Eilish Gilligan is in Control

Photo by Giulia McGauran

by Shaad D’Souza

To watch Eilish Gilligan perform live is to see a woman who knows what she’s doing. Her posture is perfect, and the straightness of her back rarely changes throughout the performance. Her singing doesn’t look effortless, exactly — it looks like the product of hard work, like someone who’s painstakingly ironed out flaws and kinks. She doesn’t try and emulate thicker, deeper, darker voices. She knows exactly what is hers — what notes are within reach, what will sound angelic at one point and demonic the next. She sings like she’s formally trained, but it doesn’t mean she can’t be wild, doesn’t mean she can’t scare you. It just means that when she does snarl, or yell, or whisper, you know that she’s still entirely in control.

The two singles Gilligan has released so far — ‘The Dogs’ and ‘All The Time’ — are brilliant showcases for the singer’s vocal talent and style, but they’re slight compared to what’s coming. The rough tracks that I’ve heard are sinister and majestic, recalling both Tim Hecker’s ‘Dropped Pianos’ and Top 40 pop. She presents the listener with a portrait of wild emotion that’s sometimes uncomfortable but always compelling. I caught up with Eilish at Greensborough Plaza — the land that time forgot — to chat about nostalgia, her influences, and The Universe.

I chose this place because I saw your tweet about crying at an I’lls gig because they were playing footage of Greensborough Plaza. What’s the significance of it?

Greensborough Plaza is like my favourite and my least favourite place in the whole world, because I’ve lived in the same house for my whole life and this is like our closest ‘mall’ kind of thing, so we always go here for anything we need — ever since I was a little kid we’d come here to go to K-Mart and to get school shoes or whatever, so I had that childhood experience, and then gradually as I became a ‘tween’ and then a teenager I was allowed to come here with my friends.

It was the safest place to go because there are always people around, and because we live semi-rural we can’t just wander around. It’s not particularly safe, or whatever, so we’d get dropped off at Greensborough Plaza to see a movie with, y’know, 20 bucks. I have very specific memories of walking along the top level with boys that I used to really like, and going to the movies, and it was just really.. I love this place but I hate it at the same time because it’s so uncool and so lame. It’s just a special place to me, because I kinda grew up here, in a lot of ways.

You have a lot of songs about your teenage years. How does nostalgia tie into your music?

I think nostalgia does play a huge role, as much as I try to not — Nostalgia is a huge trap, if you ask me, because I think it’s really dangerous to fall into the mindset of like, ‘Oh my god, things were so much better then, why is my life so shitty now’. But it’s like, things actually weren’t better then, they were just as shitty, or even more shitty. Like, I had a bad time in year 12, but I always get caught in the trap of thinking “I was skinnier then”, or “I was so much happier then”, “I was so much more creative then, I was so young, I had all these prospects”.

It’s like, well I was so depressed in year 12 — it was the saddest time in my whole life. I was so stressed, and I remember thinking — all I could ever think was “I can’t wait to get out of this thing”. So although nostalgia plays a huge role in my songwriting process, I try to kind of.. highlight the fact that things weren’t actually that good back then, while also embracing the fact that things weren’t that good. Kinda like anti-nostalgia.

There’s a lot of underwater imagery associated with your solo stuff, there’s been heaps of nature and wildness in [Eilish’s other project] Frida’s artwork and lyrics. How does nature tie into what you do?

That’s a really good question! That reminds me.. My mum told me once that she had a dream — She was like “Last night I had a dream about your album cover, like your first album cover.. I just had a vision of you on a front porch surrounded by taxidermied deer and birds and owls, and woodland creatures”. That really stuck with me.

I’ve always loved animals, I’ve always felt an affinity to animals, like I used to cuddle up with Nanna’s grumpy old cat called Spuds even though she hated it and it’s just like.. I wanted to be a vet when I was a little kid. There’s just something about nature that’s very inspiring, obviously, and I love the idea that an animal just kind of.. has become your companion. I love that Frida [Kahlo] had animals as companions, she loved animals and always had them in her artwork and I like the aesthetic of that and I like the meaning behind that, and I think it’s very important to love animals and care for them, I think. I say, as I buy fish from the market and drape myself in them [for press photos]. That’s so contradictory.

The hook of ‘The Dogs’ is “I throw myself back to the dogs”, which is a fairly violent image, kinda at odds with that.

When I wrote that I was really listening to Hounds of Love [by Kate Bush] a lot. And I love that album, and I love that song so.. more than I love most things in my life. That song ‘Hounds of Love’ is the most incredible piece of music. Aesthetically, sound-wise.. It’s just amazing, and I love the idea of, like, the hounds of love, these hounds encompassing love. There’s this verse where she’s like “I found a fox, ravaged by dogs, he let me take him in my hands”, it’s like [makes strangled noise] it’s the most beautiful lyric, it’s so beautiful and I just love it so much, so it’s like, heavily inspired by ‘Hounds of Love’ and it’s kinda an old trope, but I like it anyway, the idea of hounds or dogs being some violent thing, like a wild violent thing that carries an aggressive message, and then the idea of throwing one’s self back to the dogs is just like, the idea of giving up and succumbing to weakness. Yeah, heavily inspired by ‘Hounds of Love’.

