Arts and Entertainment

Whitney Ballen: Redmond’s music maker, teller of secrets

Singer-songwriter Whitney Ballen got her start at the Redmond Old Fire House Teen Center. The 21-year-old University of Washington senior has a new album out, “White Feathers, White Linens.”  - Courtesy of Jennifer Cheng
Singer-songwriter Whitney Ballen got her start at the Redmond Old Fire House Teen Center. The 21-year-old University of Washington senior has a new album out, “White Feathers, White Linens.”
— image credit: Courtesy of Jennifer Cheng

Never tell Whitney Ballen a secret. She’ll probably end up writing a song about it.

The University of Washington senior from Redmond is not afraid to be brutally honest, especially when it comes to her lyrics.

“It’s mostly about secrets I’ve been told,” she said of her new album, “White Feathers, White Linens.” “On the record there’s excerpts of people telling me secrets that I recorded without them knowing. Yeah, I’m a creep.”

A clever creep, if anything. The things friends tell her, the conversations she overhears on the bus and the speculations she has about other people’s lives create the groundwork in which her raw sound is rooted.

“I definitely incorporate some stuff from my own life, but I don’t really have that interesting of a life,” Ballen, 21, said.

One could hardly agree. Since her junior year at Redmond High School, Ballen has been breaking into the Seattle music scene with her irresistible sound. Her songs have played on KEXP, Jet City Stream, “Locals Only” night on 107.7 The End and Seattle podcasts. She has jammed with many local musicians and big names like Rocky Votolato.

In ninth grade, Ballen picked up her dad’s “really old, ugly, acoustic guitar” as she described it, and taught herself to play. She now plays a vintage, small-bodied guitar with a rich sound. Her style can best be classified as folk, although her pure vocal tone is difficult to assign to a specific musical genre.

“Whitney has a distinct voice and a knack for nuance beyond her age,” said Rana Shmait, program assistant of teen programs in the City of Redmond. “She’s always been a great guitarist and complex songwriter. Whitney also has a funny and sweet stage presence that the crowd always enjoys.”

Shmait helped Ballen get her start performing in her hometown of Redmond at the Old Fire House Teen Center, where the singer played her first show at age 15.

“She’s always been such a positive force wherever she goes, and we were fortunate to have her involved at the Teen Center,” Shmait said. “It’s been a privilege to see her come into her own talent and confidence as she’s grown as a musician.”

Since her teenage years, Ballen has graced the stages of Seattle venues and shows that include The Vera Project, Folklife, EMP Sky Church, The Crocodile and more. As she has grown, so has her songwriting style and vocal sound.

“My voice has gotten extremely high,” she said. “It’s really weird and I don’t know how I feel about it. I can’t control it though.”

Ballen recently split from her band, Whitney Ballen & The Intimates, to return to her origins in solo acoustic performance. Her former lead guitarist, Trevor Boone, said that the transition was smooth for Ballen and her band members.

“After a while it was decided she needed to go back to her roots and stop trying to write songs for a band, which can put a lot of pressure on someone who’s written only on guitar her entire life,” Boone said. “I think it’s a wonderful decision and again proves she’s an honest artist and doesn’t want to create anything that isn’t 100 percent her.”

Ballen noted the difference between playing in a group versus alone.

“Playing by myself acoustically is a lot different than playing with a band,” she said.

“When I played with a band, it’s a little more upbeat and not so diary-like. Playing alone, it’s hard to demand that a crowd pay attention, but often people do quiet down and they end up listening for some reason. They definitely don’t have to, but I’ve noticed that people hush, and people pay attention, so that’s cool.”

It’s not uncommon for Ballen’s voice to send a chill down the spines of her audience. Her gentle tenor surprises anyone who has never witnessed the tiny blonde take control of a room the instant her vocals kill the silence.

“I don’t have anything to demand the audience’s attention, but it happens in certain environments. It makes me realize that people are paying attention and it scares the crap out of me,” she said with a dimpled giggle.

Steve Norman plays pedal steel guitar to accompany some of Ballen’s tracks.

“She has a delicate, subtle voice that carries some substantial emotional weight despite its lilt,” Norman said. “She is an honest singer, someone who cares more about the song than style. She has something to say and feels what she does, it’s not just going through the motions of being a performer.”

Ballen’s freshest album, “White Feathers, White Linens,” is a compilation of music played with her band and by herself. Boone, who has seen Ballen develop as an artist throughout her career, produced the record.

“I was really appealed to the honestly portrayed in her music and it was really fun trying to capture that on record,” Boone said. “We wanted to do a record that would challenge people and focus on just a little girl and her acoustic guitar. We decided to do a record that wasn’t super produced and as raw as possible.”

Each album was pressed onto 12-inch vinyl by the artist herself, who wanted to present the tracks she worked so hard on in a more tangible form. Each record also includes an MP3 card so the songs can be downloaded in digital form. “White Feathers, White Linens” is sold at Seattle record shops and at her shows.

“Writing my songs doesn’t take long, it just happens randomly,” Ballen said. “I don’t sit down and write a song, all of a sudden I’ll just be singing something. I’m a very shy person in general, but I’ll be really honest on stage and it’s really weird, I don’t know why.”

With so much of her time spent networking and connecting with other Seattle artists, there’s no end in sight for this blooming artist. Ballen said that if she gave music up now she wouldn’t know what to do with herself.

Her former band members are confident that Ballen will thrive in her musical endeavors.

“Whitney is really young and still finding out exactly what she wants to do with her music and I think it’s good for her to try different arrangements and collaborate with as many people as possible,” Boone said.

Norman said that Ballen’s style is unique in that she doesn’t sound like anyone else he plays with.

“I trust her songwriting and know that she has a great future musically and I would love to continue to be a part of that,” he said.

Up next for Ballen is a show at the Columbia City Theater and a new set of songs to be released early next year. Her goals for the Seattle music scene are to play gigs at Bumbershoot and The Neptune Theatre, while continuing collaboration with local artists.

When she’s not writing songs, Ballen likes to hike, run, snuggle with her cat, drive down random roads, sew and draw. But making music isn’t a chore for her, it’s second nature.

“The reason I haven’t stopped playing is because I’ve noticed that it’s just something that I do,” she said. “It’s just like waking up and brushing my teeth, it’s just there, and I can’t get rid of it. I’ve thought about what would happen if I didn’t play, but it just doesn’t work like that.”

Lauren Becherer is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.


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