With two highly-regarded albums under their belt, the band Whitney has gained a reputation for creating material that comes out of the gate sounding timeless. The wistful songwriting concoctions of Max Kakacek (guitars) and Julien Ehrlich (drums and vocals) don’t seem overly indebted to any genre or era of music.
Perhaps that’s why their newest album, Candid, seems more revelatory than your average covers record. Here are ten songs, emanating from artists both well-known (John Denver, David Byrne) and somewhat off the beaten path (Kelela, Moondog), that yield some insight into what inspires the music that Whitney has produced so far. Kakacek and Ehrlich spoke to American Songwriter recently about the winning album and suggested that each part of the process was off-the-cuff, from actually committing to the project to song selection and recording.
“I think the idea of doing a covers project had been in our heads for a while,” Kakacek explains. “We didn’t really think that this would be the year that we did it necessarily. We had a couple of days at a studio before a tour, where we recorded “Crying, Laughing, Loving, Lying” (by Labi Siffre) and “A.M. AM” (by Damien Jurado). And then those turned out so well that we had a three-week tour after that. During that tour, we booked a week-and-a-half at a studio to just kind of make the whole album at that time. And we were able to do it. It all came together pretty quick.”
Kakacek and Ehrlich didn’t labor over lists of possible songs to prepare. (“We actually almost had trouble thinking of that many songs to make a whole record,” Ehrlich laughs.) They also insisted on not overthinking anything, which helps explains the laid-back, spontaneous feel of Candid.
“Part of the project as a whole was us having fun, challenging ourselves, taking songs that were out of our normal genre,” Kakacek says. “Choosing the songs wasn’t a process that was mulled over a lot. A lot of it was: Get together in the morning, spend like an hour-and-a-half deciding what song we were going to cover that day, and then spending the rest of the day putting it together and recording it. And by the end of the day having a finished product. It’s not like we were practicing the songs for weeks and then going into the studio and recording them. We learned them the morning that we recorded them.”
Not that every song went smoothly: The band singled out “High On A Rocky Ledge” by the cult artist Moondog as a troublemaker of sorts, due in part to the archaic language. “That song was a huge challenge for us to figure out,” Ehrlich says. “To the point where I think we had jammed on it for two hours and were still just like ‘Oh my God. Is this going to work out? Did we make a mistake by choosing the song?’ But it all clicked at some point.”
Ehrlich also singles out “Hammond Song” as an album cut that was a bit daunting, considering that The Roches, who did the original, were so known for their harmonies and that he’d be taking on the vocal on Candid alone. “I kind of knew going into it that we were never going to, in a sense, beat them at their own game, like be able to match them harmony for harmony,” Ehrlich says. “Even down to (Robert) Fripp’s guitar work. Obviously, we were just going to have to put our spin on it and do something that’s true to us that hopefully The Roches would love if they were able to listen to it too.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum was the album’s closing track, Blaze Foley’s “Rainbows and Ridges,” which seemed like a natural fit. “’Rainbows And Ridges’ was one that Max and I just did as a duo when we got back to Portland right before the pandemic hit,” Ehrlich recalls. “It was the first thing that we recorded on this big tape machine that we bought out here. That song is just such a pure, simple, good song. The lyrics were so good that we knew that we could put our spin on it, just adding those little string flourishes and a bassline.”
No one can accuse Whitney of being tame with their choices, as their cover of 90’s R&B stalwarts SWV’s “Rain” proves. Nor did they shy away from taking on an evergreen like John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” where they received vocal help from Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield. “We just knew that was a song that we could pull off and the vocal would just sound good with me singing it,” Ehrlich explains. “I think actually what we were thinking was, if we do this song in the style of the band, then it’s not like it’s going to be something that no one’s ever heard before. But it came out true to us as well.”
Kakacek says that he hopes that the album not only strengthens Whitney’s fan base, but that it will also turn people onto the originals. “We had an interview yesterday about record stores and how covers and record stores work together,” he says. “Our ending comment with that interview, and I’ll repeat it here because it holds some weight, is if you like the songs on Candid, you should go out to your local store, buy that entire record and listen to the whole thing.”
Kakacek also enjoyed the process of working up most of the tracks on Candid from scratch with the rest of the instrumentalists. “The live band has always been involved in the record-making process,” Kakacek says. “But this is the first time, with the process of taking the covers and learning them, fleshing them out like that, that everyone played the skeleton of the song live. All seven members were performing a live take. And then we’d overdub on a live take. Whitney albums, usually we’ll overdub a lot more. This is a lot more like the whole band playing and then adding little touches and saying, ‘We’ll get the best live take of this song together and see what we can do with it after.’”
Ehrlich seconded that emotion, and even believes that Candid could provide a different way forward once Whitney gets back to their original material. “The stuff that we’re writing right now, we don’t have a drum set, so we’re making songs around sampled drums,” he explains. “I think our vibe is that the experience of recording Candid, it just went so well, that we might as well try to rerecord the songs that we’re writing right now with the whole band.”
And why not? If the band could turn a myth-strewn Moondog song into an effortless pop gem, anything is possible. “’If you’ve the yen to pluck, then pluck us both,” Ehrlich laughs, quoting the lyrics to “High On A Rocky Ledge.” “The lines just get crazier and crazier.”