Helen Ballentine quit her nine-to-five without a plan. Although a daunting prospect for some, this stretch of uncertainty and confusion brought about a career path she had only ever thought of as a hobby. Quiet hopes to make more time for music always fell into the background of her full-time job at an art gallery, and before that, songwriting seemed more like a chore rather than a means of expression.
Using fantasy films, books, and visual arts, Ballentine’s escapism lead her to music that had the same effect – electronic, ambient melodies that let your mind wander – and her moniker Skullcrusher was coined in response to a techno phase where Helen expanded her skillset and ambitions for the project as a whole. Her self-titled debut EP is a capsule of songs created during this time, embodying feelings of doubt, all the while unwittingly using the process as a kind of catharsis. Now, recently signed to Secretly Canadian, the LA-based songwriter is in a different place, as she revisits this period with a renewed perspective and clarity.
Clementine Zawadzki: Hi Helen, how are you?
Helen Ballentine: I’m in LA at my partner’s family’s house by the water. My family is from New York, so it’s colder and more difficult over there. It’s been a bit like Groundhog Day, except today I’ve been working on a video for the next song I’m going to put out. I’ve been working on it with friends, sort of at a distance, doing it very DIY.
CZ: Although you started playing guitar from an early age, you didn’t start songwriting until a lot later. Did anything specific inspire you or encourage you to take the next step?
HB: I started trying to write songs in college to put pressure on myself to do something. I was studying fine art in college and I think it was easier for me to treat songwriting as a fun activity I was doing on the side. As soon as I felt comfortable enough to dabble in it without setting any goals, I was able to get into it more. I don’t know why I didn’t focus on it in high school, because I was always doing music in one way or another. My dad made me go to this songwriting class when I was in ninth grade or something, and I hated it …
CZ: How does a songwriting class work exactly?
HB: It was a small class at this music school in New York where I grew up, and we would just write a song a week, then perform it and talk about it. I think it really freaked me out because it wasn’t an easy thing to do. I preferred to just play songs I liked on the piano; it was just a much easier and fun way to channel music. I wasn’t really focused on it in a serious way, so I avoided the thing that was scary and hard for me, until college when I tried it again. I had a guitar teacher in my senior year that really encouraged me to finish something, because I’d start a song and just have no motivation to finish it. I worked in the art world for a year after that and wasn’t writing at all. I just found I wasn’t able to make music around a full-time job. I didn’t have enough leisure time, and for me, songwriting just comes out of sitting around and having nothing to do – picking up a guitar and going from there. I can’t condense my productivity into one hour. Some people can come home and work within that structure, but I can’t compartmentalise that.
CZ: It’s more of a spontaneous act for you…
HB: Totally. I think that’s why it didn’t start happening until I had long chunks of time with nothing going on…
CZ: Was leaving your job in the art world a conscious decision to pursue music or did that happen organically?
HB: It was a bit of both. I knew I was unhappy in that job, so that was the main reason, but in the back of my head I was thinking I’d like to work more on music. I feel when you’re making any decision like that, you tell yourself you’ll spend more time on your hobbies but I didn’t necessarily think I’d do it. It wasn’t my clear intention to make an EP and go towards music. I spent so much time just having no conception of what my future looked like. I was unemployed for about a year, working as a nanny here and there to earn some money. It wasn’t until the end of that time when I had a collection of songs I wanted to record, and was also thinking about going back to school to study psychology, maybe becoming a therapist.
CZ: Are you still drawn to the same ideas you were when you started writing songs?
HB: I think the core of it is really similar, but the way that I go about it is different now, and I think more successful. When I was starting out, I was trying to talk about very broad concepts like being alone, considering ideas of self-worth and direction, and wanting someone to understand you and your most private self. I later found I was able to look at it much better in a smaller context or a specific scene.
CZ: Your project as a whole evokes notes of fantasy and surrealism. Why do these themes appeal to you?
HB: I’ve always loved the idea of escapism. It’s always been a place that feels comfortable for me since I was little. I didn’t really like to participate in organised activities like teen sports or board games, or games involving the whole class and a winner… I have trouble with competitive stuff like that. I was always off to the side either playing by myself or with a couple of friends. I had a lot of imaginary games, making up storylines and pretending to be someone else. That turned into the kinds of books I like to read and movies I like to watch. I’ve always taken comfort in being away from myself, which I think in middle school felt more like a negative thing because you feel confused about yourself and you look weird. I began to find a way to use escapism in a healthy way and be more open about it – letting it be a part of who I am rather than trying to get away from myself. I think my love of visual art crosses into that too. I started loving surrealism as a kid through my dad. I think it all connects.
