Chicago-based band Whitney — which features vocalist/drummer Julien Ehrlich and guitarist Max Kakace — didn't shy away from the big questions, about getting older and making sense of one's place in the world, while writing their sophomore album "Forever Turned Around."
For example, in their song “Valleys (My Love)” Ehrlich sings, “There's fire burning in the trees/maybe life is the way it seems."
“I think the song is pretty optimistic, but that specific line is maybe a little bit more kind of taking the temperature of what's going on in the world around us, which is a lot of scary stuff,” said Ehrlich during a recent phone interview to promote the band's upcoming show at The Sylvee on Friday, Jan. 24. “I think that line is like questioning ‘Is everything really this bad because it really seems this bad?’”
The duo’s moments of anxiety — whether it stems from getting older or from a heavy touring schedule — can be heard on the album. At the same time, there’s often a balancing force of wisdom.
For example, on “Giving Up,” Ehrlich sings about uncertainty in romantic relationships and concludes that they have a complex and fluid nature. “Life is a lot of gray areas,” Ehrlich said. “It's just about how you navigate them.”
Following Whitney’s tour of its debut album "Light Upon the Lake," Ehrlich and Kakace struggled at first to write songs they believed in.
“We were trying to write the entire time, but it took us like six months for anything to really stick or like anything to really matter to us,” Ehrlich said. “I feel like "Forever Turned Around" took so long because we didn't really want to write about touring. We only really allowed ourselves like one song to do that on, which was ‘Day & Night.’”
Once they figured out their path, any difficulties were offset by the duo’s tight-knit friendship. Ehrlich, who has known Kakace since their days in a previous band, the Smith Westerns, said that they really “leaned on each other for every single part of the record.”
“I don't think either of us are really the type of people to allow sort of outside [sources], whether it's success or criticism or anything like stress, get to us,” he says. “We both love each other and respect each other, so that's really what it comes down to.”
On their debut, Ehrlich focused primarily on lyrics and melodies. But this time he spent “more time focusing on actually writing music” and “sitting down with a guitar and coming up with the chord progression” and finding a “melodic spark.” As a result, it was a more united front in writing the songs together.
“The lines were more blurred or there was more crossover in the writing process,” Ehrlich said. “We're pretty synced at this point.”
While the arrangements are a little bit “wider or grander” with lush layers of strings and horns, the band remain committed to the essence of each song.
“I still feel like everything is completely crucial to the song and getting the sentiment across,” Ehrlich said.
Like the debut, there’s a contrast in the bright and warm sounds and the often-serious lyrical topics. The band realized it was something they were good at and wanted to take it a step further.
“I think the balance stills holds up pretty well,” Ehrlich said. “Then I guess moving onto like the third record, maybe do away with it. Maybe dive deeper into either the happier or sadder parts of it.
“I feel like this time around, actually taking a month-long break or whatever for the holidays is really helping us,” he continues. “We’re kind of separately working on ideas. Then, once we reconvene, I feel like our juices will have been fully recharged in a way.”
Co-producers Brad Cook and Jonathan Rado (the latter who had produced their debut) helped immensely with fine-tuning the songs. However, it was their reunion with original rhythm guitarist player Ziyad Asrar where things really came into focus. They recorded the album in his basement.
“I feel like at that point we really just needed more time. Ziyad was down to give us his time and sort of all of his energy,” Ehrlich said. “He has really great ears as well. He's one of our best friends and that space was super familiar as well. It really helped out.”
The band is happy to have Asrar on tour as well.
“It means everything,” Ehrlich said. “He's really funny and he's a great musician and loves playing live shows. I think rejoining the band has made him a lot happier.
“Seeing people singing along to the new songs at shows has been kind of a huge shock.”