“I honestly was concerned that it was over for me,” Billie Eilish confesses at a table with Dua Lipa, Olivia Rodrigo, Jon Batiste, Cynthia Erivo and Julia Michaels, who came together to discuss their songwriting prowess and process. “We’d been trying and it wasn’t doing what it usually would do in me. I was honestly like, ‘Damn, maybe I hit my peak and I don’t know how to write anymore?’ ” Struggling for inspiration, the 21-year-old had hit a wall, until Greta Gerwig called in January with an assignment: Write a song for Barbie. The result was the emotional and scene-stealing “What Was I Made For?” that Eilish wrote with her brother and musical partner, Finneas. “Greta saved me, really, honestly,” Eilish says. “It brought us out of it and immediately we were inspired and wrote so much more after that.” A frontrunner for best original song at the 2024 Oscars, Eilish is joined by other contenders: Lipa, with her disco bop “Dance the Night,” also from Barbie; and Rodrigo — on a white-hot streak with her GUTS album — who wrote the eerie and powerful “Can’t Catch Me Now” for The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes. Rounding out THR’s annual Songwriter Roundtable are Michaels, who has penned hits for Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez and wrote “This Wish” (performed by Ariana DeBose) for Disney’s Wish; Grammy darling and Oscar winner Jon Batiste, who composed “It Never Went Away” for the Netflix doc American Symphony, which follows Batiste at a career high while his wife battles leukemia; and Tony, Emmy and Grammy winner Cynthia Erivo, who wrote “It Would Be” for the indie film Drift, which she stars in and produced.
During an hourlong taping at The Georgian Hotel in Santa Monica, the six performers traded stories about making music and more, as Lipa coined the subgenre “dance-crying” and Batiste spoke about the healing power of music, pointing specifically to Eilish and Rodrigo as artists his wife listened to while she underwent treatment for cancer.
Do you remember the first song or lyric you wrote?
CYNTHIA ERIVO I was 16 and wrote a song called “Maybe,” and I think it was given to a South African girl group or something. And I remember (starts singing), “Have you ever thought that he would never call you at all because he’s too good to be true …”
OLIVIA RODRIGO What the hell.
ERIVO (Still singing) “Pretty lady, you’re amazing.” Yeah, I remember that.
JULIA MICHAELS We’re done.
RODRIGO That’s all.
Who wants to follow that?
RODRIGO Damn. I guess the first song that I wrote on piano, proper, I was probably 14 or 15, and I wrote this feminist anthem called “Superman,” about how I didn’t need Superman to come and save me. Start them young.
BILLIE EILISH That’s right.
JON BATISTE On the right track.
DUA LIPA Gosh. I mean, when I was about 4 or 5 years old, I made up this song. Albanian was my first language, and so I sang it in Albanian, and it was a song I’d made for my mom. I’d walk around the house, and I’d be like, “When I grow up, can I borrow your shoes? And when I grow up, can I wear your dress? And when I grow up, can I be just like you?” It actually just stuck around. It’s the one thing that, at home, we just always remind ourselves of.
RODRIGO That’s cute.
MICHAELS That’s adorable.
EILISH I love that.
How about you, Jon?
BATISTE I was doing a lot of music, instrumentally, for many years, and I started writing lyrics for a Shakespeare play that wanted songs in the play. I was probably about 21. I was like, “Man, characters and worlds and the expression of all these interconnected relationships, how can we make all these sounds come together?” That was the end of it. I loved that stuff.
EILISH The first lyrics I remember writing was probably when I was 8 or something, and it was like (laughs and starts singing), “I’m going down, down, down into the black hole, sweeping up your soul today …”
Were you going through something at the time as an 8-year-old?
EILISH No. Listen, I was writing stories, man. I feel like the first song that I wrote, I was 6, and it was me and my friend. We were playing the ukulele and it was a song about ukuleles. Whatever. You guys have good stories.
MICHAELS I don’t really have a good story. I started writing when I was 6 as well, just all the time.
EILISH Just bad little songs.
MICHAELS Yeah, really, really bad.
EILISH Me too, dude.
MICHAELS But the first [professional] thing I ever got was this theme song for a Disney Channel show when I was 17, the show called Austin & Ally.
RODRIGO Loved that song.
LIPA And the rest is history.
You all have amazing film songs that have been released this year. It’s the 100th anniversary of Disney, and you wrote a lot of music for Wish, Julia. What was that like? And is it true you sang background vocals on “Let It Go” from Frozen?
MICHAELS I did, yeah.