“I started to find a way to use escapism in a healthy way and be more open about it – letting it be a part of who I am rather than trying to get away from myself.”
CZ: In that year or so between leaving your nine-to-five and pursuing music, did any art in particular help shape the songs that are now your debut EP?
HB: At the beginning of that period I was in a pretty heavy techno music phase, learning to DJ a little bit, which is really where the name Skullcrusher came from. I was listening to a lot of Skee Mask who is a German producer, and I loved his album Compro, and Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin, just lots of electronic music. Then I got into more straight indie music, like Alex G. I think the combination of those really informed my writing. I was also reading a lot during that time, a compilation of short stories, and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. The act of doing it was just really solitary. I’d come home with no plan, read, and then inevitably spend time on my guitar and not think anything of it, but it came out of that process. I like to watch movies more than once. I really love Amelie, Trainspotting, Pan’s Labyrinth… there’s more, but I think they’re a good representation of movies that take me away. I also love the [Hayao] Miyazaki collection, like Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and those animated films. I definitely feel there’s a lot of different ways of expression through these visuals, and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders [1970, Czech film] is a great example of that. The plot is so confusing and I don’t know what’s happening, but it has a very strong presence in spite of that. My friend Silken introduced me to the film, and she does a lot of my art direction, photography and filmography.
“That’s what I love about electronic music, it’s like a blank canvas for you to think about whatever you want and be moved by the music in whatever way feels natural.”
CZ: The point you made about the ambiguous plot relates to music too – that idea of not necessarily needing to relate to lyrics or understand them to appreciate a song.
HB: That’s what I love about electronic music, it’s like a blank canvas for you to think about whatever you want and be moved by the music in whatever way feels natural.
CZ: How do lyrics fit into the process for you?
HB: The lyrics come from a realistic and personal place exploring things that have happened to me. Specifically, Places/Plans describes how I was feeling during that time. It came out of this insecurity of not really having a career happening, not having direction, and what that felt like in the face of a potential relationship. It’s about how you relate to others when you don’t have the ability to talk about your job. I was running into a lot of social interactions where it’s like, “What do you do?” and what do you say to that when you technically read all day? I was focused on writing things I felt honestly, but the fantasy stuff comes through more in a visual sense and the way the production creates this otherworldly ambiance.
CZ: Do the other tracks in the EP also fall in line with these kinds of feelings?
HB: I wrote Trace about a relationship I was in at college that ended in a very bad way. It came out of this one idea I had, the lyric, “Tracing my face with your dirty fingers,” and that was the core of that song. The idea of this person who has lied to you and betrayed you in some way, and thinking about all the times they were tender with you, and how that feels weird and bad. I think the song itself sounds fun and upbeat – almost happy – but it’s a very angry song. It’s about something that was pretty difficult in my life.
CZ: Is putting an upbeat melody to melancholy lyrics kind of a subconscious thing to create balance in a song?
HB: Yeah, totally. I think there’s something really true about that. I think it’s also really fitting because so many amazing changes came out of that situation. I made a lot of new friends and changed my job and had this moment of sitting with myself and reevaluating what was going on. It was very pivotal, so I think the song celebrates it, in a way. My partner, Noah, produced the EP, and I kept a bit of his laugh at the end of Trace, which was kind of funny. After this past relationship, we ended up meeting and started seeing each other, so I thought it was fitting.
CZ: Day of Show rounds out the EP really beautifully…
HB: Yeah, this is probably the broadest song in terms of topic. It’s more about loneliness and similar to Places/Plans. I wrote it on the day of my partner’s band’s show, and it’s sort of thinking about what it’s like being in this space of not doing anything with my days, and then going to see someone who you’re starting to fall in love with and questioning how they feel about you. It was a time when I was starting to open up to my partner about insecurities, so a lot of it came from conversations we were having. It was me settling on certain imagery of me watching his band play, and they had borrowed some of my furniture because they were trying to make the stage look like somebody’s bedroom. I thought it was a funny idea, watching someone sing about their past and having your items on stage with them. I was thinking about what that looks like and feels like.
CZ: Being in a different headspace now and place in your life, what is it like going back to these songs?
HB: It’s weird because I sometimes feel a little guilty. Like in Places/Plans, I talk about, “Can I make it out there as I am, without my name on a door? Can I have my own band?” and I sort of knew when writing it that it might not always be as relevant, because maybe I would be headlining a show someday. It’s not irrelevant to me because I like to be reminded of that time and I think it was informative for me and made me think about who I was, going into this period of actually having a job and being able to do music full time. I’m able to remind myself of that time which is really grounding. It’s weird though, because it’s not my issue anymore.
Skullcrusher’s debut EP is out 26th June via Secretly Canadian.
Follow Skullcrusher on Instagram.