Definitely not a thrash metal band – but possibly just as intense, as evident in Skullcrusher’s latest effort, Quiet The Room in our DECEMBER 2022 issue of Uncut, available to buy here.
Helen Ballentine is not yet sick of questions about the name she chose for her recording project. In fact, the US singer-songwriter – who releases her deceptively delicate music as Skullcrusher – actively welcomes them. “Skullcrusher allows me to speak about the project in a context that, had I used my own name, I don’t think would be happening,” she explains. “I like the idea of using this violent-sounding thing for music that would otherwise be seen as very light and soft and pretty, when a lot of these songs are about power and anger and aggression.”
The Skullcrusher name actually comes from a term that Ballentine and a friend used for the shoes they used to wear as “tiny women going to techno shows – but it’s also about challenging the perceptions of people who expect certain things from you. I don’t want to say that I’m a violent person, but I do have an aggressive nature, and even though the songs come out sounding softer, they’re still powerful.”
This idea of looking behind the obvious feeds into the debut Skullcrusher album, on which Ballentine interrogates memories of her childhood in New York’s Westchester County. Quiet The Room is, she says, her attempt to capture the full, complex picture of that time: the anxiety and loneliness as much as the innocence and beauty.
Producer Andrew Sarlo – of the first four Big Thief albums – joined Ballentine and partner/collaborator Noah Weinman for the album, in a departure from her previous home-recorded EPs. Sarlo, she says, shared her interest in “moving more towards a more experimental electronic sound”, using Pro Tools, plugins and samples to distort and add depth to the music. Among the more unexpected influences the pair bonded over was Avicii. “We had to have a little Avicii moment in every song,” laughs Ballentine – and while the work of the late Swedish EDM producer isn’t the most obvious jumping-off point, there’s a big difference in tone and texture between the album and the simpler, softer songs of the Skullcrusher EPs. “Window Somewhere” opens with an ambient electronic passage, subtle beats underpin “Whatever Fits Together” and found sounds proliferate.
They recorded at Chicken Shack studio in upstate New York, close to that childhood home whose presence permeates the record. “When I was really little and my parents were separating, they would have their most serious conversations in the middle of the night, and I would wake up and try to listen. I developed insomnia and recurring nightmares. So in my memories it’s as though there are two sides of my house, and I think a lot of that is present in the album: how your memories of childhood can be beautiful and nostalgic and warm, but there’s a darker side too.”
Nowhere is this dichotomy more apparent than on the title track – a song which actually appears twice, as if bookending the record. Opener “They Quiet The Room” is haunted and graceful, with Ballentine’s layered vocals and gently strummed melody emerging from a hiss of static. Penultimate track “Quiet The Room” is a carnival mirror image: it was the first song written for the album, on piano, Ballentine’s voice closer to the listener than it has ever been.
“The two versions mark the passage of time,” she explains. “I’m revisiting the words at a different time of my life. A song – or one recording of it – is just one kind of temporal experience. There are many different iterations of a song, and even if you perform it a million times, every one is going to be different.”
Quiet The Room is released by Secretly Canadian on October 14.