You mentioned Frida Kahlo before — you reference her a lot in the way you dress onstage, and obviously in the name of Frida. What is it that attracts you to her?

I think Frida is another one of those things — kinda like Greensborough Plaza, in a funny way — she’s been with me my whole life, like my mum loves her, and it’s kinda the same as Joni Mitchell, and Kate Bush to an extent, and Janis Joplin, these female figures who have been with me through my ‘tween-age’ hood, through my teenagedom, and I feel like they’ve kind of been guardians, in a way, and have kind of been like “Okay Eilish, this is how I’ve lived my life, take from that what you will and maybe you should mould yourself in some way towards this.”

And the flowers on stage thing started with my old band, and I kind of did that as some crazy romantic gesture of, like, if I wear flowers — I used to wear them all the time, which I don’t do any more, but I still wear them onstage — if I wear these flowers, I’m going to remember — I’m going to force myself to remember to live my life the way that Frida Kahlo did, and I’ll be a better person for it, I’ll be a stronger woman, I’ll be a better creative person, I’ll be a better artist. That was when I started going to VCA. [laughs]

Yeah, so I do cherish that. Even though I don’t wear them any more, I still really cherish the notion of making the flower crown, because it’s a good creative outlet, and wearing them onstage, being like, ‘Okay, Eilish, remember that Frida was such a fantastic, headstrong person. You should be like that’. And it makes me work harder every day, to be like that. I think it does. Maybe it doesn’t. I think about it a lot.

Are you a very spiritual person, in any sense of the word?

I believe in the power of the universe, certainly, which sounds so funny, but I do. Even the power of the universe to be a bit funny, like, my very recently-ex-partner Louis was texting me being like “I have that song, Do It Like They Do On The Discovery Channel stuck in my head for like a whole day, and I walked into a café and it was playing on the radio”, and I was like “That’s the universe trying to be so funny to you”.

And then the other day I thought ‘I really need to start collaborating with people on some music”, and then over the next couple of days somebody that I admire and really like was asking for vocalists to be on his track, and then I got an email asking for me to feature on somebody else’s track that I also really like and admire, so it was like the universe– when you have a bit of a shitty time, I feel like the universe will throw you a bit of a bone.

I definitely believe in the universe, and I kind of believe in star signs, in a funny way. I spent like four years telling my mum that I didn’t believe in it and then suddenly I turned around and now I believe in it, so I’m a bit embarrassed, she’ll read this and be like “I told you so”. Yeah, I guess I am [a spiritual person]. I still need a bit of time to figure it out.

What is it about Lady Gaga that makes her so special to you?

[groans] I love her so much. In year 12, when I was having shitty life, Born This Way came out.. Oh my god. That was the most special — Have you seen the ‘Marry The Night’ video? The full version? [groans again] She’s another one of those figures [like Frida] who’s been there for me during the hardest times in my life and she’s been a beacon of hope, and she worked her arse off to get where she is, and that ‘Marry the Night’ video is the most special video to me, because — number one, she looks so so so beautiful all the way through — number two, it’s an incredible song — number three — the scene where she’s in the bath, and she’s got the cereal, and she’s putting bleach in her hair, and then the next scene where she’s got the curls, and her hair is freshly bleached.. That made me dye my hair blonde when I was 20, I was like “I’m gonna be like Lady Gaga”, and I did it at home, and it looked terrible.

There’s something about her. She can write a song, she’s incredibly creative. She’s a little bit problematic, but she’s not as problematic as a lot of pop stars, so that’s good. I just love her. I think she’s so inspiring, I think everything she says is so inspiring! She works so hard, and I think she’s done a lot of good things in her life. I think she’s a bloody great artist, so wonderful. I love her, I love her forever. I hope I meet her one day. [laughs].

Do you want to do music for your whole life?

Yes. Yes. Ideally I’d like to be a very famous and successful musician, but I also want to go and do my PhD and be a professor in composition and songwriting. Ideally pop songwriting, that kind of thing. So that when I’m like, 100 years old and I don’t want to be travelling and performing I can go back and be a professor and help people learn how to write songs. I want music in my life. Music has given me everything I’ve ever wanted — love, support, friendship, travel, independence, money. I work in music and I make a living, y’know. It’s given me everything I’ve ever wanted, so why should I change?


Eilish’s two singles — ‘The Dogs’ and ‘All The Time’ are out now, and you can catch her performing around Melbourne fairly often. More music will be released soon, but be patient — she’s biding her time before the takeover.

Originally published in STRINE WHINE: ISSUE THIRTEEN