In 2018, on the heels of her full length album You’re a Shooting Star, I’m a Sinking Ship, singer songwriter Whitney Ballen and her band were gaining momentum in Seattle. Thanks the ongoing pandemic, Ballen’s name has been noticeably absent from venue calendars, but she’s been writing new material—and on Saturday, January 14th, Ballen plays her first show back with her full band at Sunset Tavern where she will showcase new songs, and old favorites.
Ballen, who was raised in Redmond, found her footing as a singer songwriter by becoming a regular at the Old Fire House Teen Center, an all-ages arts hub known as “The Firehouse” that has played a key role in exposing teens to music on Seattle’s Eastside for more than 25 years.
“Modest Mouse. Death Cab for Cutie. Gossip. Botch. Death Cab for Cutie and all of their side projects. Rocky Votalato. All of these groups played The Firehouse early on,” Ballen rattles off, adding that her first-ever live show was seeing a local band called Arabian Nightmare at The Firehouse when she was around 13.
Around the same time, Ballen developed an interest in guitar and writing songs on her own, and by the 9th grade, staff at The Firehoue invited her to play her first ever show there. From there, Ballen’s interest in songwriting and performing snowballed.
Once in college at University of Washington, Ballen put together her first band. That band has evolved and grew in popularity over the years, as fans leaned into Ballen’s honest songwriting and unique, childlike voice, which has been compared to Joanna Newsom.
“I would just say that most of the songs that I’m writing…there’s not really any filter to them. It’s not any kind of act or anything. It’s real,” Ballen says.
In March 2020, Ballen and her band were just returning from a big tour in support of You’re a Shooting Star, I’m a Sinking Ship. “We played our last show in Dallas and flew home and the next day it feels like things started shutting down. So, we were on this high of playing the biggest shows we had ever played. We were so excited for what was next and it was like, ‘oh, nevermind.’ It was kind of a bummer,” Ballen recalls.
Quickly, the world shut down and for many months Ballens says she struggled to be creative. Her music went on hold for a while as she worked for her family’s business, a bagel shop in Redmond called Blazing Bagels, and earned a certificate in nutrition, something she was always interested in.
“I definitely wrote some songs during the pandemic for sure but because I wasn’t playing or practicing with my band just because I wasn’t, I didn’t really do anything with them,” Ballen says, noting that the pandemic lent a specific songwriting mood. The songs she wrote at that time all center around grief.
“During the pandemic I lost my cat of 17 years and both of my grandparents all in the same year,” Ballen explains. “So the songs I wrote aren’t necessarily the most happy.”
But, if they’re anything like her previous songs, that sadness won’t take away from their beauty and may in fact help listeners to further understand their own struggles. Ballen’s 2018 debut LP, which focused on the idea of comparing one self to others, particularly the curated images of others we get through social media, had that sort of bittersweet affect.
“I feel like the last album was very heavy on comparing myself to other things and what my reality is versus what maybe others’ vision of my reality is,” says Ballen. “The band and I have been practicing new songs and we even have a handful of new songs that we were playing during our tour that will eventually go on to the next record.”
At The Sunset on Saturday, Ballen will perform some of the songs from her 2018 debut LP, as well as some of these pandemic newbies. She’ll perform that night with her longtime guitarist Sam Peterson, drummer Ian McCutcheon, and her partner Jay Clancy on bass, who plays in the band Sloucher and is filling in as Ballen looks for a permanent bassist.
After the downtime during the pandemic, Ballen is looking forward to heading into the studio with her new material soon, and overjoyed to get back to the stage.
“I always say that if I have to spend a lot of time writing something then it doesn’t seem genuine to me. I’m just doing exactly what comes to my head. I never sit down to write songs, it just happens… That goes for the performance as well,” says Ballen. “I’m just going to straight up perform the way that I’m feeling.”
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