INTERVIEW: Helen Ballentine is Skullcrusher
helen ballentine

In many ways, Skullcrusher’s success is hard to explain. It’s a project that’s traveled a severely atypical path, seeing much of its success in a period of time where the music industry was shut down, as well as one being fueled by defying expectations. If making assumptions, it’s not hard to see why. To the assumptive, the work would not fit the connotation of the name, nor would Ballentine herself fit the assumed description. This gap fuels Ballentine and, in turn, fuels Skullcrusher. Though often poked at, the moniker brings an ever-present touchpoint to Ballentine’s work, contextualizing so much of the juxtaposition and emotion that populates Storm in Summer. “Because I’m the kind of person who experiences those kinds of assumptions in my personal life, it ends up being a part of so much the material I work with when writing.” says Ballentine. 

For this latest release, Ballentine dips back into the emotional rawness that proved catalytic to so much of the project’s early success. Now being much more sonically complex and an excellent proof of evolution, Storm in Summer still never loses the minimalist intimacy that laces so much of Ballentine’s work, despite the new density. Storm in Summer stands as a testament of the power of a writer exploring what can be accomplished through song-crafting and emotional rawness. This openness, however, is not without reflective consideration. “I think what always happens with me is that I’m so quick to be open with people and reveal so much about myself but later I’ll always look back and wonder if I overshared.” says Ballentine. 

This imposed duality between remaining easily available and Ballentine’s often ominously enigmatic writing is a growing signature of the project, and one that persists throughout the EP. At its core, the writing is, in itself, an ode to the title under which it sits; one of intentional poetic contrasts. A thought that manifests rather aptly in the track Steps when Ballentine sings “Wanting someone to be there / Also wanting no-one to ask me how I feel.”  Innocent, easily digestible compositions are bisected with spectral, hauntingly introspective sentiments, revelling in Ballentine’s indelible siren-song voice.  “In terms of production and writing, there was a lot of intention with this EP to bring that juxtaposition even a little bit further. Noah (Weinman) and I pushed to get a more dynamic display of hard and soft, really pushing forward those moments.”  This is not to say Skullcrusher operates with any doses of irony or is propelled by a gimmicky name. There is sincere, deep humanity in the words of Skullcrusher often harboring in these brief moments of stasis allowing Ballentine’s intent and personality as a writer to push through.

Storm in Summer never, at any point, feels as if it shies away from looking even further inwards.  Rare is the occurrence of a songwriter so closely mirroring themselves in their writing, doing so with almost frightening intimacy. “There’s very little distance between my thoughts and things that I’m experiencing just as a person and my writing process.” says Ballentine. “It’s really the only way I know how to do it.” 

Since her debut release in early 2020, Ballentine has seen a rapid rise in prominence throughout the L.A. independent scene and beyond, culminating in joining the diverse roster of Secretly Canadian. Skullcrusher’s path has certainly been atypical, with many of the project’s formative moments coming during a COVID-plagued world, denying Ballentine the show-playing experience that typically comes with such a rise. “All of the Secretly (Canadian) stuff happened on such a crazy timeline with COVID that it’s almost been nice to have some time to process it all but we do look forward to the day we can share these songs with a crowd.” However, contrary to the presumptive relief that would come to signing with an established label, Ballentine was apprehensive to the timeline of it. “I always want people to understand me, and want them to want to understand me, so sometimes I felt weird wondering ‘you’ve (Secretly Canadian) only heard one song of mine, why do you want to sign me?” says Ballentine. “I felt like I needed to trust that they saw something in me and understood what I did and I think it’s since grown into a pretty good relationship.” 

Though not directly related to her releases, Ballentine’s comments on what would typically be such an assumed milestone for an artist stands so representative of her work as a whole. A deep, uniquely purposeful approach, intersecting with a desire to remain emotionally easily accessible. At times, it feels cliche to say someone stands singular or devoid of comparisons but sometimes something is truly that. Though it may be tempting to sonically lump Ballentine with the likes of some of the past and present melancholic titans of indie i.e. Phoebe Bridgers, Elliot Smith, or the name-dropped Nick Drake, Skullcrusher is a truly unique project both in path and execution.  


photo by: Silken Weinberg