Whitney never seemed to exist in the present. Across their first two albums of original material, 2016’s dreamy debut Light Upon The Lake and its underrated 2019 follow-up Forever Turned Around, the Chicago-via-Portland duo borrowed the sound and visions of mid-’70s soft-rock, all soulful melodies and irresistible melancholy. Even their covers album, Candid, released in that muggy pandemic summer of 2020, filtered a chronologically and aesthetically diverse collection of songs — natural fits like John Denver and The Roches through to more complex tracks from Kelela and SWV — through that same beautifully blurry lens.
Their third album, SPARK, may not shoot Whitney into the present, but it certainly takes them into another era. Here they’ve sharpened their edges, built their work in glass and neon as much as sunlight and sandstone. Lead singer and drummer Julien Ehrlich’s falsetto has softened — at times it’s even completely absent — and guitarist Max Kakacek uses his guitar more sparingly, more as a flourish than a foundation. Instead, there are loops and processed beats, nods to the R&B and radio pop of the early aughts. It still sounds like Whitney — a little wistful and romantic, even at its boldest. But on SPARK, they sound like they’re clearing new paths for their own future.
This Q&A is taken from the latest episode of The FADER Interview. To hear this week’s show in full, and to access the podcast’s archive, click here.
We talked for an interview in the summer of 2020 about making Candid and how difficult it was for Julien to inhabit the voice of David Byrne, for example. How much did making that record influence how you wrote SPARK — particularly the opener, “Nothing Remains”?
Julien Ehrlich: That was a transition into me trying to utilize the low end of my falsetto and pull as much warmth out of it as possible. If you go back and listen to Light Upon the Lake and some songs on Forever Turned Around, it's way deeper in my throat, like Kermit the Frog. While making SPARK, it felt a lot more comforting to sit into a warmer zone in my voice.
There are parts where there just isn't falsetto. It was one of the first things that hit me about the record, like, "Oh, this is quite a big risk." Were there nerves about that?
JE: The thing that feels most risky is performing the new songs live: It's way harder to drum or do anything else while focusing [on the vocals]. Where I'm singing on most of SPARK is the most delicate [part of my voice]. To do Kimmel, I really had to work on breathing at the right times. It was so much more meticulous than any of our ramshackle songs off Light Upon the Lake, where I can just soar. As far as recording it, a lot of the record does feel risky to us, but for different reasons.
Max, I know it took a lot of work to try and fit the covers on Candid into the Whitney universe. Did that arrangement process have an impact on you guys blowing up the sound on SPARK?
Max Kakacek: Candid, to me, represents the most organic capture of the live band. We'd pick a song in the morning and everyone would take an instrument, and the whole start of the cover would happen completely live. Then we'd add in arrangement parts to bring out certain melodies people were playing.
On SPARK, partly as a function of us being isolated from the live band in Portland, it became a much more meticulous studio project, where capturing a live performance wasn't the focus; it was more creating a world, just the two of us.
JE: That Kelela cover with Tucker Martine, which we did after recording the bulk of the live band stuff… We mixed, mastered, and basically finished it all in one day. We started SPARK two weeks later, and it was like, "Oh, shit. We can probably make a really crazy record together."
Hearing you talk about Forever Turned Around now, you seem almost rueful about the fact that you were using the same tools and process and instruments to make a record because you knew you could — not that you regret it, but that you felt frustrated to the point that SPARK had to happen.
JE: Exactly. That was an extremely difficult period for us for a number of reasons, but that record obviously is always going to have a really special place in our hearts. It’s already lived a pretty good life, and I think it'll only continue to get better. But it really did feel so freeing and refreshing to say "Alright, we have to make a record with no rules." We knew the songs and songs we wanted to write would only come if we completely shed the rules of the past.
Julien, you said this album felt risky for you for other reasons than your voice. What were the risks?
MK: I relate risk to a fear of what could happen if we decided to free ourselves within the creative process, and our heads were more just pure excitement. There were certain constraints we’d put on the process before based on analog recording and capturing live performances, and while that's really important to us, we [wanted to] alter that idea and make it something that felt newer and inspired us to keep working. After playing on the road for the past five years and making two albums and a cover album, we needed to switch up to make us excited about working again. When we sent demos to peers and people we trust, all of them were like, "This is so different, but it’s so exciting to hear you shed some constraints off and let yourself do whatever you're instinctually feeling."
