Skullcrusher is the project of singer-songwriter Helen Ballentine, who started playing piano as a child before picking up guitar in high school. Born and raised in Upstate New York, Ballentine moved to Los Angeles and graduated with a degree in graphic design in 2017, but decided to quit her day job at a gallery to try and pursue music full-time. After a period of uncertainty and creative freedom, Ballentine emerged with her first single, ‘Places/Plans’, in early 2020, having signed to Secretly Canadian on the strength of her demos.
Skullcrusher’s first two EPs, 2020’s self-titled debut and last year’s Storm in Summer, showcased her unique fusion of ethereal, introspective folk and haunting ambient music. This Friday, Ballentine will release her first full-length under the moniker, the Andrew Sarlo-produced Quiet the Room, which oscillates between musical styles as well as time periods, drawing inspiration from her childhood home in Mount Vernon to explore the edges of her youth: precious memories, recurring nightmares, and fraught dynamics that exist just out of focus but continue to hang over her life. Despite the gentle, almost fragile atmosphere of her music, Ballentine rejects the notion of childhood as a symbol of innocence, engaging with a complex inner world through rich, immersive layers of sound. “It’s like a secret,” she sings about halfway through, “And in order to share it/ I’ll have to bring you within/ And see it all through your eyes.”
We caught up with Helen Ballentine for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her memories of her childhood home, her relationship with the piano, the visual inspirations behind Quiet the Room, and more.
You wrote ‘Quiet the Room’ on the piano, which is your childhood instrument. Do you mind sharing some of the earliest memories that come to mind when you think about the instrument?
Growing up, it felt like a way for me to enter a sort of fantasy space in my own home. The room that the piano was in in my house growing up felt kind of like a magical room to me. The ceiling was painted very subtly, it had clouds painted on the ceiling. It was in the living room, which was a space that we didn’t really hang out in unless there was maybe more of a special occasion. It was kind of always a quiet room that was darker and people wouldn’t be there. So when I think of the piano and going into that room, it really felt like entering a really specific space in my home. Over time, I began to focus more on the guitar as well, just because I think you can make it even more private and separate, because obviously when you sit down at the piano people can hear you in the house. I think that as I got older, I had more of a desire to really be in my room and not have anyone be able to hear me.
But as a kid, I would enter my own world on the piano. I think about the feeling of sitting on my knees on the bench, and it would be kind of uncomfortable but I was sitting like that for a really long time. And very early on, I remember just kind of banging on the piano, as a kid would do, not really knowing how to play but having some sense of what I wanted it to sound like. I sort of remember what that felt like, trying to create something without technically knowing the skill, which I think is an interesting process. I like when something maybe doesn’t have a technical side to it and is just purely this intention and an idea. I’ve been referencing the track ‘Whistle of the Dead’ a lot, just because that is literally audio pulled from a home recording of me banging on the piano and making up a song, which is cool that I have evidence of that.
The acoustic guitar is still the most prominent instrument on the record, but I feel like the piano comes closer to the forefront on a few tracks. Was that a conscious decision, given that it’s your debut album and it has this preoccupation with childhood?
Yeah, definitely. The track ‘Quiet the Room’, played on piano, was the first song that I wrote for the album. I think that because I wrote that one on piano, it kind of influenced what I was thinking about going forward. It really set the tone for the record, because that was the jumping-off point and the seed from which the rest of the songs sort of came out of. So I think that even though the rest of the songs I wrote on guitar, I was always thinking about that one and influenced the production and the visuals.
The piano, and that specific piano, is so important to me and important to how I was growing up and my memories, and it’s very prominently in my head. Even just as a subject matter – I did actually have one song I was writing that I didn’t finish, but I think that the lyrics were literally recalling what it felt like to sit at the piano. So it kind of became a subject that I was thinking about when I was writing lyrics, not just an instrument to use on the record.
I was thinking about the title of the album, Quiet the Room, and how we sort of make this distinction between a house and a home, which is kind of lost when we talk about the idea of a room. For you, what does the memory of a room contain? Is it more about certain physical properties, or is it more abstract and constructed?
I definitely feel like there are pieces of both. I think the way that memory works, for me at least, it’s very intertwined with fantasy and dreams. The way you recall a room or a space is inevitably for me going to be outside of reality in some way. So when I’m thinking of these rooms, they are rooted in a tangible space, like a real memory or my real home growing up. But when I kind of reconstruct them this way in my memory, they are definitely weighted with different things. When I was thinking about literally this sentence, Quiet the Room, I was thinking about the idea of someone’s presence maybe silencing the room. There’s the way that you would use that phrase in saying there was maybe some tension in the space; there was something unsaid, something that someone was holding in and not saying. There’s a block where you feel like you can’t speak. And that has to do with how, when you remember your home, you also think of your family, and I was thinking a lot about those dynamics and how my memory contains the weight of those relationships, in addition to the actual spaces and the way that my house looked.
How did writing these songs, trying to occupy that space and remember those relationships that may seem distant – how did that affect your headspace? Was it something you had to adjust to in your own life, or was it almost natural to slip back into it?
