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‘SPARK’: Whitney’s Expansive Reintroduction

On September 16, 2022
Photo by Tonje Thilesen

Whitney’s Forever Turned Around, the band’s 2019 sophomore album, projected a sturdy, reassuring veneer of reliability. The Chicago duo, comprised of Julien Ehrlich and Max Kakacek, formed after the dissolution of their previous band, Smith Westerns, and broke through with their debut album, 2016’s Light Upon the Lake. Lake is a breed of rock record that is currently approaching extinction: 1970s-style, golden-hued soft rock seemingly designed to soundtrack tranquil Sunday mornings. It exuded a warm familiarity without sounding quite like anything else circulating in the indie rock sphere at that time. Forever Turned Around recognized that the formula was a winning one; the album did everything its predecessor did, and just as skillfully.  

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But Ehrlich and Kakacek knew something had to change. SPARK, Whitney’s third album, marks a calculated expansion of the band’s palette. It sounds like a band rejuvenated, confidently venturing into new flourishes and textures that deepen their mastered skillset (like the gospel-adjacent “BLUE” or “REAL LOVE,” a crisp blast of luminescent pop). At the same time, the album is still quintessential Whitney, ruminating on difficult themes like heartbreak and the anxieties of growing older but packaging them in bright, undeniable melodies. Over a Zoom call, Ehrlich and Kakacek discussed the making of SPARK, which they consider their most significant statement yet.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

VMP: You started recording the new album in Portland. Walk me through the recording process. Why Portland?

Julien Ehrlich: I grew up in Oregon. I think the main reason we moved out there [in 2020] was a long-term relationship of mine had ended. We had been touring for three months straight and Max and I were both living with our girlfriends at the time, and it just made sense to both let that relationship breathe. And also, we hadn’t fully thought out what we wanted to do with the last record, but we knew we wanted as much change as possible.

What is the writing process like for you guys? What generally is the origin of the song and how do you go about fleshing it out?

Max Kakacek: There isn’t necessarily a formula, obviously, we move along pretty naturally. Usually, one of us comes up with a chord progression or a rough idea and then we both get together in a room and workshop it. Usually at a point when we’re very excited about something, we’ll end up losing track of time and working into the wee hours of the night and eventually becoming obsessed with listening to something over and over again. Not necessarily functionally working on it but just enjoying what we made. It’s a ramp up to a kind of obsessive quality of writing.

Julien: Yeah, it starts out of focus… it’s us honing in on a sentiment that feels like something that nobody else could have created but us. We’re tightening in on the focus while also … it’s 4 in the morning and our brains are actually a little bit hazier but what’s going on is a lot more sophisticated.

Max: That was one of the benefits of being in Portland. We rented a house with two of the members of the band and we could just play music as long as we wanted because we didn’t have any neighbors beneath us. In Chicago, we have upstairs and downstairs neighbors.

You’ve mentioned that going into this album, after Forever Turned Around, you felt a change was necessary. Can you help me understand what your mindset was after that record and why you felt the need to course correct this time around?

Julien: I think the nature of a second record allows you to put a ton of pressure on yourself. That was just a really difficult album for us to make. We both feel super proud of it, it’s a very special album to us. I just think for whatever reason … there was just a feeling within Max and I, an excitement at the possibilities of where we could go. At the core of every Whitney song, I don’t think it’s the aesthetic necessarily, I think it’s the song — just the basic chord progression, plus melody, plus words. So, I think that just changing the palette of the sounds we were using was something that really excited us and we knew it could bring better songs out of us, too.

There is definitely a different palette to the new album, as you said, but it’s also still very much a Whitney record. Can you talk more about the decision to go in the direction you did with the production and aesthetic — what inspired that and why did it suit this set of songs?

Max: I think the way we started writing was … letting it go wherever it chose to go on its own. And after writing a couple of songs, we found specific things we were doing and inspirations from certain parts of music we have always loved that have never been practiced in writing, trying out aesthetics and new chord structures and song structures. Then eventually it became more focused as we tried new things and found out what we liked about them and what we didn’t like about them and honed that in.

But also, there was a moment of wonder around it with a song like “TWIRL,” for example. The demo we brought to the studio was very organic, acoustic, almost like a nod to Neil Young or a classic folk songwriter. And then working with [producers] John [Congleton] and Brad [Cook], we stumbled on a different texture for it when everyone in the studio listened back to it at the end of the day, and everyone was like, “How did we make this thing?” Those kind of moments are what we were chasing and a lot of times they came from getting out of our comfort zone.

You mentioned Brad and John. What perspective did they bring to the table and what was that collaborative process like?

Julien: I don’t know what it is about us but the last two times we’ve made records, we’ve paired two producers who have never met before, which is such a huge gamble. I would say the first time we did it, there was a bunch of circumstances that made it really hard, but their personalities meshing was a bit difficult at times. But Congleton and Brad are actually perfect complements in so many ways. Congleton is so structured, down to the hours he works in the studio. He literally … it’s like the clock strikes, whatever time it was, 7, and he’s like “Alright, I need to go home” (laughs). And Brad would just stay and hang out. Brad is more like a therapist, more of an emotional support type, Rick Rubin type of producer. And Congleton is just like an actual computer nerd.

What can you tell me about the first single, “REAL LOVE”? 

Max: That was maybe the last song we finished before going to the studio. We could’ve been mentally, like, “The record’s done, we’re going to take these 12, maybe 13 [songs] to the studio and record it” … Julian and I were living in Chicago in a pretty beat-up sublet. We had just gotten back from Portland and we’d signed a lease without seeing the apartment and it was a little wanting, to say the least. We just had beds and a rough studio setup. For whatever reason, on a random night we had the chordal idea and a rough melody from a demo from Portland and we opened it back up and revamped it, and before we knew it, it felt like the most exciting thing we’d made in a long time.

