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Whitney’s smooth sophomore album sails into Austin

Country-soul band's guitarist talks isolating apartments and insecurity in 'Forever Turned Around'

Johanna Gretschel
jgretschel@statesman.com
Julien Ehrlich and Max Kakacek, who perform in the band Whitney, are heading to Austin for a two-night run at the Mohawk. [Contributed by Olivia Bee]

Max Kakacek is on a boat.

As I talk with him on the phone, the Whitney guitarist is on the Mach Schneller (German for “be faster,” or literally “hurry up”), his aunt’s sailboat, which cruises along Lake Michigan on Labor Day morning near his native Chicago. The boat is part of Kakacek’s plan to “pack all of summer into seven days” between touring earlier this summer, releasing Whitney’s sophomore album, “Forever Turned Around,” on Aug. 30 and embarking on another tour this fall, which includes two back-to-back shows Sept. 13-14 at the Mohawk in Austin.

The boat is actually the second iteration of the family vessel (its forebear was named Mach Schnell — “be fast”). It even served as a living space for Whitney bassist Josiah Marshall during part of the summer, when he found himself back in Chicago without a place to stay. It’s easy to picture the idyllic lake scene when you listen to the pretty melodies and melancholy lyrics of “Forever Turned Around,” which Kakacek describes as pushing the outermost boundaries of the sparse, lyrical style for which he and singer-drummer Julien Ehrlich drew acclaim on their debut album, 2016’s “Light Upon the Lake.”

“The first album, we were still discovering our voice and figuring out what we wanted to do. Every song that came out was a surprise,” Kakacek says. “The hardest part (of writing the new album) was surprising ourselves again. I think a lot of this album was focused on maximizing the sounds we found on the first record and using them in a subtle but very grand manner throughout the album. I can see, in the future, us moving away. ... We’ve maxed our brains out on the sound at this point.”

Kakacek and Ehrlich created that signature sound — gentle, summer-soaked guitar licks coupled with Ehrlich’s distinctive falsetto — after their old band, indie-music blog favorites the Smith Westerns, broke up in 2014. Kakacek describes the songwriting process with Smith Westerns as “competitive,” but he says he and Ehrlich (also an alum of the band Unknown Mortal Orchestra) have a “harmonious” vision. They often work through new material together line by line. They even shared an apartment together in Chicago, with Marshall, during the beginning stages of writing “Forever Turned Around.”

“It was a first-floor apartment that got no light during the day,” Kakacek says. “Every single one of our plants died.”

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At the time, Kakacek and Ehrlich both felt the pressure that working on the new record in the dingy apartment was taking on their respective longterm relationships. (Both are still in those relationships.) The anxiety of that time comes to life in Whitney’s first single off "Forever Turned Around," called "Giving Up," which opens with the lyrics, "Waiting for the morning sun/Are you coming home, my love?/Tears are falling one by one/I can feel you giving up.”

"That song was written from the perspective of them, imagining what our significant others were perceiving of us at the time," Kakacek says. "We were both in a lull in our relationships because we were working all day in that apartment. You lose sight outside of yourself. All we were doing was writing and not communicating well."

Both men ultimately ditched the apartment for a songwriting stay out of town at the Wisconsin cabin of Kakacek's family (“I can jump across the room in one step”) and, more permanently, moving in with their respective significant others.

Some of Whitney’s songs are clearly about romantic relationships, like "Valleys (My Love)," while others seem more platonic, like "Friend of Mine." And some, like the new album's title track, could be about anything. The common theme, though, is one of insecurity — if these aren’t breakup songs, they’re the songs that come right before the breakup songs.

Lines like "Has your heart grown heavy by now?/'Cause mine’s already on the ground/Spent a long cold winter thinking about/The way forever turned around" sound a lot like the musical equivalent of that gloomy Chicago apartment.

The new album "started out as accepting a certain kind of restlessness, becoming numb to anxiety and letting yourself fall into being forever turned around," Kakacek says, invoking the record's title. "Seeing an ideal turned back on you and not becoming a reality. Our dreams and hopes being unrealized."

Despite its “I’m afraid you’re letting go” lamentations, the single “Used to Be Lonely,” then, isn’t so much about the end of a relationship as it is about hoping it doesn’t end.

"It’s a track about the anxiety that comes from before, that makes you anxious about being stable," Kakacek says. "There was a period of time where things weren’t going well ... feelings of doubt pervading success."

Kakacek calls relationship maintenance, a pervasive theme in Whitney’s catalog, an "ongoing process" in his real-life relationship.

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"We got back from tour about three weeks ago, and it’s been miserable,” Kakacek confesses. "I had all of these ideas of it being grand and romantic, and you have to learn how to exist in a physical space again. Everyone’s movements are awkward. You don’t know how to be around each other in the same way.”

But maybe, as Kakacek said earlier, Whitney has exhausted the wistful, nostalgic period of their musical output. “Forever Turned Around” is slower and softer than its predecessor, perhaps the crest of their winsome, 1970s-inspired country-soul sound.

"We have a few ideas we’re milling around," Kakacek says. "How do we keep the personality and soul of this band while using some different textures? And that should be every artist’s goal."

As far as where that will go, Kakacek does not pretend to know — he has an entire tour to get through. But as of the time we're speaking, he says that the last two songs he listened to were "I Walk Alone," a 10-minute-plus funk instrumental by Marijata, a 1970s-era musical trio from Ghana, and "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground" by Austin’s very own Willie Nelson

IF YOU GO

Whitney (with Hand Habits)

When: 8 p.m. doors Sept. 13-14

Where: Mohawk outside (912 Red River St.)

Tickets: $25

More information: mohawkaustin.com