Wednesday 18 September 2019

Hayley Fanning - daughter of RTÉ's Dave Fanning - on hanging out with the coolest pop star on the planet

Hayley Fanning, daughter of RTE's Dave Fanning, has been pals with pop superstar Billie Eilish since she was playing tiny venues. She tells how their unlikely relationship developed on weekends around Europe

Billie Eilish and Hayley Fanning
Billie Eilish and Hayley Fanning

The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Nick Cave, Randy Newman, Van Morrison, Neil Young, The Clash… I grew up on a diet of these and loads, loads more.

That's because my dad played them all over the house, all the time, and when I was strapped into the car on all journeys - short and long.

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When I got older - maybe 10 years ago, when I turned six - all that stuff was still the family soundtrack, though I got lost in the pop music of the day: everything from Justin Bieber to Beyonce to One Direction.

I first heard of Billie Eilish through Kaia Gerber's Instagram story tagging an account named "wherearetheavocados". I wanted to know more about the music and the artist, so I looked up her songs and found Bored and idontwannabeyouanymore.

She had a unique voice and I was surprised to see she wasn't more popular. She only had about 100k followers on Instagram.

Two years ago, this very month, she released an eight-song EP called Don't Smile at Me. I played the collection on a loop for a few months at home, and the entire family loved it. By October, we saw Billie was planning on doing a few European concerts - and as the Fanning family were big fans at this stage, we decided to see her in Amsterdam at Halloween.

The Melkweg - the Milky Way - is a venue in Amsterdam. Artists like Prince and Arctic Monkeys have played there in the two bigger venues. U2 and Nirvana played their first Dutch concerts there. Back in the late 1980s, my dad travelled over to the venue for a gig with The Pogues, with Joe Strummer taking the place of Shane MacGowan!

When we arrived, there was a queue for KT Tunstall and The Selecter in the two bigger halls at the venue (it's pretty big). But there was no queue for the theatre hall in the back. The place was tiny, it only fits about 130 people and it was no sell-out.

Hayley and Robert Fanning, Dave Fanning, Finneas O'Connell, Billie Eilish, Jack Fanning, Maggie Baird, and Ursula Fanning
Hayley and Robert Fanning, Dave Fanning, Finneas O'Connell, Billie Eilish, Jack Fanning, Maggie Baird, and Ursula Fanning

It was funny to hear Billie's angelic voice, paired with her attitude that screams 'I couldn't care less'. Billie writes and performs with her brother Finneas. A woman came out on stage before the show to set up some T-shirts and such. When I was buying merch at the T-shirt table, someone tapped my shoulder asking to get the attention of the guy behind the stall. My mum quickly clocked that it was the woman who was setting up the stage before Billie came out. My mum guessed correctly that she was Billie's mum and told her that we were big fans who had come from Ireland to see the show. She could not believe that five of us had travelled all that way to see her and insisted we go backstage to meet Billie and Finneas. After that, my obsession only grew. We enjoyed a great night beside the venue on the Leidseplien, the centre of Amsterdam nightlife.

The next day we toured the canals and visited places of interest. A few months later, we saw that Billie had more European dates lined up for early 2018, so in February, we decided to see her in Milan. Again, she was amazing. The crowd was bigger but not by a lot - maybe 150 this time.

After the gig, Billie's mum, Maggie, took us backstage again (a cupboard in Amsterdam, a small corridor here) along with another guy and his daughter. My film-nut brother recognised him as Alfonso Cuaron, the director of Gravity. He told my dad that he was making a film called Roma.

Since we were in Italy, my dad thought it had something to do with Rome. Turns out it was about his childhood in Mexico City. It went on to win all the big film awards including Oscars. The film inspired Billie to write a song called When I Was Older.

Billie made a few inroads by the end of last year with some radio plays, but I was still surprised that most people had never really heard of her. Then again, she still hadn't released her debut album. We heard that was coming in March of this year, but before that she announced some new European dates so, a Christmas treat for all of us was a visit, this time to Stockholm in February.

The Stockholm venue must have had room for up to 2,000 and it was packed. There was a buzz about Billie, finally, and she was so good on stage that night. With still just herself and Finneas on stage, it was a case of 'go to Billie Eilish concerts and get to see European cities'!

It was, I think, the last day of the tour and when Maggie took us backstage this time, Finneas and Billie were excited that the next step was the album release in a month's time. As with the other places, the next day we took the hop-on, hop-off tour bus, went to galleries and took in everything from the Nobel Museum to the Abba Museum.

A few weeks later on March 29, the fantastic debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? was finally released. Overnight, Billie became a phenomenon. The album went straight to the top of the charts everywhere and she was not only the first artist to have a No 1 album in the US who was born this century, but also the youngest female ever to have a No 1 album in the UK. In America, she broke the record for the most simultaneously Hot 100 charting songs for a female artist with 14, and every song but one charting.

A few facts? Homeschooled as a child in the small Highland Park area of Los Angeles (same as Beck) near Pasadena, her parents are both artists. Her mother, Maggie Baird, is a musician and her dad Patrick O'Connell is an actor (who we met when he was working on the tour in Stockholm). There's Scottish and Irish ancestry in the family.

Billie was in the LA Children's Choir at the age of eight and began writing her own songs at 11. She'll be 18 in December. In late 2015, Finneas asked her to sing vocals on a track he'd just written and when Billie's dance teacher asked her to send him some music, she sent it via Soundcloud. It went viral.

Her career took off accidentally. It got 1,000 plays pretty quickly and that was the end of that. Billie was thrilled. A couple of years later, the song (Ocean Eyes) was included on her debut EP. By August 2017, it had 15m streams.

Billie has currently over 27m monthly listeners on Spotify and over 13m followers on Instagram and, last week, she finally shoved the longest running No 1 single in the history of the US Hot 100 (Old Town Road by Lil Nas X) off the top spot with Bad Guy.

These days I'm lost in all things K-Pop, obsessed with BTS and all the other Korean bands. Or 'acts' as my dad calls them.

But Billie Eilish is special. I love her, because she's so different. If you're looking for standard kind of love songs, look somewhere else. I know people say she's dark, hardcore, much older than her years etc. They're probably right. She's completely her own woman - no pretensions - and she'd be the first to admit that her secret weapon is her multi-talented and really friendly producer, arranger, co-writer and brother, Finneas. Billie's unique and she's brilliant.

Billie Eilish (and Hozier, The Strokes, The 1975, Florence + The Machine, Courtney Barnett, Four Tet and many, many more) play Electric Picnic next weekend

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