A More Intimate Side of Skullcrusher
All Images by : Silken Weinberg
Where to start with Skullcrusher? Fronted by Helen Ballentine and backed by the likes of Secretly Canadian, she's just getting started. But our story with her goes way back. Back before she was writing music in her room, getting over nasty break-ups, and truly coming into her own. Helen and I used to work at an Art Gallery together, still trying to figure out exactly where we belong and what to do next. And while neither of us look back at that time too fondly, we can't help but appreciate the unnecessary force it put on us to move on to different and better things.
But none of that really matters now. More than anything, it was good to catch up with an old friend and check in on each other. So sit back, relax, and get to know an even more intimate side of Skullcrusher.
MW: Where are you calling me from, Helen?
HB: I’m at my Mom’s in New York.. Me and Noah (of Runnner) have been on the East Coast since mid-October. We were in Massachusetts for a bit, then in Woodstock. We were just recording and working on music for a while. We’re pretty ready to leave at this point though.
MW: It sounds like you’ve done a lot of moving around in this time of isolation..
HB: Definitely. It’s been a lot. Which is crazy, because I feel like most people have just been in the same place for this entire period of time. But it’s been a lot of change of scenery.
MW: I’m just so excited to catch up with you. I’ve missed you and it’s good to see you’re doing well for yourself. I kind of want to pick back up from where we left off, which was saying goodbye outside your old apartment. I’m pretty sure you were almost crying.
HB: Yeah. When was that?
MW: About two and a half years ago, now.
HB: That was shortly before I left the gallery we worked at together. We had hired a few people after you left, which I was responsible for. And I was really bad at doing that. Honestly. I hired the worst people.
MW: Now that we have the clarity, I just look back at that time and see how hard it was for the both of us. Personally, it was probably the most unhappy I’ve ever been. But it’s so good to see that now, a few years later, both of us have really come into our own, without really having to settle or compromise.
HB: Yeah, 100%. Now I’m at a point where I am out of the rut. But, it’s tough to look back and see the rut clearly. It’s really hard. When you’ve gone through a lot, whether it’s physically or mentally or emotionally, it can be hard to look back and remember how unhappy you were. How you were making choices that weren’t reflecting what you actually wanted. It’s tough to see that clearly and move on from it. And that’s the phase that I’m currently in. A lot of writing and reflecting on college. And honestly my whole life. High school and college and post-college. Realizing I made a lot of mistakes and choices that seem very unlike me. And reckoning with it. And then trying to acknowledge that I’m in a good place now. It can all be very overwhelming. That’s what makes this whole quarantine-lifestyle so interesting. The only access you have to the majority of the world is through social media, which I think is really causing a lot of issues in different areas of all of our lives.
MW: It seems timely, though, that as we’re looking back, to acknowledge some of the milestones too, and not just the mistakes. Places/Plans just had its 1-year anniversary a few days ago, right?
HB: Honestly, I look back at that period of time and feel like it was one of the happiest of my life. I got to this point where I felt most comfortable just being by myself. And honestly not doing anything. Which, at the time, I was so insecure about that. I was scared of the idea of being lazy. But looking back, I think it means I was really comfortable with myself at that point. Understanding that I am someone who likes to sit on the floor with my snacks and relax and feel comfortable with the speed at which I’m working. And very importantly, not feeling like I need to be making progress on something every single day. And from that comfort, a lot of actual progress began to take shape. And it was progress that I wasn’t really aware of. It felt and looked like me just picking up the guitar and working on music without it ever feeling like it was work. And that’s how that period remains in my mind. It’s hard not to miss, honestly. I really felt safe, and loved that no one was paying attention to me. And that’s where the EP came from. Which is why it was so ironic to release the EP, and then have it reach so many people. Experiencing the start of this career through an EP that’s really about accepting myself without a career.
MW: I’ve always told myself that my goal is to do nothing for as long as possible. So when I picture you on your floor with your snacks playing your guitar it really all comes together for me. And I really despise the traditional concept of progression and how it’s worked its way into places I don’t think it truly belongs. And ultimately, it just punishes you for enjoying your time, which seems entirely unfair.