RODRIGO That’s so cool.
LIPA That’s very cool.
MICHAELS I was 19 and doing demos around the city to meet people and pay my rent. I got a call from someone who was working on the Demi [Lovato] version of the song. They were like, “Hey, we need some backgrounds done for this song. It’s for a Disney film.” Funny enough, 10 years later, cut to the song that I did background for, the movie [Frozen] was directed by the same people that directed the film [Wish] that I wrote all the songs for.
Cynthia, you star in Drift and also produced the film and wrote the original song. What was it like wearing so many hats?
ERIVO It was nuts. I always called it “The Little Engine That Could” because it was made from nothing, basically. A little indie movie that we made on location in Greece, and we didn’t have much time to do it in. So I’m on set, thinking about the schedule and making sure that we can get shots done, but trying to be in scenes that are really tough. But the song was the easiest part for me because it was inspired when I was on a run one morning. I listened to the song by Laura Mvula called “Father.” It connected with what I was experiencing and what this movie was about. So I texted her — I didn’t tell anyone else [involved in the production] first, which is not what you’re supposed to do. I was like, “Would you be into working with me on a song for this?” She said yes. Then I told them.
Everyone is so excited for the latest Hunger Games film. Olivia, what was the inspiration behind your song?
RODRIGO It was so much fun. Most of my songs are very diaristic in nature and kind of about my life. It was such a fun challenge to watch this movie through the eyes of this character and try to capture her experience through my words and my voice. There’s so much inspiration in restricting yourself sometimes. I don’t know if you guys ever have this, but when you have every color in the palette and any canvas you want, it’s just so overwhelming that sometimes I think limiting yourself actually makes you think outside the box and reinvent. I think that’s one of the joys about writing a song for a movie — there’s this beautiful storyline that you get to color in with your own words.
Jon, your song is part of a documentary about you and your wife. Tell us about the film and the song you wrote.
BATISTE It started out as one thing and then it changed — life came into the picture. I started to write a symphony that was premiering at Carnegie Hall, but about a month into filming, there were a lot of changes in my life personally, as well as in my career. It was the week of being notified of being nominated for 11 Grammys —
MICHAELS Cas, super cas.
BATISTE People knew about that. They didn’t know my wife got diagnosed with leukemia. I remember I got a call from President Biden, and we were in the chemotherapy ward, and he was congratulating me about the nominations while we were getting news about what her treatment would be. So we decided to keep filming — it became the symphony of life, how life has the duality of the highs and lows, sometimes all at once, sometimes extreme highs and lows all at once. She’s doing great now, but when she was in the hospital, it was about two months where we didn’t know if she was going to make it. And in the hospital, there are all these sounds — it’s beeps and all these people coming in and out, all the things that disturb your rest. So I started writing her these lullabies. She’s a writer. She would actually listen to your music (points to Rodrigo) and your music (points to Eilish) while she painted. She started painting because her vision was blurred from the medication and she couldn’t write anymore. None of them were meant to come out, but the song [“It Never Went Away”] came from one of these lullabies. I thank y’all for what y’all do because I was very aware of the profundity of what we do in her healing process with music and creativity. Creativity as an act of survival. I believe in that so strongly. I believed in it before, but now I’m just like, “Let’s go. Let’s make more beautiful things.”
As creators, what is it like when you hear that your music has really helped someone in a hard time?
EILISH It’s hard to take in.
EILISH I find myself …
EILISH Yeah. I don’t really know how to believe it because I know what it’s like to be in that position, and it’s so real. And to think that you’re helping somebody who’s in that is really astounding and special, and you feel, like, undeserving. I didn’t deserve to help you through that. But it’s so special and powerful.
BATISTE That’s a great way of putting it.
LIPA To be a part of someone’s experience …
ERIVO It just crystallizes it. It makes you focus in on the thing that you’re actually doing. So there’s lots of noise around the actual art of making something, making music, making film, making TV, whatever it is. But when a person has taken the time to listen, to be there, meet you where you are at, meet you where you were when you made the thing, and take that with them in their daily life and use it as a tool to help them get through whatever they’re getting through, you’re a part of their lives. You have made something that sticks with them that they get to carry with them. That is possibly one of the most incredible honors you can have. That means a lot because, for me if I’m honest, I don’t know that you could have told me when I was 15, 16 that I would be here. That I could make music and have people listen to it. It was a pie-in-the-sky dream.
