When asked if she’d ever expected for her 2020 debut under Skullcrusher to receive such immediate and widespread critical acclaim, singer-songwriter Helen Ballentine at first answers with a simple “No.”
“It’s quite overwhelming,” she goes on to explain. “I didn’t have that smooth transition of playing a few shows and maybe getting one blog write-up. I was ready for a slow, gradual [rise], and it wasn’t that. It was really hard for me in the beginning.”
The response comes effortlessly. After all, the staggering nature of her sudden, meteoric rise has become as much a part of her musical endeavors as the twinkly dreaminess that defines her sonic profile. Now on the heels of two recent singles, “Storm In Summer” and “Song For Nick Drake,” and preparing for the April 9 release of her follow-up EP, Storm In Summer, she notes that the anxious moments played a role in shaping her art.
“There’s not a lot of separation between who I am, how I’m feeling in the moment and the songs that I’m writing,” she says. “This is a response to all of the changes in my life.”
Of course, Ballentine has found comfort in the process over time, finding beauty in the ability to relinquish herself to some extent. However, the initial tumultuousness of her experience undoubtedly lends itself to the dichotomy that exists within the very essence of Skullcrusher itself. The project may present itself with an outward-facing, hypnagogic softness, but ominous undercurrents swirl just underneath.
“There’s a lot of light and dark happening,” Ballentine acknowledges in respect to the EP. “I’ve always really identified with the East Coast summer. It’s warm, inviting and ambient. You walk outside, and the air feels like it’s hugging you. But then there’s sudden thunderstorms and moments of crazy down-pouring rain. It’s a pretty literal metaphor for how I feel a lot of time with the back and forth between the calm and the storm.”
Unsurprisingly, Ballentine’s approach to curating such complexity was nothing short of eclectic. As she shared with Alternative Press, her diverse set of influences ranged from Nick Drake to Radiohead and beyond. You can read more on her 11 most prominent inspirations below.
Nick Drake – “Road”
Nick Drake was a big one for me in college. [I had] a phase where I was trying to learn every song of his. I was really interested in him as a person because I felt like [we had] similarities in how he was nervous to put himself out there and be misunderstood. People who make things have these anxieties a lot of the time. I really relate to his trouble in putting stuff out there and feeling like songs are the only way to communicate. There’s not really another way for me to put myself out there.
He was never forcing himself to finish a song in a certain way. He just let an idea exist as it was. That was a huge influence in terms of how I tried to write the songs on the next EP. If I have one lyric, I’m trying to lean into just letting myself have that be a song without trying to make it into anything more than what feels right for it. I also want to emulate [his] guitar playing sometimes.
“Road” is the first song [of his] that I learned. It’s very short and dependent on the guitar playing, [with a] really beautiful part that repeats. There’s one little moment that changes, but it’s pretty repetitive. It’s very dark, and it feels so indicative of what he was doing, trying to communicate this feeling over and over again and being like, “I’m just trying to figure out how to be happy, and I’m feeling a lot of external pressure to succeed.”
I think he felt that way a lot in terms of his career. People wanted him to make certain kinds of songs, and he was like, “This is the most I can give. I can take a road that will see me through.” It’s so simple, very short and beautiful. That’s what I aim for.
Nick Drake – “Place To Be”
“Place To Be” is my other [favorite Nick Drake song]. It has really beautiful guitar playing with open tuning. It’s a hard one for me because you have to tune one of the high strings up, and I always break it. [Laughs.] I don’t play it anymore, but I want to relearn it. Also, the lyrics are really emo. He was definitely doing Elliott Smith-type stuff and writing super personal, sad music when people weren’t really into that.
[This song] takes me back [to] East Coast summers. It was over a summer that I was first becoming really invested in [Drake’s] music. I just imagine walking around where I grew up in Mount Vernon, New York. My house was above this baseball field. You could walk down the sidewalk, and there were these old stairs that no one knew about. [That led through] some bramble and then to the baseball field. When I think about this song, I think of walking down those stairs and the smell of the ground. Everything smells so much in the summer. If it rains, you can smell the grass, dirt and pavement. That’s a lyric in “Song For Nick Drake.”
