Whitney Ballen sits at a booth at King’s Hardware in Ballard, fiddling with the straw in her club soda. A self-proclaimed homebody, she admits she picked this spot to meet because it’s the only bar she knows. She hasn’t actually been here since her 21st birthday (at which she didn’t drink).
“It’s not a happy album at all,” she says with a nervous laugh, of her latest EP, Being Here Is Hard. “The title doesn’t insinuate that at all.”
The most recent record Ballen released was her 2014 album Falls, an eerie, sprawling record inspired by the woods and the powerful churning of the Snoqualmie Falls. On Being Here, she’s focusing on telling stories about “leaving”: People leaving town. Leaving a relationship. Leaving life. Performed alone with an acoustic guitar and her ghostly vocals, this idea hangs in the air like the feeling of death itself.
She tells stories of these people, stories that can veer into traumatic territory, on each track. “Red Rose” was written about a friend she met while briefly living in Los Angeles in 2015 who helped her navigate LA’s DIY scene, giving her something akin to what she had here in Seattle. Ballen’s friend wrote pop songs, the kind of vibrant music you’d expect in sunny California. Recently she found out that her friend had gone missing for two weeks, then was found dead from an assumed suicide—going somewhere to do it far away from everyone he knew.
“He was definitely a really happy person, but I also know he wasn’t,” Ballen says. “[He] wrote really good pop songs, but he wasn’t happy at all. There’s so many people like that, and I just couldn’t be around people not acknowledging their sadness and the reality of things.”
The stories on the EP were never intended to be strung together. They’re all vignettes that started as melodies she made up during long car drives, keeping them to herself as she’d play them in her bedroom. When a friend who runs Good Cheer Records in Portland asked her if she’d do a short release, she picked these songs together without realizing the themes that tied them.
But it’s not just death that takes up the space and anxieties on the record—there’s life to deal with as well. It comes through in her songs, as in lead single “Nauseas,” which simultaneously describes her own stomach ailments and the feeling she’d get being in a relationship with someone she knew was in love with someone else. All these little stories build up to a simple idea, one that struck Ballen in her car: “One day I was driving and I was like, ‘Fuck, being here is hard. God. How do we exist?’ ” she says. “It’s super-cliché, but being here is really hard. People don’t say that. Then I was like, ‘That’s it!’ ” Being Here Is Hard, out now on Good Cheer Records.