Walt Whitman’s most famous line - “I am large, I contain multitudes” - might be one oft repeated, but it’s a sentiment that seems to acutely apply to Helen Ballantine. Slight of frame and with an accumulating canon of emotive alt-folk that’s seen her draw comparison to the likes of Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker, the intensity of her chosen moniker is the first indicator that there’s more going on here than perhaps first meets the eye.
“It’s been a process of accepting the name as something I really feel and I think I’ve reached a point where I know it’s the right thing,” she considers, Zooming in from Los Angeles. “The way that titling a song can add to it, that’s what Skullcrusher is for the project; it’s the missing piece that isn’t immediately visible. It’s showcasing a power and aggression that has always been in me and that, more recently, I’ve been able to accept as a good thing and a part of my personality rather than an unwanted thing.”
First studying graphics and art before taking the leap, quitting her gallery job, and throwing herself fully into music, the journey of Skullcrusher as a project has been a swift and, at times, disorienting one for the singer. Having committed to the idea of “working part time at a grocery store, hustling, doing the whole thing”, she was picked up by Secretly Canadian almost immediately and “hurled into the next category” with barely time to pause for breath. “It kind of threw me,” she concedes now. “We have this image of artists putting themselves out there and being like, ‘Whatever, the haters are coming and I don’t care’, but I don’t know if I have that. I feel bad if I read a comment that’s like, ‘This girl sucks!’. That hurts me!”
“Skullcrusher is about having a lot of anxiety and power and anger that doesn’t really show on the outside.”
This month’s ‘Storm in Summer’ EP - her second for the label - is an attempt to make sense of the situation. Its title track, a quietly swelling reflection on the strange notion of your art suddenly being public property, acts as its cathartic centre point, Helen musing, “How did I end up here with my old lines on your page?/ Sometimes I wish I'd kept them safe/ Far away from your gaze”. “It kind of protects me because it’s about being afraid of judgement, so the fact that it’s out there and I’m telling my side of things, it feels really good,” she acknowledges. Elsewhere on the EP, there’s ‘Song for Nick Drake’ (“Even though I knew he’d died a long time ago, I felt like I knew him and I think that’s what music is able to do for someone”), and ‘Windshield’: a track that further leans into the idea of embracing your own dualities.
“It’s literally about when I kicked my windshield; I deal with anxiety and panic attacks, and when I have that it’s very aggressive,” she explains. “Skullcrusher is about having a lot of anxiety and power and anger that comes from these experiences, but that doesn’t really show on the outside - leaning into the strength of myself but accepting that I’m not always confident or strong. The metaphor of a storm coming out of nowhere felt really familiar to me because it’s not intentionally trying to hurt people but it’s also really powerful, and then it can wash away really quickly and become really soft and calming.”
Soft but powerful, calming but strong, Skullcrusher might make music you can take comfort in, but beneath the surface there’s a complex storm of emotion to fall into, too.
As featured in the April 2021 issue of DIY, out now.