Skullcrusher goes home on Quiet The Room
Before she became Skullcrusher, Helen Ballentine toddled around upstate New York, dreaming up songs in her head while banging on the piano. By the age of 5, she began taking lessons herself, but never liked it much, instead preferring a rebellion against the sometimes tedious constraints of classical music, opting to substitute Beethoven with Radiohead. Her dad had played in bands and studied music in college, before changing his major to finance, so there was musical encouragement at home. But though Ballentine was getting stoked on the ever-growing, contemporary quadrants of lush, experimental acoustic music, she was never a student of an educational environment that welcomed songwriting as a lifeblood.
“I went to a school that was not focused on the arts, so it was very much in my head as something I would just do as a fun thing on the side of a ‘real job,’” Ballentine says. To get to where she is now, she first had to move to Los Angeles from Hudson Valley suburbia, pick up an art degree from the University of Southern California and work odd jobs in the industry, notably as a gallery assistant. Though her interests in graphic design or art criticism might not initially beckon a career as a touring musician, her passion for drawing in college, she says, often mirrored what she was writing songs about in her free time.
Ballentine’s storied history with music fully came to the forefront of her life after her tenure at USC, when she compiled four songs onto an EP titled Skullcrusher — the stage name she performs under. The EP was an important introduction to Ballentine as a musician, as it showcased her talents in composition. The name “Skullcrusher” might suggest something a bit more thrashing, but most of Ballentine’s work is rife with soft, acoustic balladry, music that stands as a singular element in a dynamic landscape populated by living elements. Like a full sketchbook, her songs are full of patient strokes of quiet grace.
As Skullcrusher, Ballentine meshes field recordings — sirening cicadas, East Coast beaches, houses murmuring with creaking ghosts — with tranquil, honeyed folk plucking. There’s something paeanian about how her tunes masquerade like live numbers, as if the banjo that shimmers through in the breakdown of “Trace” is being played one room over by a stranger. “I think a lot about making things in a conceptual way, and think about a body of work and about a collection of songs and what the statement is behind it,” Ballentine says. “There’s an organic quality that I try to preserve in the songs I’m doing now.” She calls the EP “spontaneous” because the songs were the first ones she’d ever finished, recorded and released, but with her background in visual art, she was determined to compose a body of work with more intention behind it.
On the cover of Ballentine’s full-length debut, Quiet the Room, a symmetrical, brown, colonial-style home is enveloped by a vast sea of blue. It’s an eerie still, reminiscent of a stoic dollhouse or some kind of architecture straight out of an Ari Aster movie. Two porch lights are on, and shadows linger atop the roof and across window panes. The home is not the one Ballentine grew up in Mount Vernon, but it symbolizes a part of herself she was actively tapping into when making the record. She calls it a “haunted house” that colors memories of her and her family’s experiences. “Because [the house] is no longer a part of my life, it gets saturated in memory and, through that, gets warped into this fantasy space that I remember through the eyes of my childhood self,” she says. “It’s also this nightmare of having a lot of memories of dealing with anxiety and insomnia as a young child and not really knowing what those things are.”
Writing about her childhood wasn’t always the plan for Ballentine. When she began focusing on making Quiet the Room, she let her mind wander wherever it needed to, creatively, and then began forming the throughlines for the songs — which aren’t a linear, chronological timeline of her life. Instead, she lets the current experiences from the present inform her understanding of ones from the past. No song is stationary but, instead, always moving, always considering, reckoning and reflecting. Like a novel or memoir with deep, connective tissue, Quiet the Room fulfills a whole arc.
In songs like “Whatever Fits Together” and “It’s Like a Secret,” Ballentine tells us stories of leaving the only home she’s ever known for someplace new, or yearning for a utopian version of her past, but on ambient tracks “Whistle of the Dead” and “Outside, Playing,” she asks us to step into those stories and feel them. Like a wind smelling of a familiar morning, or an argument between loved ones happening in another room, the clicks and fuzzes, the snippets of digitized piano and old radio distortion, transport listeners to moments that exist in their own idyllic vacuum. It’s a testament to Ballentine’s world-building, how she can so captivatingly tumble through her own history while leaving enough space there for us to project the same kind of curiosity into our own. “I think it helps make you experience this process of remembering something or forgetting something, looking backwards and reflecting. The production helps put you in that headspace,” Ballentine adds.
The Rolodex of musical interests that Ballentine siphons inspiration from is vast. She cites the catalogs of Nick Drake and Sufjan Stevens as immediate texts she pulls from, but there’s a particular affinity for Gillian Welch’s 2001, 14-minute odyssey, “I Dream a Highway,” from Time (The Revelator), in her work. Ballentine takes Welch’s approach to verses, which include this hypnotic, almost kaleidoscopic kind of repetition, and translates it into choral sprawls on Quiet the Room. On the title track, she turns six lines into a three-minute journey without losing the viscerality, affection and light that breaks through in her own vocal performance.
Choral singing is also a major part of Quiet the Room’s sonic blueprint. While writing the record, Ballentine listened to a lot of children’s choirs, as well as English conductor Benjamin Britten, whose settings from Friday Afternoons, which were composed for the pupils at Clive House School in Wales, informed her approach to vocal construction. On “Building a Swing,” she takes different octave performances and intentionally mimics a children’s choir, as if there is a group of people singing behind her, until it’s just her voice alone. “I’m going back and forth between different vocal textures and tones, having this childlike, layered sound, having a clear, strong sound and then having a distorted sound and utilizing all of those different influences to consider the range of possibilities,” Ballentine adds.
Quiet the Room is composed much like an avant-garde film or an immersive play. There are videotape interludes and brief instrumentals shouldering the intimate, gossamer songs further across the album. The idea of home arises everywhere, taking shape as a monument to Ballentine’s past, which her inner compass often points to. “‘What was it about my childhood that was as dark as it was very comforting and this idealistic kind of place?’ is the question that motivated a lot of the writing,” she says. I don’t know if I have a complete answer to it yet, but it’s a place that holds so much for me.”
Nick Drake once sang, “I can take a road that’ll see me through,” and on Quiet the Room, Ballentine cuts through grief and loneliness with a similar hopeful warmth and affection. Her road is a confessionalism that coalesces both a familiar folk archetype and a devastating reimagining of existential solemness and self-reflection. Ballentine’s songwriting leaves the confines of studio space and finds electricity in the prosaics of her own surroundings. A wincing floorboard can be as melodic as a chorus, while the bullfrogs laughing by the nearby pond provide an inimitable kind of percussion.
As Skullcrusher, Ballentine’s work is a balm that widens the potential of a sonic liminal space. She isn’t just giving us the exposition of her own destiny; she’s letting us step into it with her. It’s a priceless kind of intimacy that only arrives when the dust of chord progressions and tape loops settles, and all that’s left is you and another person — two bodies miscible with a kinetic warmth that has long felt familiar but still gleams with an indescribable yet hopeful promise.