Again, kind of both. I’m someone who is often recalling or thinking about my past. I think that’s part of who I am and something that I often find myself doing. But specifically doing the album, it did really affect my life at the time of writing the songs. I mean, that’s kind of what ‘It’s Like a Secret’ is about. I just found myself, as I get into this creative space, I’m really retreating into myself and thinking about all this stuff, and I sort of find myself feeling really isolated. So, ‘It’s Like a Secret’ was kind of me observing the effect that writing these songs had on me and my relationships. And that’s how I was describing the artistic process, as being sort of like a secret, that’s literally what I was saying as I tried to explain this feeling: when you’re so deep into your own memories and your past and your dreams and you’re writing these songs, and you kind of find yourself treasuring it in this way that feels really private.
And then when someone else enters that space, whether it be physically or if you’re trying to share one of those songs or trying to open it up a little bit, it feels like there’s a very tangible space in between. So that got me thinking about windows and barriers – the way that you can’t fully let someone else into that, but you can try to do that and you can try to communicate that. It’s not necessarily saying that you shouldn’t try, but it’s maybe more of like an acceptance of the space that’s there.
Did you feel an urge to release some of that weight and that tension when you’re delving into those memories?
Yeah, it does feel like, looking at the album, there is a lot of tension being held. I’m trying to remember if there was a specific moment where I was like, “I need to let this out.” During the recording process is maybe when you can engage physically with it more, because you’re singing and you’re playing, and hopefully, I can also release more of it when I’m performing live. I’ve found that singing these songs is actually really nice for me, because it does really do something to sort of take action in releasing a lot of the tension that built up when I was in that really private space, writing. And I think the recording process was sort of the beginning of that, wanting to bring forward some more aggressive sounds and some more powerful moments and leaning into that. And also, having fun with it and giving certain things a little bit more lightness. At the end of the day, when you’re recording, it is just kind of a fun thing to do, so I think that that also releases the tension a little bit, where you feel like you’re just playing around with friends. There’s something cathartic about that.
There are these ambient sections on ‘Lullaby in February’ and ‘Window Somewhere’ that almost sound like little portals, like the light coming in through the window. There’s this liminal quality to the whole album that you kind of alluded to, and I’m curious if it was a challenge to figure out how to represent that sonically.
It definitely was at the forefront of how I was thinking about the record, I think since the beginning of making it. Maybe not so consciously where I went in there being like, “It needs to sound liminal.” I’m not sure I was using that word when we were recording, but we were spending a lot of time jumping between time periods, kind of evoking different time periods in the production, which I think feels liminal to me. There’s some moments where everything is really lo-fi and crackly, sounding like it’s coming through an old radio, and then all of a sudden it’ll be really clear and really present. We were very conscious and intentional about wanting different vocal tones. Like, in ‘Building a Swing’, the vocal tone changes throughout the song, so it starts off sounding like it’s crackling through a radio or something, and then then it sounds like a children’s choir a little bit, and then at the end is a single vocal take, very clear and more defined. I think the way that we used different mics and different techniques to evoke different styles of recording helped to make it feel like it was not of any one particular time, maybe. There was a lot of evoking childhood sonically and then also drawing from more contemporary references, so I think it naturally just fell into a liminal space.
It definitely sounds like you’re playing with time and space, and I wonder if you thought about colour at all sonically, too. There are references to green and blue on the record, but I don’t know if there’s any symbolic significance there or if it’s just literal.
Yeah, I was thinking a lot about colour. Even before writing any of the music for the album, I had this notion of what the album was going to be, and it was very visual. I don’t know if this is necessarily related to colour, but it’s just something that came to mind when you asked this. Very early on, when people would ask me what do you think your album is going to be, and I had no idea yet, I kind of had this vision of layers of tracing paper with different sketches on them, and being able to see the process of a drawing coming together. So that was an image that I just had in my head even before I started thinking about the subject matter for the album.
As I started to think more about my piano in my house, and immediately I was seeing kind of this voyeuristic image of looking through a window at night into someone’s house. So that evoked a deep purple and dark blue and royal blue, and obviously this golden colour, whether it be from a lamp or sunlight. And then the green and blue is this specific reference to my room; my childhood room growing up was painted green and blue. But there were definitely a lot of visual elements that were floating around in my brain. I’m not sure if I consciously – well, I think that this idea of nighttime and daytime came through in the production where we would end up saying things like, “This song feels like nighttime,” so in my mind that’s more dark blue and purple, or “This song feels like daytime,” which is more green and yellow. So I think it definitely came through in that way.
In the credits, the last thing you thank is your “many homes.” What does your relationship to the idea of home look like now?
I think that I’m becoming more accepting of the notion of home being something that you kind of have to build for yourself. This idea of comfort and safety – a lot of that comes from the work that you do and your in yourself to feel comfortable and feel safe and feel secure in who you are. My life has sort of just been different moments of realizing that I need to do that for myself, and that I can’t necessarily find that in any one specific person or place. I’ve had many homes and many little rooms and places and people and objects that I attach a lot of weight to, and I tend to really hold these things close to me. And I think that there’s something nice and good about that, but I’m also trying not to place all of my safety and comfort onto these external things, which can be very precarious. I think it’s about learning to contain that within yourself.
Right now, I’m kind of in a bit of a limbo period in terms of where I’m living. But I always have – you know, obviously my cat [pets cat, who has been walking in front of the screen and meowing intermittently] – I always have these trinkets and objects from my childhood that I carry with me wherever I go. My bedside table is always just covered with these little objects wherever I go. [laughs] And even when I would go on tour, I have a little box that has – I mean, this is getting pretty personal, but it has pieces of my blanket from when I was little, and just a couple little trinkets in there that I keep. I tend to be very precious about these kinds of objects that make me feel comfortable, and bring them with me wherever I go.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.