Whitney Made New Album 'Forever Turned Around' the Same Way They Survived Smith Westerns — With Friendship

Whitney Made New Album 'Forever Turned Around' the Same Way They Survived Smith Westerns — With Friendship
Photo: Olivia Bee
Whitney have something to say to you. On sophomore album Forever Turned Around, the Chicago-based folk rockers have penned first-person pleas to unidentified listeners, singing directly to a wide variety of someones — friends, lovers and the platonic ideal in between. It furthers the intimacy promised by their rich, string- and horn-laden arrangements, the type that made their debut album, 2016's Light Upon the Lake, an instant hit.
It helps that platonic love is not only what started the band in the first place, but what keeps them together. Founded in 2015 by drummer/vocalist Julien Ehrlich and guitarist Max Kakacek after their old band Smith Westerns broke up at the precipice of international acclaim and attention, Whitney formed some time later as a way for the pair to move forward.
Says Ehrlich, "[Max] and I, we can't really relate to many other people, just each other now," because of their shared experiences and common, tour-driven lifestyle. "We're both kind of in similar places in our romantic relationships as well, where we're still solid but I'm not gonna see my girlfriend for a long time [because of touring], probably. It feels really natural to maintain this friendship because we also respect each other."
The pair's friendship drives the songwriting on Forever Turned Around. While the new album shares the Laurel Canyon-inspired sonic palette and lush production of Light Upon the Lake, it also moves forward into less abstract, more emotional songwriting, the result of a conscious effort on the band's part.
The move comes after an obsession with Neil Young's landmark live album Live at Massey Hall 1971, released in 2007. Says Ehrlich, "those songs are obviously just him and a guitar and vocals, like completely stripped back, but the songs are still so good. Even though the arrangements on [Forever Turned Around] are maybe a little bit more dense, we wanted to make sure that when we strip them back to play them acoustically, they still hold up."
The dense arrangements feature many of the same players from Light Upon the Lake, including producer Jonathan Rado (of Foxygen), horn player Will Miller and violinist Macie Stewart, which fosters a convivial atmosphere and an open canvas on which to project feelings of hope and care.
"I think it's a friendly record," Ehrlich says, "something you could probably put on at a party and no one would be like, 'What the hell is this, turn this off.'"
Love, friendship and the synonymy between them fuels the world of Whitney. Standouts like "Friend of Mine" and "Song for Ty" fit seamlessly alongside more overtly romantic highlights like "Giving Up" and "Valleys (My Love)." It's a potent part of the pair's mindset that seeps into the music and gives it its tender strength and emotional heft.
"I feel like — and this might have to do the way that I was raised, as well, — I've just always told my friends that I loved them," says Ehrlich. "I think the way that we treat our friends in Chicago basically like family, it's probably only natural that it comes out in the music that way. We probably only have one life, right? Shouldn't you tell the people close to you that you care about them?"
Having been a touring musician since joining Unknown Mortal Orchestra as a teenager, Ehrlich credits Kakacek with keeping him sane despite a gruelling, road warrior lifestyle and an occasionally enabling drug culture that permeates the industry. He says, "We've seriously leaned on each other a ton to not fall completely off the deep end or start doing, maybe, the heavier drugs that we could've began doing at times. We've really leaned on each other and asked each other to look out for each other."
But just as important as letting people in is knowing when to set some boundaries. Speaking about his old outfit Smith Westerns, Ehrlich is quick to rule out a potential reunion, saying, "I do not think that would be a good idea." Though he maintains a friendly relationship with former bandmates Cullen and Cameron Omori — "We bumped into them two months ago and I wound up having them over to my house" — he understands that liking someone is not the only reason to work with them.
"You just kinda realize that you'd rather not work with certain people. It's just better for your relationships to only be friends.
"I don't really want to make it seem like Smith Westerns was the most dysfunctional band of all time, but by the end, when the friendship is dissipating, it's really hard to put your head in the right space to actually make something that is true to you. I think if Max and I suddenly stopped being friends, there's no way we could possibly make music together, either."
But as it stands today, the pair's friendship, and their relationships with their broader musical community, serves as a beacon through tough times, informing the band's soothing, upbeat atmosphere. It's necessary, says Ehrlich, especially in light of a tense, divided political climate.
When asked if those intimate friendships help him get through the tough times, he replies, "Hell yeah, man. America's a pretty dark place right now. I feel like everyone pretty much needs comfort."
Forever Turned Around is out August 30 courtesy of Secretly Canadian.