Seeing how your career has taken off and you’ve signed with Secretly Canadian, has music at some point turned into not being leisurely for you? And is that a fear of yours?
HB: Yeah, I think to some extent it has become not leisurely. And that’s just like, what happens? I don’t know if there’s any real way around that. But, there are still moments in the process that are pure, it's just not the whole process anymore. But the part that will always feel protected to me is when I first conceive an idea for a song. And there are a few reasons that moment remains pure, I think. One, because it’s a moment where usually I’m by myself with my guitar, and two, because there’s an intersection between something that I’ve been struggling with and some sort of musical concept. And that’s where the relevance of the song really takes fruition. And moments like that, I don’t think can ever really feel influenced by the job. But that hardly ever makes anything any easier. It’s hard to eliminate thoughts of how people will interpret this music, or how well-received something will be. I had this weird sensation when people started writing about me — trying to condense my experiences and emotions into a single paragraph is really strange. Almost automatically my brain goes to this place: How are people going to condense this next song into their narrative about me?
MW: It’s a necessary evil at this point, I think. Regardless if I’m sharing something that is work-related, or entirely irrelevant, I can’t help but want to push it out into the world and close my computer and sleep for 3 days. Or at the very least, hide my phone so I don’t have to worry about who’s seeing it and who isn’t. There’s just a lot of unnecessary feelings that have worked their way into what it takes to release anything at all. I’m sure with your music, being as vulnerable as it is, that feeling is amplified times over.
HB: Yeah, it’s something I’m definitely still working through. I’ve only had to release music a handful of times, and it’s always the worst part of the process, in my opinion. Maybe it’ll get better as time goes on? But I’m not banking on it. I struggle with managing my expectations in those situations. And, I struggle with being really sensitive to people’s comments. There’s this whole narrative saying not to listen to the YouTube trolls, and to not care about them. But at the same time, don’t we all care about that on some level? I don’t want to have to turn off my emotions so my feelings won’t get hurt, you know? And that’s something that is really hard for me. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to a point where I’m ready to take those negative comments.
MW: There’s always seemingly a thumbs-down on the video before it even launches, you know?
HB: Exactly! I would love to just not put anything on YouTube, if I didn’t have to. The feeling that the music always has to be commodified, to some extent. But if that’s the trade-off, then you have to really hold on to the parts of the process that make it worth it. That moment when the song comes together, and you’ve managed to communicate a feeling that you’ve been going through, through music. That is the best moment. And you really have to hold on to that, especially when you’re dealing with release anxiety, with YouTube trolls. I also believe that once I start playing shows, that experience will be incredibly meaningful. For me, as an artist, but also for my fan base. And I haven’t had that chance yet.
MW: Yeah. You’re one of the few artists who has actually grown in popularity and started their career in a pandemic. And the majority of your personal brand, your artistic career, is built on people being able to connect to you outside of the music you make. And that’s something none of us are currently receiving, right? So everyone just looks at your Instagram, since that’s what we have to go off of, and sees Skyrim-content and bobcats and your new song.
HB: I’m sure plenty of people are confused about me, and that’s fine. I’m still trying to figure out where I fit in on social media. Do I really want to use social media as a way to show my audience who I am? Because to an extent I think that’s impossible. So then, do I lean into posting weird things and being mysterious and cool? Do I overshare? I’m not quite sure where any of those lines end up being drawn.
Photo By Silken Weinberg and Jeremy Reynoso
MW: I want to pivot a little bit and talk about some of the creative that goes behind your music. Most of it up until this point has been made by Silken Weinberg and Jeremy Reynoso — Two incredibly close friends of yours. Has working with your friends been something you’ve intentionally done from the start, or were you more so making use of what you had readily available?
HB: It’s definitely both. Skullcrusher, as a project, was so based on doing what was comfortable, and what was presently around me. And those short-term choices ended up being the right long-term decisions as well, whether it be musically, or creatively. And I learned a lot about the way in which I like to work, both individually and collaboratively. Ultimately, I place a lot of value on being comfortable when I work. Even just the music, working together with Noah on it came so naturally. It just worked out. And the same went with working with Silken, with Jeremy. It came together incredibly naturally since we already shared so many connections.
