To coincide with the release of Skullcrusher’s debut self-titled EP, Atwood Magazine spoke with the singer/songwriter about forming an aesthetic and creating a harmony between fantasy and reality.
Stream: ‘Skullcrusher’ EP – Skullcrusher
When Skullcrusher, the musical identity of LA-based Helen Ballentine, released her debut single “Places/Plans” in April 2020, very little was known about her. The song appeared like a whisper, quiet and fragile, while the accompanying video is simple, nostalgic, and prettily eery. The follow-up single, “Day of Show” is similar in that the vocals are soft and slow like a child lost at a distance down a well. But there’s a greater sense of melody, there in the chorus which whirls in a daydream. The video plays with chid-like tropes too, prancing amongst bushes with a pair of fairy wings on and snippets of family footage. These all merge together with a wash of disconnect- fuzzy lines and electric flashes.
It all works out
That’s what I say out loud
When I’m the one giving advice you
But as you tell me now
I forget just how to find these words
To mean much anymore
I’ve been searching for an hour in my closet
Trying to figure out what to
Wear for a day I’ll spend alone in my room
Leaning in I cut the back of my hair
“Day of Show,” Skullcrusher
Lyrically, however, Skullcrusher is rooted in harsh realism. The words don’t sugar-coat life but focus on the relatable mundane. “Places/ Plans” is a continuous asking of question which ends with the invitation ‘Come in/ The window’s open and I’m lying alone/ Let’s sit/ Cuz I don’t have plans for tomorrow.’
“Two Weeks in December” is a 55-second track that recounts a fortnight in its simplest terms: ‘on the night that we met/ I looked cool rolling cigarettes/ you were fooled by my jokes/ I was too i didn’t know you’ before ending ‘I woke up alone/ In a frozen broken home/ and my cousin gave me the flu/ so I flew back to LA but not back to you’ The most upbeat of songs on the EP is “Trace”, with sing-song style melody throughout and hint of a smile in the vocals, but it’s a song centered around insecurities and picks out the finer by highlighting the typically negative- for example, ‘overcooked meal getting cold’ and ‘tracing my face with your dirty fingers’.
wasting another day trying to ignore my face
conversation dies it’s late
sleeping in to get away
facing myself again
breathing out and breathing in
looking pale and looking thin
hoping I don’t cave in
Having a distinct visual identity brings a different meaning to the music. With Skullcrusher, the cover art, music videos, and Instagram pictures hold the ambience of a witchy horror film or the ghost of a young girl who’s haunting the present day. Ballentine stands transfixed upon nature, eyes wide and a mini skeleton or skull axe in hand. Alone, she’s seemingly part of her own wonderland or an innocent protagonist entering an impending doom. But these contrasts can work together, the personal everyday reminding that amongst all the escapism and creepy mysticism, there’s truth. Or, conversely that the imagination is needed in order to deal with the real.
Atwood Magazine spoke to Helen Ballentine about this and her EP over Zoom. She was located in New York in her parents’ home in front of a large window that formed a backdrop of thick green trees. Without context, one could have assumed she was tuning in from the depths of a forest.
A CONVERSATION WITH SKULLCRUSHER
Atwood Magazine: When you arrived seemingly from the midst of a dreamy swamp with your debut single, one thing I was really drawn to was the way you had this fully formed aesthetic. How much preparation did you have before pursuing the music industry? Like was it important to have a clear identity beforehand?
Skullcrusher: I think that it was for me because I’ve always been visually oriented. I was an art major in college and I’ve always done drawing and been interested in visual media, so I think it was just an opportunity to include that in my work. I would say that when I first started writing the songs, I didn’t have a plan to release anything so I wasn’t really thinking that I need to have brand or something. I did photos one day with my friend who’s an amazing creative director. She’s a stylist and does photography as well and we just had that day because I needed a cover when I eventually decided to release these songs. My friend and I are very compatible in terms of our visual aesthetics. We had this really fun day of doing the photos and that’s when the aesthetic came about. It was so natural because I’m really interested in fantasy, magic, creepy, horror- all elements that I already really liked- and it sort of just fell together in that way.
