How Whitney Widened Their Sound and Found the “SPARK”

For their third studio album, Whitney decided to press the reset button. After the pandemic brought Julien Ehlrich and Max Kakacek together for a much longer writing session than they had originally planned for, they’re returning this month with their dazzling, ambitious result. SPARK, out Friday, September 16th, is a thoughtful and necessary expansion of what Whitney is and can be; the close-knit folk of previous LPs Light Upon the Lake and Forever Turned Around is still well-represented, but on SPARK, it’s been swirled around a kaleidoscope.

Perhaps the largest adjustment to Whitney’s now signature sound is a deeper emphasis on arrangements. The Chicago-based duo strived to re-center their sound on “classic pop,” with swells of strings, hi-fi production, and moments of cinematic wonder. Where Whitney merely wrote about the malaise of growing up and getting older on Forever Turned Around, they’ve now imbued that age and experience into a more active and intriguing sonic environment.

But speaking to Consequence, Ehlrich and Kakacek are nothing but humble and genuinely grateful for the experience of making SPARK. “Life was spinning out of control for everybody over the last couple of years, and this record just felt like the only thing that we were holding onto that was a positive and uplifting force in our lives,” says Ehlrich of writing and recording SPARK during the pandemic. “I don’t know where I would be emotionally if music wasn’t going well!”

It’s definitely been an emotional couple of years for Ehlrich and Kakacek, who found themselves quarantining together in Portland at the start of the pandemic and who were both dealing with breakups throughout the writing of SPARK. But as they finished writing the songs, processed the loss of their relationships and the death of both Kakacek’s grandfather as well as their friend and mentor, Girls’ J.R. White, they moved to a studio in Tornillo, Texas to record the album with producers John Congleton and Brad Cook.

There, the dazzling form of SPARK took shape, and allowed for Ehlrich and Kakacek to dig deeper into creation than ever before. “Arrangement-wise… I think it’s less of a conversation from time to time,” says Kakacek of his and Ehlrich’s process. “We’re really just speaking through music to each other.”

That camaraderie is evident in the album’s illuminating lyrics, which span from quiet epiphanies to observations on being a touring musician in the pandemic age, in the patient repetition of album highlight “Self,” in the ecstatic joy of “Memory” and lead single “Real Love.”

Ehlrich also sounds different on SPARK; his usual falsetto still appears but less frequently; when it is used, at times, it’s more naked, vulnerable, and expansive. Several of the songs call to mind the eclectic work of Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), another vocalist who picks and chooses his vocal range very carefully, and whose penchant for moving arrangements are right in line with Whitney’s ambitions.

Above all, SPARK is an album born out of patience and love. Though they’ve conceptually moved deeper into the emotional rabbit hole, there’s a bright, joyous center that every Whitney album has had so far, and this one boasts it simply in its title.