I’d like to hear about “BLUE,” too. It has a bright disposition to it but some of the lyrics have a certain darkness to them, too. You’re talking about paranoia. 

Julien: Max had gone home for Christmas and I wrote the chords and for some reason it was making me think of “Deck the Halls”-type Christmastime shit, but I think that’s because that was the aesthetic around me. I didn’t really think about the fact that it was gospel-y until I sent it to Max and he put drums on it. As soon as Max got back from Christmas, we finished it in like a week. It’s really special. Songs can come about in whatever way they will, but there was that specific type of energy between us and chemistry while we were making that song where it was just like, “Damn, this feels so special.”  We sent it to the label and everyone we work with immediately and they were just like, “Ooooh!”

I think the darker elements of the lyrics came because we knew we had to go to E-minor for the guitar solo section and “paranoia” just sounds kind of catchy there. Love and paranoia are definitely correlated in a lot of ways.

It’s common in your work in general, but certainly on this album, to see you frame themes that are a bit darker within these songs that are blissful, buoyant, more upbeat — which is a tough balance to strike but makes those songs more thematically interesting. Is that something that you are aware of and thinking about?

Max: I think that’s just naturally what we lean towards. The goal of our entire writing process is for there to be depth within it, and a lot of times the way that we are able to achieve that is through combining two different emotions with sonics and lyrical content.

Julien: We don’t put anything in a song that we don’t fully relate to. So, there’s obviously some darkness going on (laughs). Probably in everybody right now.

You experienced some loss during the making of this album. Max, your grandfather passed away, and JR White from Girls passed away as well, who has been a mentor to you. Can you speak to that experience?

Max: We both knew JR a bit. I probably knew him a little closer. He was the person who found Smith Westerns on Myspace and emailed us, and essentially started my touring career. The first tour I went on was because he reached out to us. I ended up living with him and Chris [Owens] for a bit in San Francisco in 2010, 2011. So, we were really close for those years. He was the age I am now when we met. He was 31 when we met and I think he passed away when he was 40. Everyone that knows JR … he had some demons that he was dealing with and keeping a personal relationship was tough for some reasons. But one of the first people that believed in what I did in music was him in a large way. It was a real hit when he passed away.

I think we were in the middle [of writing] or had just written “TERMINAL.” It was one of those moments where a song that you’re writing isn’t necessarily about a specific purpose when you’re writing it and then you realize it speaks to an experience you may have afterwards, similar to how someone listening to the music would relate to it and relate the song to their own life. That’s how “TERMINAL” worked for me, with this song about loss, a song in general that’s pretty, not “ghastly,” but it’s got this really intense sound and it’s very sad. I guess I related to our own music in the way that I hope other people can if they’re experiencing the same thing.

Thematically, another thing I noticed about this record is that on a number of songs, you’re talking about aging — what it feels like, how it changes you. Is this something that has been on your mind?

Julien: I turned 30 right after we finished it. Probably the feeling of the very end of my 20s being just, like, robbed, and spent inside the house… but it’s always been on our minds. Specifically with a song like “MEMORY,” it was really easy to embrace for some reason and I think we wrote about it pretty poignantly in that song. But I think that song is speaking moreso to, what if we go down as a completely unknown band in 20 years? And this will be an artifact that put that into words in a beautiful way.

When you are making an album, do you look at it as important to have those thematic connections from song to song?

Julien: I think that’s what we got better at with this album. Light Upon the Lake was all breakup, pretty much. FTA was all paranoia. With this record, when we were putting the tracklist together I was like, “Wow, this is truly the most diverse set of songs, sentimentally, that we’ve made.” Every song comes from its perspective in a completely validated way, in a way that is well thought-out. It is on our minds, if we write two straight heartbreak-y songs, we have to hit a different sentiment. It felt like a good snowball effect with this record, because we executed it well every time, in my opinion.

You have a lot of shows coming up in support of the new record. What can fans expect from the new tour and what are your feelings on starting to return to normalcy on that front?

Max: We’re just very excited to get back on the road. We’re two months out and it’s a countdown situation. It’s going to be really fun to pull off these new songs live and explore the dynamic range of what they have to offer in a live setting and combine them with our older catalog. We have a lot more ability to create a diverse setlist that takes you on a journey.

Julien: Putting “Golden Days” in between “BACK THEN” and “SELF” or something. I think there’s an opportunity for the stoners in the crowd to be like, “Whoa!” (laughs) To have their minds blown and their hair blown back.

Max: We’re all really excited and that process is literally beginning right now as we speak, starting to get in there with the band and sort all of this out.

We’ve talked about the initial singles, but are there any songs fans haven’t heard yet that are particularly special to you, or you feel epitomize what you’re trying to achieve with this record?

Max: It’s hard to choose one but, for me right now, “COUNTY LINES” is a good example. There’s a huge string section on it that sounds like an orchestra, but it’s also paired with sounds that are definitely synthesized at the same time, with a sub-bass, and there’s an instrument on there called an EVI, which is an electric valve instrument; essentially our trumpet player plays a synth the same way you would a trumpet. I think that shows the width of the album. 

Do you have a different one?

Julien: The next songs that we’re releasing are “MEMORY” and “COUNTY LINES.” I feel like a song like “SELF,” for the right person, is just going to be like, “What the fuck?” (laughs) I don’t know, I just feel really proud of that song. And if I heard another band put that song out, I would be genuinely impressed.

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Alex Swhear

Alex Swhear is a full-time music nerd from Indianapolis. He has strong opinions about music, film, politics, and the importance of wearing Band-Aids to Nelly concerts.

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