MW: It helps, obviously in your case, that you just surrounded yourself with really good and talented people who had your best interest. And the obvious response to that is: “Yeah, of course I would do that, why wouldn’t I?” But it really is the biggest step forward you can make in any project, honestly. Take the time and the effort to surround yourself with people who are excited about the same things you’re excited about. It’s the hardest step in any journey, I think. But one that clearly pays off.
HB: I think about that a lot, too. It could come across as the lazy thing to do. “Oh, those are just her friends. She’s working with whoever she’s currently around.” But it was truly a conscious decision on my part. During the time I was unemployed, getting over a breakup, working on myself. I was really trying to surround myself with people who I genuinely connected with. And that takes so much more effort than we give it credit for. It’s a job in itself. But now I’m seeing, and am constantly reminded, how much that pays off. It’s also just so much more fun, working with people who really know me. It’s hard to create anything collaboratively when you’re making decisions with someone who doesn’t know where you’re coming from. I struggle with that dynamic. I can also be really sensitive and insecure, so having someone whose voice I trust is foundational to how I work.
MW: I want to go back in time a little bit, pre-Skullcrusher days. Real ones will remember your trips to the Renaissance Fair with your friends. I just remember following all the shenanigans you guys got into after I left LA and went back to Ohio for a bit. But it’s funny to see how that has worked its way into your artistic brand, down to the font-choice on your EP. Did you lean into that? Or was it more so coming from a place of irony?
HB: I definitely was leaning into it. Even with the name, Skullcrusher, I think about how as a kid I was really drawn to fantasy and medieval themes. I was just really interested in it all. And musically, I was into a lot of UK Folk, which happens to be a predecessor to Metal in a lot of ways. Fairport Convention and Incredible String Band and Donovan. These kind of UK Folk artists who were using Medieval, Renaissance Fair-type visuals, ultimately led to Led Zepplin, led to Black Sabbath. And then Metal music happened. And that’s where the connection starts to get a little blurry between Skullcrusher as this early-metal, late-folk idea. But to answer your question, I knew that background was something that I wanted to work into my aesthetic. It’s funny you mention the days we all went to the Renaissance Fair. It’s a time that I look back on and just feel incredibly pure. I wouldn’t say that all of the Skullcrusher-aesthetic is tied to Renaissance fairs or medieval lore, but more so the main connection being all the different visual aspects of my life, my childhood and how I grew up, coming together into one room. And pulling from all those worlds. So Escapism and Fantasy were definitely a big part of that for me.
MWR ft. Skullcrusher : Music To Make Art To
Guest-Curated by : Helen Ballentine
MW: Let’s talk about the playlist you made for us a little bit: Music To Make Art To. How often do you find yourself creating other than writing?
HB: Recently, I’ve been drawing a lot more. In college I was doing it a lot, and sort of fell off it a little bit. It hasn’t been until recently that I actually started to get in there again, and really get lost in drawing. I first started seriously drawing in high school, and that experience was innately tied to music for me. It’s what inspired me to make this playlist for you guys. It’s how I initially got into a lot of electronic music.
MW: Are you a playlist-purist? Where the track-list is incredibly intentional and the transitions are all taken into account?
HB: I usually am. I like to think about the transitions and how a playlist takes you on a journey. This one does that a little bit, but I also wanted to make it available to be shuffled.
MW: It’s nice, for activity-based playlists, to be shuffled. Each time it’s a little different, you know?
MW: When you’re drawing, what role are you looking for music to fulfill for you? It makes sense, knowing you, that a lot of this playlist is occupied by shoegaze and trance music.
HB: When I’m drawing, I really want to get lost in what I’m doing. So music that puts you in a landscape is usually what I’m looking for. I think that’s why I’m drawn more towards ambient-electronic rather than folk, in cases like this. And I think about my body and my positioning. When I get really into drawing I’m almost leaning over the table and going into it. It’s like a good DJ set. Having moments where you can relax and breathe push up against moments where you can’t get out of that trance.
