Meeting Whitney

When Whitney dropped their debut single, ‘No Woman’ in January to virtually instant widespread acclaim, it felt like as though we were hearing the first of a band to really get excited about, as Julien Erhlich’s laidback vocals blend a sun-soaked sounding melody with melancholy lyrics. Now, four months after ‘No Woman’, their debut album, Light Upon The Lake is about to be released through Secretly Canadian.

With seven members in the band and an extensive touring schedule, you’d be forgiven for believing things could get tumultuous, but it all seems surprisingly blissful so far: “Everyone in the band, we’re all best friends,” explains Julien (one of the three Whitney’s I’ve managed to pin down, along with Malcolm Brown and Max Kakacek, who are briefly in London). “It’s actually really nice when you’re going to a new city every night because you have seven people. We’ve kind of got a weird gang mentality, not like gang violence... but we like travelling as a pack.” It’s not like they really have a choice – the band is technically homeless for the next year and a half as the tour cycle rolls on, but they definitely seem as though they’re making the most of it. 

Whitney formed out of the ashes of Smith Westerns following their breakup in 2014, but the dynamics of the band remain wholly organic; the chemistry and camaraderie between the seven members of the band is very obvious, particularly in their live sets. “Some of the members grew up together in Chicago – I don’t know, we’re just friends, it’s a very natural thing. I’m sure we’ll have ups and downs because you can’t tour together for a year and play higher profile shows without there being some stress or weird shit involved.”

Despite the ten tracks on Light Upon The Lake sounding as though it was the music they were born to make, Whitney didn’t instantly fall into the daydreamy-Americana tone of the record. “It all kind of started out of Max buying this tape machine. I think it took a couple of songs for us to find [our sound]. I was looking through my computer today, going through my iTunes files, and I found the first demos – I think if anyone heard them they’d just be like ‘is this even the same band?’ because they’re just like, so intensely warbly.” Warbliness aside, these initial sessions grounded the band and led them to where they find themselves now. “We were recording on that tape machine that was pretty much broken but for some reason it made us inspired to keep writing music and it kind of snowballed into what it is now. I think the one thing that [we took from] the early writing was keeping things really unaffected, make things sound as they do – like, really natural.”

What stands out most about Light Upon The Lake is the sheer consistency of the record. Every song compliments each other, flowing effortlessly through the span of the album, resulting in an unfalteringly solidity in the distinctive sound that they’ve managed to establish.

Amongst the breezy melodies of Whitney’s music lies a juxtaposition of forlorn and introspective lyrics such as “I know it’s hard to give up when I don’t wanna be saved/Take me in your heart again” which is in no way accidental. “It keeps it balanced. It was just the way me and Max worked in our life, like going through the breakup of [Smith Westerns] and both going through some other weird shit, breakups and stuff…” Whilst some of the songs are written as a whole band, Julien and Max are the primary songwriters. “It’s like 100% collaboration – we pick through every tiny little thing in the song and bounce those ideas off each other to make it perfect.”

By now, writing and recording songs in Wisconsin cabins is synonymous with Bon Iver, but despite some time spent doing the same, Max points out that the decision was made purely out of nothing other than necessity. “It wasn’t really a choice for us, we were homeless; we didn’t have an apartment. The only place we could go was this cabin that my family owns in Wisconsin while we were looking for an apartment in the city.” Ultimately, only one song on the album – ‘Follow’ – was written there, but the experience seemed to be conducive to the band’s creative output for that particular track. “There’s also no Wi-Fi in there which was kind of sick. It was cool… all there is, is an out of tune piano that we were just banging on all day… it was good for that song specifically, I think going into the middle of nowhere to write the rest of the record might not have worked, but that one song, I think it helped it a lot.”

Despite the high expectations set for Light Upon The Lake drawn from the buzz around ‘No Woman’, the band seem as unfazed by any potential pressure, giving off the same relaxed nonchalance of their music. “I think it’s more exciting than pressure, we don’t feel pressure, we just feel depressed sometimes… Nah I’m kidding.” I can’t help but think the band won’t have any problem living up to the hype created by their first single, as Light Upon The Lake feels like an effortless triumph, born out of the passion of a gang of talented musicians. Erhlich puts it perfectly: “Writing and recording can make you the happiest person in the entire world. You’re just trying to put the most honest feelings into the melody or chord progression that makes you the happiest person in the world.”

Words by Victoria Parkey
Photography by Tom Alex Helm