Over the past couple of years, critics have mostly stopped bringing up the creation story that followed Whitney around in their early days. The idea was that the band’s two principal members — Julien Ehrlich on drums and lead vocals, Max Kakacek on guitar — wrote their songs by channeling a reclusive, heavy-drinking, fictional songwriter named Whitney, whose music would only see the light of day long after his death. And the story was true, mostly.
But the notion that Whitney were ever really detached from their music didn’t quite add up. Even on their debut Light Upon The Lake, a soft rock mini-masterpiece rapt by nostalgia and delivered entirely in falsetto, Ehrlich was clearly processing his grief and regret at points. And by the time they released their second LP, Forever Turned Around, last year, the fictional Whitney seemed to have been altogether forgotten. They were writing about a life spent on the road away from the people they loved, grappling as best as they could with the chaos and confusion of a world thrown into crisis. These were songs that a hermit, however imaginative, would struggle to conjure.
It seems obvious to suggest that Whitney are channeling other artists now, given that their new album, Candid — out today on Secretly Canadian — is made up entirely of covers. But, as Ehrlich and Kakacek explain on a video call from the house they’ve been sharing in Portland since the spring, arranging and performing these songs didn’t just mean getting into the heads of the people who first wrote them. “When we were thinking of ways to change a song, we would take on the role of being a studio band for a second, just to get out of our own heads,” Kakacek says. “How would some studio band backing up Sam Cooke or Otis Redding play a Moondog song?”
They actually got to try that one out. On their cover of Moondog’s “High on a Rocky Ledge,” Kakacek plays an understated R&B lead line, borrowing from Cooke’s old bandleader Clifton White. And Kakacek insists that they were conjuring the “same band” when they covered SWV’s 1997 single “Rain” elsewhere on Candid.
Ehrlich and Kakacek invented that imaginary Whitney, drinking and writing songs in some faraway woods, for the same reasons they invented Sam Cooke’s imaginary backing band. “I think [the fictional Whitney] forced us to check our indulgence and attempt to create beautiful landscapes while not overcrowding the music,” Kakacek said in an interview before Light Upon The Lake was released. The point was never to have these ideas detach Ehrlich and Kakacek from their music, but to nudge them into new territory as musicians and arrangers. This time around, it allows Whitney — bolstered for the first time in the studio by the full band they play with on tour — to attack covers that might have seemed impossible on paper.
At their temporary home in Portland, Whitney have already started work on their third album of original material. “We've got two songs completely done,” Ehrlich says, “one song that we're really close on, and then three or four more ideas that are certainly going to become songs.” One of those ideas is a “straight-up ballad” that he says has “Adele vibes.” They’ve made a rule that they can’t use acoustic guitars when writing, and most ideas are starting on the piano right now. If things keep moving as quickly as they have been since Whitney moved to Oregon in March, LP3 could come out next summer.
Until then, there’s a wealth of material to dig into on Candid, and Ehrlich and Kakacek walked us through the project one song at a time.
“Bank Head,” Kelela
The FADER: Julien, this is a wildly ambitious vocal performance to listen to and say, "Yeah, I can do that.”
Ehrlich: That song also was the last one that we recorded. I just did it with this producer out here, Tucker Martine. The night before we stayed up until 4 a.m. because had booked these dates with Tucker and we knew we had to do this song. I think I just started playing the song, right where we're sitting right now, in the kitchen, and I just realized: "We've got to fucking do this, but it's going to suck so bad to have to sing." We had to shorten whole song, too.\
Kakacek: Once we finished it, I remember just getting really stoned. It was a pretty weird 24 hours. At midnight the night before, we didn't know what song we were going to record the next day. We made a really crude demo of what you hear. It was just piano chords and Julien's voice. Went and recorded that day, mixed it before we left the studio, and came back the next night with a mixed, final version, and then stayed up until four in the morning listening to that. In that 24-hour period, we went from nothing to virtually getting stoned, listening to the final mix, which never happens for us. It never works out.
Ehrlich: It was like working at fucking hyperspeed.
You worked really hard on your arrangements making Forever Turned Around. It must have been quite scary to do this one so quickly, knowing you couldn’t back in and fine tune things later on.
I think you're right, but that process of trying to knock out something that we're going to release did kind of free us up. It put us on a new [road] to where we are now, working on our third record — getting the idea out and not worrying about every tiny, little detail right now. We feel a bit more inspired, maybe, because we discovered that process.
Ehrlich: Even the way that song sounds, compared to the other songs on the record, it’s a little more polished, the production is more poppy. The newer songs that we're making are definitely a little more on the poppier side. We’re experimenting more with piano sounds and mellow trumpets. It think the Kelela cover especially opened up that space a little bit.
“A.M. AM,” Damien Jurado
Kakacek: As soon as we heard the song, we just knew that we could pull it off in a good way, but yeah, that song's so good. And Will [Miller]’s trumpet part on that song really gets me every time.
Ehrlich: Ben Swanson [Secretly Canadian co-founder] secretly sent it to Damian after we had sent him a final mix, and he sent this sent a really glowing email back, just kind of appreciating that we covered it.
Kakacek: It almost made me cry.
“Take Me Home, Country Roads,” John Denver
Has this been on your list of prospective covers for a while?
Ehrlich: Well, we were a little touchy about it in the studio.
Kakacek: We tried to not take ourselves so seriously. We're still going to have fun recording this kind of classic country song, and just enjoy that.
Ehrlich: A big chunk of whatever's good about it is due to Katie. When she sent her vocal tracks back it was such a shock. Her harmony... her voice is just so crazy.
How did that come about, working with Katie?
Ehrlich: We've always been big fans, especially getting to know her over the past few years through Kevin Morby. Her voice live is just like a straight-up spiritual experience.
