Chicago Alternative Folk Band Whitney Releases “Spark”

There are emotional journeys. And there are the physical journeys. Either way, you can find yourself far from home during a global pandemic. That’s exactly what Chicago band Whitney, fronted by Julien Ehrlich and Max Kakacek, did and came home, pouring out two years of heartbreak, COVID-19 and loss on a new album along the way. Spark, released September 16.

Soon they’ll be packing their bags again to tour the United States and Europe before heading back to Chicago just before Christmas – another trip, culminating in a three-night adventure at Chicago’s Thalia Hall in December.

After the duo returned to Chicago last summer, they tested their new songs by listening to them in the car while driving down Ashland Avenue. Courtesy of the artist

Spark channels the ups and downs of the tumultuous period into a sound that is more direct, more pop and propulsive than Whitney’s previous alt-folk-country style. You can hear the band struggling with death during this time in songs like “Terminal” and “Memory.” You can spot glimmers of hope in “Blue” and “Real Love.”

“‘Real Love’ was written a lot in May 2021 when, like, the whole city was coming back,” Ehrlich said. “Yet in the lyrics there is a lot of apprehension and paranoia and so on. But in sound, it’s supposed to be played in a car with a giant subwoofer.

Ehrlich plays drums and is the lead vocalist – like one of his heroes, Levon Helm from the band. Originally from Oregon, Ehrlich moved here to join Smith Westerns, where he met Kakacek, who grew up in Chicago’s North Center neighborhood and plays guitar and keyboards.

When Smith Westerns broke up in 2014, the friends and housemates formed a new band, spent a month at the family’s Kakacek cabin in Wisconsin, and created Whitney’s debut album, Light on the lake. It was an independent hit, as was the single “No Woman”.

Whitney’s second album, Turned forever, was followed by Candid, a collection of covers.

In early 2020, Ehrlich was recovering from a relationship breakup and moving back to Portland, Oregon. Kakacek was close behind — he hoped to dodge the end of another brutal Chicago winter.

It was March 14, 2020, “and that night we were planning on seeing a basketball game — the Portland Trailblazers — and they shut down the NBA on my flight,” Kakacek said in an August interview. in the apartment of the friends of the Ukrainian village. “I got to Portland and they were like, ‘The game isn’t happening’ and a few days later it was like, ‘You’re not going home.’ I was there for a year and a half. »

Ehrlich agreed it was a sign that musicians should get down and get to work. “It was just the right time for us to be forced into album mode, honestly,” he said. “We knew we had everything in us to explore and find the songs.”

The duo behind Whitney are bandmates and housemates in the Ukrainian village. Mary Dixon/WBEZ

Ehrlich, Kakacek and their bandmates began working on an album that would sound different from their previous records: more direct, with Erhlich’s falsetto lower. Somehow that involved going to the hardware store and buying a disco light for their home demo studio in Portland.

“A lot of times you go into studios and there’s like a viewer or a lighting setup, like a moody setting to get you out of a sterile environment,” Kakacek said. “And it was kind of like our hack to do it on the cheap.”

“When we talked to our neighbors,” Erhlich said, picking up the story, “it was like the signal that we were working. But it was just a funny signal, because it really felt like raving around the house. It was one of those things from an outside perspective, it looks like we’re having a lonely party. Kakacek concluded.

During this lonely party, the members of Whitney suffered losses like so many at the start of the pandemic, including the COVID-related death of Kakacek’s grandfather in late 2020.

“It was one of those situations where you had to go back to Chicago when traveling wasn’t that easy, and nothing else either.” Kakacek described this period as “slow and distant”.

“He had a flip phone and then he went to the hospital and we couldn’t really FaceTime him or anything,” Kakacek said. “And I’m sure that’s common for a lot of people. It was very hard. We were supposed to have the memorial for him last summer, so almost eight months later.

When the duo returned to Chicago last summer, they tested their new songs by listening to them in the car while driving down Ashland Avenue.

“We were both so happy to be back in Chicago,” Ehrlich said. “When we finish writing a song and do a rough mixdown of the demo, we want to test it in every possible situation where you often hear music.”

Whitney has also made videos for Spark in Chicago, filming them as dreamlike scenes open to interpretation. Behind the scenes, they said they were on a new journey – one that required them to make the most of a small budget.

For “Blue”, the band rides the Wave Swinger at Navy Pier. Ehrlich said it was an affordable alternative to what they first considered – renting jet skis and riding them on Lake Michigan – except for one inopportune meal: “We ate Billy’s burgers Goat right before going upstairs, and my stomach was definitely swollen for the next hour. He laughed. “That was hard.”

Mary Dixon is the host of the morning edition of WBEZ. Follow her on @MaryLDixon.

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