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Interview with the Skullcrusher

Written by on October 17, 2022

Helen Ballentine, under the performance name Skullcrusher, discusses growing with her childhood self, Over the Garden Wall, deciphering the lyrics of toddlers, and the unidentifiable communication of a song. Her new album, Quiet the Room is out now. 

Some of the interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Sonja: Thank you so much for taking the time this morning.

Helen: Yeah, of course. 

Sonja: I just want you to know that I’m recording. And I hope that’s okay with you.

Helen: No worries. Yeah. That’s fine.

Sonja: Beautiful. So first of all, congratulations on your new album. I’ve listened to it a couple times. I’m just so enamored by it. 

Helen: Thank you so much. 

Sonja: Of course. So how does it feel one day post-release?

Helen: It still maybe hasn’t quite sunk in. I mean, I think it’s, it’s always strange, because I’ve personally spent a lot of time with this record already. So, you know, it feels like such a long time since- it’s been a year since I recorded it. So it feels a little bit weird in that way where it’s a bit of a delayed release, but it’s interesting. It’s kind of surreal to know that other people are interacting with the songs now.

Sonja: Yeah. Yeah. The album highlights, kind of, the intricacies of childhood and nature really plays a huge part of that both in your lyrics and your instrumentals. Would you describe the place in upstate New York where you grew up? Like the nature there? And how does it feel to go back to that place?

Helen: Yeah, I mean, I’ve always just found that I’m very affected by the environment I’m in and that can kind of be really comforting and it can also be scary or remind you of darker times. So I guess when I think about the house I grew up in, I definitely think about the kind of duality of daytime and nighttime and particularly this kind of lush, green, usually kind of summery, humid East Coast environment. Maybe like some rain and some, just very lush, green kind of environment. And lots of trees and- that’s maybe clear, like obvious [laughs] but yeah, like woods and streams. And there was a little creek near my house. But it was also close enough to the city to where there was some other- I don’t know, there was like a baseball field near me. Yeah, I think that’s like the natural landscape that comes to mind.

Sonja: That sounds beautiful, especially here in Southern California. I’m tired of Chaparral a little bit.

Helen: Yeah, I think it was very surreal for me to come here. It was like a bit of a shock kind of. It took a long time for me to feel adjusted to this type of environment.

Sonja: Yeah. Definitely. I’ve noticed a lot of Over the Garden Wall imagery on your Instagram and sort of in your music video for “They Quiet the Room”.

Helen: [laughs] Yeah.

Sonja: Can you tell me a little bit more about the inspiration there and how that might connect to the themes of childhood complexities that are overlooked, and how you articulate that in your album?

Helen: Yeah, I mean, yeah, it was definitely a huge influence. I know that that show was also kind of like- it was inspired by, specifically  New England fall. And so I think that there was a connection there, like, sort of utilizing your natural environment to draw out, more nostalgia and more of just this essence of a place. And I think that what I was trying to do with the record is very similar to that and connected to that. And just like utilizing colors, trees, and imagery, and all of these things, just sort of like bringing you to this like sensation of- I think in that show particularly- a liminal, slightly scary space that is very familiar to me. Yeah, I think that kind of liminality is very present in my record as well. And then yeah, I think just maybe the more obvious connections and just what it means to be a child processing, maybe more complex emotions, and like using fantasy and playing and weird, surreal, like, make believe things to process more, quote unquote, adult topics. And I feel like that’s kind of what that show is. And I’ve always been drawn to movies and TV that depict that in some way. Like a child’s journey that’s usually standing in for something a little bit more serious and portraying it in a way that’s funny, and weird, and scary sometimes, and cute. That’s very appealing to me.

Sonja: Yeah, I felt the same way watching that show. I rewatched it actually over the pandemic, and oh, my gosh, I kind of forgot how the final episode just gets really dark.

Helen: Yeah, it’s really intense, [laughs] it like, makes me cry. I watched it a few times. I’ll just watch it in one sitting because it’s like 10 minute episodes, so you can watch it like a movie, it’s great.

Sonja: Yeah. This is kind of a long question, please ask me to rephrase if I get in the weeds with it. But I was reading some of your articles in Stereogum and Paste. And you mentioned kind of your attempt to piece together your life in pieces with some moments that are blacked out and like some that are vivid, and some that kind of lead nowhere. 

Helen: Right.

Sonja: And then, in your Paste magazine interview, you kind of mentioned the satisfaction or comfort in writing a song about a memory that is, like, complicated or difficult. And then like, when you’re writing the song about it, you’re adding kind of like a new memory of you writing about that memory. So like, there’s like this opportunity to contain that other time in a time where you now feel more in control. How do you try to articulate what feels blacked out in your work? And when you’re focusing on that side of things, do you still get that satisfaction of the rememory in a safer, more in-control environment?

Helen: Yeah, I think that songwriting for me, is a really great opportunity to communicate something without the constraints of the more straightforward ways we communicate with each other, which usually involves, like, conversation or writing. And I think that with a song there are so many different modes of communication that are happening. There’s the sonic communication, and then there’s obviously the lyrics, but you can kind of, you know, mold that to more of a feeling rather than, trying to like, articulate this really specific idea. You can sort of choose how you want to do that. And then there’s the visual side. I think there’s a sort of this unspoken, like, unidentifiable communication of a song- the combination of all those things together. So I think that when I’m working with a memory that’s maybe like a bit more difficult, or one that I don’t even know how to explain myself, I guess, it provides a way for me to try to evoke that memory in a new way that I think just gives me a chance to process it in a way that I maybe wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.

