Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro
From the first verse of Whitney’s 2016 debut single, “No Matter Where We Go,” Julien Ehrlich announced himself as a distinct new voice in indie rock. His delicate, lilting falsetto is like overhearing an intimate conversation between lovers or watching sunlight fade from the trees on a late-summer evening. With their perfectly realized vocal and guitar melodies and honey-sweet horn sections, the Chicago-based band’s plaintive, wistful follow-up singles, “Golden Days” and “No Woman,” cemented the sound that made Whitney’s first record, Light Upon the Lake, one of the best of 2016.
Now the band is back with Forever Turned Around, a record that immerses listeners in the same ’70s soft-rock sound world. The INDY caught up with Ehrlich ahead of Whitney’s show at Cat’s Cradle on September 21 to talk about his polarizing voice; the creative partnership with guitarist Max Kakacek that carries on from their former band, Smith Westerns; and the challenges of singing and drumming simultaneously.
INDY: Can you wrap your head around the response to Light Upon the Lake?
JULIEN EHRLICH: We could never have imagined that we would be in this position, to make a second record and have people actually anticipating it, but we did put our entire lives and all of our energy into the first record. As soon as we finished Light Upon the Lake, I was like, “Holy shit, are people not going to understand this at all?” But then, as soon as taste-making people in Chicago picked up on it, I was like, “OK, if they’re genuinely excited about it, this shit could grow.” I thought that if people liked the initial demo of “No Matter Where We Go,” they’re going to fucking love the album.
What about the album did you think listeners wouldn’t understand at first?
The vocals. My voice was almost like a harsh listen, in a weird way, and it was pretty polarizing at the time. I think that was my main worry, and since I was the one singing, I was extra worried about it. The songs just made so much sense to us on every level, so once people picked up on the sound, we felt like the content was definitely going to resonate with people. We felt like the songs were the best possible songs we ever could have written, and we feel the same about Forever Turned Around.
Have you gotten used to being a front man, the person most responsible for entertaining the audience?
At first, it was pretty tough to figure out how to talk to a crowd and make sure everyone was having their own special time at a show. Once I realized that this was all happening, that the band was something we were going to commit to and take extremely seriously, it became easy. I mean, not every night. There was a festival show in Europe last month where I was like, “Oh my god, playing drums and singing is so fucking hard.”
You started drumming at a very early age, though, so that part must feel automatic.
I don’t think I would be able to do this if I hadn’t been drumming my entire life. I would say I’m a natural-born drummer; adding singing was like learning a new language and speaking them both at the same time. I’ve toured a lot as just a drummer, and I find that more difficult. It’s easier to do both jobs when I’m not thinking about either of them.
When you’re workshopping songs with Max, do you focus on creating earworm melodies?
That’s one hundred percent the goal when we’re writing songs. We want it to get stuck in our heads almost to the point of insanity. We care about writing playful melodies that you want to hear and come back to, even if you over-listened to Light Upon the Lake. You want to make that record that people listen to three years down the road and say, “Oh man, I forgot about this.” You want it to time-stamp or soundtrack a moment, a month, a phase in someone’s life, and you want that person to look back and remember that phase fondly.
What sort of a phase were you going through when you wrote Forever Turned Around?
When we’re writing a record, we’re always searching for something. I think this record sounds like a beautiful form of searching, like a beautiful confusion or an exploration.
Had anything changed in terms of your songwriting partnership with Max?
We just love making records together and playing with the whole group we tour with as well. Maybe we tried to get out of town or whatever; we went up to Wisconsin and Oregon and New York, but in the end, it all came back to the same basement in Chicago that we’ve always worked in. We didn’t really have much of a choice—it had to get done in Chicago.
Did you have any major breakthrough moments where a song finally came together?
“Friend of Mine” took us so long to crack. We started the verse back in 2016, and it was maybe the last song we finished on the record. By the end, I was like, “I don’t even know if I like this fucking song.” But it’s crazy, the further removed our heads have gotten from “Friend of Mine,” the more we think it’s the best song we’ve ever done. You question yourself over and over again, and then you feel forever turned around.
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