Whitney interview: "this is a very personal record, we were just looking inward for inspiration."
This week Whitney will release Forever Turned Around, the much anticipated follow-up to their debut record Light Upon The Lake. It continues their polished and immediately resonant classic pop sound, though with minor additions that show their increased maturity as songwriters.
Where Forever Turned Around connects with its predecessor is in its sounding so breezy and timeless, so when I sat down with Whitney’s two permanent members Max Kakacek and Julien Ehrlich I was intrigued to hear of the struggle they had been through. Forever Turned Around is an album that the pair toiled over, physically and emotionally, before turning out the highly polished and beautiful final product. Sitting down for coffee at a roadside café in Bethnal Green, they told me all about it.
Check out our conversation below, with photography from Flore Diamant.
Considering how well Light Upon The Lake was received, did that affect your mind-set at all going into making this one?
Julien: I feel like as much we could say that it didn't, it probably did a little bit. I do think that at the end of the day we probably put more pressure on ourselves than anyone else could put on us.
Max: I'm sure anyone that saw from a distance how lost we were in the writing of it would tell us that it was affecting us, but for us it's just kinda how we make records generally. Even the first one, before there was pressure from the outside world, we got lost in it.
You wrote and recorded this album all over the place, at home in Chicago then going to Wisconsin and such – why did you decide to do that?
Julien: First off we had the means to do it this time around. We were already signed when we were making this record. I think we would feel trapped at times if the songs weren't coming together as quickly as hoped, so changing the scenery around us helped.
Are there any particular songs you broke through on when you got out of the city?
Max: I think the chorus of 'Used To Be Lonely', that's the one that really sticks out. We were in Wisconsin, my family has a tiny cabin that feels like the size of this patio and we both lived there for two months trying to write...
Julien: And the only thing that came together was the chorus of 'Used To Be Lonely'. Sometimes it just doesn't come together as well as you'd hoped, but you just have to keep pushing towards it. There was also a trip when we went up to Justin Vernon's studio, also in Wisconsin, that was a really productive trip; we wrote a whole new song, we got the final guitar leads and pianos done on pretty much all of the record. That place kind of fosters a fast-paced sort of work flow, it's really nice.
The Light Upon The Lake Demos which you released after the first album were quite revealing of the process; are there a similarly detailed set of demos for Forever Turned Around too?
Julien: Yeah! And some of them are equally as charming - I don't know if charming is the right word - just kind of fucked up. The demo of 'Giving Up' I'm sure will see the light of day at some point, because we like it a lot.
Max: The demo for 'My Life Alone' is pretty funny, it's like a completely different song.
Julien: Oh yeah, it's like cowbell bass.
You can save that for your DJ sets.
Let's touch on the album cover briefly - who creates them?
Julien: Last time the rose was on a mirror that was hanging up in our house at the time. This one was painted by my partner.
Did your partner listen to the record while painting it?
Julien: She was with us through the whole process, as was Max's partner. That was a stressful time, because we were on a pretty crazy time crunch to get the painting done, so there were tears involved - just stress, you know?
Well I think the cover reflects the record really well, it's kind of tinged with regret and nostalgia, that brown hew captures that. Is that your take on it?
Julien: Yeah, for real! I'm glad you feel that way. By the end of it I think it was important that the cover reflect some sort of night time, because a lot of the lyrics take place [then]. If Light Upon The Lake was the sunrise, hopefulness sort of record, then this one is equally the opposite - it's a little bit sad and paranoid and a little darker.
Does that reflect where you were in your lives when writing?
Max: Yeah! Me and Julien feel that way pretty much constantly, so we're trying to figure out those feelings of paranoia and restlessness and anxiousness, which is a theme throughout the record. There's multiple ways to think about the album title, but that's one of them.
In terms of the actual sound, I feel like it's a slightly more sophisticated version of what you had on the first one - do you think that's true? How would you express that in musical terms?
Max: I think we focused a lot more on strings on this record.
Julien: I remember when we were recording with Jake Portrait from UMO, and he was just like "yeah all the arrangements sound more mature," but at the same time we didn't want it to seem like we were covering up for a bad song, so we stressed just as much if not more about the songs being interesting and powerful in stripped back forms as well. I think at some point we intend to do an acoustic tour. We know the Light Upon The Lake songs hold up. That's still the hardest part, actually writing the material.
When you play live it's seven people on stage, but in the creation phase it's just the two of you - is that important to the way Whitney functions?
Max: 'Rhododendron' came together as a full band with five of us in the studio playing live. But I think the way that he and I think about songs and the way we get perfectionist about it, it's easier for us to keep the ideas simple and kind of focus on what we like about them at first and get everything done. Working with seven people immediately when make a song...