MW: What are some of your highlights on this playlist you made?
HB: I think of the opener, Insomnia by Caroline Polachek. It’s such an insane opener. And I never see anyone talking about that song, but it’s my favorite by her. It’s one that really puts me in a specific place. Some sort of dark, dungeon location. I think of Joe Hisaishi’s The Sixth Station, from the Spirited Away soundtrack. It’s one of my favorite ones on there. It just makes me think about dying and passing through space and time.
MW: One of the best film scores ever, right?
HB: Definitely up there. And then the Kelly Lee Owens track. I only recently listened to this album.
MW: It was getting an insane amount of press when it dropped last year.
HB: Yeah, so I told myself I’d listen to it at some point and just never got around to it. But it’s insane. Probably my album of the year, honestly. But that song is that moment when you’re drawing and just really going in. It makes you want to bounce all over the place. The last one I’ll mention is Noah (Ghost in a Sheet) by Fionn Regan. The song is just so pretty.
MW: I had never heard it. Definitely my favorite takeaway from the playlist, though.
HB: That whole album, End of History, is just so good. He just.. I don’t know. He makes me feel so happy and comfortable and also so sad. Like I’m wandering through a cliff of beautiful moss and it’s a little bit rainy, and I feel all wrapped up in a lovely way. That’s how I feel when I listen to him.
MW: As we begin to wrap this up, I wanted to take a minute and talk about streaming services with you. You recently were talking about this on Instagram, and the conversation has been had before — how the artist is the one who really suffers in that tradeoff. But I’m curious if this is something that you’ve been thinking about more recently, or if it was a moment’s thought and it passed.
HB: I’ve been following the Musician’s Union that was formed recently that has been the main organization sort of calling out Spotify. But it’s definitely something I’ve thought about a lot. It’s pretty complex though. Streaming obviously allows for a lot of artists who wouldn’t necessarily be able to gain a following through more traditional channels, it allows them to put out their music and maybe have a chance. But the problem that is showing up more and more, is that streaming services have forced the artist to start to fit their music into a format, or into a certain mold. So you’re forced to study the pattern, learn the template, and emulate it. And at that point, pretty much anyone can do it. And should anyone be able to do it? Maybe? But probably not. But how is the artist who’s making an insane 10-minute long, experimental track, being rewarded in that process? It’s never going to see the light of day. And that’s where the main frustration for me comes into play: Having business people in the music industry start to make creative decisions based on the limitations they’re placing. It’s a tough one. I think the main thing I’ve been thinking about though, is how it affects my actual creative process. When I receive feedback, to shave off time from my songs or restructure a chorus. It’s hard to weigh whether that feedback is genuine, or whether it’s to allow the song to stream better.
MW: It’s pretty scary, honestly. Music has really turned into something that I take for granted. I wake up every morning and play Spotify without ever even thinking about it. And seemingly for free, too. I get that one $10.66 payment on my credit card every month, but that’s it. The landscape seems to be changing very rapidly. 10 years ago I was still spending 99¢ a song on iTunes, you know? Now I feel like every time I open my Spotify app I’m choosing violence, in a way.
HB: Recently, I’ve just been buying merch from artists that I like. I love shopping, so I just told myself I’d buy a bunch of T-shirts and other merch. If I really feel a special connection to an artist, I want to make sure I’m somehow supporting them.
MW: Who’s got the best merch right now?
HB: I just got a really cool Another Michael’s sweatshirt. Half Waif has really cool merch. I also joined her Patreon, which I’ve noticed some artists are starting to set up. You pay a monthly rate and get exclusive things. It’s just a nice way to support them. And some pretty sick Great Grandpa T-shirts are out there as well.
MW: You’ll have to show me the haul once you get back in LA!
HB: Yes, please. Thanks for having me on and letting me make a playlist. It was a fun one to put together. Let’s get coffee once I’m back and settled in.
That concludes our catching up with Helen. If you haven't already, familiarize yourself with her Music, Merch, and more here.