The situation I'm at King's Hardware in Ballard with singer/songwriter Whitney Ballen, who is tiny and blonde and has a parenthetical dimple on her right cheek whenever she smiles, which is often. As of midnight tonight, Ballen will be 21; she's celebrating with a group of friends, her big sister, and her mom. "She doesn't drink. She weighs, like, 90 pounds; she's extremely healthy," Ballen says of her mother. "I don't think she's been to a bar since 1986." Dad Ballen can't be here to round out the family affair, as he is out making deliveries for his bagel shop, but he baked and sent along a tray of cupcakes frosted with pink roses.
How She Got Here Contrary to your typical sloppy 21 run, Ballen does not want to get crunk tonight. She's sipping 7-Up through a straw. One of her friends pushes a birthday-cake shot at her--"Do you want this article to say that you're really prissy?"
"Yes, because I am!" laughs Ballen. She sticks her tongue into the drink. "I can't do this!" She refuses to taste my Strongbow, even after I tell her it's basically apple juice. "I understand that some drinks can taste really good, and I'm down for tasting things, but not whole things," she says. "I'll taste a beer. The other night I tasted Champagne. I've had half a glass of mimosa. But I can't finish anything." Once she saw beer in her sister's refrigerator and decided to try it for breakfast. "I opened it and had a sip, and was, like, 'God, this is sick!' "
Ballen goes to the UW, where she's studying communications. I ask her if she's ever had a wild college-party night. "I've been involved in them, but I haven't been the wild party, ever," she says. Her ideal Friday night is "my fat cat, my really nice down comforter, a Netflix account, and some Talking Rain water."Shop Talk Last December Ballen released her first record, White Feathers, White Linens, a title that accurately represents her songs' pristine, airy delicacy. When Ballen was in ninth grade, she got a guitar for Christmas and taught herself to pick along to the Doors' "People Are Strange." She played her first show when she was 15 at the Old Redmond Firehouse, and she says her musical tastes are still developing--she cites Lou Reed and Canadian folk singer/Bon Iver girlfriend Kathleen Edwards as two of her current favorites, although the most obvious point of reference for her strangely high-pitched vocals is Joanna Newsom. Of her songs' lyrical content, Ballen says, "If there's any reference to any kind of love thing, it has nothing to do with me, it's through other people's eyes."
She used to take a tape recorder around, record conversations with her friends, and then write songs about their hookups and scandals. She once taped a conversation with her ex-boyfriend, unbeknownst to him; a segment of it plays in the middle of White Feathers, White Linens.
BTW: It's a little hard to imagine the petite Ballen hoisting a guitar, but she has an explanation for that. After her dad gave her a Taylor guitar, she went to Emerald City Guitars and traded it for "a 1919 Washburn Parlor acoustic guitar. It's just my size! It's so comfortable!" She holds her arms out like she's cradling a baby, and then glances down at the birthday-cake shot still sitting in front of her. "I'm gonna go give this to someone else who'll drink it."
Whitney Ballen plays the Tractor Tavern--her first-ever 21-and-up show--on Wednesday, February 29. Timothy Robert Graham and Stephen Nielsen will open. The show starts at 8 p.m. and there's a $6 cover.