Wednesday, September 23rd, 2020
Skullcrusher On Her Self-Titled Debut EP
Sep 23, 2020
By Mark Moody
Photography by Silken Weinberg
Helen Ballentine, performing as Skullcrusher, came seemingly out of nowhere. Releasing her self-titled first EP on Secretly Canadian in the midst of a global pandemic, her softly sung vocals and folky underpinnings are custom made for days spent alone. Operating out of Los Angeles, but originally from upstate New York, the current COVID-19 situation has had Ballentine crisscrossing the country in search of sanctuary during turbulent times. Feeling somewhat frustrated in the present environment, Ballentine is determined to press forward to create in her most loved medium.
Under the Radar caught up with Ballentine from her childhood environs to discuss her development as an artist, observing the Skullcrusher EP’s reception, and future plans so early in her musical career. With four recorded songs and only a handful of live performances under her belt, Ballentine’s resolve to make her way forward in the industry comes through clearly. Time and a knack for writing penetrating songs that get to the heart of the matter are on her side. An eye-catching moniker that brings incongruous expectations to her songs doesn’t hurt either. Hemmed in for the moment, Ballentine has managed to get out in the wild to film videos and pin down studio time. Though the days ahead for all of us appear murky, there is little doubt that Skullcrusher’s next recordings will be part of our collective soundtrack.
Mark Moody (Under the Radar): So give us a little bit of your background and how you got into music.
I grew up in upstate New York. I went to the same school for 13 years, kind of a K-12 private school that was very focused on academics and getting to college and that sort of thing. So music was always kind of just my extracurricular thing that I always loved but never really considered seriously until after college. I grew up with parents that were somewhat creative. My dad plays in a band and introduced me to a lot of music when I was young. Then I started learning piano in kindergarten and did that all the way through high school and that’s when I started to pick up the guitar on my own. But I didn’t really get into songwriting until college, when I started to try and write music. I studied fine art in college. And I was drawing but my school was very non-arts focused. So the school was very career oriented and the only art program at my school that was valued was the fine art program. So I just started doing that.
Basically because it was the only creative outlet they offered?
Yeah. It was just the only path where they offered you can become a graphic designer from this or you can even get a job. So I just [laughs] did that and thought I was going to do graphic design, but I ended up sort of falling more into just the drawing illustration realm. So I started working at a gallery after I graduated college and did that for a little over a year. And I realized that I was not happy with it and I quit and started to try and write music and I was a nanny for a while. And that’s when I wrote the EP [Skullcrusher]. So that’s sort of the origin.
Okay. So I had just assumed from some of the things I read that art kind of came first and the music came later. But you really had more interest in music all along it sounds like?
Yeah. I would say that music has always been the thing I knew I was best at and I knew that I loved. But art I also really enjoyed and is was more available to me in school. So yeah music was always the more important thing, while art was the thing I had access to.
So I’ve read a little bit about contemporary artists that you’re interested in and that you like Nick Drake. But when you were a teenager in high school what were you listening to then?
I was really into Radiohead. [Laughs] I got really into Radiohead in middle school. And Coldplay. When I was really young, my obsession was Beatles mania. And Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, kind of anything in that kind of time period I was very, very into. Neil Young. And I also really liked Beck and Madonna. Kind of some random more electronic things. And that is sort of what I think defines my music, this combination of folk and more experimental electronic music. In high school I got really into Bon Iver, Laura Marling. So definitely the folk-electronic mix was something that was very prominent in my taste from that age. And I could also sing through the entire B-side of Abbey Road.
Wow. Very good taste from early on. So no guilty pleasures or anything you feel embarrassed about today?
I don’t feel super guilty about Coldplay, but I guess you can feel guilty about Coldplay at a certain point. But when Viva la Vida came out I was in eighth grade and I was obsessed with that album. I still think that album is amazing, though. But I don’t feel guilty about that. When I was super little I was listening to Hillary Duff’s Metamorphosis but I would still listen to some of those songs now. And I think they hold up as pop songs. Hillary Duff was my first concert I believe.
We’ve kind of touched on this a little bit, but since you’ve had involvement with the graphic arts, the music, songwriting. I know we’ve got different creative types in my own family, but everyone seems to have their own path. So have those all kind of come naturally to you, or is some of it harder than the rest?
