Down the Road to Massey Hall: A Conversation with Whitehorse

As Whitehorse, married couple Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland made one of last year’s most stylistically diverse, and genuinely satisfying roots-rock albums: the elliptically-titled The Fate of the World Depends on this Kiss. Both established musicians in their own right before joining forces, McClelland and Doucet have found new artistic territory by fusing their respective “sounds” into a new, agreeably heterogeneous attitude.

Mingling elements of coffee house folk with guitar lines straight out of some Spaghetti Western, blues-based progressions with classic pop melodies, and a clear commitment to meaningful lyricism and politics, the duo have found a beguiling space in which to create, and to explore. Speaking to me while navigating the windswept winter highway between Saskatoon and Regina, a week and a half into the Canadian leg of a tour that has been ongoing virtually ever since they founded the band, Doucet and McClelland opened up about their life on the road, the commanding influence of Neil Young, their upcoming gig at Toronto’s Massey Hall, and breaking the “cardinal rule” of the music biz: starting a band with your life-partner.

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Geography and space figure into your work in a variety of ways. Your band’s name is an allusion to a northern Canadian city, you have a song called “Wisconsin”, you have a song about your hometown of Hamilton, Ontario. Why does place figure so prominently into your songwriting process?

Melissa McClelland: Well, this is kind of a never-ending tour for us. We’re on the road non-stop these days. I think that when you’re a storyteller, it’s really important to paint a picture, and I know that as far as I approach songwriting, I like to have an image in my head, and that includes characters and space and time, and I think that way the road weaves its way into our songs.

Luke Doucet: I think it does have a lot to do with touring, but that begs the question: How are we any different from other bands since other bands tour as well? I do think that for many bands, touring is something you do at selected times in the course of an album cycle and then you go home. I have always looked at touring, and we have always looked at touring, this way: records are something you make so that you can tour. Whereas a lot of people look at it as touring is necessary to promote the album. I have always had it kind of backwards. I take great pride in being able to spend my life playing shows every night. And, so we are probably on the road more than a lot of other bands. As our environment changes day after day, that begins to play a big role in the songwriting. We’re actually kind of homeless at the moment! We own a home in Hamilton, but we haven’t been there in quite a while. We’re just living on the road. But because we’re married and we work together, it’s really kind of a treat for us to be able to keep moving instead of having to go to the place we arbitrarily call home.

There have been so many storied husband and wife artistic collaborations over the years, but unfortunately only a very few have gone the distance. Did that figure into your decision to start working together? Or did you adopt a damn the torpedoes kind of attitude?

LD: Well, I guess it’s a reality, but, I mean, this is the life we live. We’re on the road all the time, and it’s a good thing that we get to work together, and we get to be together. So, I understand the way it looks from the outside. I mean, so many people have tried and so many have failed and very few have, as you say, gone the distance. But this is the life we lead.

MM: I mean, all we can do is learn from, you know, people’s mistakes. We can look at other situations and say: OK, we need to try to avoid that, and figure out our own ways of dealing with the intensity of working and living and traveling together.

LD: We always look at it as getting away with murder, you know? We are breaking one of the cardinal rules. But there are so many things about how we live that, I guess, are unorthodox, that I think we’re lucky. I don’t hold my breath thinking: Oh what are we doing, we’re doomed. I more think: Look at what we’re getting away with! It’s fantastic.

Sure. I guess the flip-side of the question is: why should anyone assume that staying apart while one or both of you are on the road is any safer for a relationship?

LD: Well, certainly we all have friends … as musicians we know all kinds of people whose relationships have not survived because they’re apart so much. I don’t know what the magic formula is for musicians but I am certain that I’d much rather bet the farm on us being together than apart.

MM: Usually somebody’s being left behind in these situations. And that can be a really hard thing. It can be a really lonely thing. But we’re so lucky in our case that Luke and I are so committed, 100%, to this lifestyle. We live and breathe it. I think we’ve managed to find a way to create a life together that includes all of our passions. We don’t take that for granted.

LD: We also do a couple of simple things to try and maintain our sense of autonomy. Because everybody needs that. And when we’re working together, which is most of the time, we need that. I mean we’re together most of the time. Very, very close most of the time. And so, Melissa runs an animal sanctuary in Hamilton, and I tend to not have anything to do with that. And I’m usually working on some project. I run marathons, so that’s time-consuming and it’s a solitary thing that Melissa doesn’t really get involved in. So, we have those little projects that keep us sane.

MM: Life outside of music, and us.

It wasn’t exactly obvious that Melissa McClelland and Luke Doucet were going to fit together as a band. You both have developed quite distinct voices in your respective careers. How much have you had to trade off in order to find the space in the middle to play as Whitehorse?

MM: I don’t know. I think that that’s what made it work: that we both came into this project with a real sense of musical identity. But, we had also shared our music in unofficial ways over the years, and so we already had that working, creative relationship, so I think it evolved in a really natural way. Our “sound”. We didn’t try to control it, we just came together and saw what happened.