JE: For the last two, three records, there was inevitably gonna be some guitar riffing going on and horn section coming in because those are the only tools that we have. Allowing the songs to get exactly what they needed — an electronic trumpet or a synth solo or a shorter guitar solo, or the wildest song structure we’ve ever used — there's risk in that, because people come to our records to hear a specific thing. With this record, they're gonna get a lot more than that, and it can be scary to not hear the specific elements you expect.
Yeah. You were saying that it felt new. Do you also mean more contemporary, or just new for you guys? This album faces the future more than the others — certainly in production quality.
MK: Definitely. A lot of the first two albums were backward-facing art. When we were really young and immature, everything was a novelty. Like, "We made a song that sounded like The Band! Or like Jim Ford!" It was this exciting thing, being able to recreate something that happened before. [On SPARK], we wanted to create something that felt like it could only come from our brains, repurposing those sounds from the ‘60s and ‘70s to feel like they were sampled.
What was the appeal of making things feel more sampled and synthetic?
JE: I think it just aligns with our current tastes. Something shifted while we were touring Forever Turned Around where it was like, "I'm not diving into Light in the Attic or Numero Group forgotten classics anymore. I’d rather listen to stuff that just feels more current." We both were exploring different offshoots of that because we’d gotten tired of the dusty old folk song.
For me, it was early 2000s radio pop. I just started listening to Usher again — “Confessions Part II” — and Outcast and Gwen Stefani. It’s interesting turning 30 and being alive for long enough to have that stuff that still feels so current and special slip all the way into, "Wow, that song came out 22 years ago." It’s gnarly to think about. Making a record that's mostly inspired by a period of music we actually lived through was interesting to us.
Max, was there a different offshoot for you, or are you also on the Usher train?
MK: I'm always on the Usher train. Going back to the way we used instrumentation, though, some of the most inventive uses of the guitar right now aren't [coming from] the best players. Earl Sweatshirt uses guitar in a way that’s usually sampled and, to me, that's the most progressive idea of what a guitar could sound like on a recording. It's touched by a human at some point, but then it's completely flipped on its head and then repurposed.
Do you think you would've been able to make those decisions on this album without being in Portland, without a pandemic, without being forced into a room together, away from a live band?
JE: It definitely wouldn't have happened as fast because we were supposed to be back and forth to Europe for festivals for the next year and a half. We needed the time and the space to explore every possible perspective, if you think of the songs as different perspectives on this record.
You were dealing with grief on Light Upon the Lake. Forever Turned Around was an album about in just not being able to hold shit together while you were on the road — relationships, both romantic and otherwise, falling apart. SPARK seems like while you're blowing up the sound, everything else is blowing up at the same time: personal relationships, fucking forest fires, a pandemic. Was it difficult to write from that perspective?
JE: On the heels of Forever Turned Around it wasn't nearly as difficult to write. We felt pretty lucky the entire time because a lot of this material [was] coming out pretty fully formed lyrically, and we had just been through a process where it was really hard to dig deep and pull Forever Turned Around out of us. We still definitely were banging our heads against the walls on a couple of different songs. “Heart Will Beat” felt a little tough to write. I remember we went through three different chorus ideas to finally nail it.
I know you lost people close to you, especially JR from Girls, who was really important to you. Did it feel natural to you that you would want to write about it?
JE: “Terminal” and “Self” were probably nine months into the pandemic. With both of those songs lyrically it was like, "We can't avoid touching on all the death and all of the isolation. We can't really fully avoid it." And it was more just waiting patiently until the moment arose where it felt like, "Okay, we can hit our flow over these songs and try to write about it in a way that we're proud of."
With “Terminal” especially, that was just a really gnarly time. It felt like a rock-bottom situation. With JR passing and other people passing — and I think also maybe losing our handle on substances — [we were] just feeling a new low. But I think we were able to create a new high through it as well. I think that goes along with just feeling lucky that music was able to pull us through the pandemic.
Is this a hopeful album?
MK: From a spiritual sense, yes. For our creative spirituality and what it represents to us from the standpoint of exploration and experimentation, yeah, it's maybe our most hopeful. Every time we started a new song, it felt like something that we had never heard before — just something that we had never heard come from ourselves before. We constantly were able to surprise ourselves with new sounds… even the chord changes. A lot of it is just completely different than anything we've worked on before. I think it instilled a lot of hope within us about making music.