Skullcrusher Is Learning to Trust Her Listener
Singer/songwriter Helen Ballentine discusses her debut album Quiet the Room, owning her seemingly disparate influences and finding strength in vulnerabilityPhoto by Angela Ricciardi Music Features Skullcrusher
Skullcrusher, aka Helen Ballentine, speaks by unwrapping her words carefully, as if they were contained beneath tissue in a package marked “DELICATE.” The music she makes might seem fragile with its delicate guitar lines and her soft voice, until you realize how anchored in place it is by her electronic inspirations, and the strength of her songwriting. The tension between these two perceptions of her music, as both delicate and forceful, comes to a point in her chosen stage name, Skullcrusher, which she explains: “So I was at one point being like, I want to become a DJ. And I was thinking of my DJ names. And that was one that came to mind specifically because I’ve always felt, like going into these rave situations, [when] you’re just this little person, it’s this really intense hardcore situation, letting out a lot of emotions that are very intense. A close friend of mine and I would—we’re both sort of small people—we would go to some electronic music shows together and wear these big black Doc Marten types. And we would be like, ‘These are our skullcrusher shoes.’”
Ballentine thoughtfully continues, “But I definitely had this strong desire to just push people’s expectations, and maybe question a little bit what people would initially expect from my music. I imagine a lot if I had called myself just my [given] name. [I] probably would have been written about as being like a folk, you know, singer/songwriter type, and I think that there’s absolutely a connotation that comes with that and and people don’t associate that with aggression, or power, in the most basic sense of that word. I feel that often happens where there’s a confusion that arises where it’s like, ‘Oh, this music isn’t strong and powerful and aggressive,’ and to me, it is because there are a lot of aspects of it that are very intense, and there are a lot of parts of me that are very intense, and aggressive, and strong.”
There’s a lot of inner strength that goes into such honest songwriting, taking the leap of faith that her vulnerable creativity will be understood and sensitively received by the listener. “My relationship to the listener is very similar to my other interpersonal relationships,” Ballentine muses. “And, you know, the issues that I have in those relationships are kind of reflected in the way that I interact with my listeners.” It is striking to hear the listener-musician relationship put in such personal terms, listeners being treated not as a removed entity, but rather as people whose opinions matter and have the same impact on her as those of the ones she holds close. And like with any human beings, it is important to thoughtfully cultivate your relationship with them, especially for a person who’s naturally a bit shy: “I think that, for me, it’s both this attempt to be very close with the listener, but then there’s also a fear and a distancing that happens, and a desire to not be seen or heard. I think that has been the push and pull for me where I want my listeners to have a really deep connection with my music and that’s what means a lot to me. But then at the same time, I feel sometimes overwhelmed by the feeling of being perceived by a lot of people.”
But the artist is actively taking steps to learn how to deal with these feelings, for the listener’s sake, as well as her own. “Trust is definitely something that is difficult for me,” Ballentine admits, “and so I tend to want to control every aspect of making sure that everyone knows every single bit of context to me and my songs, and that nobody misunderstands me. I think that when I first started releasing music, I would just drive myself crazy, thinking about how much room for error there is in that pursuit, because it’s just impossible to have everyone understand you 100% in the way that you want to be understood. And so I’ve had to develop more trust that the people who are meant to connect to this music will connect to it in their own way, not in the way that I tell them to.”
Ballentine’s music feels like a balancing act, her voice always walking the line between the folk and atmospherically electronic elements of her sound. Her debut record, Quiet the Room, out now, gets so personal as to include home video voice recordings from her youth, with the theme of her parents’ divorce and other childhood disenchantment floating over it all. With such intimate material finally aired, processing a lot of the resultant pain in the creative process, it makes sense to want to ensure the nature of the reactions of those bending an ear. And this sense of trust in the audience is something Ballentine is still working with and learning in a live setting, especially considering her quieter, more introspective music. Creating that space for calm and reflection alone onstage is no easy feat, as she says: “It’s certainly asking for the audience’s attention. So [performing live has] been about figuring out how to do that. How to make people feel engaged without necessarily having a ton of big things going on onstage.”