“High On A Rocky Ledge,” Moondog
How challenging was the arrangement for this? Because the original is very, very sparse.
Ehrlich: It was one of the harder ones, we were having a lot of trouble with it. Initially we tried doing just the sparse arrangement or seeing if that would work for us, and it just didn't.
Kakacek: I would say the band that we were conjuring up for that song was the same band that played the SWV cover, if that makes sense.
Do you try to conjure another band when you’re arranging Whitney songs as well?
On Forever Turned Around, it was like Neil Young — almost exclusively, actually. But I think now we're now learning to evoke the spirit of different people throughout a record. It's not something that we take seriously in the sense of, "This is our Bruce Springsteen song and this is our Neil Young song." It's just like, when we get stuck, it's easier to get out of your head imagining someone else's perspective on it.
You have a well-established sound yourselves now though.
Ehrlich: Yeah, now it's just about really pushing towards a fusion. What would people want to hear Whitney evolve into? I think is something that we're actively thinking about and asking ourselves, because we want to change. Forever Turned Around was like a bit of a sequel to Light Upon the Lake. We know that fans of Light Upon the Lake were into Forever Turned Around. It's not necessarily about appealing to new fans, but appealing to people who are passionate about music. What would make their ears light up?
“Strange Overtones,” David Byrne and Brian Eno
David Byrne's vocal performance on this is very specific. He’s quite difficult to interpret.
That was the toughest vocal to do. Not physically the toughest to sing, but just really second-guessing myself. We did vocals last. I was just like, "Why did we waste our time? This isn't going to work out. The way that he holds notes is so much more theatrical, almost operatic. That's just completely the opposite of the way I sing. But discovering that album in high school, I was so obsessed with this specific song, I definitely over-listened to it. It was one of the first songs in my life that I probably over-listened to and I recognized, as a 16-year-old, that I shouldn’t ruin songs for myself anymore. But having that over-listening experience and then straight up rediscovering it two or three years ago was great.
"Hammond Song," The Roches
This is another one that seems like a tricky vocal to interpret. What small things can you do to attack a track like this?
Ehrlich: The only part that I think we added to the arrangement that wasn't there is just the rhythm on the buildups and on the “Lying to me…” parts. That section repeats three times or four throughout the course of the song, and that’s where we created drama in the song that wasn't there in the same way as it was in the original. That was mainly down to the rhythm section, everything's just hitting at the same time.
"Crying, Laughing, Loving, Lying," Labi Siffre
This is one of the brighter songs on the record. Did you know that you wanted to balance things out?
Kakacek: It was tough to record at first. I really had this idea that we didn't have to do finger picking. I really didn’t want to do it.
Ehrlich: But then all that really resulted in was this rock version of it. If the version that we came out with is more just groove, folk, or soul, we had rock version. I remember it went to these darker chords for no reason. Max was just trying to experiment.
Kakacek: My favorite songs on the album are the ones where there was a wrench put in the system of performing the song, where it forced us to not take on a major theme as obviously. Such a big part of the original is the finger picking, so to remove that would force us to create something else, something that would identify the song as something different than the original. Obviously it just ended up in hours of wasted time. But I will mention that the finger picking was the last thing added in that session. I held out as as long as I could.
Ehrilich: This had been on rotation in the van for the whole lifespan of Whitney. It was the only one that we knew we were going to do on tour before going into the studio. So we were all learning the chords, but we didn't know how it was really going to work out until Max started playing the bassline that carries that whole verse. That took a few hours, but once he started playing that, it really moved fast and it just clicked.
Harmony really carries the original. Was it a little daunting to recreate that?
Ehrlich: It was, but it was fun. Whitney hasn't really done this besides the end to "Golden Days" and the end of “Follow” — we did gang vocals with me, Malcolm [Brown], and Ziyad [Asrar]. And SWV liked the cover.
Kakacek: We really didn't know what to do with ourselves after we got that email.
Ehrlich: It was a good day. We definitely drank a beer. We texted the whole group.
“Rainbows and Ridges,” Blaze Foley
Kakacek: I think this was the first Blaze Foley song I ever heard. For some reason, I went through a phase when I was younger of [listening to] country singers with that vocal range. That was my favorite song for a while. It's really simple. I guess it was the ninth song we recorded, and we had all these full band songs on the record. We wanted to do something a bit more charming, something that could sound like we're in our own home studio.
Why did you want to close the record with it?
Kakacek: I think the lyrical message is so intense and beautiful.
Ehrlich: It's short and sweet, too. We were thinking of the Kelela cover and the Blaze cover as nice bookends. Neither of them have real drums, they’re all centered on the melodies and chords.
Were there any other songs that you considered covering this time around?
Ehrlich: One of the most popular comments that we see is —
Is it “Magnet” [by NRBQ, a staple of Whitney's early sets]?
Kakacek: Yeah. But I don't think we're ever going to do it.
Ehrlich: We've tried playing it with headphones on in the studio. There’s something about it being a song we only do live. And it just didn't seem enjoyable to do in the same way as the other ones, because we played so many times and knew it so well. All the other songs we were learning that day, figuring out how to do it. We were flexing a muscle in our brains that was a little bit more creative than just replicating something that we've played hundreds of times. But I don't know. There's a time and a place for everything.
Kakacek: Maybe the only cover we'll do of "Magnet" will be like a brooding piano ballad that's significantly slowed down and takes all the fun out of the song. And then people won't ask for more.
Ehrlich: Yeah, it'll be like the sad-sack version of “Magnet.” And then everyone will say, “This song sucks. Please never play it again."
Wow, you have to kill the song to set yourselves free.
Ehrlich: Yeah, pretty dramatic.