Photo courtesy of Skullcrusher; Art by Victoria Warnken

Next Gen: Women in Rock

Skullcrusher’s Helen Ballentine Isn’t Hiding Anymore

The force behind Skullcrusher is figuring it all out on Storm in Summer.

by Grant Rindner

It’s hard for an artist to sound more fully formed upon arrival than Skullcrusher did with last year’s “Places/Plans,” a delicate debut record about the cerberus that is post-grad anxiety. But Helen Ballentine, the brains and gossamer voice behind the project, says she’s always expanding the bounds of what her music can be. “The project is always gonna be forming as I get older,” she says. “I’m figuring out more and more of what the true root of Skullcrusher is.“

The project’s sound has gradually grown grander in scale and scope, but without sacrificing the fine details that made Ballentine’s debut EP resonate with so many listeners in the midst of a long, lonely pandemic summer. On “Song for Nick Drake,” an ode to not just one of her favorite artists, but the anxiety of releasing music, she sings about hours spent in a bookstore, the scent of rain, and the surreal feeling of traveling alone.

On Storm in Summer, Skullcrusher’s second EP (out April 9 on Secretly Canadian), Ballentine has immersed herself in the producer role, bringing ambient and shoegaze textures into her naturalistic songwriting, crafting records that you want to get lost in. Here, the singer talks about the value of using a stage name, her relationship with Nick Drake, and getting through a year without concerts.

Where did your initial passion for music come from?

If you really want to pinpoint it, it comes from being exposed to it at a young age and having it be a tool for expression. I just liked playing piano as a young kid and writing songs. That was always the most natural form of expression for me, and that’s been the case since I was 5 years old.

When you were young, were you expressing yourself musically through writing and experimentation or more through performance?

I feel like it’s almost been a really big circle. When you’re 5 years old, it’s a lot easier to be creative and not be concerned about what people will think–or being too critical of yourself. You haven’t really learned, “This is how you’re supposed to write a song,” so I feel like I was able to do that when I was little. I would always go and sit down on the piano and randomly play stuff that probably sounded crazy and just sing whatever came into my head. The first song I remember writing and performing was this short piano song called “Wild Kitty.”

As I got older, sometimes [now] I can disconnect a bit from that, and you’re nervous about your songs being bad. I definitely kind of went more towards learning classical piano. I was learning Beatles songs and covers and things like this. And then, more recently, [I reconnected] with “Oh, I can just journal and be a little more freeform with my writing.”

At what point do you feel like you found the Skullcrusher sound?

That’s probably always gonna be changing, because the project is always gonna be forming as I get older. I’m figuring out more and more of what the true root of Skullcrusher is. But the first time I felt that was with “Places/Plans.” It was the first song that I wrote for that EP and it was the first song where I felt like I was able to communicate a feeling I had been having in a way that felt right to me. I didn’t feel like I had to search for the words. That was the first time it happened, but every time I write a new song, [like] with “Storm in Summer,” it also kinda feels like it was a new level of that.

You’ve worked with the multi-instrumentalist Noah Weinman from Runnner, among others, for the music you’ve released as Skullcrusher, but you’re its sole member. Why was it important for you to present the music as a project instead of just as Helen Ballentine, solo artist?

Initially, it felt like a layer of protection and a little bit of distance. I think as I’ve gone on, it’s morphed into something else. What I’m starting to realize is that I don’t think there’s much separation between me as Helen and the songs that are coming out. It’s very much who I am. Initially, I was thinking that I could achieve some type of distance because that felt safer to me. A lot of the process has been about realizing that’s not necessarily how I like to work.

Now, Skullcrusher is more like a part of myself that is not easily recognized, and that I put forwards as the first thing I want people to think about in comparison to the other things that they might suspect about me. I think having a project is a way to choose how you want to contextualize yourself and how you want to contextualize your music. It feels almost like the title of a song, where you can decide “This is what I want to put forward. I want this to be the first thing people read and then they listen to the song and then they have this window of perception into the song.” That’s what Skullcrusher feels like to me. It’s the cap on top of who I am and what these songs are.

Is there someone who has had a big impact on the sound of your music or your songwriting that you think would be surprising to fans?

Usually when I talk about my electronic inspirations, people are like, “I characterize you as being more folk-oriented.” I’m really into techno and lean towards ambient, which makes more sense. That’s where the sonic connection is: just being really interested in creating a little world for the song and in those details of ambience and space, and getting all those little sound bites and samples of weird sounds that I’ll record and add into songs.

