tied to her individuality. Her vocal melodies, for instance, are inherently but magically a little off. “They just always end up coming out kind of weird, and I can’t do anything about it at this point,” she laughs. “In a co-writing session, I’ll sing something in, and the producer or the other writer in the room will be like, ‘Huh. I didn’t think about that’. But I think that’s what makes me me. I think that’s important to embrace, otherwise you’re just going to end up being someone else, and there’s no point in doing that.”

“I am an earth sign, I am a creature of habit,” she sings on her third single. She’s clearly connected to her inner being, and explores it even further through realms like astrology. She’s a self-proclaimed "quintessential" Taurus (with Libra rising and Sagittarius moon, if that means anything to you). “I think the reason I’m so into it is because if you looked up Taurus in the dictionary, there would be my picture in it. Hate change, super stubborn…”

“I started reading tarot cards this year, too,” she continues. “It’s all just a vessel to get more deeply in touch with your intuition. I genuinely don’t believe that it’s like, magic, or spooky…I do truly believe that as humans we just have this unlimited potential when it comes to our intuition that most of us, including me, don’t make the most of or tap into often enough.”

Although she isn’t able to predict the future quite yet, she can forsee a larger collection of songs in 2020; something that has been a long time coming for her. “The only reason that the body of work has been delayed has just been because there have been better songs coming every month,” she explains. “It’s frustrating, but at the same time it’s a great problem to have.”

Right now, Eilish is “swimming” in demos. With influences from The Japanese House and BLEACHERS, to Lady Gaga and Selena Gomez, she’s delving into every dimension of pop – yet still keeping it completely her own. “I think I’m just never going to write a normal pop song,” she says. “It’s always going to be a bit weird. And I think admitting that and embracing it has been the best thing I’ve ever done for my practice because it has just opened up this whole world of beautiful, strange sounds…”

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