LIPA I feel completely the same. I thought it was as unrealistic as a cartoon on TV. I would watch artists and I’d be like, “Oh my God, imagine doing something like that.” I was never ever thinking that that was even a possibility. And it’s so cool that it’s real because when you have younger fans or people looking up to you, listeners, they can also just see that and be like, “Oh, that could actually be me, too.”
MICHAELS Especially as a songwriter growing up with Shelly Peiken and Linda Perry, and all the songwriters that wrote for all your favorite pop artists. You’re like, “How do you do that? How do you even get there?” Then to be able to know them, write with them, be here, it’s such a beautiful thing.
RODRIGO Do you guys think about that when you’re writing songs? I find it incredibly difficult to think about it when I’m actually in the process of it. I think it doesn’t hit me, the impact of it, until months later on tour or something. I think about this a lot: Jon, in your Grammy speech a few years ago, you were like, “I show up every day; I make music every day because it’s a spiritual practice for me.” That’s totally what it is. If I don’t write every day or create something, I don’t feel like myself. I don’t feel fulfilled. It doesn’t matter if I put it out. It’s something that you need to do, just like breathing or eating.
MICHAELS I feel more anxious when I don’t write.
LIPA It’s like an exorcism that happens.
Let’s talk about these Barbie songs that have taken over the entire world. The whole album is fire. Dua, what was it like creating “Dance the Night”?
LIPA It was, from the very beginning, the most fun experience. It was something that I hadn’t done before. Basically, the way it came to be was Mark Ronson DM’d me on Instagram, which is weird because we’re friends, so we text. He was like, “I’m working on this film with Greta Gerwig and it’s Barbie, and it’s possibly the funniest script I’ve read, and I really want you to write the song for the big dance scene in the film.” I was like, “This is an absolute no-brainer. One thousand percent yes.” I was on tour at the time, so I was like, “OK, when does the song need to be due?” I flew to New York, we went in the studio, and we just had so much time talking to Greta, understanding the premise of the film. It’s so much about stereotypical Barbie having an existential crisis and finding out what it’s like to experience the human condition and the way that we are as people and the emotions that we feel. And constantly striving for perfection but not quite reaching it, striving for something deeper in a way. Greta was saying how inspired by disco she was. I just thought about disco and the community it brings, and the way it brings people together. It was always a genre of music that was such a release when things weren’t going well in the world. And so “Dance the Night” was created specifically for Barbie’s best day ever, which then results in her thinking about death. So it’s really about those dualities of life and being able to merge the two together. And that’s what I love the most. I love dance-crying.
BATISTE I walked into the studio with Mark and I saw all of y’all’s notes hanging on the wall.
LIPA Oh my God.
BATISTE The whole Barbie movie is a lot. It’s very deep. Existential. Ooh! It’s very Whitman-esque. It’s got a whole bunch of stuff in it that’s underneath the surface. That’s what I love about a dance song with a great lyric. You always have great melodies and you always make sure the lyrics reach the level of the melodies.
LIPA Thank you, my gosh.
EILISH I find myself throughout most of my days [singing “Dance the Night”]. It’s just in my head a lot. It’s catchy, girl. It’s really good.
And your Barbie song, Billie —
BATISTE So what was …
ERIVO (Looking at Batiste) Go on and ask her! You have to ask because I’m about to do it myself. I want to know — why that progression of note? (Starts singing the beginning of “What Was I Made For?”)
ERIVO Immediately my heart goes (motioning toward her heart).
EILISH Thank you.
ERIVO Where were you?
EILISH That’s the first thing that I wrote — was that exact melody.
BATISTE First mile.
EILISH It was a rainy day in January, and it was the day after we’d seen [Barbie] and it was dark for me in my life. My brother and I were working and trying to make stuff for this album, and it was just a day of nothing. It was just idea after idea after idea of just no ideas. Nothing was happening. It was the least creative. We came up with so many different things, and it was an instance where we were like, “Yeah, we’re scratching these. This isn’t even worth our time.” I think we were doing that for probably six hours. And it was about 8 p.m. and I was like, “All right, well, I’m out of here. I’m going to go home. We’re done for the day. We tried.” And then [Finneas] was like, “Just for shits and giggles, what if we tried to write that song?” I was like, “What? You think after the day of garbage we’ve just made, we’re going to make a perfect song for something that needs something really good?” I was like, “I don’t even have that in me.” First of all, I didn’t know I would have it in me at all. When it was brought up to me, I was like, “I mean, thank you for asking, but I don’t know if I can give you what you’re going to need. I want you to have something astounding, and hopefully I can get close to that, but I don’t know.” And Finneas sat at the piano and immediately started playing, and we’ve been using a handheld mic in the room that just plays through the speakers instead of headphones. I never used a booth or anything.
