Photo: Olivia Bee
Whitney Are Far From The Shallow On Their Sophomore Album, 'Forever Turned Around'
Indie/country-soul band Whitney won fans over their 2016 debut Light Upon The Lake, which primarily featured songs about heartbreak. They were only touching the surface, though, as their sophomore album, Forever Turned Around (out Aug. 30), has them digging deeper, both lyrically and instrumentally.
"I think we definitely wanted to push ourselves melodically, so it's more playful melodies, and then also we poured over the lyrics quite a bit on this one," vocalist Julien Ehrlich told the Recording Academy on the phone from his home base of Chicago. "I'm proud we were there for the first one as well, but there's just a lot of them that we were kind of the first... I don't know, I guess they seem a little bit more shallow at times."
The new album voyages through the stages of romantic relationships—the moments when you can feel a partner slowly start to pull away, not being able to let go even though you want to give up—yet it also goes beyond the impact time has on a romantic relationship. Forever Turned Around represents the stength of Ehrlich's and lead guitarist Max Kakacek's friendship.
Forming Whitney after the 2014 dissolution of their former band Smith Westerns, Ehrlich says Whitney could only keep going because of how strong his friendship is with Kakacek.
"The fact that Max and I can accept criticism between us and not let it really get super personal when we're songwriting... I think we're able to continue doing it because we're still friends," he says.
Below, the Recording Academy speaks with Ehrlich about his bond with Kakacek, romantic relationships, recording Forever Turned Around and more.
Tell me about the first time you two recorded a song together.
Cool. Yeah, it was probably seven or eight months after our band Smith Westerns broke up. It was just a super organic experience, basically. We woke up one morning, I think we were slightly hung over. We were living together, obviously. Max had this old tape machine called a Ross—the brand was Ross. I don't remember the model or anything, but yeah, it was a four-track and it wound up on the first record.
Even when you and Max were in Smith Westerns, did you ever talk about breaking off to form your own project?
No, I think that's probably why that the band was successful because we didn't really have an agenda. I mean, we always knew that we were really close friends. I don't know. I'm sure it was in the back of our heads that we could one day write these things together. But I think not forcing it and letting it come along in an organic way, it was really, really important for us. It was really just a friendship thing and then it just turned out to be a good combination. I think we're able to continue doing it because we're still friends.
Why the name "Whitney"?
You remember at the time of... I don't even know when the reissue was put out, but Light In The Attic?
Light In The Attic, that re-release, I think his name was "Lewis" or something. I think he has a pretty interesting backstory. But yeah, I think we were just really into making a record that we thought sounded like something that a kid would find, you know, 40 years from now or something. And then we just thought Whitney was a catchy name.
Tell me about the experiences that formed Forever Turned Around. What inspired this latest album?
As far as the arrangement and the tools that we used and sound that we found on the first record, we were still very inspired by it, so it's not like I started singing in a completely different way. It's not like we were every thinking about doing like stents or anything on this record.
I think we were more so inspired by just pushing our songwriting to another realm, I guess. We were super inspired by Neil Young and specifically Live at Massey Hall 1971, that live record of his. When were writing the song, we used that as a benchmark or something.
How do you feel you've grown as songwriters since the completion of it?
I think we definitely wanted to push ourselves melodically, so it's maybe more playful melodies. And then also we poured over the lyrics quite a bit on this one, which, I'm proud we were there for the first one as well, but there's just a lot of them that we were kind of the first... I don't know, I guess they seem a little bit more shallow at times. I just feel we actually needed to make sure that we resonated with every single word on this record more than the last one.
The album is hugely about relationships. I feel a lot of times now people, especially at the beginning of relationships, are hesitant to let their feelings out. In "Giving Up" you say, "I can feel you giving up." Do you think being honest with feelings at whatever point in a relationship is worthwhile?
Yeah, I mean I definitely do. I think that song specifically in our eyes was outlining whatever stage in a relationship happens right after the honeymoon phase when maybe doubt or feelings like that would start to creep in into your head. You're like, "Oh, now we're not necessarily on the same exact page all the time anymore." I do feel it is a very important to let your feelings be known in a relationship because that's just communication, but you just need to make sure that you're doing it in a respectful way, obviously.
What's one of the biggest lesson a relationship has taught you?
It is just good to be honest with someone. Just always be honest. If you're trying to... Obviously, feel out the vibe, don't be brutally honest or overshare, or whatever. But if you have something that at first maybe you want to hide from someone, don't do it.
How is it revisiting the moments the album is influenced by live every time you perform?
