Whitney is Still Searching

Lead singer Julien Ehrlich talks about the band’s meteoric rise, fans passing out at shows and the inspiration behind Whitney’s sophomore album, Forever Turned Around

Whitney (Photo by Olivia Bee)

Julien Erhlich, the lead singer and drummer of Whitney, was in a weird place when I caught up with him over the phone. 

“I’m watching a children’s yoga class at a YMCA in Birmingham, Alabama,” Ehrlich said with a laugh that acknowledged how strange his predicament was. The band had a couple of hours before they were needed for rehearsals, and they were waiting to get in a game of hoops or, as Ehrlich himself put it, everybody “wants to make their bodies feel good before [they] stuff them with barbeque.”

For Ehrlich and Max Kakacek, Whitney’s guitarist and Ehrlich’s songwriting partner, these random situations have become an almost routine occurrence. Whitney has been on the road almost non-stop for the better part of the last three years supporting their breathtaking debut Light Upon the Lake.

It’s easy to see why. Light Upon the Lake is an album that is cinematic in its production — with syrupy-sweet guitar licks from Kakacek, organ flourishes courtesy of Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado, strings, and multiple horn parts — that also feels insular and instantly-relatable, thanks to Ehrlich’s yearning falsetto delivery of lyrics focused on non-descript depictions of easy love and loss. From the first time Ehrlich croons “I left drinking on the city train” on the album’s opener “No Woman,” it’s hard not to be hooked. 

Before long, the accolades came flying in: a “Best New Music” review from Pitchfork, a mention on NPR’s “Artists We Love,” and both Ehlrich and Kakacek were even interviewed by Sir Elton John for a New York Times piece, in which John lavished the duo with praise.

“We just want to make sure that everything on our records honestly resonates with us,” Ehrlich said. “Max and I have this way of processing songs to make sure they feel right before we put them out. … Our goal is always to make songs that aim straight at the heart and make us want to cry,” he added with a laugh.

That formula appears to be working. Fans tearing up at shows is a “pretty frequent occurrence,” according to Ehrlich, at times leaving a lasting impression on the band’s members.

“There was one dude at our show in Austin that fainted midway through the first song,” Ehrlich recalls. “I don’t think he was on drugs, but I’m also not sure it was Beatlemania-type hysterics either. It was a little concerning at first, but apparently, when the guy was being hauled out he had the biggest smile on his face while he was giving the thumbs up and yelling ‘you guys rock!’”

Ehrlich said other people have passed out at shows, “but that was definitely due to drugs.”

Fans now have even more reasons to faint as Whitney recently released their sophomore album, Forever Turned Around, in August. 

“We’ve grown up quite a bit since Light Upon the Lake,” Ehrlich said. “I think we tried to push ourselves outside our comfort zone on this album. I feel like if you’re not progressing as a songwriter then your music starts to sound stale and uninspired.” 

For both Ehrlich and Kakacek, that meant writing songs on instruments they were less familiar with. 

“I got quite a bit better at guitar,” Ehrlich said. “It just gets you writing differently.”

While the members were writing outside their comfort zones, this is still very much a Whitney record, and every song here recalls the gauzy soft-rock of their debut. The similarities between the two records are striking — both 10-song, 30-minute affairs focus on the difficulties of maintaining a relationship while trying to get your shit together in your mid-20s. Like their debut, Forever Turned Around cloaks the melancholy of these songs with Ehrlich’s voice.

At the center of it all is Ehrlich and Kakacek’s relationship. The two have been friends since their high school days, and both spent time playing in the Chicago glam-pop band Smith Westerns at the start of the decade. They even room together.

“A lot of questions we get are about whether these songs are about Max and I’s relationship and, in a roundabout kind of way, I think they are,” Ehrlich said. “They can be applied to both platonic and romantic relationships because there’s overlap between the good and the bad parts of both.”

Despite the melancholy that can be found throughout the lyrics, Forever Turned Around is still an incredibly sunny listen. It’s nearly impossible to hear the slinky guitar on the opener “Giving Up” or the string swells on “Song for Ty” and find yourself anything other than completely content. 

And that’s where Ehrlich said he finds himself at this point with the band, especially compared to his time in Smith Westerns.

“It’s infinitely better,” Ehrlich said. “Just to be in an environment now where we’ve surrounded ourselves with people that we like and who are honest is amazing.”

On top of that, Ehrlich said everyone in the band is incredibly excited to start playing the new songs. The band will need that enthusiasm to get through another touring slog. They’re on the road until early December, and the full run of dates takes them deep into 2020 with what Ehrlich said will include “four or five different trips to Europe.” 

Burnout hovers as a concern as Ehrlich said the band still doesn’t turn down opportunities at this point. 

“But,” he added, “the love we feel out there is real. It’s very real.”

Category: Backbeat, Music

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