Singer-songwriter Helen Ballentine, aka Skullcrusher, just released her second EP ‘Storm in Summer’, just off the heels of her beloved self titled debut in 2020. The name Skullcrusher may throw some listeners off, but the harshness of her name fades as soon as you hear her beautiful, tender lyricism and lush, Americana-tinged soundscapes. This juxtaposition of dark and light, strong and soft, is something that Skullcrusher constantly toys with in her music, infusing each song with unique emotional and sonic depth. We sat down with Ballentine to talk more about her rise as an artist, her artistic background, and her creative process.
Hi Helen, it’s so nice to meet you! Thanks for being here. I’ve personally been a big fan of Skullcrusher since your debut EP last year, so I’m excited to pick your brain today!
Thanks for listening!
So you obviously released that self-titled debut EP last spring, at the height of the pandemic. Instead of touring with the songs, you got to see that reception happen largely online in isolation. I’m just curious as to what this past year has looked like for you under those unique circumstances?
I mean it was very overwhelming in the beginning just because when I was writing these songs and recording them, I was sort of expecting to release them independently and have a slower introduction into the into the public. It all happened quite quickly in terms of ending up with Secretly Canadian and having it reach more people than I thought. In the beginning that was a lot to process, but weirdly I feel like the pandemic has given me a lot of time and space to reflect which I think has been overall a positive thing.
Though I’m really excited to move on from it and be able to physically connect with people who are listening to the music.
And it seems like the latest EP ‘Storm in Summer’ really wrestles with the idea that ‘wait, people are listening to my songs’ and contextualizes that inner world of you as an artist who is making themselves so vulnerable. So one of the questions I have is how that has framed how you see the potential of your career and anxieties about fame?
I think that’s something that I’m learning bit by bit, because I didn’t have a lot of time to consider all of those things before I started, nor did I really expect the idea of fame to be at the forefront of what I’m talking about. It’s just not where I saw my career going really, so I think at this point ‘Storm in Summer’ really feels like the beginning of that exploration and it kind of goes through some of the more negative feelings that I have surrounding that.
I think anxieties surface when I think about having my music, or just having my myself, be out there in a way that feels out of my control. I’m getting to a point where I can make peace with the idea of people connecting to the music because that is also a really special thing.
In terms of where I’m going, I think I’m really just finding that balance of being able to create a fan base that really connects with my music and being really comfortable with people loving the music. But having my personal life out there is scary, so I’m just trying to meet in the middle between those two things
You have a song on the new EP “Song for Nick Drake” and this great cover of “Lift” by Radiohead that really shows the impact other musicians have had on you as a listener. I’m wondering how that connection to their work has influenced how you see yourself as an artist whose making music for your listeners.
You really kind of hit the nail on the head there because I think that’s really what “Song for Nick Drake” is about. What I’m exploring in that song is how I’ve had so many experiences as the listener and understand the value of that position. I just think about Nick Drake and how he probably also grappled with a lot of these anxieties. People listening to his music were listening to an expression of some really deep personal struggles and that was probably hard for him, but then I also know how I really benefited from that expression.
On the other side of that, I had so many important moments in my life become tied to his music and so I really wanted to think about that a lot as the artist. Despite a lot of the anxiety I have putting things out there I can make peace with it because I know that there’s a chance someone might connect to my songs in that same way.
And I know you have a background in studio art and so I also wanted to get you know how does that foundation impact, obviously the visual side of Skullcrusher, but also the musical side in terms of aesthetic and being able to craft a really specific sonic palate.
I think that it definitely has some influence visually, because I’m someone who is a visual person and I enjoy bringing something to life in that way.
But I would say that mostly it influences my ability to conceptualize the project and think about why I’m writing certain things. A lot of my experience learning about art was also kind of just learning how to talk about art, or learning how to talk about an idea, or just the process of making something. I think that really has helped me understand my musical process and be aware of different choices I can make when I’m writing.
And what was the moment that made you want to shift from visual art to music?
It’s always like been in the back of my head, so throughout school I always felt like music was the most natural way that I created work. It always just came to me more easily than making visual art but there was never really an avenue for me to feel comfortable pursuing it. And I think I was also scared to do it because there wasn’t a lot of encouragement coming from school or parents or whatever.
It took me until maybe a year and a half out of college when I was working at an art gallery. I had been thinking about wanting to switch gears and had a bunch of friends at the time who were in bands or had projects in LA. I would say my current partner Noah also had a big influence. We met and he was one of the first people that I really sat down and spoke to about that lifestyle of working part time and doing music on the side, and really pushing for it. I decided to kind of go for it after that.
You talk about the anxiety that came with taking that leap, but even in recording and putting music out. Would you attribute that to self-doubt or more to that vulnerability you were talking about?
I think it’s all kind of wrapped in together. I think there’s definitely that self-doubt, I tend to be like pretty critical of myself and when I say something I want it to be like accurate and I want to represent myself well. So I get anxious about putting something out there and then maybe looking back and thinking that’s not exactly what I meant to say.
I think I’ve learned that it’s OK if you don’t explain everything right away and it’s just going to take some time for people to get to know me.
I think that also has to do with vulnerability and being scared that I’m going to reveal something and people aren’t going to realize that it’s something that’s really sensitive or they’re not going to know how much it affects me in my day to day life. I definitely have the fear of putting something out there and not being able to take it back or not being able to like protect it anymore.
I think part of the reason why I love your songwriting is because it’s so precise. You write a lot of lyrics that muse on a specific moment that carries a larger emotional vignette. When you’re sitting down to write a song, how does that process take shape, and how do you discern those moments when they happen in your day to day life?
It varies but usually I’m working through either memory or a specific moment that I can then unpack and discover the emotion behind it.
