Julien Ehrlich says that when he started writing as a duo with guitarist Max Kakacek, the musicians “wanted the songs to sound like they were coming from one person.”
The pair had previously played together in Chicago garage-rock and perennial next-big-thing favorites Smith Westerns. After the dissolution of Smith Westerns, Ehrlich and Kakacek struck out on their own, forming Whitney. Ehrlich says the pair liked touring more than the rest of their former band mates.
Whitney comes to Eugene supporting their Secretly Canadian debut, the folky and sunshine-y Light Upon The Lake, one of last year’s best-received records. New York Times Style magazine says it’s one of Sir Elton John’s favorite records of 2016.
Ehrlich says he and Kakacek never gave Whitney — the name of a fictional character they use as songwriting inspiration — a gender. “The character was super-obsessed with lost love,” Ehrlich explains, “basking in loneliness. That was a way that we could write personal-sounding songs.”
The kind of raw emotion Ehrlich describes surfaces throughout the record in his high, almost feminine vocal work and largely acoustic indie-folk arrangements, recalling the heyday of acoustic duos.
“We didn’t approach writing this album with Smith Westerns in mind,” Ehrlich says. “We were pretty gassed out by the fact we could do whatever we want with Whitney.”
Light Upon The Lake single “No Woman” starts with an almost “Mr. Sandman”-style keyboard figure before Memphis horns briefly enter. Laurel Canyon songwriters come to mind when Ehrlich sings over wistful acoustic strumming: “Then one morning I woke up in L.A./ Caught my breath on the coast.”
After coming close to stardom several times with Smith Westerns, Ehrlich says he and Kakacek aren’t taking Whitney’s success for granted. The duo is working hard and “trying to take advantage of the fact people seem to like what we’re doing.”
Performing with Whitney in Eugene is Julie Byrne, who’s gaining positive notices for her 2017 indie-folk release Not Even Happiness, out now on Ba Da Bing Records. The album features sleepy finger-picked guitars under Byrne’s low-key and mysterious alto, with occasional accents of icy coolness.
Whitney plays with Julie Byrne 8 pm Thursday, April 13, at WOW Hall; $12 advance, $15 door, all-ages.