As distinctive as Whitney Ballen's voice is on record, it's even more distinctive in person.
When she sings barely above a whisper and her talented backing band produces a dull roar, it feels like the gentle hand of an old lover; and then she culls the volume upward like she's summoning a storm. "Moon" is a lesson in dynamics, bringing things up to an appropriately heavy volume and sliding back down the scale of indoor voice intimacy. As the denizens of The District Coffee House are seated in pull out chairs all (naturally) facing the stage, Ballen and her band charge into a pulsating version of "Everything," climactic and full of the dramatic crescendo of its central theme: "Everything that's good, it goes."
When speaking of the title track of her marvelous full-length You're a Shooting Star, I'm a Sinking Ship, she quips, "This song is not about being sad. At all." But there's a great devastation which belies this banter greatly, with its cascading movements and feather's touch of lead guitar. She introduces "Rainier" as a song about ruminating on the things we take for granted until they disappear from our lives. Though there is most certainly a gamut of emotions Ballen moves through in her songs, the overwhelming majority of them articulate relationships in the past tense. There's an unspoken remove from heartbreak because of this, but the thing about heartbreak is that it seems to crop up in unexpected moments.
Saying a band's musicianship is stately sounds like a backhanded compliment at best, but there is a gorgeousness painted all across Ballen's songs — gorgeously rendered by her and the players assembled to flesh them out — to the point where you can't help but cocoon yourself in their beauty.
Ballen's voice is a reedy, high-register instrument, cutting through the air like throwing blades, so when she sings of heartbreak and being carried away by mountains, there's a twinge of pain in the aforementioned beauty, and most certainly beauty in the pain. Her voice rises and falls all along her band's set, a bag heavy with selections from her 2018 album and highlighted by a striking song so new her backing band sat out while she performed it solo.
In between songs, Ballen comments on still learning how to be better at accepting compliments.
During the refrain of "we felt it" from "The Kiss," I felt my eyes well up with tears, thinking of all the relationships in my life held together in the harsh light of past tense, wondering if the love is worth the loss. In the intimate setting of the wide open, dimly lit coffee shop, with traffic lights changing from red to green in the near distance, I ping-pong between the hurt of having to give up something that once made your heart full and the actual message of the song, the pride of having loved someone to begin with. Even currently being happily in love doesn't stop us from thinking about these things; it's human nature. The body dealing with heartbreak is a lot like how the body deals with trauma; although you feel healed, you remember the exact contours of a particular pain.
The quiet walk back to my hotel, punctuated by very light Thursday night traffic and passersby, gave me an opportunity to lose myself in my thoughts provoked by themes Whitney Ballen introduces in her songs. I text my lady letting her know I miss her, the image of the Snoqualmie Falls Ballen once sang of behind the two of us — the happy couple temporarily separated by miles and mountains and rivers of craft beer and gourmet fry sauce — flowing along in my head. I have the benefit of texting someone about the mundane things Ballen can no longer tell whoever "Rainier" is about, which makes me extraordinarily grateful.
And just like that, I'm taken back to love in the present tense.
Martin Douglas is bringing you coverage from Treefort Music Festival, taking place live from Boise through Sunday.