Julien: It sounds so stressful!
Max: I think we shy away from it.
Julien: Imagining trying to do that, I think it would end up not in a fist fight but so many feelings would get hurt. With Max and I it's less - all we have to do is make sure that him and I are satisfied.
Do you ever hurt each other's feelings?
Max: I'm sure we have, but not on purpose. If one of us at some point will get really attached to an idea and the other is like "dude this is just not good," you're probably like "aw shit you're right..." You go to sleep thinking man do I just not know what good music is right now?
Julien: It's never really shouting. We probably got in two or three sort of arguments, but when we fight there aren't fireworks, it's not explosive at all. But it probably does make other people in the room feel slightly uncomfortable.
Max: It's more like mothering.
On the surface it seems like a lot of these songs are about relationships, going through the trials, but it could also be about the relationship between the two of you.
Julien: Yeah. We purposefully didn't give any gender to any character on the record in order to leave that option open. If you want to think it is about us, then you should.
Max: Or if you want to apply the songs to friendship that's not romantic, you could.
I find that on this record some songs like 'Before I Know It' can sound both full of regret or full of triumph, the arrangements manage to capture either side of the coin depending how you're feeling at that moment.
Max: One of the things that we really liked about Light Upon The Lake that we did consciously carry over to become a theme of ours is exploring the weirdness of being melancholic but also happy. Usually our arrangements are pretty bright and happy but the lyrics are pretty dark and less optimistic. I think that's something that is a theme that we love in all music, whenever that happens. Hopefully we achieved it.
Let's talk about some of those lyrics. On 'Before I Know It' you sing "I will fade into the sunset/ I keep changing before I know it," what kind of changes are you talking about?
Julien: Definitely just acknowledging we're not the young cute band that we once were. That line is also supposed to carry on into "I'll keep changing before I know it… I'll be gone." I think that's something we enjoyed doing on this record, making the lyrics run-on sentences, and if you choose to apply the chorus to the verse and the verse to the chorus you can do that if you want.
Max: That one came together pretty quick, too. When we were at Bon Iver's studio we recorded - this never happens for us - we recorded the basic chords and stuff and then we took two hours and wrote all the lyrics.
Julien: We changed them a tiny bit, just the first line of the song.
Max: Considering how much time we spent on all our other songs and lyrics, trying for months, that one just...
Which feels more satisfying, when it comes quickly or when you finally crack one you've been working on for a while?
Julien: I don't know. The 'Used To Be Lonely' chorus we were literally pacing around that cabin for two months banging our heads against the wall, filling our heads with beer and cigarette smoke... It's just a totally different form of satisfaction. When you do something really fast you have potential to get really excited about it, but you can wake up the next morning and be like "I fucking hate that." So when something comes together slowly it does feel a bit more sure of itself.
Max: When you do something really fast it almost sounds like someone else's band, because when you sit with something for a while you get so connected to it, compared to something that just pops out and you record it straight away and you can listen to it the next day. It's a different perspective.
On 'Song For Ty' you sing "I don't feel alive but I've been living" - is that about being on tour?
Julien: I think that's just about living in the world that we live in right now. Every country is completely different. Living in America isn't even that bad compared to living in a less well-off country, but that is kind of how we feel living in Trump's America. You can just tell that the country's in the worst spot that it's been in in a long time.
You're kind of numb.
Julien: Yeah, you're like "I'm alive and I shouldn't complain too much about this but it really sucks and it's really depressing." So that's kind of a line about being depressed.
The end of 'Song For Ty' you repeat "anything could happen," that's another example of where you could look at it both positively and negatively. Do you have a feeling about which way you meant it?
Julien: That's a good pick up. I view it as more of an anxiety-ridden lyric like "oh my god anything could happen; why would I even step out my front door today?!" Which is pretty gnarly [laughs].
In 'Valleys' there's "fire burning in the trees/ maybe life is the way it seems..."
Julien: Damn, you picked out all our favourite lyrics, seriously.
Max: "Fire burning in the trees" popped up out of nowhere and it sounded amazing, but figuring out the other half of that line took an entire day of throwing ideas out. I think a lot of this album we were really playing with ambiguity in some of the lyrics. I like "fire burning in the trees" personally because it's probably a reference to wildfires but also a way of thinking of fall and leaves changing and the passing of time.
Julien: Then "maybe life is the way it seems," I think a lot of the other lines we had ended up sounding a bit too whiny or complainy or something, but with "maybe life is the way it seems" you can make it as dark as you want. I think the way we think about it is maybe we're living in hell right now - maybe life is death right now [laughs].
That song has a lovely instrumental ending, how much of those parts do you figure out before you get the band together?