Radiohead – “Scatterbrain”
There are definitely some early Radiohead influences on the new EP. “Storm In Summer” especially [has a] “High And Dry” vibe. And I’ve done the [“Lift“] cover, so that’s also pretty obvious. They’re always a huge influence for me because they also play with dark and light. Sonically, they’re very back and forth between dissonant sounds and satisfying, cathartic moments, and I really like that aspect of music.
“Scatterbrain” is a good example. It’s very pretty and twinkly, and, at the end of the day, that’s what I want to make a lot of the time. But a lot of Radiohead songs have this quality of tension throughout. It feels very dark and dissonant but then resolves at the end. There’s a moment of everything falling into place.
Radiohead – “Airbag”
I love “Airbag.” It comes in really hard with that guitar part, but it’s also really beautiful. They’re just able to get that heavy sound without ever sacrificing melody. That’s something I aim for. If I’m wanting to [make] something intense, I still want the melody to be pretty.
Radiohead – In Rainbows
In Rainbows was the first [Radiohead] album that I listened to in seventh grade. I remember listening to it during my first time being in L.A. My parents took us here, and we just went to Santa Monica and wandered around. [Laughs.] It was so cold. We thought it was going to be warm, so we had to buy sweatshirts. It was so weird, and we didn’t like it. I was just in the car with my iPod, listening to “All I Need” by Radiohead and being really angsty.
They were probably one of the more contemporary bands that I got into when I was in middle school. I was really just listening to what my parents were listening to. My first favorite band were the Beatles. I was really obsessed. My AIM screenname was like “BeatlesGirl729.” Then my mom was listening to Beck and Madonna. I had the Ray Of Light CD in my boombox. I liked Avril Lavigne. I listened to some contemporary stuff, but it was really the Beatles, Coldplay and Radiohead. I’m not 100% sure [how I got into them.] I remember that the Twilight movie had “15 Step” in it, so that could have been it.
My Bloody Valentine – “Sometimes”
I was really leaning into some heavier, shoegaze-y stuff [while writing] this EP. I started listening to that sort of music in college with Slowdive and Blur, but I love My Bloody Valentine. Loveless is one of those achievements wherein they’ve managed to create something very loud and heavy while also maintaining a softness. At first, you’re like, “What am I listening to?” It’s just a lot of sound. But underneath that, there are really pretty melodies, the softest vocals and little moments of a synth part.
Skullcrusher is often the inverse, having a soft exterior but containing something harder and scary underneath. I was really thinking about that with Storm In Summer. It’s very bouncy, cathartic and joyful, but it has these moments of darkness in the choruses. The harmony parts that I wrote felt very My Bloody Valentine to me with the weird sounding, random synth parts that we put in.
“Sometimes” was the first song I heard by them. It’s the soft one of the album, but it still comes with this guitar that takes up your whole head. I remember being like, “I just want to listen to this on headphones and hear every aspect of it.” If you listen to it through your phone, you can’t hear the little melody changes. I like that part of discovering a little part that might be hard to notice the first time. It’s a song that unravels the more you listen to it. There’s one synth part that comes in at the end that I always thought was pretty. I wanted to catch it every time.
Duster – “Echo, Bravo”
I think people call Duster slowcore. I don’t always know the different genres. It’s that heavier, textural, ambient feedback stuff. There’s this combination of heavy guitar tones and clashing textures with pretty melodies. That will always do it for me. “Echo, Bravo” is really great. It’s pretty heavy. I was listening to it a lot this fall, and I really like the intensity of it.
[Duster] do a lot of instrumental stuff, which is cool. I like that they don’t require a vocal part. That’s something that I feel like I’m potentially inching toward. If I [release] an album, I’d like to keep certain songs instrumental. Stratosphere has a lot of those tracks, and I feel like that’s unique.
Gillian Welch – “I Dream A Highway”
I’ve always been really into Gillian Welch, but I’ve recently been in an obsessive mood. I’m getting more into the twinkly guitar harmonies, banjo, bluegrass stuff. My favorite album of hers is Time (The Revelator). I really like all of the songs on it, but my favorite is probably “I Dream A Highway.” It was the first one I’d heard. I actually covered it for a livestream on Thursday. We shortened it, so I picked some of the verses that I related to the most. I always feel weird doing that because I don’t want to disrupt the narrative, but I really wanted to [cover] it, and I think I did it respectfully. It’s still long, honestly.