Yeah. I was able to learn so much from trying to do fine art. That really prepared me well for songwriting now. But I would say that I am more naturally inclined to being a songwriter because the process fits the way that I am a lot better. Where you can kind of spend your day picking up and putting down the guitar and you don’t really feel like you’re accomplishing anything really but then after a couple of weeks of that you all the sudden have a song. And it comes from this unconscious playing around on the guitar, which doesn’t really feel like you’re doing anything. But you end up with little bits and pieces that come together. And I think that is what I tried to do when I was drawing. I tried to really figure out how to be more experimental and kind of non-intentional with my work. And I did figure out how to do that, but it was harder because I think the way I was taught to draw was you have an idea of what you’re going to draw, and then you draw it. But that didn’t feel good to me. And so in college I started to do a lot more work that was abstract. Letting my hand draw whatever and once it started to take a shape I would then decide what I was going to draw. So it’s actually very similar to how I make music, but it just works better for songs than I think it did for my visual work. But it’s a similar process.
Right, I understand what you’re saying. So I saw in the “Day of Show” video that there’s a brief clip of you sitting at the piano as a little kid. You didn’t look exactly thrilled to be sitting there. [Laughs] Did your parents push you into that? Or have you always had a strong interest in doing that?
I always really loved it, but not when I was forced to learn songs that I didn’t want to learn. It was definitely like I was told to take piano lessons when I was little. I don’t remember that being something that I was like, “Can I do this?” But I did really like to play around with instruments and I think that was always something I really loved to do on my own time but I just never really liked to be told, “Oh. You have to learn these scales,” and all the theory stuff was definitely not fun for me.
So jumping forward a little bit. Congratulations on the Skullcrusher EP by the way. It’s about a month old at this point. So how is that going in terms of getting attention and notice?
I don’t really know. [Laughs] I think it’s going okay, but I don’t know. It’s been weird because I’m not face-to-face with anyone on my team. So it’s easy for me to get into my head and convince myself, “Oh, it’s going horribly.” I can look at the numbers but a lot of the numbers are kind of meaningless to me. I have no idea what is good or bad. I know streaming wise I think it’s pretty good. But other than that, it’s so easy for me to wake up one day and be like, “It’s horrible. Everyone hates it.” And then other days I feel fine about it. But I’m trying to remember that this EP has been around for a long time in my life. I wrote these songs a long time ago and I wrote them without any intention of releasing them. It wasn’t until maybe “Trace” I think I had an idea that I was going to put them together into an EP. And I started recording at that point. But I didn’t really have a name for the project, I didn’t have a release plan, I hadn’t signed up for any distribution. All of that stuff came after the songs. So it’s weird to me because I think a lot of people see that I had my first release with Secretly Canadian and they’re like, “Oh. This girl just got a label to release her stuff.” I don’t know, it’s this weird sort of dynamic of I made this EP before any of that stuff happened.
So, yeah, you touched on some of the other stuff I was going to ask about. Were the songs all recorded at the same time?
So it would’ve been June 2019 is when I started recording. I started writing the songs more like December 2018. And then recorded “Places/Plans” first. I had no name for it. I don’t remember what it was called, it was like “Helen’s First Song” or something. [Laughs] I recorded with Noah Weinman, who is my partner and producer, and we recorded that in his garage. It took us one day in June. And then I wrote “Day of Show.” Recorded that. Each song took about one to two days to record throughout that summer.
So you’re saying you didn’t have a name for the project at the time, so how did that come about?
So the name Skullcrusher was a name that I had thought of before because I am really into electronic music as well. And I was learning to DJ at a certain point and I thought of Skullcrusher as a name that I could use for being a DJ because I have always kind of felt somewhat out of place in that scene. Just physically I think there’s this discrepancy between the kind of tastes that I have and sometimes my personality and just the way that I look. And I think Skullcrusher puts that right out in front of you, where a lot of people are like, “Wow this is so unexpected. This sweet girl with these nice-sounding songs, she’s called Skullcrusher.” To me that’s just pointing out that people don’t really expect me to have strength, and things like this. So Skullcrusher is about declaring I have rage sometimes. I’m into really dark techno music sometimes and I can have this within me. Specifically the name comes from one of my best friends who got me into a lot of techno music. We used to go to some techno shows together and we had these pairs of shoes that we would wear that were very intense looking and we would call them our “skull crusher” shoes. And kind of laugh about that.