Similarly, to what extent does fiction play in your approach to music? Do you view Skullcrusher as a kind of art project and a way of creating a different identity for yourself rather than just a collection of songs for people to enjoy?
Skullcrusher: Yeah, it’s interesting because I feel it’s a little bit of both. I tend to write songs pretty honestly in terms of the lyrics. If you’re purely looking at the lyrics, I don’t fictionalize things that way. But I would say that the overall persona of Skullcrusher is definitely playing to my love of fiction and storytelling. I’m very excited to explore that thing because I think that there’s a lot of reality that lives within fiction and storytelling is a very honest way to talk about things. So I liked this idea of combining very honest and realistic lyrical writing with fictionalized image.
Yeah because I was going to say that your lyrics are full of realism and focus on the little details. To what extent are they based on your reality?
Skullcrusher: They are all realistic. As of now I haven’t written that many songs so I’m curious to see how that develops over time. But right now it’s just a way for me to talk about what has happened to me. It makes a lot of sense for me because I tend to really connect with the fiction and stories that I love. So periods of my life where I was going through something difficult, I would watch certain movies or read books and these would be my reality but also fantasy worlds. I think Skullcrusher is really about meeting those two parts and see the truth within something that looks really weird and unreal and magical but then when you listen to the music it’s very relatable and seems like it happened which it did.
I love that. It’s kind of like horror films that can seem really fantastical but there’s always that element of harsh realism within.
Skullcrusher: Yeah! I don’t know if you saw the movie “Midsummer” that came out last summer. It’s kind of like this very surreal horror movie but the plot is really just about a failing relationship and that’s kind of like the scariest part of it that you can really relate to if you’ve been through a breakup or whatever. Obviously there’s crazy stuff happening but at its core it’s really just the story of a breakup and I really like that embellishment of reality.
That’s cool. I’m going to have to watch it. Personally I tend to be drawn to sad, sweet songs and your EP is full of that, which is great. There’s also a haunting quality. I think what adds a greater sense of mystery is that not much is known about you and your music apart from the aforementioned aesthetic. How big/ small is the collection of songs you’ve created thus far? Is it still very much a work in progress experiment or do you have an accomplished amount of material set aside?
Skullcrusher: It’s a pretty small collection so far. I tend to write really slowly and don’t write a lot at once. So I have like maybe four other songs right now. I’ve recorded three of them so I’m just slowly working towards the next album. But yeah it’s pretty small. It’s definitely a work in progress in terms of what will come later, the album will definitely feel similar to the EP because that’s just the zone that I’m in now in terms of writing. I think there’s still much more to be explored in terms of just writing me and my guitar and I think a majority of the album will be similar to the EP. We are getting a little bit more into production for the album and spending a little bit more time on that, trying to utilize the resources that we have out there that we didn’t have for the EP. For the EP we really wanted to use violin on “Trace” and “Places/Plans” but we didn’t know anyone to play. So we used a synth sound instead and we used a guitar to fake stronger string sounds. So for the album we’re definitely going to be able to reach out to other musicians and utilize those resources. I think for the most part the writing will be similar.
Interesting. Another sweetly intriguing thing is the solitary aura to Skullcrusher which is there in the quietness of the music but also the way you’ve said previously that you had a period beforehand where you had quit your job and was spending a lot of time in your room immersing yourself in the music of Nick Drake and fantasy novels. I love this image. Please share in more depth your inspirations. I imagine a bedroom floor covered in scrapbooks and you lying on your front in the middle of it all.
