Billie Eilish is a certifiable superstar: an intimidatingly-talented teenage prodigy who at just 17 is redefining notions of pop stardom. Just ask any teenager around the world and they’ll let you know how obscenely famous she is — 15 million Instagram followers, over 4 billion streams on Spotify and YouTube, sold-out shows around the world, a haute modelling contract and When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? is now number one on both sides of the Atlantic. And she makes it all seems so effortless.
It’s the type of thing you wish you could bottle. Surely this is what music is about: about being young and fresh and talented and interesting. But look at Seasick Steve: he’s none of those things. And he managed to make it when he was in his sixties.
Sadly I am none of these things either. And, I mean, I am OLD. Not as old as Seasick Steve but certainly old. As in I-owned-cassettes-and-used-teletext-and-remember-hearing-a-dial-up-tone old. So old I’m old enough to be Billie Eilish’s dad. So old I’ve given up on my dreams of getting into music. But am I right to just give up because I can’t sing, play an instrument and have no discernible talent? I don’t think so. So I decided to look into musicians who made it late and why.
All of us have that lingering daydream of making it in music. It lurks in that bit of your mind that tells you you could easily write a novel if you just had a tiny bit more time. But what can you do to reverse the inexorable tide of time before we all crumble into dust? What can we learn from the stars who have managed to trick time?
Not everyone follows the same path as Eilish and there are some weird and wonderful routes to fame that take a little time. Some artists teach in Jewish preschools, serve in Little Chef or work as fry cooks before they make it. What I’m saying is don’t give up. What I’m saying is, to paraphrase Seymour Skinner; you’re not out of touch, it’s the kids who are wrong.
Of course, music is in many ways a young person’s game (apart from, you know, the fact that everyone who runs the industry is old). Over 30 and you’re basically done for (we’re counting over 30 as old for this, sorry 31-year-olds). Remember when La Roux was being deemed ‘too old’ for Radio One at 26? This is an industry made for the young to enjoy. But look at it in another way: you’re ready for it – mature enough to deal with its hype, machinations and flitting, transitory nature.
Coming to fame late, James Murphy was very aware of both sides of that: “You’re part of a machine that’s set up to really whip your teenage ego into a frenzy,” he told Pitchfork. “On the one hand, that’s awesome, because you’re kind of immune to it. But on the other hand … it’s like being an adult at an amusement park designed for kids. I’m like, ‘I can’t fit on any of these rides.’” LCD Soundsystem only released their first album when he was 35. Before that Murphy, in his own words, wasted his twenties. He had dropped out of NYU, turned down writing for Seinfeld and played in a string of bands, before LCD took off.
You may be shocked and surprised to learn that if you’re an older white man then it seems easier to make it later in life. Of course there are the big hitters like Jarvis Cocker, Leonard Cohen and Steve Brookstein who took a while to find their voice and their audience.
There are other stories as well. Wayne Coyne may have started the Flaming Lips when he was 22, but for 11 years after high school, he worked as a fry cook at Long John Silvers. The Flaming Lips played small shows for years before Warner signed them, and Coyne waited 10 years working at the restaurant before ‘She Don’t Use Jelly’ became the band’s first ‘hit’.
In the early 2000s, New York wasn’t short of indie bands in their early 20s so when the National formed as 30-year-olds making unfashionable alt-country they were dismissed. So Matt Berninger and his bandmates kept their day jobs as they promoted their self-titled first album in 2001 – telling us in an interview they were “playing in the corners of bars to three people all just watching Jeopardy”.
But in 2004, the year before they released Alligator, they decided to give up the 9-5. “I was well into my 30s and I was creative director at a new-media company,” Berninger explained. “I was doing well. But, once I entertained the thought that maybe I wouldn’t ever have to go and sit in conference rooms with Mastercard to discuss web ads again, I couldn’t shake it. I think we were all prepared to fail, but, if we hadn’t chased it then, we would have regretted it for the rest of our lives.” Soon after, Berninger and the band had gone from playing to 3 people to being “35 and playing to ten people and sleeping in youth hostels,” but you know, we think it worked out OK.
Sleaford Mods’ Jason Williamson had various jobs, from the kitchen of Little Chef in Colsterworth, to a benefits officer in Nottingham, before Sleaford Mods hit the big time and then suddenly two blokes from Notts in their mid-forties were shouting at sold out rooms across the country.
Of course, it’s not just ALL white men. Debbie Harry was a waitress in Kansas City, a go-go dancer in a New Jersey discothèque, a Playboy Bunny and a backing singer for the folk rock group The Wind in the Willows before she formed Blondie. She was 31 when they released their debut album and they didn’t see global success until their third album a couple of years later. And Sheryl Crow had to sing jingles for McDonald’s and Toyota to make a living before she signed her first record contract when she was 31. That change did her good (sorry).
And the Teaches of Peaches meant something very different when Merrill Beth Nisker taught at a Jewish preschool. She quit teaching, moved to Berlin, started wearing dildo dresses and released the first Peaches album when she was 34.
It doesn’t have to be as problematic as writing McDonald’s jingles. You could be Rodriguez, put out two records in the early ’70s, disappear, have rumours that you set yourself alight on stage and burned to death, become the unofficial soundtrack to youth protests against apartheid in South Africa as you live your life of obscurity and construction work, before being made famous by a documentary 30 years later and going on to perform sold-out shows in arenas in South Africa. Easy.
And sometimes all it needs is a change of name. In 2011, after years working under the name Tity Boi (!), he decided to change his name to something more “family friendly” and 2 Chainz was born. His debut album debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 – a month before his 36th birthday – and he’s gone on to work with Kanye, Nicki Minaj and Drake.
So, what lessons can we learn from all of this? Well, for a start, if you’re called Tity Boi, for the love of god change your name. Then think about it: have you got the talent, the charisma, to prove your friends, family and the world wrong and show them you’re not made for that dull job in the office. You’re not a 9-5 guy. You’re a star. Then, as I have, you’ll have an epiphany: You have no musical talent. You are not Billie Eillish. Do give up. Because, like me, you’re terrible. And old.