Prep Students Work with Billie Eilish on Concert Film


Photo courtesy Los Angeles Children's Choir

Los Angeles Children’s Choir

As my choirmates and I filed into the rickety little Pasadena church, our phones were confiscated. We had arrived that day in our casual uniform: jeans and boxy red t-shirts with the words “Los Angeles Children’s Chorus” emblazoned on the front. It was our first time meeting in person in over a year due to the pandemic, and there was a buzz of excitement and amiability among the choristers as we found our places in the pews and faced our conductor, Mr. Fernando Malvar-Ruiz. 

None of us knew what we were here for. We had all received an email inviting us to participate in a summer project that involved the LA Phil, but there was something strange about it. The first clue was the Non-disclosure Agreement with Interscope Records, which just happened to be Billie Eilish’s label. The terms were strict, yet vague: we were not to talk about the details of the project with anyone, even our parents. This could be potentially detrimental to “The Artist.” Who was this mysterious artist? Gustavo Dudamel? It didn’t make much sense. Why would the LA Phil be so secretive? Beyond that, Billie Eilish had once been in this very choir. She had been in the most advanced group, Concert Choir, while I was in the lower level Apprentice Choir years ago. We had never met, but she was always spoken of highly. She was a shining beacon of everything an LACC chorister could achieve.

Upon receiving my music, I felt a pang of disappointment. It was just a hymn. I had briefly entertained the possibility of a collaboration with Billie Eilish, and I’d tried not to get too attached to it. How could I have believed such a preposterous idea? Now it seemed silly. That is, until I turned the page.

The next page was plastered with the same lyric over and over; a singular word: “Goldwing.” That certainly wasn’t a word I saw everyday—in fact, I had only seen it once before in my life: on the tracklist for Billie Eilish’s upcoming album, “Happier Than Ever.” I kept quiet, trying and failing to gauge the reactions of those around me. 

We learned and rehearsed the piece over the course of the next three days. Each time we entered the church, our phones were collected, and each time we left, we had to leave the music on the pews.

A week later, we were at Capitol Records. We barely had time to take in the historic building before we were set up with sensitive microphones all around us to record our vocals. We laboriously went over and over each phrase for about an hour. At last, we stood in our rows, doing one final take. That was when Billie Eilish herself walked through the studio door.

Singing gave way to whispering, which grew into a dull roar as Billie stood before us, her hair shining white-blonde in the bright studio lights. She was shorter than I had expected. I vaguely remember whispering, “I knew it.”

She greeted us warmly, and the murmurs grew as she told us of our part in her upcoming project. 

For many members of the choir, the pop star’s dramatic entrance was the last thing they were expecting. Rachel DeMerit ‘23 recounts, “My jaw almost dropped out of my mouth.” 

Bella Bonfante ‘22 was less astonished: “I was not expecting her to walk through that door, but when she did, I was not that shocked.”

Then, we were recording at the Hollywood Bowl. We wore our formal choir uniforms now, red sweater vests with black ribbons on our collars, sweating in the miserable afternoon heat. We rehearsed through the afternoon, sustained on Jersey Mike’s and canned water, after which it was finally time to take our places on the stage. 

The sun was setting as we filed into our rows, coming to a halt as we bordered the pool of water that was the central feature of the stage. On my right was the LA Phil and Gustavo Dudamel, baton in hand. Ahead of me was Billie Eilish in a satiny dark brown ensemble, hair perfectly coiffed to match her album cover. A telescopic camera hovered over the scene.

No one told us what to do at first. We just stood there as the track played. They were halfway through the first take before Billie intervened, noting that the choir hadn’t been given any instructions yet. Despite the rocky start, we soon were given proper directions: the audio from these takes wouldn’t be used in the film, rather, our recording from Capitol Records would. All we had to do was sing softly and look good for the cameras. There were long breaks in between takes, so we sat and talked, and some members of the LA Phil came over to chat with us. I stared at the dead mosquitos and tree fragments floating on the surface of the water. I supposed it would look better on camera. 

Filming went on well into the night.  Despite my exhaustion, there was something exhilarating about it all; the swinging gold lights that left me blinking, the stillness in the dusty Los Angeles air, and the knowledge that we were standing in the footprints of legends. 

The concert film came out on Disney+ two months after that. In the film, Billie describes the choir’s involvement as a “full-circle moment.” And so it was. Long ago, she had sung the original hymn surrounded by choristers in the very same red vests. Now, surrounded by what were essentially younger versions of herself, she sang a song about “trying to protect someone in a position of vulnerability.” But it was more than just a moment. It was a tribute to the choir she grew up in, and a chance for the next generation of singers to experience a bit of the magic that dazzled her when she was one of us.