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Whitney make casually melancholic music that combines the wounded drawl of Townes Van Zandt, the rambunctious energy of Jim Ford, the stoned affability of Bobby Charles, the American otherworldliness of The Band, and the slack groove of early Pavement. Their debut, Light Upon the Lake, is due in June on Secretly Canadian, and it marks the culmination of a short, but incredibly intense, creative period for the band. To say that Whitney is more than the sum of its parts would be a criminal understatement. Formed from the core of guitarist Max Kakacek and singing drummer Julien Ehrlich, the band itself is something bigger, something visionary, something neither of them could have accomplished alone. The band itself is something bigger, something visionary, something neither of them could have accomplished alone.
Ehrlich had been a member of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, but left to play drums for the Smith Westerns, where he met guitarist Kakacek. That group burned brightly but briefly, disbanding in 2014 and leaving its members adrift. Brief solo careers and side-projects abounded, but nothing clicked. Making everything seem all the more fraught: both of them were going through especially painful breakups almost simultaneously, the kind that inspire a million songs, and they emerged emotionally bruised and lonelier than ever.
Whitney was born from a series of laidback early-morning songwriting sessions during one of the harshest winters in Chicago history, after Ehrlich and Kakacek reconnected - first as roommates splitting rent in a small Chicago apartment and later as musical collaborators passing the guitar and the lyrics sheet back and forth. “We approached it as just a fun thing to do. We never wanted to force ourselves to write a song. It just happened very organically. And we were smiling the whole time, even though some of the songs are pretty sad.” The duo wrote frankly about the break-ups they were enduring and the breakdowns they were trying to avoid. Each served as the other’s most brutal critic and most sympathetic confessor, a sounding board for the hard truths that were finding their way into new songs like “No Woman” and “Follow,” a eulogy for Ehrlich’s grandfather.
In exorcising their demons they conjured something else, something much more benign—a third presence, another personality in the music, which they gave the name Whitney. They left it singular to emphasize its isolation and loneliness. Says Kakacek, “We were both writing as this one character, and whenever we were stuck, we’d ask, ‘What would Whitney do in this situation?’ We personified the band name into this person, and that helped a lot. We wrote the record as though one person were playing everything. We purposefully didn’t add a lot of parts and didn’t bother making everything perfect, because the character we had in mind wouldn’t do that.”
In those imperfections lies the music’s humanity. Whilst they demoed and toured the new songs, they became more aware of the perfect imperfections of the songs, and needing to strike the right balance, they eventually made the trek out to California, where they recorded with Foxygen frontman and longtime friend, Jonathan Rado. They slept in tents in Rado’s backyard, ate the same breakfast every morning at the same diner in the remote, desolate and completely un-rock n roll San Fernando Valley, whilst they dreamt of Laurel Canyon, or maybe The Band’s hideout in Malibu, or Neil Young’s ranch in Topanga Canyon.
The analog recording methods, the same as used by their forebearers, allowed them to concentrate on the songs themselves and create moments that would be powerful and unrepeatable. “Tape forces you to get a take down,” says Kakacek. “We didn’t have enough tracks to record ten takes of a guitar part and choose the best one later. Whatever we put down is all we had. That really makes you as a musician focus on the performance.” The sessions were loose, with room for improvisation and new ideas, as the band expanded from that central duo into a dynamic sextet (septet if you count their trusty soundman). And that’s what you hear — Whitney is the sound of that songwriting duo expanding their group and delivering the sound of a band at their freest, their loosest, their giddiest.
Classic and modern at the same time, they revel in concrete details, evocative turns of phrase, and thorny emotions that don’t have exact names. These ten songs on Light Upon the Lake sound like they could have been written at any time in the last fifty years. Ehrlich and Kakacek emerge as imaginative and insightful songwriting partners, impressive in their scope and restraint as they mold classic rock lyricism into new and personal shapes without sound revivalist or retro. “I’m searching for those golden days,” sings Ehrlich, with a subtle ripple of something that sounds like hope, on the track “Golden Days”. It’s a song that defines Whitney as a band. “There’s a lot of true feeling behind these songs,” says Ehrlich. “We wanted them to have a part of our personalities in them. We wanted the songs to have soul.”