Skullcrusher: Yeah it really was a lot of that and I had different periods of my life where that has become the aesthetic of my day to day. I enjoy really falling inward, especially during a time when dealing with depression or dealing with something like being unemployed. I tend to just really dive into books. I’m just really becoming obsessed with other people that I’m interested in. Nick Drake was definitely somebody who I became obsessed with. There was a time when I was having a really tough time and not engaging with anyone and I was going to this bookstore and reading pages of this massive Nick Drake biography that was too expensive for me to buy. I started learning his songs on guitar and that’s when I was starting to play guitar. It’s always been really difficult in the moment but it’s really pivotal in terms of just being inspired and informing me of things that I will end up really cherishing. I think that the time that I wrote the EP was such a long period. I was nannying part time and really just made my room in this house I was living in my nest. It was covered in everything that I had collected over the years and I had this like floor pillow at the window that I was always on and everyone just knew that I was going to be lying on the floor either reading or listening to audio books. Just really diving into these comfort, isolated spaces. There’s a lot of inspiration that comes out of it. I watch a lot of movies and listening to music becomes important but probably more so watching movies, listening audio books, and writing in my journals.
Is there any literature that’s really inspired you in terms of the escapism? Things you read that would be really great for allowing you to get away?
Skullcrusher: Definitely Harry Potter. I’ve read and listened to the audio books so many times and feel immediately calm after.
Which is your favorite Harry Potter book?
Skullcrusher: Probably the seventh one, “The Deathly Hallows”. I like when everything gets really real and serious. There’s a lot of conversations about death and purpose and these larger questions that I like a lot. I was also really into the book “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara, the editor of T Magazine. It’s a really great book. It’s really sad and long and gets really into the characters. I definitely tend to be drawn towards books that are heavy on character development and it’s just about these friends who all go to college together and it’s their post-college life, focused on one character who’s endured a lot of childhood trauma. I also read “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson. I read it in like two days. And I love the gothic horror. It’s also just so surreal and you can’t tell what’s real and what’s in the character’s head and Shirley Jackson is amazing at really confusing you with her writing.
Cool. I know an inspiration for you was the 1970 movie Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. I found this on Youtube yesterday and had it on while I was working haha. How did you come across this film and what it is about it that captivated you?
Skullcrusher: That was shown to me by my friend Silken who took the photos. There was a time when we were just so obsessed with it and stayed up all night watching it. We were so confused and felt so weird after it that we just became really interested in it. Following the plot of that movie was not easy but I think it was mainly the colours, the weirdness of it, and how disturbing all of the images are but also how funny. I think it definitely informed a lot of the aesthetic of our photos, which is almost like being silly and playing dress-up. I feel like some characters in that movie were just so funny, like children dressed up. And then also paring that with the beauty and the being princess-y. My favorite part is when she’s being burned at the stake and she’s just sticking her tongue out and that kind of vibe of just being a little kid but also in these really disturbing circumstances.
Yes! Could you talk about the location that’s used for the your cover art, for example is the house yours? I think I remember reading about it somewhere but I had forgotten.
Skullcrusher: That was my house in LA. I’ve actually just moved out of it, which is sad. I lived in it for about three years. I graduated college in spring 2017 and moved there in the fall. And pretty much everything that’s happened to me post-grad has happened in that house. It’s definitely a very important place for me. I just moved out because I was living with five people and half the time not there but yeah we just recorded on the lawn. It’s a super weird house and my landlord was this very old man. It was a special place.
Visually it’s so suited to the mood of your music. Like watching the video really feels like something from an eery movie. It’s really cool.
Skullcrusher: Yeah it is really perfect with the weird balconies and there’s the house next door which almost looks like it’s connected in the video. We got it to look like it’s almost a weird castle, which works really well because you can’t really tell where I am. It was so fitting because the song was written in that house and about staying in my room in that house and having the windows always open. “Places/ Plans” is really the core of me putting into words my experience of lying on the floor in my room letting each day pass. It’s very surreal and still has that fantasy element but it’s also fully expressing what that song is about.
Very important question: Where did you get your axe from? Did you have it before or got especially for the Skullcrusher project?
Skullcrusher: So when Silken and I were driving up to Malibu Creek State Park where we did that shoot we were going to bring a skull that my roommate had but I realized as we were driving that I had forgotten the skull. So I called Silken and I was like ‘I forgot the skull’- that was going to be the whole prop of the shoot. And she said ‘it’s fine. We’ll just go to Party City’. It was around Halloween and it was perfect. So we got that little skeleton and the axe. We got some other things too which we didn’t end up using for that shoot. This is just stuff that’s been in my car for like a year. So yeah Party City. I’m forever grateful for that place.