I think it’s just this combination, and I think because it kind of connects back to the other ideas that you were mentioning about how memory is already really fragmented, and the way we’re processing it is already very strange and dreamlike. And, we’re sort of like rewriting, every time we try to remember something, we’re sort of like rewriting it to ourselves. And so I think that I can do that more intentionally in songwriting, kind of choose how to piece together these memories, and maybe just get to a place where I can maybe accept a little bit more that the memory itself is like, one that I can’t really explain very well. And maybe that’s the finished thought. So I think it just gives me a lot of freedom to kind of figure out how to process different memories, if that makes sense.

Sonja: Yeah, no, totally. Do you want to give an example- if you can think of one off the top of your head- where you feel in your record is a good example of the kind of mixture of both sound design and lyricism, and that kind of extra special- I think someone wrote, it’s “each song has like this element of sparkling to it, but also this element of crumbling.” Is there one moment- well, obviously, it’s like, threaded through the album- but for someone who’s never listened before, like, where, where’s the moment where that really resonates with you and that you really feel like that’s like a boring portion. Like, boring like it’s boring into your soul, not like boring [laughs].

Helen: Right [laughs] It is actually hard to decide because I do feel like every, every song, we really tried to kind of imbue that. I guess the first thing that I think of is . . .[sighs] it is really hard to choose one particular moment.

Sonja: No totally.

Helen: I mean, I don’t know, I think like, “Building a Swing” kind of comes to mind, just because that was one where we really intentionally changed the vocal tone throughout to kind of highlight these different memories of childhood and this idea of growing into yourself a little bit. And I every time I listened to it, I really had these moments of, just feeling like a child and then feeling like no longer like a child. And because it sort of started out with the vocal that is very- it’s kind of a little bit rough, kind of muted, and a little bit lower fidelity. And then all of a sudden, we did this kind of children’s choir thing, where we just recorded my vocals a lot of times and pretended to be like different children. And then at the end, it’s like a single vocal that kind of comes through and just sort of, bursts through and I think that there’s this shift in the song that is common in other songs as well on the record, where there’s this sort of moment where things fall away or they change. There’s a growth that happens or there’s a deterioration. And in that song, it feels like there’s me, and then I have this background of children, like child versions of me, just like singing with me. And I really liked the way that that sonic choice, maybe mirrored some of the lyrical motifs.

Sonja: Yeah, I love that line, like, singing with all the different versions of your childhood self with you.

Helen: Yeah, yeah, it feels very powerful to me [laughs]. Like when I listen to it I kind of get emotional, because it feels like I’m kind of reaching back to those different selves and sort of banding together with them and being like “yeah, we got this!” [laughs].

Sonja: Yeah [laughs].  And then, your song “Whistle of the Dead” is a recording of you playing piano as a toddler. Can you explain why you chose to name this song “Whistle of the Dead”?

Helen: Basically, I can’t hear what the lyrics are at all really, and then there’s one moment where it sounds like I may be saying whistle of the dead. [laughs] So that’s why it’s called that. I kind of latched on to that and now I can’t unhear it. And I just really liked this idea that I was, making up some song and saying those words, because I probably wasn’t actually saying that. I mean, maybe I was, that would be cool. But I kind of liked that it really sounds like that’s what I’m saying. And I’m like “what was I talking about? What was I singing about?” But I like to allow that to be- that’s what it sounds like now. So that’s kind of what it is.

Sonja: Yeah. Thank you. Last question, I was reading about why you picked the name Skullcrusher as a performance name. And I’m kind of curious now that more people are getting to know your work and consuming your music and kind of becoming your fans. Do you feel like your pseudonym offers a degree of protective separation from your personal identity and your identity as an artist?

Helen: I think that was maybe the way that I thought about it in the beginning, because that sounded nice to me to have more protection. But in a lot of ways, it’s actually kind of like, I don’t know, giving a little bit more away. It’s kind of maybe a bit of both, where it feels like an armor because it’s this very powerful sounding name, and I think that is appealing to me. But I think it also kind of forces this conversation to happen about what am I really like, I guess. I think that this idea of like, aggression and power and anger, and like these qualities that maybe you wouldn’t, or maybe parts of myself that I wouldn’t normally show to a stranger get brought to the surface where, I end up talking about those parts of myself because of the name Skullcrusher. Which is something that I think is important for the music. I want that to be part of the context. I want it to be there because that is part of me. So it feels very much like a part of who I am on the inside, even though it maybe seems like just armor. So, I don’t know, it’s been an interesting journey. I feel like my relationship to the name has changed a lot over time and the way that it functions has shifted. I don’t know if that answers your question.

Sonja: No, it does [laughs] I’m typing it down, that’s all. 

Helen: Cool.

Sonja: Thank you so so much. I really appreciate it. And I look forward to seeing you perform on Monday.

Helen: Yeah, thank you for all your great thoughtful questions. I appreciate it a lot.

Sonja: Of course. I hope you have a lovely weekend. And congratulations again.

Helen: Yeah, Thank you so much. I hope you have a good weekend as well.

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