One of the things that is notable about your work is the broadness of instrumentation, particularly in a genre that a lot of people think is very barebones vocals and guitar. You’ve got strings, horns, banjos. Has varied instrumentation always been a big part of your musical identity?

I’ve always wanted to explore different types of recording and production. It’s easier to make that happen now, because I’ve just been learning a lot more about production and recording. So when I first went in to record the first EP, it was me describing what I thought I wanted and Noah being more in control of what was actually being done. Since then, there were certain things — like “Day of Show,” I knew I wanted drums. I knew I wanted it to be a little more shoegaze-y and more grunge. I definitely have always had pretty strong opinions about how I want the songs to sound, but I think what was fun about Storm in Summer was being more knowledgeable about production and recording and having Noah and I really jump off each other idea-wise to be able to flesh out the instrumentation.

Is there a specific moment on the new EP that you are especially proud of production-wise?

The chorus on “Storm in Summer.” Initially, we were going in a folkier direction and the harmonies were stacked in more of a Pinegrove-y way. And then I was like, “I kinda want this to be darker.” I was into taking some inspiration from My Bloody Valentine and wanting to put a weirder harmony in. I tried a million harmonies there. In the recording, it’s just one lower harmony. It’s got some tension in the way that those choruses came out. It was a joint effort from Noah and I, but I remember being quite set on getting those harmonies right. And then the last track on the EP [“Prefer”] is really ambient, with soft piano, a lot of different textures. The vocals are really layered. I went in on mixing that one and wanting the piano to be exactly how I wanted. I was spending a lot of time on the computer on Ableton chopping up the piano parts and layering them how I wanted. That was my first time really getting in there myself.

You recently released a track called “Song for Nick Drake.” Could you elaborate on why he resonates with you at such depth?

There’s a few different things. In terms of what drew me to him initially, I was curious about him as a person, because I felt this initial interest by reading about him and how he struggled with releasing music and having his stuff put out there. He really struggled to play shows and was not always received well.

His album Pink Moon, there’s no separation between what he was feeling and what came out on the album. That’s just him in a really raw way. You hear people say that something is “raw,” but that was what that feels like to me. It was like you were with him or something.

In terms of “Song for Nick Drake” that I wrote, that is reflecting on this idea that releasing music has also been difficult for me. I sang a lot about what it means to have parts of yourself existing out there and having people respond to that in all these different ways that you don’t have control over. It can feel very overwhelming, but then also remembering how important other music has been for me, especially Nick Drake, and thinking about how valuable that is and how cool it is to put something out there and have it become a part of other people’s lives. It’s about being the listener and also being the artist and that dynamic.

If there was one Skullcrusher song that you think would be the logical first step for someone who had never heard your music, which would it be?

That’s hard actually, for me. Right now I would say “Storm in Summer.” A year ago, I would’ve said “Places/Plans,” because that’s how I was feeling then and “Storm in Summer” is kind of how I’m feeling now. Those two.

As a new artist, how have you weathered the lack of performing opportunities due to the pandemic? Has it been good to have the time to focus on writing or has it been frustrating?

Definitely both. It’s been really great in terms of giving me space to reflect on all of these changes and the whole project and be able to develop a sense of what this project means for me. I think that’s really helpful in terms of making me feel super solidified, and then when stuff starts hurtling back in – and it’s already feeling that way a little bit – I’ll be more prepared to speak about the project and what everything means. On the other hand, It’s been frustrating because I know there is gonna be a bit of a discrepancy with maybe where I am mentally, where I am in terms of all the music that’s been released, and then my experience playing live. I’m confident about how my band is gonna do. I’ve been performing for a while, so I don’t think it’s gonna be uncomfortable, but I’m ready to get back into that and solidify the band.

Looking back in five years, what will you want to have happened so you can say the early stages of Skullcrusher went the way you wanted?

If I’m able to get to a place where I feel like there’s a balance in my life of doing this job and then also having my life be relaxed and happy, [yes]. There’s not really benchmarks that I’m looking for, honestly. If anything, I feel like I’m usually on the side of trying to rein things in a little. Sometimes I get overwhelmed. I don’t want everyone to know who I am. If I’m able to be in a place where I feel like the music is being received well and understood by people and enjoyed and it’s existing in the world in a meaningful way, and then I’m also able to exist separately from that and have my life on the side, that’s the goal.

At the end of the day, it is a job. It’s a very all-encompassing job, but it’s still a job that I would like to have the ability to hang it up at the door when I come home sometimes.