Just contending with a lot of different things inside of you and lots of layers. So that makes sense. Skullcrusher is also apparently some kind tricep workout or something like that.
Yeah, I heard about that too. [Laughs]
So I know you’ve also got vinyl and a T-shirt coming out. Did you design the shirt as well?
No. Well that shirt is the label’s designated merch item. So they designed that shirt but I’m also working on designing merch for my website that will be coming out soon. And that’s my homework that I have to do that I’ve not been doing!
Okay, gotcha. But you plan to have a hand in that going forward?
Yeah. I’ll be working with my friend Silken who has helped me with most of my creative stuff so far. She and my other friend Jeremy have been directing all of my music videos and she does styling as well. So she’s helping me with merch.
You talked about the EP coming out in the midst of a strange time with the pandemic and everything. I don’t know if that gets to part of why you were saying you don’t really have a sense of how things are going because you weren’t able to play live much prior to all this happening?
Three times. [Laughs] Yeah. It’s hard. I think it would’ve been amazing to come out with this EP and then play shows and really be able to feel sort of a connection with people and put a cap on that release in a meaningful way. Instead you kind of put it out into the void and then you don’t have any way to finalize that feeling on your own so it’s sort of floating around and you don’t really know.
Well, it’s funny. It matches up with “Places/Plans” and the line about, “can I make it out there as I am?” [Laughs] I guess that question gets to linger a little bit longer?
Yeah. I think that’s good because obviously when I wrote that I did not expect to have all this stuff happen so quickly so it’s been sort of a weird irony that singing that lyric now feels a little bit obnoxious because I’m like well I now do have a career and I was really just talking about what it means to not have a career. And that’s the kind of meaning that you can derive from yourself, which I feel is very much of value and I’m just sort of on the other side of it. Doing these things I’m just thinking a lot about those words that I said and how they still mean a lot to me but sort of looking at it from a different perspective.
Right. So did you have touring plans that were scrapped?
Yeah. My partner Noah has a project called Runnner and we were going to tour together. We had some small rooms booked on the East Coast. It was going to be New York, DC, Boston, Philly. We had—yeah, all those. A bunch of very small venues booked. And we were going to do just a duo, more artistic little tour in May and that obviously didn’t happen.
I’m sorry about all that, it’s just been so tough.
Yeah. It’s been hard. It’s definitely something that I’m looking forward to and it feels like a strange discrepancy in my career where my whole career is kind of existing online right now, which I don’t feel like I’m very good at that to begin with.
So during this downtime, or at least this time where we’re not able to get out. Some people feel like it’s killed their creativity and others have used the time to try and press forward. So maybe a little about what you’re doing right now and forward focus?
Yeah. I mean I’m writing a lot. The EP came out of a time when I was spending so much time in my room. So I think I’ve kind of done this ride before of not really having anything to do. I’m comfortable creating in that space. I’m actually recording a couple of new songs this weekend. Which is going to be weird because I’ve never worked in a real studio. But I’m excited about it. It’s just we don’t have a home studio on the East Coast so we booked some time at a studio in New York. So we’re going to do that and then we’ll be back in LA in September probably working on recording this fall. I’m not sure what the release is going to look like for that. I don’t know if it’s going to be an album or it’s going to end up being some more EPs, but it’s just going to kind of happen however it happens.
So you’re going to be working with Noah again on those?
Yeah working with Noah but we’re also remotely working with a couple of other producers just to kind of try it out, get out of my comfort zone a little bit. But Noah and I are the primary approach. We’ve been quarantined together and we’re just together kind of all the time so it makes sense that we utilize each other in that way.
Okay. In terms of the musical approach or broadening out the size of the band. Anything like that that you could share?
Mostly just production stuff. Noah and I have similar skill sets when it comes to production. He’s a little bit further along in terms of using Ableton. But we definitely need help when it comes to more complicated recording techniques and engineering. So the people we brought in are more experienced with engineering and mixing and just sound recording, and equipment. So sort of expanding things in that capacity.