RODRIGO So just the old SM [handheld mic].
EILISH I was sitting on a little couch with the handheld and he was playing those chords and it was just like (starts singing “What Was I Made For?”). We were talking a lot about the floating elegance of [Barbie] and her ability to be so smooth and beautiful and perfect all the time. And then the juxtaposition of her suddenly falling and [she] can’t do everything perfectly. So it was that, “I used to float, now I just fall down.” We wrote that and then, “I used to know, but I’m not sure now.” And I immediately was like: “What I was made for.” Then we were both asking the question after that and we did that in probably five minutes. It was like it was God. It was just the most perfect example to me of true inspiration and connection. It was living in me that whole day, but it wasn’t coming out of me. We didn’t go into it knowing at all what we were going to make or if we were going to make anything. And it was just so clear that we needed to. Like you were saying, Olivia, I love writing for film. Not even just film but for something.
EILISH I really love an assignment. I’m listening to everybody talking about songwriting, and (looking at Julia) you’re just so good at it. For me, I find songwriting very difficult and honesty in songwriting very hard and out of my reach. There’s something so special to me about writing about not-my-life. I was like, “This is just totally about another girl, another character, nothing to do with my life.”
ERIVO That was just your brain and body saying, “Try something else.”
EILISH The next day or two later, I played it for a friend and we were sitting in the car. I was like, “This bitch is singing about me!” And it was scary. I was shaky. It was like if you woke up and someone had taken a photo of you sleeping.
I thank God for Greta, man. I honestly was concerned that it was over for me. I’ve got to be honest with you. She saved me, really, honestly. Getting that request, it was like a FaceTime, it brought us both out of it, and immediately we were inspired and wrote so much more after that. Especially when it came out, I was like, “Aye yai yai.” It was like somebody reading your diary or something.
MICHAELS Did it unlock something in you where you’re like, “Oh, I actually can be extremely vulnerable and it be received”?
EILISH Yes and no. But yes, because the way that it was received was so shocking to me. I guess I forget that everybody feels the same in so many ways and that everything we feel somebody knows.
MICHAELS It may not be the same thing, but it’s the same emotion.
BATISTE Yeah — people.
EILISH And I was really, really moved by that. Especially the way that [Barbie] brought women together, [that] was like something that I feel just so proud of. I was like, “I feel like I’m in the right [place].” It felt really cool.
MICHAELS Speaking of women, how amazing is this table? To be doing this where there really is so much camaraderie with women is so — excuse me, Jon — [cool]. Just being at a table with people who are genuinely happy for each other is so exciting.
EILISH It’s very true — I am happy for you.
MICHAELS It really is true. I love you all. I want you all to win. It’s so sick.
When trying to book this panel, I was like, “Oh my God, we could have all these amazing female songwriters on the roundtable.” For young women to see all this representation I think is so key.
MICHAELS I agree.
BATISTE I saw that when I got the invitation. I was like, “I want to come learn from all of you.” I love what you said about the diary and about bringing women together, especially you’ve (looking at Eilish) been a voice for your generation so profoundly. But I think people want to read your diary, but they also want to read their diary.
RODRIGO That’s a good way to put it.
EILISH Yes, yes. And it turns out maybe it’s the same sometimes.
BATISTE It’s like, “Oh snap. We really are connected.”
EILISH Do you ever have a lyric that you feel like is so personal that you’re like, “Should I change it? They’re not going to understand it,” and then they get it in a way.
MICHAELS They internalize it.
EILISH They see you.
LIPA When you were talking about almost manifesting your own life into the song — does anybody else feel that when you write, you are almost manifesting things that are about to happen?
LIPA Doesn’t it scare you that when you’re about to write, you’re like, “Should I be putting this in a song?”
MICHAELS It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
LIPA I feel that so much.
EILISH I feel like I look back at songs that I relate to now more than I ever did when I wrote them.
MICHAELS And some songs take on completely new meaning. That’s true.
RODRIGO I think it’s evidence that songs come from the divine — that sometimes they have things that we don’t know.
EILISH That’s so true. We call it sometimes.
ERIVO The muse shows up.
BATISTE Hello, vessel.
This roundtable has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
THR’s Oscar roundtables will air as Off Script With The Hollywood Reporter on AMC’s SundanceTV channel on Sundays from Dec. 31 through Jan. 14. Look for the complete roundtable videos on THR.com/Roundtables and YouTube after broadcast.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.