Amazing. So your songs are sparse and essentially pretty short, reading the lyrics on their own it really feels like modern poetry- That kind of string of thoughts. And this is especially the case with the simplicity of “Two Weeks in December”. What does your writing process tend to be? You said before that you tend to take a while to write your songs.
Skullcrusher: I would say that my journals are more visual and if I’m stressed I’ll do free writing, not trying to write lyrics but just writing down my day or my feelings or whatever. I can come back to that and maybe be inspired and remember a moment in my life but usually my lyrics come when playing around with melodies. I’ll just sing random words. The journals are pretty much drawings and diary entries.
I’m a big journal writer but I also have a friend and she’s really visual and has art journals that she fills with random illustrations and doodles and I love looking at stuff like that so much.
Skullcrusher: It’s very chaotic with a lot of scribbles, especially when I’m frustrated. It’s like a child scribbling. Yeah they’re pretty messy.
Cool. And what do you feel is the relationship between your visuals and the music? The sound definitely has a haziness that matches the accompanying imagery.
Skullcrusher: I think it’s just the duality of spooky and pretty and you could use different words for that. I think the visuals are definitely about finding that balance between disturbing, weird, surreal, and then being soft and pretty. I think the music is a similar thing. There’s something kind of haunting in the production which hopefully going forward we will expand on. And I want to get more into a darker quality to the songs but then the vocals and the lyrics are kind of different from that. It’s the juxtaposition of the prettier voice over a darker background.
Yeah it’s like my favorite combination of things. For me the best kind of music is either poetic and transportive or eye-opening in the way it can be used as an informative tool. To me your’s falls in the former but I’m curious to know what your thoughts are on the role of music?
Skullcrusher: I think I have always been drawn more to escapism in music. The music I make is hopefully doing a little bit of both. It is very personal and I think when you make lyrics that are very honest and personal then it’s going to have an effect on people. They’re going to be like ‘oh I don’t get this person at all’ or ‘I totally get this person’ But I also really like the idea of utilizing production to give more escapism. I like a lot of electronic and ambient music with no lyrics or vocals that are difficult to understand like Bon Iver or a lot of Radiohead. It is really more about the sonic element than it is about the subject matter of the songs. So my interests lie more with that kind but I’m also in to a lot of music that focuses more on lyrics. I’m really trying to bridge the gap somehow, having it so if you took the lyrics away you could still listen to the music and be transported. Hopefully on the album I will have ambient songs that have no lyrics and are just instrumentals because I just love those. Nick Drake’s Pink Moon has one and it’s just in the middle of the album as a guitar part. And I love those little moments in music where you’re taken to a place rather than just listening to somebody talking. So yeah it’s about finding a balance.
Nice. And finally, obviously your EP is still very new so you’re very much in that mindset but do you have any plans for what’s next? For example, is the Skullcrusher visual aesthetic going to stay how it is or do you have ideas for developing it or creating a different narrative?
Skullcrusher: Yeah so there’s a video coming out for “Trace” as well. That video was similar, it’s the same kind of cannon, and pushes things into the more classic renaissance look. I also just did another photoshoot and we definitely pushed things a little bit. We made it a little bit more harder, a little bit more punk. Still playing with the hard and soft but away from just nature with the skull and me and making it a little bit more intense with spotlights and weird orange coloring. We went to this creepy lodge in Crestline, California, which is like this town next to the mountain lake and we were in this extremely scary AirBnb which was horrifying but worked really well for the shoot. It was kind of like horror movie, Twin Peaks vibes.
I can’t wait to see that.
Skullcrusher: It came out really cool. I think there’s so much to play around with in the cannon. We will probably stay within that universe because there is so much there and it all draws from things that I like. It goes from anything like we are really into like 90s’ shoegaze music videos and combing that with renaissance imagery and balancing that with horror and Twin Peaks and surrealism. There’s a lot to play with in this world.
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📸 © Silken Weinberg
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