Her tone is full of self-conscious half-laughs, perhaps seeking to undercut the seriousness of some of what she is saying. “I’ve had situations where I haven’t felt that accepted by the audience and, you know, that does whittle away at your trust a little bit. And I think that I have a tendency to, because I’m an anxious person, to anticipate that there’s a chance that these people don’t like what I’m doing. And so, obviously, it’s a process of having to deal with those anxieties and everything, and then accepting, sometimes people, they don’t necessarily want to listen to you and that’s fine. You know, they might just be in the mood for something else. And I think I’ve learned a lot of acceptance there.” The peace of acceptance turns into an upward lilt of hope in her tone, as she continues, “And then also, even when that happens, there’s usually still somebody in the audience who is having a connection, even if it’s one person. And I do feel like I’ve been able to trust more in that. And then even less than that is just getting to a point where you’re enjoying just performing the songs, because … I like to sing,” she giggles, coming back to the roots of joy in her work.
On this new record, Ballentine steadfastly maintains the complexities of her childhood, calling on both joy and pain. When asked about how her childhood creative self figures into this album, Ballentine replies, “I like to think of this type of reflection as not being looking back, so much as connecting with your childhood self. That self is still in me, I guess, and was present when I was making the song. So I did feel like there was a lot of my childhood self coming through.” In Ballentine connecting to and writing about different time periods of her life, there is an almost instinctual, simultaneous self-reflection taking place for the listener. “I think that I really hope for people to have experienced a more private moment with themselves and maybe become a little bit more in touch with looking inward,” she says of her wishes for the album, “which is, I don’t know, sort of general, but I just feel like the process of making albums can be therapeutic, I guess, for me, and hopefully, it can be that for other people, maybe not in the sense of just making people feel good, necessarily, but making people feel something that might be cathartic, having a private moment with their thoughts.”
Songwriting becomes a space for Ballentine to process things she might not have thought about in years: “I think that there’s something nice about … if you’re writing a song about a memory that is complicated or difficult, then you’re also adding now a memory of writing about that memory. So the memory gets contained in this other time, when maybe you felt safer, and maybe I felt like I had more control over it. Because I was writing this song probably by myself and feeling maybe more at peace with it. So you’re building off of that time and giving it more support, somehow, through that process.”
Presently, Ballentine describes her child self emerging most in times of extreme comfort or in more difficult situations, commenting that this “bookend[s] the range of my emotions.” And her music offers up the same opportunities—sometimes delving deep into an absentminded sadness, sometimes gently floating on acoustic atmospheres. Her debut LP delves deeper into electronic music and influences than any released work before, often expanding the sonic landscape of her folk-leaning music until it melts into a blurry ambience. There is enough room to breathe and connect to your personhood on the record, even as it keeps a full sound. Ballentine listened to John Hopkins, A.G. Cook, Boards of Canada and Aphex Twin in the recording process, taking inspiration from Kelly Lee Owens’ vocals, and joking that every one of her songs needed to have an “Avicii moment.” “I’m definitely interested in exploring how to keep building from all different kinds of music though, and, yeah, hopefully not feeling too bound to any one genre in particular.”
Her music also takes inspiration from things other than the work of other musicians, with Ballentine listing the strong sensations evoked by nature as central to her creative process. “Nostalgia is so rooted in sensory experiences, which a lot of times has to do with the place you’re in—like [a] nature place—so you have a lot of associated smells and associated feelings and things like this. So, for me, nature goes hand in hand with nostalgia.” It makes sense to give the features of these feelings attention, especially on an album rooted so deeply in a present-day processing of her past.
Ballentine opens up her world in her songwriting just to pull you into it, quickly closing the door behind you for protection. Her songs exist as a shared secret place, appearing differently to each person, but engulfing you fully using only a pair of headphones. The nostalgia and other feelings she writes about may start off as her own, but they quickly become yours. The more you trust her as a listener, the more she opens up to you.
Quiet the Room is out now on Secretly Canadian.
Rosa Sofia Kaminski is a Paste Music intern, writer, climber of trees and collector of odd treasures that she quickly loses, and is based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She can be reached at @rosa.sofia.k on Instagram.