One of my favorite [verses] of the ones I chose is:
“I’m an indisguisable shade of twilight/Any second now, I’m gonna turn myself on/In the blue display of the cool cathode ray/I dream a highway back to you.”
It feels really visceral. She really harnesses a feeling, and it’s so heavy to me. It makes me think of being in bed and [unable to] get up. Maybe it’s really hot out, and you can’t move. And then:
“What will sustain us through the winter?/Where did last year’s lessons go?/Walk me out into the rain and snow/I dream a highway back to you.”
That feels like washing away something or having a moment of reflection. It’s that feeling of walking out into the cold, getting the rush into your face and having it all wiped away. Maybe you have a new perspective on it. Those lyrics are amazing. It’s been fun to unpack them a little bit and interpret them.
The Microphones – “The Moon”
I think about Phil Elverum and the Microphones and the idea of not necessarily having to finish something in the way that you expect. I think this whole EP really leans into the unfinished quality. The cover’s a drawing that I did. In college, I would really struggle to finish drawings. I never knew when one was done. So there’s this feeling of identifying more with a sketch rather than a completed piece. That feels really Microphones to me, hearing one sound or guitar riff and being like, “Yeah, that’s the song.”
With “Windshield,” I tried to write all of these verses. But then I was like, “No, this is so forced. I just want that guitar riff to be its own thing. I’m just going to repeat this word because it feels to the point.” I’m letting myself be a bit more open, and it feels different from the first EP.
The first song that I heard by [the Microphones] was “The Moon.” [Laughs.] I’m definitely finding a pattern in the music I like. It has two very distinct sections, starting off really quiet and sad and then bursting open and speeding up. But it doesn’t feel like different songs. It’s natural. I just love that song. It’s one that I’ve listened to a million times. I really like everything off The Glow, Pt. 2, but I’d say “The Moon” is the most emblematic of the duality that I love.
Max Porter – Grief Is The Thing With Feathers
I read two books by this English author, Max Porter: Lanny and Grief Is The Thing With Feathers. I guess you could call them novellas. They have very loose, experimental writing, but it’s really easy to read. It’s not super dense but really emotive and relatable. It’s almost like you’re overhearing someone talking or entering into their head and hearing their thoughts for a little bit. I feel like that’s something that I try to harness sometimes in my own work, the unfinished, free-flowing thing.
His stories are pretty folkloric, and he writes from each character’s perspective. You get a lot of internal thoughts and memories. Grief Is The Thing With Feathers is about a father and his two sons, who have just lost their mother. It [narrates] their experience with grief, which takes the form of a crow. The crow comes and speaks to the characters, mostly the dad. I liked this passage [during which] the dad is talking to the crow about wondering if his wife has become a ghost. He asks, “Do you think she’s watching us?”
And the crow says:
“No. Trust me, I know a bit about ghosts. She’ll be way back, before you. She’ll be in the golden days of her childhood. Ghosts do not haunt, they regress. Just as when you need to go to sleep you think of trees or lawns, you are taking instant symbolic refuge in a ready-made iconography of early safety and satisfaction. That exact place is where ghosts go.”
I really liked that. There’s something about reflection and nostalgia. I think about the rain and the summer. Those are the places that I would go as a ghost. Any time that I feel really sensitive or vulnerable, I try to go to that place in my head. I just really related to that passage and thinking about death as returning to a moment in time.
Tobias Wolff – Bullet In The Brain
There’s this short story that my boyfriend showed me, Bullet In The Brain by Tobias Wolff. It’s about this guy who gets shot during a bank robbery. The whole story is told in the seconds that he’s dying. It’s basically this memory from his childhood that he goes back to and relives. It sounds really dark, but it’s not written in a morbid way. It’s pretty and random.
There’s that notion of reflecting and having random moments when you’re reminded of something. Nature becomes interwoven with that. Where you grow up, what was surrounding you, the smells and the feelings become so tied to your emotions. I think a lot about my family, reflecting on my childhood, so things like this feel really relevant. Making music feels like a pattern for me. I’m realizing how things that happened in my childhood relate to things that happen to me now. It’s just this circular nature of growth.