Whitney Want To Remind Us How To Be Happy
On their debut album, 'Light Upon the Lake,' Whitney opt for joy in the face of calamity.
So far, 2016 has been nothing short of terrible. Icons have passed and hatred once buried far inside the underbelly society has become mainstream. In this context, a record like Whitney's debut Light Upon the Lake feels essential, like a glimmer of the type of rapturous joy that today seems incomprehensible.
That ethos seems fitting considering the context of the record's creation. Written in the brutally cold Chicago winter of 2014—during which an unprecedented polar vortex left entire swaths of the midwest trapped beneath a layer of ice—Light Upon the Lake feels like dreaming of warmer days ahead, assured of their existence out of necessity rather than any tangible indication. Whitney's founders Max Kakacek and Julien Ehrlich were experiencing something of an emotional reckoning during the process, too. The pair had been performing with beloved indie stalwarts Smith Westerns and Unknown Mortal Orchestra before writing songs together as Whitney. The end of those two bands coincided with a particularly heart-wrenching breakup for Ehrlich, in addition to the frigid realities of Chicago's winter. “We were going through similar problems when we started,” Ehrlich tells me. "It was easy for us to both channel the same kind of mindset."
I meet the two at Motorino in Williamsburg ahead of their two-night stint in Brooklyn and they are visibly exhausted. They'd been posted up in the pizza parlor for hours as a series of journalists filtered in and out, trying to figure out how the unassuming duo managed to make one of 2016's most promising records.
“When we were doing it we were just lost in it, for better or for worse,” Kakacek explains.
The songs on Light Upon the Lake glimmer with something innately human. They're playful in the way that jam sessions are but focused so as to never meander. At one point in our conversation Ehrlich, who handles vocals for the band, stops himself from saying he never wants to go "full cowboy," alluding to Country music's tendency to drone on about subjects without any real thoroughfare in the lyrics.
“I think both of us have an ear for hearing when a song sounds organic” Kakacek explains.
None of this is to say Whitney's songwriting process isn't laborious. Listening to the record, it becomes clear that every single word uttered on the album is essential.
"There were definitely like really hard weeks of the writing process," Ehrlich explains.“We spent like a month and a half on a song that didn’t even make the record. It actually seemed too thought over” Kakacek adds.
'Golden Days,' the track that turned Whitney into a critical darling last summer, is a shimmering romp that sounds like a sunny afternoon cookout. Ehrlich's vocals twist and gyrate like they're dancing in the park without a care in the world, despite the song's melancholy lyrics.
"It kept me real til I’m movin on / But ya can’t leave feeling like you did no wrong" Ehrlich sings on the song's chorus before an exuberant refrain of "Na na na na na na" ushers the track to its close.
"I think the way we work is we record everything we feel like is inherent to the song and then from there we pick it apart in a way that makes it a story," Kakacek explains.
"We’d lose our minds and get really drunk and throw a bunch of ideas at the wall and I’d wake up and look at it like 'Oh I got it!'" Ehrlich adds, "Sometimes it was as little as changing a word from ‘the’ to ‘but’ for example."
'No Matter Where We Go,' the album's third single, is a perfect example of this dogged commitment to essentialism. The track's lyrics read like fluid poetry and clock in at just under fifty words in total. Ehrlich's refrain of "I can take you out / I wanna drive around" are reminiscent of a collective imagining of summer love. In stripping their music down to its most essential parts, Whitney manages to speak to something universal. In the video for the track, couples of all varieties stare intently into each others' eyes. Anywhere else this would seem pastiche but here it feels real. There's no pretense to Whitney's sound, and every heart-tugging chord serves a purpose.
According to Kakacek, this is one way in which the band differs from his former project. "The Smith Westerns to me were very plastic, like something you could just buy in a package," he says. "There’s something really cool about the transparency of this kind of music. I like that there’s no reverb or anything like that, it's all just out in the open."
"The melodies that I love are the ones that literally make you feel like your heart is about to explode," Ehrlich adds.
Part way through our conversation, a cover of Johnny Cash's 'Sunday Morning Coming Down' plays over the restaurant's loudspeakers. The two bandmates' eyes light up and Ehrlich subtly points upwards, towards the speaker. "This is a weird version," he says knowingly to Kakacek. The exchange is telling; the music on Whitney's debut seems to harken to an era that many describe as "simpler," when a man plucking the strings of his guitar was all music fans needed.
"A lot of times we were influenced by more extreme versions of music like this," Kakacek says of the Cash cover. "Every element of this type of music is just what it needs to be."
When I ask the two if they think their music is nostalgic for a bygone era in American history, they're quick to balk. Kakacek recalls a news story about a Staten Island woman whose "America Was Never Great" hat stirred controversy. "I think I pretty much agree with that statement." He tells me, “besides, all of the best Americana was made by Canadians.”
Light Upon the Lake is available now via Secretly Canadian.