Though they are currently speaking over the phone from Nashville, it won’t be long before the dreamy duo rides in to enchant us at the Calgary Folk Festival. Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland have already proven to be the stuff of fantasies in their solo careers and now, after years of touring together, they return as one, known simply as Whitehorse.
Married in 2006, the two first began collaborating in 2003, when McClelland asked Doucet to produce her sophomore album, Stranded in Suburbia. At the time, Doucet was the front man of Vancouver band Veal, whose surf rock sound has been cited as a Canadian response to the Flaming Lips. Not new to critical acclaim, the legendary Doucet and his famous White Falcon guitar have become well-recognized with guest contributions for artists like Chantal Kreviazuk, Delerium and Sarah McLachlan, the latter of whom he has worked with periodically for about 20 years, since the tender and outrageously talented age of 19. Eventually, McClelland provided backing vocals for McLachlan, as Doucet explains. “At one point, she needed a back-up singer and I lobbied hard for Melissa… she was the only person I could think of who would do the job really, really well.” Emphasizing, “I don’t think it’s even something that you learn, it’s just something that you feel and you have, and Melissa’s incredibly intuitive when it comes to singing with other people.”
Naturally, McClelland’s heavenly harmonies have drawn much admiration over the years, but nowhere do they come across more powerfully or beautifully as they do when she collaborates with Doucet. “Every time I played a show and Melissa wasn’t around it sort of felt like it wasn’t as good of a show as it could be… I wasn’t having as much fun as I could be having, so I was feeling that, people in the audience were feeling that. [Finally,] there was a point where I was like, ‘This is ridiculous, we should just be together all the time,’ ” and they began regularly touring their solo material alongside one another, until some of the songs began to transform more permanently into duets.
“We really became a part of each other’s work,” recalls McClelland, “[On my song,] ‘Passenger 24,’ I had been playing live totally different than what was on the actual record, so I wanted to record it that way. It went over really well… Luke had this great guitar riff; Barry Mirochnick [Neko Case, Kathryn Calder, Greg MacPherson] was on the drums. It was fun to try new things with some of our older songs.”
Sped up and distorted by the use of old phone receivers as vocal filters, the song was given more of a punch with a strong kick drum that pumped through its drug-inspired lyrics like an elevated heartbeat. A mind-altering solo by Doucet reshaped its energetic ramps of highs and lows to make it much more attention grabbing and lent versatility to its cycling structure. Also reworked was Doucet’s song “Broken,” a breakup anthem that acquired a powerfully unprocessed sound and somehow became slightly resolved by the dynamic presence of McClelland, perhaps for the additional dimension of relatable mutuality between the characters, or possibly for the fact that it had been written before their evidently healthy relationship. Both of the songs have now been officially re-released in their updated incarnations on the self-titled debut Whitehorse album — a clever approach that certainly helped introduce their previous audiences to the new moniker and make a clear statement of the thunderous new heights they have found together.
While Doucet’s album, Broken (And Other Rogue States), had been nominated for a Juno, McClelland’s song “Passenger 24,” off her 2006 album, Thumbelina’s One Night Stand, won Best Americana Song at the Sixth Annual Independent Music Awards in 2007 in the United States. Born in Chicago, she acknowledges her long family history throughout the Southern States and California, but distinguishes that her immediate family had moved to Ontario when she was still a young child. “I have a lot of history that I’m grasping from, but I grew up in the Canadian scene and it influenced me so much. All through high school, my favourite bands were the Weakerthans, Joel Plaskett, Hayden, Danny Michel, Sarah Harmer… I feel like there’s such a strong Canadian music identity and a lot of that is taken from American musical history, as well — a lot of country, the blues, the bluegrass… we take from a lot of different places.”
Varying roots influences resonate throughout any given album of Doucet or McClelland’s, either as her own cowboy boots tapping on a metal box for percussion under an organ on “Killing Time Is Murder,” or Doucet’s twanging, deep and tremulous White Falcon accompanied by McClelland’s acoustic in “Emerald Isle.” Doucet points out that, “What we realized is that being in a band gave us the opportunity to reinvent ourselves artistically,” and mentions, “we definitely wanted to name the band after something Canadian and naming the band after a Canadian city seemed like a cool thing.” Pondering it further he decides, “I think, thematically, if there’s a relationship between the city of Whitehorse and what we do, it’s that the music we make – or the music we thought we’d be making – is sort of remote and beautiful,” concluding that after his many journeys there, “I love the North. I’m kind of a winter creature.”
It must be said that there is a sort of wintery solace in their music, a haunted chill that can be detected in the lyrics and an inexplicable eeriness in their harmonies, warm as they first appear. There are minor tones that creep in to keep listeners on the edge of their seat, not quite dancing but with fluttering spirits. Entranced by the dark tales that continuously unfold from the words of two lovers who stare off in deep focus, a quieting inner peace is occasionally returned in each other’s brief glances. It is a delicate balance, but somehow they have a constant ability to draw attention to the other person: her doe-eyed sincerity, his captivated sensitivity, her aural and instrumental highlights and his mysterious, complex rhythms.
In many situations however, it becomes evident that they are not the only people present in this music-making process and, occasionally, we get to see some of those backing forces appear throughout their album. Drummers Jason Tait (Weakerthans, the FemBots, Broken Social Scene), Pat Steward (Colin James, Matthew Good, Jann Arden), bassist Doug Elliott (Colin James, Limblifter) and even a guest vocal and piano appearance by Doucet’s teenage daughter, Chloe, bring it all together for a fullness that does proper justice to Whitehorse’s carefully constructed recordings and performances. Doucet still intricately plays most of the instruments on the album (vocals, electric and acoustic guitar, bass, pedal steel, organ, piano and banjo), while McClelland shares the vocals, organ and acoustic guitar sections with additional, creatively generated, sounds.
Although they’ve worked together for so long, it is interesting to consider how they feel things have possibly changed since announcing their wedding on CBC Radio and pushing on with a new name, moving away from their individual personas and starting fresh.
“It’s been a relief in a lot of ways, because I’ve always been a solo artist,” offers McClelland. “I was always the one carrying the show or writing all the songs on the record, my fear was kind of having to hand some of that control over… but, in fact, I felt the opposite, I felt this kind of relief that all of a sudden we could share song writing. Onstage, it was both of us together and there’s kind of a freedom in that.” While their fan base has shifted and grown, they have the fortunate sense of not having lost their previous support. With their eyes on the horizon, the future of Whitehorse has become each of their primary focuses at this point and neither musician is currently pursuing solo material outside the project.
Doucet enthusiastically reasons, “Having both of our minds together in the studio just means that we’re doing better work. My songs are better, Melissa’s songs are better, everything is better.”
“When we are onstage, there is this very natural chemistry,” agrees McClelland, “so I think people pick up on that and you either love it or you hate it. Hopefully, you love it, but it’s authentic, what we’re putting out there.” Their excitement certainly comes through and it’s a joy to watch and listen.
Do what you can to keep your cowboy boots on the extra few days and tap along to the roots-influenced cadence with which they will be gracing our inner-city grasslands. Soon enough, the sun will set, downtown towers will chime 11 o’clock and the spell under which they hold us will inevitably elapse as it is once again time for the one and only Whitehorse to venture on, leaving their audiences happy ever after in a plume of fairy road dust — and hopefully with a new great record to set the tone for even more magic to come.
Catch Whitehorse as part of the Calgary Folk Festival on Friday, July 27 on Stage 5, and on Saturday, July 28 on Stage 1 and 6.
By Cait Lepla
Cover Illustration: Kara Eaton