In the video for “Storm in Summer,” the title track from her 2021 EP, Helen Ballentine is safe behind glass while rain, hitting the window, casts shadows across her face. There’s a sense of removal—she’s contained, remains dry. But on her spellbinding first full-length album Quiet the Room, the window is open, and all of the rain is getting in. Guitars degrade into splutters. Pianos flicker like ghosts. Across these fourteen tracks, the outside world seeps in and the inside world crawls out. This album is the sound of a barrier dissolving: Ballentine is ready to let you in.
The result is a stunning and quietly moving work that reflects the journeys we take through the physical and spiritual realms of ourselves in order to show up for the world. The framework for Quiet the Room was laid two years ago, when Ballentine wrote and recorded a song of the same name. Unlike most other Skullcrusher songs, it was written on piano, her childhood instrument. Perhaps it was the familiar sound—harkening back to the black upright Kawai that remains in her mother’s home today—that started the memories whirring.
While writing the rest of the album in the summer of 2021, visions of Ballentine’s youth flocked like bats from the attic as she wandered her Los Angeles apartment in the sticky, sweltering heat. The image of a house emerged as she merged the interior world of her songs with the exterior rooms that contained her. She was thinking of her childhood in Mount Vernon, NY, which she calls the biggest inspiration for the record.
“It’s like layers of tracing paper, like someone is trying to make a drawing and you’re seeing the entire process,” Ballentine says of the album’s construction. Looking back through home videos, she became struck by seemingly benign shots captured through the window—her at the piano or walking in the yard. There was a weight that extended beyond the edges of the frame, a darkness hovering just out of view: her parents were fighting, on the road to divorce. The house was failing to contain them all. What she set out to capture on Quiet the Room was not the innocence of childhood, as it is so often portrayed, but the intense complexity of it.
Ballentine’s layered world is tinged with elements of fantasy, magic, and mystery. “Fantasy is so much a part of how I’ve learned to exist in the world,” she says, recalling a feeling of safety she had as a child in these dreamlike spaces. And yet dreams can be just a hair’s breadth from nightmares, and her experience of the world could cross that boundary at any moment. The face in the window described in “Pass Through Me” is a reference to a recurring dream she had in which a floating head—its face striped black and white and framed in long black hair—would watch and speak to her. The image melded with the sounds of her parents fighting downstairs, giving an ominous air to the normally tranquil atmosphere of being tucked safely in bed.
Musically, this knife edge translates into a mesmerizing collection lush with feelings of nostalgia and warmth that can veer suddenly into dark, dusty, haunted corners. The sonic world feels somehow weighty and ephemeral all at once, like a time lapse of copper corroding. Major scale melodies float atop fraying strings, lullabies lay you down in a cradle of drones. To achieve the sound—an effortless blend of electronic, ambient, folk, and rock—Ballentine and her collaborator Noah Weinman brought in producer Andrew Sarlo. They chose to record at Chicken Shack studio in Upstate New York, close to where Ballentine grew up, to be near the source of the memories. It was there that the three brought the layered tracing paper of the album’s sound to life, filling in the lines with fizzing hiss and eroding static. “We wanted every song to have that little twinkle, but also a sense of crumbling,” Ballentine says, a nod to the merging of worlds. The original recording of “Quiet the Room”—which pairs clean piano figures with creaky shutters and gossamer burbles—appears on the record intact, like a metal box of mementos tucked beneath the floorboards.
These songs thrum with moments of anxiety that boil over into moments of peace, as on lead single “Whatever Fits Together,” which chugs to a ragged start before the gears catch and ease. There’s a panting humidity to the track: the verse harmony lags behind the lead vocal as if slowed by the heat; a banjo plucks restlessly. Finally, the chorus melts, the chords resolve, and the voices align. Even as she asks a childlike question that holds adult weight—“What do I want? Do I want anything?”—there’s a sense of acceptance in the way her voice drifts and dips like a leaf lifted on the wind.
Opening the window to let the world in is not always an easy thing for Ballentine to do. “I need to go into this isolated space to access certain things,” she says, “and then when I have someone else near me, I don’t know how to connect, how to bridge that gap.” This is the driving force behind “It’s Like a Secret,” a track that starts in sunshine but ends in smoke, the guitar choked down like stifled fire. Despite all her attempts to connect and let people in, Ballentine keeps coming up against that basic fact of humanity: that we are contained in our separate bodies, that no one can ever fully know our inner worlds, that to understand each other is to cross a barrier and leave a part of ourselves behind. This she breathtakingly describes as an “asymptotic miss” —the veering towards closeness that hovers just inches away, forever.
And yet, on closing track “You are my House,” she finds a way to reach out. “You are the walls and floors of my room,” she sings in perfect, hopeful harmony. “I sink my feet into you. I’m aware of my weight and the ways that it affects you.” Building relationships can be like building a house: something that works even when cobbled together from disparate parts. In growing towards one another, she shows, we make children’s crafts of our lives, piecing them together with sticks and glue. It’s not perfect, but it’s worth the effort.
As the album cover invites, these are dollhouse songs to which we bend a giant eye so that we become the face at the window, peering into the laminate, luminous world that Ballentine has created. Like a kid constructing a shelter in a patch of sharp brambles, she reminds us that beauty and terror can exist in the same place. The complexities of childhood are so often overlooked, but through these private yet generous songs, she gives new weight to our earliest memories, widening the frame for us—even opening a window.
~ by Nandi Rose (Half Waif)