By Harriet Kaplan
Taking creative license isn’t anything new when it comes to art and songwriting, but when Whitehorse, the Canadian folk rock duo featuring husband and wife Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland, both established singer/songwriters in their own right do it, one stands up and takes notice. Whitehorse craft memorable songs that are evocative, poignant and also gritty and realistic. The duo explore themes not always so close to home, but with a personal touch, that brings situations and characters to life in dark and sometimes extreme situations painting a livid and compelling picture drawing a listener into a story or mini movie. They place you right at the scene of the action as the events unfold. The music takes it cues and inspiration from the South with varying flavors of a regional sounds and spaghetti westerns and film noir. Whitehorse has released two albums, “The Fate of the World Depends on This a Kiss,” and their newest offering, “Leave No Bridge Unburned.” Next week, Los Angeles, California will be in for treat when the married duo take the stage at Hotel Cafe for a show on the 26th showcasing their material and delivering those wonderful, searing burnished harmonies live. Recently Black on the Canvas spoke with Melissa and Luke . The result was a very candid and sharp interview in which they spoke about everything from raising their baby and teenage stepdaughter and balancing that responsibility with touring as musicians to taking in the crazy, chaotic world around them in all its absurdities and contradictions and turning that into raw source material for writing original songs.
Do you feel being married brings a certain perspective, tension and emotion to the music and songwriting you create and build upon? Now that you have a baby how does that affect the band in terms of a touring, rehearsals and recording music? Is the baby a new source of inspiration for songs or change or broadened your songwriting palette of ideas?
Whitehorse: Our family situation, being that we are a married couple and we tour with children (both our new son and my daughter/Melissa’s step daughter, who is 18) means that we live a different lifestyle on the road than we have in the past. There is a routine that always emerges on the road, with or without family in tow, but with us, that routine is about balancing the needs of a baby with the requirements of playing music in a different city every day. As far as the emotional impact that working closely with each other has on our music, I suppose we tell different stories than we may have before. The quotidian routine isn’t so much the stuff of poetry and that forces us to be better writers. We tell stories. That’s a huge part of our job. The greats all understood this, whether John Lennon, Bob Dylan… whoever. The error that many writers make is in taking the “method acting” approach to songwriting (I need to live interesting so I can write interesting), when in fact, what is required is to be a brave creative writer. The truth is overrated.
What are your musical influences in general and why? How has that colored or enhanced how you write music?
Whitehorse: We could list 100 artists who have influenced us greatly but I don’t think it would tell you much about our music because Howlin’ Wolf, Beck, The Pixies, Sloan, Theloniuos Monk, Patsy Cline, The Beatles, Father John Misty, The Clash and Mercury Rev don’t have all that much in common. We don’t really choose our influences and we—like everyone—are influenced by everything we hear. You know that viral YouTube clip of the young Christian kid rapping “Jesus Doin’ That New Thang”…? We find ourselves singing that in our bus, in fits of hysteria. Are we trying to sound like him? No. But we are influenced—maybe to NOT do something. The question of influences is always a weird one.
Tell me about previous experiences being in other bands? How does it compare to being in Whitehorse and did you learn anything or you take with you now being a duo.
Whitehorse: I (Luke) have toured or recorded with about 20 artists over the years and they are all different. Some of them (Veal, Luke Doucet & The White Falcon) have been opportunities to exercise my own muscle as a writer and singer; some have been guitar jobs (Sarah McLachlan, Blue Rodeo, Chantal Kreviazuk, Bryan Adams, Oh Susanna, countless blues, country, latin gigs in my hometown of Winnipeg as a teenager etc) but I have gleaned tons from all of them. I often think about what it would take for someone to acquire the skills and experiences required to create Whitehorse and between Melissa & I (her resume is only slightly shorter than mine) it looks like being in 30 bands, touring for decades, producing a dozen albums for other artists, writing hundreds of songs, having a kid or two… those experiences get you ready. Beyond that? I’m not sure… remember that being good at Whitehorse means rolling with the punches and picking your battles—especially with regards to the touring lifestyle—but also creatively. Establishing our parity from the outset—we are equals in this band—has made us better creative partners too. We actually write better songs because the respect and trust is built right into the mandate of the band. Two bosses, no subordinates.
You’ve released two albums to date. The titles are very dramatic and immediate. What inspired that? How has the Whitehorsegrown and changed in development through the course of those albums thematically and musically in your opinion?
Whitehorse: The titles reflect that we live in dramatic times. They are also a tongue in cheek wink at the conspiracy theorists and preppers of the world (the media included) who need to believe aliens are among us (for example), in order to feel alive. Between the 24 hour news cycle, the endless litany of internet bullshit people will believe, and the insanity of religion that is still ubiquitous in our lives, our songs poke gently at the world around us through characters that, while inspired by each other and those around us, are largely fictional. Leave No Bridge Unburned was also suggested as a family motto—as we probably suffer from acute foot-in-mouth disease.
Over the course of our records, we’ve become more experimental, darker, and better fiction writers. We started out as a unification of two artists who had released records as singer songwriters (or “songer sing-wreckers” as Sloan’s Andrew Scott calls them) in the roots world. With some glaring exceptions (Waits? Costello? Dylan?) this world can err on the side of the solipsistic and we’ve made a deliberate attempt to push ourselves away from our diaries and into the much more difficult world of fiction. This has encouraged us to explore different production ideas and colour palettes with our music too. People still ask us—after hearing a show or listening to our records—what kind of music we make. “Who cares?” is not the most polite answer but it’s more or less how we feel.
Photo by Jacki Sackheim