LD: I suppose I like to think that Whitehorse is a better artist than Luke Doucet or Melissa McClelland. (I’m sorry to be the guy who just referred to himself in the third person). One of the things I have always been self-conscious about (and I know a lot of singers are like this) is that I have always struggled a little bit with the sound of my voice. When I sing I think I must sound just like Jeff Tweedy! Just like Howling Wolf! You know? And then when I hear it come back I sure don’t sound like those people. So I have always been a little bit sheepish about the sound of my voice coming off albums. And now when I hear a Whitehorse record I don’t have those problems. Because I’m hearing a lot of Melissa and she’s such a great singer. So I hope that those little corners of our work that weren’t what we wanted … I think we’ve improved upon them.

MM: Definitely. I feel like my delivery has always been kind of subtle. My voice, there’s a subtlety to it. And I feel like Luke has really helped me realize those things, and deliver in a more powerful way. So I experience that satisfaction, hearing my ideas come through in a way that I wasn’t really able to achieve on my own.

Perhaps the thing that attracted me to your record last year was how varied it is. There’s almost a defiance of any expectations about genre. You borrow freely from variety of genres, styles, approaches. This is so rare these days. Was this a conscious effort to push against convention?

LD: I don’t think it was deliberate. I think it stems from two or three different things. I think if you got Melissa to name the three genres of music that inspire her the most and if you asked me the same thing you’d get a list of things that arguably aren’t supposed to fit together. I find myself sometimes describing our music as: Blues, but also country, and we write pop songs. And then I stop myself and I think: God that sounds horrible! I mean, I’m telling people we make “pop-blues” which is, I mean honestly, it’s the worst thing I can possibly imagine. But, I’ve always … to me the greatest album ever was the “White Album”. When I was a little kid that was the record I listened to the most. I just thought it was the perfect album. And it could not be more disjointed. It’s the sound of the Beatles breaking up. It’s got some of Paul McCartney’s sappiest songs, and some of John Lennon’s darkest, most brooding ones. And I know that most people think of it as a completely disjointed work, but I think that we just have different ideas about what cohesion means, what pop music means. [Whitehorse] has struggled with that — we’ve tried to make “consistent” music before, but, I dunno. Maybe we’ll have better luck with it next time? [laughs]

MM: I think we just surrendered on this record! We just realized that it wasn’t consistent and maybe that’s OK. And, maybe that’s actually our strong point. Both Luke and I have been guilty of that on our solo records, too. We like to tap into a lot of different sounds and ideas. That’s part of the experience for us. And I think that on this record we just said, you know what? This feels good. Let’s just go with it.

I suppose what strikes me when I listen to the album with its range of sounds and tones and moods is that it recalls the kinds of records we often got in the 1970s, records that were often cobbled together — think of Neil Young’s stuff from that era — from several different sessions, with different players, producers, etc. It certainly can be done, and masterpieces have been produced in that way, but it’s done less and less now, isn’t it?

LD: I have a whole lot of little theories as to why that might be the case. One is that there are just so many more acts out there right now that I can understand the impulse, bands thinking We have to have a “sound”. People have to put our record on and know it is us after five seconds. We have to get the same reverb on every song. And every song has to have the same instrumentation, every song has to be the same tempo. And we have tried to do stuff like that — I don’t mean to sound like another band — but to create a consistency from song to song in our Patsy Cline-meets-Ennio Morricone way, or whatever elements we’re trying to jam together. But we always find ourselves 3 or 4 songs into an album and realize, nope, this is not anywhere near consistent. [laughs]

You’ve named this current leg of the tour The Road to Massey Hall, a reference to the Toronto venue you’ll play on March 2nd. This is a storied stage, and probably Canada’s most famous, most significant scene for any band. Kind of like Canada’s Carnegie Hall. It’s a major gig, and must be really exciting. What brought you to the idea to commemorate this show by releasing an EP of covers?

LD: Well, we wanted to pick some songs by some artists who had had really important experiences at Massey Hall. Which is a long list! It includes some significant albums — obviously Neil Young did that live record in 1971 at Massey Hall — and we really wanted to pay tribute to how important that venue is. It is a really big venue for us, so we’re partly just terrified about having to sell that many tickets! But, beyond that, once we get over that paranoia, it’s also just the awe. The majesty of setting foot on that stage, a stage that has hosted everybody from Duke Ellington to Keith Richards to Neil Young.

MM: We actually got the idea because we’d been covering the song “Winterlong” by Neil Young for many years. We’ve been playing it quite a bit. And we did a live video of it, just in one shot, one take of us singing “Winterlong” and we were really happy with the way it turned out. And since Neil had made this live record at Massey Hall, and Luke saw Neil play at Massey Hall recently, we just thought we could pay tribute to some more artists who were connected to that venue in some way.

I have been trying to come up with an appropriate way of describing Massey Hall to non-Canadians. To me, as a concert-goer, it has always felt kind of like a church. What’s it like to actually play up there?

LD: Well, I’ve always thought of it being an oversized living room in the sense that it’s such a comfortable building, and it sounds so good up there, that once you get over the initial intimidation of playing a room that full of history, that it really is a very comfortable place to play music.

MM: Oh, and it sounds so good. It is so fun to sing in that room.

LD: And, you know, there’s no anxiety to playing to that many people. You can only see the first three rows anyway! But it’s a big responsibility. It’s a lot of pressure for a little band like us to fill that big room. But, it turns out: we’re doing alright.