Whitney

Light Upon The Lake is the kind of album that inspires mythology. It’s an immaculate debut crafted by a duo of songwriters in the midst of heartbreak and in the aftermath of their former band’s dissolution. There’s a number of great anecdotes regarding the record’s road to release – vocalist Julien Ehrlich and guitarist Max Kakacek conjuring the titular Whitney character as an outside perspective to initially channel their songwriting as they got comfortable opening up to one another, the two settling on the moniker "Whitney" when thinking up names for their "fictional adopted love child" – but my favorite vignette from their narrative is what followed the completion of the initial composition for single “Golden Days.”

“We never discussed doing it,” said Ehrlich over the phone when we spoke last week, “It was the night after we finished the demo.” What he’s referring to is how him and Max individually decided to send the song they had just tracked to their respective recent ex-girlfriends. “Oh don’t you save me from hangin’ on / I tell myself what we had is gone,” opens “Golden Days,” with Ehrlich later singing, “You can’t leave feeling like you did no wrong...It’s a shame we can’t get it together now.” Suffice it to say, it was a bold message to send out, but it’s one each felt necessary to share after channeling their reactions to the break-ups through the music. It resulted in tearful phone calls, but Ehrlich suggested it also provided some sense of closure.

This is where Light Upon The Lake draws its significance. It’s a record as broken up and torn apart as those above lyrics suggest, and finds Ehrlich frequently hitting the bottle and drifting aimlessly. Yet it also sounds like an absolute river of sunshine, enveloping in its youthful playfulness and warm guitar tones. This duality between lyricism and instrumentation isn’t as jarring as it may come across. It's not that the music is celebratory in spite of Ehrlich’s emotional drowning, but rather that it acts as a tether pulling him back to shore. The album was a therapeutic exercise for the authors, but also offers itself up for listeners to empathize without suffocating in the well of loss.

The buoyant aura pervasive throughout the album’s brief-but-never-wasted 31 minutes has led to Light Upon The Lake being christened as an ideal summer record, one for sun-kissed highways and rose-tinted, blurry-eyed evenings. The irony is that a good number of those songs were initially written in the midst of a horrific Chicago winter, with the pair holed up inside because going out wasn’t exactly an option.

Furthermore, while it is indeed an excellent album for cruising around the city with your date in the passenger seat (see “No Matter Where We Go”), the beating, bleeding core of the record suggests it’s even better suited solo on headphones during the walk home. While we've only lived with Light Upon The Lake for a single season (the album came out in early June), you can expect that once the summer sun comes to set, these songs will unfold new multitudes that should have it rechristened as a perfect winter record before long.

For the time being, Whitney are currently in the midst of a lengthy summer tour, one that’s seen them already begin to headline venues the size of what their previous band, The Smith Westerns, played during their final year. Ehrlich and Kakacek are even returning to Outside Lands after The Smith Westerns performed in 2013, back with their new six-piece band (seven if you count their personal sound guy) to open the first day of the festival. It’s hard to think of a better artist to begin your weekend with. For one, they hold a rustic spirit that, no matter how dressed up the Outside Lands lineups get in synth-rock and twee-pop, will always be the festival's original identity.

Second, there’s a circular symmetry picking up from where last year left off. Elton John, who closed down the most recent iteration of Outside Lands, included Whitney’s “The Falls” on his Apple Music radio show last week. The band readily admits that this is their biggest cosign to date, but shortly afterwards they were given another prized shout-out – a tweet from Michelle Branch in praise of their song “No Woman.” That one had Ehrlich specifically in awe, having admired the singer since middle school.

Whitney make sure to pay their own respects back to their heroes. The band frequently performs a cover of Bob Dylan's “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You,” which was featured on the legendary songwriter’s 1969 album Nashville Skyline. The origin of the selection offers a window into the rich friendship of the two primary songwriters. “Max and I were single two Valentine’s Days ago, and we ate way too much weed chocolate,” Ehrlich began the story. “And as I was peaking and freaking out, we were listening to [Nashville Skyline] and I was simultaneously really, really scared by the album and also really obsessed with ‘Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You.’ In the post weed-chocolate haze I thought, ‘Hey my voice kind of sounds pretty similar to this.’”

Beyond the vocal similarities, the song is a natural point of comparison for what Whitney are pulling off. “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” occupies similarly sonic and lyrical territory as much of Light Upon The Lake – riffy and rambling, lost in romantic attachment. It’s a style the band might be venturing away from if you take at face value Ehrlich’s depiction of what he envisions for Whitney's second LP. The band has already begun conceptualizing their next project, and “looser,” “hookier,” “nighttime,” and “soft rock” were all buzzwords tossed around in describing what it might sound like.

Although everything still begins with Max and Ehrlich, the next Whitney album will find their band – a talented ensemble providing bass, keyboard, trumpet, and additional guitar to the duo's vocal, guitar, and drums – already at hand from the beginning to aid in songwriting. When I ask Ehrlich whether he knew in advance what players he wanted for the band, he noted the final membership was decided on through fortunate discovery. “We didn’t approach the Whitney album with any sort of agenda. There was no fan base to satisfy," Ehrlich said. "The arrangements were completely dictated by where we thought the songs needed to go. It was all for the better of the songs we were creating.”

It’s difficult to imagine now Whitney without their signature brass and strings, but it wasn’t the original intention during the demoing process to feature these elements. “We tried out horns on the third or fourth song, which was ‘Polly,’ and we just new the chorus needed a more interesting texture,” Ehrlich recalled. “Once it worked so well on ‘Polly’ we went back to the songs we had already written and recorded and thought about it from that headspace.”

So two guys in the midst of romantic dejection and the erosion of their band of five years found solace in one another's company, and through channeling their raw emotions in song launched a reignited career and discovered a new family of bandmates that provided closure to both themselves and many affected listeners. Like I said, it makes for great mythology. Yet it's not the surrounding context that drives Light Upon The Lake’s impact, but rather its openness to confront loss with an unwavering sincerity. The album isn't a means of escape – it’s an invitation to return home.

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