Upstream: Whitney make country feel fresh and cool

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Whitney
Whitney's Max Kakacek and Julien Ehrlich (Sandy Kim)

Upstream is a new monthly series where The Current's digital producer Leah Garaas interviews and explores up-and-coming acts to fine-tune your music discovery radar.

Every band has a mantra. For Whitney, it's "We're young, loud and free."

Written from the perspective of a sad, lonely songwriter, Whitney introduced himself — er, themselves — late last May with their first-ever demo, "No Matter Where We Go," an ode to lo-fi '70s country music, just jangly enough to bring Big Star to mind.

It's winter now. As the Chicago-based Whitney navigated New York City ahead of a gig at Baby's All Right, I caught up with frontman and drummer Julien Ehrlich over the phone. I could hear the excitement of his six bandmates in the background as they embarked on their third tour, ever.

Ehrlich and guitarist Max Kakacek — both previously of the now-defunct Smith Westerns — formed Whitney out of the band's demise, though not in spite of it. After touring in support of 2013's Soft Will, Smith Westerns' third and final album, Ehrlich and Kakacek spent time writing music together as roommates in Chicago. "When we were writing for Whitney, we were doing what we wanted to do," said Ehrlich. "The music was really freeing, not something we had to do." Later Ziyad Asrar (rhythm guitar), Malcolm Brown (keys), Josiah Marshall (bass), Will Miller (horns) and Charles Glanders (sound) would constitute Whitney. (Side note: Why don't more bands credit their revered engineer with membership?)

After more than a year of writing and demoing, Whitney's debut album will release later this year via Secretly Canadian (The War on Drugs, Gardens & Villa). "No Woman," co-released by Secretly Canadian and Lead Riders, is its first official single. Its fetching keys and triumphant horns reel you in as somber acoustic riffs string together Ehrlich's melancholy vocals and Kakacek's encouraging melody. Watch new video for the track below.

Though Kakacek and Ehrlich wrote all of the album's chord progressions, melodies and lyrics, they look forward to being more collaborative with their bandmates. "Toward the end of the writing process, the band started playing live shows and we realized how amazing and totally capable everyone is," Ehrlich remembered.

Ehrlich is still adjusting to being a drumming frontman – but with experience as a drumming backup vocalist in Smith Westerns and Unknown Mortal Orchestra, he's not referring to the singing component. "The banter is the hardest part," he admits. "I have to keep the vibe going." For example, introducing "Golden Days" to audiences as their version of Fetty Wap's staple "Trap Queen."

While they've only booked two dozen shows in Chicago's DIY scene and small venues across the States — all positively reviewed — Whitney have already opened for esteemed acts including Blonde Redhead, Protomartyr, Porches and the rising Tobias Jesso Jr., who co-wrote 25's "When We Were Young" with Adele.

It was Tobias that shared Whitney's demos with Jonathan Rado of Foxygen. In September, the band spent three weeks in Los Angeles to record their debut album in Rado's house, also known as Dream Star Studio. As its primary producer, Rado also plays on the album and helped with arrangements.

Gender played a role in the arrangements, too. "During the mixing process, my vocals were intentionally mixed to sound like a girl," explains Ehrlich, who consistently refers to Whitney in the third person as a man; a character that he and Kakacek wrote toward. "I've envisioned some of the songs sung by women. 'Golden Days' would sound totally amazing if sung by a country singer like Loretta Lynn."

In addition to Lynn, Whitney has a melting pot of influences. Ehrlich credits the Band's Levon Helm as his main inspiration, though the New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint's expansive catalogue plays an important role on the record, too. A few months prior to Toussaint's death last November, Ehrlich's dad passed along the title track off his 1975 album Southern Nights. Struck by its tenderness, Ehrlich, who was unfamiliar with Toussaint, enthusiastically shared the song with his bandmates. Together they explored his discography, just as Whitney prepared to record their debut.

Whitney evidently blend assorted genres from America's pastime, but it's the hi-fi acoustics that makes their music feel so fresh. "If we ever get stuck on a song, we think, 'What would Whitney do?'"

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2 Photos

  • Whitney
    "No Woman" is the first single off Whitney's debut album (Secretly Canadian/Lead Riders)
  • Whitney
    Whitney's Max Kakacek and Julien Ehrlich (Ryan Lowry)

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