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How a rare condition underpins Billie Eilish's songwriting


Billie Eilish came onto the scene at just 13-years-old, releasing songs onto Soundcloud with her brother Finneas, who helped her write and produce the tracks that first garnered public attention. Singles like ‘Ocean Eyes’ and ‘Bellyache’ were among their first musical ventures together, and they continue to work with one another, often thinking of themselves as a sort of duo.

Even with the collaboration of a musically-inclined older sibling, it’s no secret that Billie was gifted from a very young age. Finneas has said of working with his sister: “Probably 75-80% of the songs are written with us sitting next to each other at a piano or with a guitar, singing a melody together. It’s like a relay race — we really feel like we both have to kill our portion of it to get to the finish line”.

But where does Billie herself find personal inspiration? According to the young artist, the inspiration can strike at any time, and can come from anywhere. She says that she sometimes feels inspired to write music or start new projects after waking up from a particularly vivid dream or having a thought in the middle of the night. “[I]n the middle of the night, I will sit up, whether the light is on or whether the light is off, I’ll sit up and I’ll just write whatever I’m thinking or whatever I just dreamt about,” she says.

However, there’s another piece to her songwriting skillset and creativity that Eilish has been open about. She has a relatively rare condition called synaesthesia, which is a condition where the stimulation of one sense causes an involuntary reaction in at least one other. Synaesthesia can manifest in many forms. Often, colours, tastes, sounds, and even words can be linked for no practical or physical reason.

Eilish, in particular, experiences visual and sound links, meaning that she can physically see the music that she writes, and she can hear sounds in certain colours and aesthetics. With the kind of work she routinely puts out and with her development as an artist over the years, this definitely tracks. 

When Billie writes songs, she’s thinking about the bigger picture, not just where it will fit into the next album, but what the music video or stage performance will look like alongside it. Eilish herself is conscious of this, stating: “Any time I’m creating anything I’m thinking about the video, I’m thinking about the artwork and I’m thinking about the colours… Everything that I make, I’m already thinking of what colour it is, what texture it is.” 

This isn’t the only way that people can experience synaesthesia, and synaesthesia isn’t simply a condition that only musicians have. Although its validity has come into question in the past, scientific evidence has more or less proven its existence in recent years. 

Billie Eilish isn’t alone in the entertainment industry, either, as many other artists and celebrities also have the same condition. Kanye West, Tori Amos, Brendon Urie, Frank Ocean, and Lorde are also said to have the condition in some form.

In fact, Eilish isn’t even alone in her own family, as her brother Finneas has talked about having synaesthesia, too. It seems that there are plenty of traits – musical talent included – that run in the O’Connell family.

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