The title of Whitney Ballen’s new EP Being Here Is Hard was inspired by a simple thought that struck the Seattle musician one day on her way to work: Sometimes just being “here”—whether that’s this moment, headspace, city, country, or planet—can be exhausting.
Being Here Is Hard (released earlier this month on Portland’s Good Cheer Records) is all about leaving. People moving away, relationships ending, friends dying. Its five acoustic songs drift in the wake of those who didn’t stay.
“It was all around the same time that I had experienced a lot of loss through some friends passing away, specifically through suicide,” Ballen says. “Also, just a lot of things going on with life, our political surroundings—just the idea of waking up every day and existing. Things are just hard.”
Ballen’s voice has been rightfully compared to Joanna Newsom’s. 2014’s Falls lets the wild magic of the Pacific Northwest’s rugged landscapes overgrow into sometimes hopeful, sometimes heartsick love songs. She sounds bright and awake as she absorbs the energy of her surroundings.
Ballen hadn’t originally planned to release the five songs on Being Here Is Hard, and one listen explains why. Where it once twinkled, high and clear, her voice now sounds dim and weathered—still beautiful, but very plainly warped by pain. Throughout the EP, Ballen sings in hushed tones, like she’s afraid to invite any more loss by mentioning it out loud. It can be hard to hear someone hurt like that, even for less than 20 minutes.
Each song revisits a different tragedy: On “Give Up,” Ballen calls time of death for a relationship when she decides “I can’t compete with her anymore.” The EP’s standout is “Nauseous.” At a pitch that could shatter glass, she throws herself into the titular word as she lives with the knowledge that she’s being cheated on: “Her smell is on your coat/I know it’s not yours/And I still smell it/It’s making me sick.” “Red Rose” and “Yellow Lake” mourn the passing of a friend, but the latter weaves Ballen’s own existential dread into her grief.
“I feel like the ultimate inspiration to wrap around all of those songs on the EP [is] where they have to do with the day-to-day struggle of doing life and existing. How some people can, and how some people just don’t continue... Some people can’t move past that and can’t really survive that reality.”
Being Here Is Hard was recorded at Phil Elverum’s Unknown Studio in Anacortes, Washington. She says some people assume they’ll “tap into this magic” of his cultishly beloved project Mount Eerie by recording there, but recalls her experience as “pretty uncomfortable” and “strange.”
“[It was] extremely awkward being alone in this big chapel space that’s pretty empty, with one person who’s, like, in this tower looking down on you,” she says. “I’m really scared of talking to strangers, let alone singing these really vulnerable songs.”
Ballen plans to release a full-band album sometime this summer, but hasn’t yet started recording. She says it’ll draw inspiration from “the loudness” of Mount Eerie and the “deep, sultry voice” of mysterious 1960s country-pop star Bobbie Gentry.
There’s no happy ending. Being here will always be hard. But Ballen’s EP ends on a high note—the final track, “Hospital Gowns,” orbits around her repeated phrase “I almost lost you.” Almost. She hangs onto the word with the most human composite of desperation and hope. After so much loss, Ballen casts “almost” in gold. It’s a sweet reminder to hold tight to all the “almosts” we get.