Leading up to Upstream Music Fest + Summit, the regionally focused festival happening in Pioneer Square June 1-3 with over 200 acts, KEXP will highlight a series of local artists every week with a short feature on the artist and a few tracks to start with if you're unfamiliar with their work. This week, we spotlight Whitney Ballen, who will be playing Upstream on Sunday, June 3rd at 7pm.
Whitney Ballen's songs are quiet in a way that both augments and disaffirms the very real (and earth-shattering) emotional wreckage therein. The Issaquah resident's singing voice is a peculiar but deeply affecting instrument. A reedy, high register, like someone found a decades-old folk LP in the woods, buried in foliage, and decided to go home and play it at 45rpm
Recorded in the Old Redmond Firehouse after hours, Falls has a distinctly lovelorn, late-night feel, the distortion and drone which underscores some of the album's best songs -- almost representing a musical stand-in for the thoughts which threaten to swallow a quiet room whole. Growning up near Fall City, the record, inspired by late-night trips to Snoqualmie Falls, contains a stately beauty only found by being surrounded by trees and near-violent water currents.
Underneath the thunderous guitar and clattering cymbals of "Torn," she sings of shivering in the wake of a stressful conversation with a lover. On the album's closing track "Ghosts," she repeats the phrase, "They've been in my room before" in a tone that suggests the spirits haunting her cast a comfortable presence. "Rainier" plays like an "I miss you" letter written with the majesty of Mt. Rainier in the distance, rife with longing and the mundanity of familiarity in one fell swoop: "Trying my best not to call you/I want to tell you about my cold brew/I want to tell you how much I liked you."
While Falls is adorned with squall, the sputtering horns of "Interstitial" sounding like a handful of alarm clocks with dying batteries, and otherworldly reverb, her 2017 EP Being Here is Hard is achingly sparse, just Ballen's emotive vocals and a weary, solitary electric guitar.
Being Here is Hard is about the crushing weight of human existence and the situations it entails: Dissolved relationships, engulfing depression, skipping town, being shuffled off this mortal plane."Nauseous" is about getting used to that titular feeling, brought on by the scent on her lover that is neither hers nor theirs. "Yellow Lake" mourns a lost friend. "I know you wanted to die," Ballen sings on the latter. "Because we all want to die." Ballen's songs are fixated on the details that appear like monoliths to the eye while dwelling in your feelings; blue eyes shimmer on "Red Rose."
Ballen begins "Hospital Gown" starts with "I almost lost you on a Saturday night," revealing a story guided by the glare of police badges and standing in circles, while she drags her voice along the cold ground. The "almost" in this song doesn't express the relief which usually comes with the deployment of the word, but relief is not a theme which shows its head on either Falls or Being Here is Hard.
The songwriting of Whitney Ballen dwells in life situations where she's gnashing against the current, pushed by forces she tries to swim her way out of, even when they threaten to take her under. The only optimism there is comes with the idea we've all told ourselves at some point in our lives: "At least I'm still here."
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