The introductions have gone well. One of Rolling Stone’s “Ten New Artists You Need To Know.” One of Time Magazine’s “15 Artists To Watch in 2015.” The New Yorker raves it’s “a sound that’s crystal clear but somehow full and stripped down…this is a record that never feels retro, just timeless.” The poise and composure of Natalie Prass’ stunning debut album has been greeted with a resounding yes by critics and fans mesmerized by Prass’ refreshing take on the singer/songwriter tradition.
The self-titled debut is flecked with a lushness buttressed by Prass’ melancholic instincts for storytelling, rounded out by inventive brass and orchestral gestures, tender and exuberant all at once. The compelling stories behind tracks such as “My Baby Don’t Understand Me,” “Bird Of Prey,” “Your Fool,” “Why Don’t You Believe In Me” and others, reveal Prass’ perseverance in nourishing her menagerie of influences into a unique and visionary first album. Her incredible journey includes a nearly decade-long stint in Nashville, shuttling to her native Virginia in the midst of that stay to create her debut album. Prass, now 29 years-old, currently lives in Richmond, where the album was produced, to be, as she puts it, “where the trees are tall, the buildings old, and friends near.”
Her astounding debut, produced by Prass’ childhood friend and Spacebomb studios founder Matthew E. White and his production partner Trey Pollard, was a painstaking effort that remained on the shelf for another two years before its release in early 2015. This nine track compilation is a testament to how Prass’ grit and pursuit of musical perfection stood her well throughout. “I always kind of laugh when they refer to me as a newcomer,” says Natalie. “I think my story is a case of when the opportunity arrived, I was ready.”
Ironically, White’s own surprise success with his acclaimed debut, Big Inner, contributed to the delay. Intense collaborations between Prass, White, and Pollard preceded it all: “I would drive back and forth between Nashville and Richmond doing the pre-production,” she says. “Matt and I did so much planning. He’s very thorough and so am I. We talked for months while I sent him songs and ideas even before we started. We talked out every last detail before tracking. Matt and Trey wrote the arrangements separately. They would say, ‘You take this song and I’ll take that one.’ We took our time. It was my first opportunity to record a full length album and I wanted to do it right.”
Prass and her collaborators share a mutual appreciation for what she calls classic songwriting. “My writing does have so many influences,” she acknowledges. “I go back to Irving Berlin, Sondheim, Burt Bacharach (many reviews cite Bacharach muse Dionne Warwick as a kindred spirit of Prass, with the artist even thanking her in the liner notes) but it all comes down to the strength of your songwriting and your commitment to that.”
Such dedication started early. Born in Cleveland, Prass moved to Tidewater, VA as a child, where she recalls being the only girl in teenage bands. After magnet school she attended the Berklee School of Music in Boston, but returned to Virginia after only a year. Soon, she would make her trek to Nashville, eventually attending Middle Tennessee State University and enrolling in their intensive songwriting program. She recalls plotting out her own personal repertoire even during her student days. “I used to space out a lot in class and work out melodies,” she says. “I’d sneak out and go to the bathroom and sing melodies and try out songs, even then. I wrote the melody and lyrics for the song ‘Violently’ that way, then I went home and figured it out on guitar.”
Prass’ distinct vocal command enables her to breathlessly glide over ornately arranged offerings like “My Baby Don’t Understand Me” or croon the almost-country bop of “Never Over You.” Rippling crosscurrents blow through the collection of songs as well as soulful wisps of what several critics have likened to Dusty Springfield’s 1969 blue-eyed soul masterwork Dusty In Memphis. Dozens of musicians contributed to the overall sound, but it’s Prass’ subtle conjurations of longing that make her debut such a powerfully intimate statement.
“A lot of times you’ll be working on a song and it surprises you by turning into something else. Like ‘Christy.’ I like how unnerving it is. It turned into an eerie, very personal song. But the one that is probably most personal to me is ‘My Baby Don’t Understand Me.’” She doesn’t expand any further and she doesn’t need to. The lyrics speak for themselves: ‘Our love is a long goodbye,’ she sings in heartbreaking register. The song that Rolling Stone hailed as “a crumbled relationship ballad of cinematic majesty” stands on its own while also seamlessly rounding out the rest of her magnificent debut album.