Sometimes it is just a journaling situation where it comes very quickly. I think that a lot of times the songwriting becomes a therapeutic thing for me. It’s a way to get my feelings down, and not even necessarily with the intention of turning it into a song. Like sometimes I’m just like having a difficult day and I go pull out my journal and write something down about that, and then maybe later that becomes a song.
But it is interesting how sometimes it’s just reflexive, something that I just have to write down in order to feel better and then I can go back parse that find that it actually works as a song.
Sometimes I sit down at the piano if I’m feeling really anxious and I’ll just play as a way to calm down and then that will become song, and other times I have to spend a little more time and sit with the lyrics. While writing “Song for Nick Drake” I was really focused on a specific memory and was really deliberately trying to capture that description while adding a little more of the emotional depth, so that was one of those songs.
I totally understand how there are some of those songs that you want to make sure are perfectly crafted, or that you have to spend more time going through exactly what you want to say. But on the flip side, were there any songs that were particularly easy to write or just flowed out of you?
I feel like “Places/Plans” came really quickly. It was formed a little differently than a lot of other songs. That first line of, “you told me your friend’s in love, with a guy she looks up to” was said to me in conversation that day and then I went home and wrote it down. After that first line, the rest of the lyrics came really quickly, and then the melody was shaped after. Usually it’s the other way around, where I’ll have a melody to start, and form the lyrics around that. But sometimes you just have those moments in conversation with someone where either you or the other person says something, and you realize it speaks to a larger issue you’re dealing with. That’s definitely what happened with Places and why that one came so naturally.
And obviously Places/Plans comes off of the first record, but what were you trying to wrestle with in that song?
I think a lot of it was about the insecurity that we experience when we’re first becoming close with someone new. When you first start dating someone and are really attracted to them, sometimes you wonder, am I good enough for this person? You want to know how they see you through their eyes.
I was also thinking a lot about career. A lot of people in my life were really focused on their careers at the time, and I really wasn’t, at least publicly. I was writing songs, but I wasn’t putting them out there, I was just nannying on the side. I was thinking a lot about that and wondering if people were looking down on me or wondering why it wasn’t enough that I was just a good friend to these people.
That exploration is definitely really topical, especially for young people just getting out of school or millennials. That song obviously resonated with a lot of people, even if you haven’t been touring with it. When you are able to tour, do you have a dream venue you’d want to play?
I don’t know if I ever thought about my dream venue! I think down the line I’m really interested in playing in unconventional settings. I think it would be really cool to play a show at a museum or at an outdoor venue. I used to go to a lot of the Central Park shows in New York, and I really love being outside and watching bands. Being surrounded by nature in some capacity would be great.
I definitely see how your music lends itself to a more natural performance space. I’m sure you get this question a lot, but the name “Skullcrusher” conjures up images of a heavy metal band or something. But you create these beautiful indie-folk songs with a lot of classic americana instrumentation and beautiful lyrics. So what was the thinking behind choosing that name?
To me it’s really about playing with the idea of genre. But it also has a lot to do with being a woman in the music industry and how that affects people’s expectations. Skullcrusher is really about presenting the project within a context of something dark, powerful, and a little scary that’s enveloping something that would normally be perceived as soft or sweet or nice.
Funny enough, when I came up with Skullcrusher, a lot of people in my life were like oh that makes sense, because I’m someone who does have aggression and darkness that’s overlooked because of the sweet exterior. Even being a daughter, you’re expected to be more calm and collected, more nice and polite, and all of these things which are important, but can sometimes be unrealistic expectations. I wanted to use music as a way to express some of those darker things. Even if they aren’t always sonically coming through, they’re always there
Yea the way you subvert those expectations is so refreshing. I remember first hearing about the EP and being completely surprised by that juxtaposition of that softness and harshness.
I also wanted to talk a bit about the music video for “Storm in Summer”. It’s so simple yet has such a clear aesthetic. How did you come up with the idea for the video?
Yea I think it really worked out even though we didn’t have this big plan for it. I made it with Silken Weinberg who does all of my creative content. She and my other friend Angela just came over to my house and it was a really cold and windy night. Noah was also helping out, so it was just the four of us.
I sat in the car and we just put the water on the windshield as I stared into the camera. I wanted to perform the song without even singing, just trying to express it in my face. I think that was perfect for the song, because it’s about me just wanting to be seen, understood, and listened to. I just wanted people to see what I was trying to communicate, the need to be seen, and having that tight shot of my face just makes it so you can’t look away and are forced to engage with it.
I also think your songwriting has a very keen awareness of people. You have a real observational prowess. Do you always felt like you’ve understood people or has that come more from introspection?
I think that I’m learning more and more that introspection is really important for your ability to connect with other people. I think sometimes it feels quite selfish to think about yourself so much, but I think that the two kind of go hand in hand. You have to kind of go off of your own experiences and once you’re someone who can really understand themselves then I think you are going to be way stronger and be able to see how other people work too.
I do feel like I’m someone who really likes to think about how people work and what feelings they’re having, and why they’re having them. I think I can see that because I’m doing that work for myself too. But I really enjoy finding ways to relate those feelings I see in myself to other people.
Finally, what are you looking forward to in 2021?
I’m really excited for people to keep getting to know the music and for people to form really strong bonds with these songs. I’m excited to foster that more in terms of the live experience. I think when people go to a show and are really there with the person and seeing how they feel these songs when they play them, it just connects them more to the music and with the other people in the room. So, I can’t wait to start playing shows again.
And hopefully we’ll get to see Skullcrusher live soon! Thanks again for being here Helen.
‘Storm in Summer’ and ‘Skullcrusher’ are available to listen on all streaming platforms.