It's weird because we also just played our first show in a year at Pitchfork Fest [in July.] It's weird. I mean the songs definitely take on new meanings. I'm not really thinking of being in this old relationship that drove me and Max to write the first record. I'm not really thinking about that anymore. But I do think it's important to still put yourself into some sort of a head space that allows you to perform the song in a believable way as well. I'm usually thinking of some sort of maybe personal tragedy or something.
How was it being back on stage for the first time in years? Did you miss it?
Oh, yeah. I mean, the longer that you don't play in between album cycles or whatever, the more the nerves obviously creep in. But then, once you're halfway through the first song, I was just like, "Oh man." I was like, "Fully, I miss this so much." It just felt so good. Really liberating.
You're a part of a duo and that's two different creative processes. How do you and Max come together to make something interesting to both of you?
I mean the only way that we could do it is by being really close friends and to be open to criticism. That also goes with honesty as well. The fact that Max and I can accept criticism between us and not let it really get super personal when we're songwriting, it's just not from experience, like even in Smith Westerns, any band I've been in. That's not always the case that people can handle that. I think we've kind of dropped our egos for this project and that that's how we can come together as one.
How did you get to that point where you just don't take it personally? How do you leave your ego at the door?
I don't know. I feel we realized that we do really just want to push each other to write the best possible thing that we can. I think maybe it was probably early on in the process. Either he came up with an idea and I'm like, "I don't know, I don't know about this. I don't know about like this part of it," or something. I bet he was really mad at first. Or maybe it was me. But then maybe it took a day and then after further discussion, we just realized that if we treat the little part of this idea, it'll just make it a lot better. I think probably throughout writing one of the first songs or something. We probably look back and is like, "Hey, see what happened when you drop the ego or whatever?"
I want to talk about the space where the albums were recorded. It was in the basement of one of your guitarists where you recorded your first album. Is there a particular reason why you decided to record there again?
It was really just a time thing. We didn't take trips to different studios and stuff, but I think we realized that the way that we work on music, if we were actually just renting out a studio for that long, we would've been broke. Being in a basement or an apartment, or whatever, and being able to wake up every day, simply all day, every day, to be walking around and banging our heads against the walls. Yeah, we just needed that opportunity, like a basement or an apartment or whatever. We'll usually do that.
How important is this space for you when you record?
I can't tell. I mean that's a good question because a lot of times we are so deep in our own heads that our surroundings don't matter. I think it really moreso has has to do with the people in the room. But when it comes time to really record, you know, like drums or the latter stuff, I think at that point a proper recording place can matter. But even then, we can recreate drums and stuff and in our apartments.
What inspired the title Forever Turned Around?
Let me see. I mean, I can tell you what we liked about it the most. I just remember singing forever, thinking about "Forever comma Turned Around." We have been working on this one idea for, I don't even know, the better part of a year and never really figuring out how to complete this song until we stripped away the part that we even liked about it the most.
Then, I came up with a new melody, and the saying, Forever, Turned Around." We all got together, me, Max and the others. We're both just like, "Oh my God, Forever Turned Around." That is the perfect thing. Oh, my God." I think pretty much immediately we knew how much we liked it as a title, because it can have five or six different meanings.
That was also just what allowed us to finish the song, taking away our favorite part of the song, which is such a ass-backwards way to write the song in the first place. It offers perfectly described "Forever Turned Around." Complete confusion the point of... Yeah. I don't know. I don't know if I like the term "ass-backwards" but...
There had been a bit of a break between the last album. Have you been writing this album since then? Since after the first one came out or the last one?
There are maybe some really loose ideas that have been around since mid-2016 when the first one came out. But I don't know, for the most part, we would get back home from tour, try to write it in between tours and stuff and it just didn't work for the first years. So I don't feel like we actually accomplished much of anything until the beginning of 2018 or something.
Did the album organically become about love and relationships?
Yeah. I mean Max and I are both still in committed... the same relationships that we were in while writing the record. For about half the songs aren't exclusively about romance or whatever, but we did try to make a point to not just go just go on a hundred percent heartbreak records again.
I think those are the best though.
You think heartbreak records are the best?
Yeah, I think some of the best albums are about heartbreak.
Yeah, and I mean also you can write, you can interpret whatever you want about a lot of these songs too. I feel like definitely tried to make all of the themes and sentiments super universal.
That's totally true. Once you let a song out, it's like it becomes something different to everyone. As a songwriter, are you cool with a song becoming someone else's?
Yeah, I mean that's the whole point, and that was something that we were thinking about the whole time while we were at least writing then. Just leaving, yeah, to leave enough space for the listener, I feel like some of the worst lyrics, if they're way too particular or descriptive, or whatever, it's like, "Oh, I don't want to be exactly where you are." I want to listen to what you're saying, and then also, I guess, adapt it to a memory, a pre-existing memory.