Max: I think initially we were like "oh we'll just fade it out," and then because there was less pressure on it we started goofing off a little more. Then all of us were like that's our favourite part of the song, so it turned into this long extended theme. It was kind of a happy accident.
Julien: That was the first time that we ate mushrooms during the session, and I remember being pretty high and feeling after the take was done "that was a perfect take." That felt very magical. We were still kind of leaving it open ended and it was just one of those moments where we chose the perfect time to end it. It was so good.
Max: Since the ending didn't really have a stop time it was just completely improvised. That studio session started off a little rocky, getting in there we felt a little unprepared, and then that's when everything clicked, that song. I remember Brad [Cook, engineer], after the final listen before we were gonna be done for the day he was like "that's the kind of music I actually enjoy listening to." Us too, we were like "finally we're making something we like!"
Julien: Yeah he was like "this is my favourite shit in the world, this is my favourite music."
Max: It had been after three days of us making stuff that all of us were unsure about, and that was a moment where it was like "OK, we're understanding what we need to do."
There's no shortage of romantic songs, and on 'My Life Alone' you seem to be yearning for that kind of connection. Do you consider yourselves romantics?
Julien: Yeah. I just kind of realised that unless it's a documentary about music, I only really watch movies that are based around love or at least feature a central relationship. I'm curious, what's your take on 'My Life Alone'?
To me it sounds like someone who's been out on their own travelling around and they want to get back to someone maybe, or maybe there isn't someone and they're hoping they'll find that person on the road. They're dreaming of dancing to the radio with them and other classic scenes...
Max: We had some trouble with that song because it was the happiest sounding immediately, and we wondered if it was too happy sounding.
Julien: I think the reason we never lost hope in that song is because we definitely wanted a song with a modulation in it. We knew how the melody hits when it modulates - we didn't want to lose that on the record, so we had to finish it.
Max: It was a tough one because when things are too happy you start to wonder "is this the cheesiest song we've ever written?"
Julien: I think it's one of my favourites now.
Max: We changed the whole verse melody.
Julien: We changed that and then the lyrics clicked right at the very end. I'm happy with those lyrics, it's the inner monologue of one half of a relationship being like "I'm fine on my own, I don't need you." And then there's a mood swing that happens during the chorus like "oh my god I remember what it feels like to be with you - I love you so much!" That's how we view it.
We have to talk about 'Day & Night', is it about death? There's the line "I remember there's an end in sight" - is that to life, or just to an event?
Julien: We were definitely thinking more cryptic on that song. When we put the "great divide" line in there we were like alright let's commit to having this all-out depressing substance abuse song on the record.
Yeah, "feeling dizzy chasing the same high." But it's musically quite easy going - it's probably the most easy-going song about death I can think of.
Max: That's one of my favourites on the album, I really like that one. I think there's something about when it was recorded.
Julien: [Jonathan] Rado's production, he killed it on that song. He's all over that song.
Max: It sounds like the perfect amount of messed up and bizarre.
Let's jump to the end. On the last album you ended with 'Follow', which is a hopeful song, this time you end with 'Forever Turned Around', which is pretty much the opposite. Was that a conscious choice to end on a downer?
Julien: We almost opened with 'Forever Turned Around'... I would agree with you, it's almost the opposite of 'Follow', and that's probably why we chose it, and chose it as the title track as well, because it's kind of equally the opposite of Light Upon The Lake.
Where did that phrase “Forever Turned Around” come from?
Julien: That was another one where we had this complete different hook over the same chords forever, for like a year and a half, and then we just could never finish the song. It was just like "holy shit; do we really have to change the one thing that we really loved about this song in order to finish it?" And as soon as we did that it came together.
Let's end on a light hearted note; apparently you watched a lot of Tom Hanks movies while making the record?
Max: [In the cabin] There was basically a really old TV that still has the antennas, it was a tiny one, and a DVD player, and there was a threefor DVD that had Forrest Gump, The Green Mile and maybe Road To Perdition, and we would just have it on all the time.
Julien: It's comforting. Tom Hanks is very comforting.
Max: There was a Halloween a few years back where we wore suits. He told people he was Austin Powers and I told people I was Tom Hanks in Big.
Julien: We just wanted to wear suits on Halloween.
Are there any other films or TV or records that you were into while making the record?
Julien: We always use Neil Young as a song writing benchmark.
That's a very high benchmark.
Julien: We try to... also Labi Siffre; there's this album called Crying Laughing Loving Lying, and that song specifically [the title track] is super powerful. We would hear that in the music at times. As far as other inspiration, it's pretty dorky to say but this is a very personal record, we were just looking inward for inspiration.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 27th August 2019