When Helen Ballentine – who records as Skullcrusher – released her debut EP, a collection of four impressive and intriguing songs titled simply Skullcrusher EP, on Secretly Canadian back in June, it was immediately clear that it marked the arrival of something, and someone, very special. The four songs on Skullcrusher were transportive; dark, dreamy and almost hypnotically enthralling. Their release brought the soft spoken artist from upstate New York to somewhat unexpected international attention. And, for the many thousands who also fell quickly under its spell, today is cause for celebration as two more tracks are unveiled: new song “Farm” and a reimagining of Radioheads’ “Lift” – both recorded and co-produced with her Skullcrusher collaborator Noah Weinman.
Ballentine, whose arrival on the Los Angeles music scene was sparked by an urgent creative need to quit her art gallery 9-5 and find a more fulfilling place in the world, has an extensive background in visual arts. Her music videos reflect that fact, each one providing the perfect atmospheric visual to accompany her songs. “Farm” is no exception. Directed by long standing collaborator Silken Weinberg with Angela Ricciardi, Jeremy Reynoso and set design by Leigh Dagan, Ballentine appears as a crestfallen angel, or a music box ballerina, occupying a world of amateur dramatics with cardboard scenery as she laments a lost relationship. Says Ballentine of the song: “‘Farm’ was created out of time I spent reflecting on my childhood and family. The process of developing it to its current version ended up being really tied to these reflections. Noah and I were visiting my family on the East Coast when the decision was made to release it in the coming months. We went up to a studio in Woodstock, a couple hours from where I grew up, and recorded the song in a day. I was able to gather a lot of really nostalgic sounds from the area: crickets, cicadas, the beach in CT and the creaking of old homes. I had the ability to really talk through the memories and emotions of the song and how they could be manifested sonically.”
Elaborating on the video, Ballentine says, “The video also developed out of ideas from my childhood. Silken, Jeremy and I wanted to create a performance like a children’s play with handmade sets and props. Angela shot it on super8 in a black box theater called The Yard. The super8 really makes it feel like a videotaped play. Leigh built custom sets for us out of cardboard to create three scenes: a boat rocking in the waves at night, an autumn farm scene and a music box in the clouds. We choreographed all of the scene changes to really make it feel like a live performance.”
Ballentine has been playing music for most of her life – piano from age five, guitar since high school – but her songwriting didn’t emerge until later. After moving from her home in upstate New York to Southern California to study studio art in college, Ballentine was working full-time at a Los Angeles gallery, poised to continue onto the trajectory of visual art she had been on since she was a teenager. Instead, it didn’t feel right, and she quit. It was then that she suddenly found songwriting to be the best avenue for her artistic visions. As influenced by ambient electronica as she is by Nick Drake, Ballentine’s songwriting paints diaristic vignettes; delicate, woozy images that swirl around in the often intricate instrumentation. It’s a skill that has rightfully earned her widespread acclaim as one of 2020’s most exciting, and intriguing, new artists