Interview: Julien Ehrlich from Whitney Reflects on Relationships and Collaboration

Friday, August 30, 2019

It’s been over three years since Chicago-based band Whitney graced listeners with their extraordinary debut album Light Upon the Lake — the years have passed and life has changed for the band, but their ability to craft music that captures human experiences and relationships in their rawest form hasn’t. Their highly anticipated sophomore album Forever Turned Around has been well worth the wait. In the lead-up to the album’s release, I spoke with singer/drummer Julien Ehrlich about having a break, handling pressure and his creative partnership and friendship with bandmate Max Kakacek.

Working on Forever Turned Around didn’t come without putting pressure on themselves — which is only a natural response when your debut album receives as much praise and attention as Light Upon the Lake did. “I feel like we put so much pressure on ourselves,” said Ehrlich, “It’s hard to ignore the outside pressure, whether it’s positive pressure from fans of our music or those who think you’re going to have a sophomore slump.”

Though having an impressive debut album can add a degree of pressure to the process of working on a sophomore album, Ehrlich admits that it also gave them something to measure up to. “It definitely helped that we’ve been through the process of making an album before. We went into it knowing what we wanted to sound like. We didn’t want it to sound exactly the same as the first record, but we had the tools that we discovered from the first time and that helped. We knew that we could write better songs that felt more true to us right now, but using those similar tools.”

They aimed to push the boundaries of what they’ve written before and experiment with their songwriting on the new record. “We wanted to write more playful melodies,” said Ehrlich, “We wanted to push ourselves to think outside of the box.”

For Ehrlich and his bandmate and collaborator Max Kakacek, it was important for them to take their time with the record. The material on Forever Turned Around was created from scratch — Ehrlich does note that they began writing a verse from ‘Friend of Mine’ (which appears towards the end of the album) in 2016. “For the album, there was no old demos that we completely carried over from our first album as that would have bored us a bit. It’s why it took three years to put out another record.”

The band’s heavy touring schedule and the large amount of time that they spent on the road also held the process up. “I think we are maybe too fragile on the road, touring isn’t always great on your emotional and mental state. You can kind of mess around and come up with a decent musical idea, but writing an entire song on the road is something we wouldn’t be able to do.” Touring leaves Ehrlich and Kakacek with little downtime, especially in between doing press and preparing for shows. Though touring leaves little time for them to work on new music, Ehrlich enjoys maintaining a healthy balance and having a break, “On a couple of tours we went on between writing the record, it was good to take a break and listen to any demos we had."

In between working on their new album and touring, Ehrlich said that he kept himself busy with other things outside of music to help maintain a healthy balance of being a musician and a human — whether it was settling down with his significant other, immersing himself in his love for basketball and the NBA, or refining his cooking skills. He noted that he and Kakacek also both ran in half-marathons.

According to Ehrlich, his creative partnership with Kakacek hasn’t changed too much, though he notes that it’s become more collaborative. Between albums, Ehrlich said that he has worked on getting better at the guitar and helped with chord progressions this time around. “On the first record, it was Max who was coming up with most of the musical ideas," he said.

Their partnership also works as they’re open to giving each other criticism. “We’re pretty open to each other's criticism. We both, especially on this record, would bring ideas to the table. Say I came up with an idea and I was really excited about it, and he would just be like, "I don't know if I like this part of it". It would make you maybe angry or whatever at first, but then the next day whoever came up with the idea would wake up and be like, "Oh, he's probably right", and then tweak a specific thing about it.”

Most importantly, working together makes them want to be the best songwriters they can be. “I think we are just good at compromising, we truly drive each other to be better at songwriting.”

Forever Turned Around, which channels the various relationships we have in our lives, not only captures their views on romantic relationships but commitment as a whole — including the commitment he and Kakacek have as collaborators and friends. "We wanted to dive into the commitment side of things," said Ehrlich, "Including the perspective of what it means to commit to someone, and that could be about a romantic relationship that feels like it's going to end but doesn't, or even Max and I committing together and the band. Like with 'Giving Up', we never considered that song a break-up song. When it came out, people who were writing about it talked about it as if we were referring to a relationship ending, but it's definitely not about that."

His views of relationships and commitment might have inspired the album, but they also affect his views of home and what keeps him (and Whitney) based in Chicago. Over the past few years, Ehrlich has said in previous interviews that he could never see the band moving to a big city like Los Angeles or New York. The relationships he has made in Chicago keep him inspired. “The people in Chicago are amazing, I feel like I can pretty much pinpoint that to be the only reason why I really love it here. I've made some of my most important friendships and relationships here in Chicago, so for me, that's why I love it.”

It's clear talking to Ehrlich that his connection to the people he surrounds himself with, and his various relationships, is what keeps him continually inspired. His supportive and collaborative relationship with Kakacek is pivotal to Whitney and the band's success and ensures that they're always striving to be the best musicians that they can be.

Written by Amy Smolcic (@amysmolcic)

Forever Turned Around is out Friday, August 30 via Secretly Canadian.

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