With their eyes usually glued to the road, their ears willing to hear multiple genres of music they can play, and their minds open to changing with the times, Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland seem to be happiest when they’re on the move as the unpredictable Canadian-based husband-and-wife duo known as Whitehorse.
Nothing can stop them from reaching their destination, whether they’re hunkering down in the chilly climes of wintery Winnipeg, Manitoba, or experiencing a warmer, more cosmopolitan lifestyle in trendy Toronto, Ontario, during the summer. Well, almost nothing.
As with many hard-working artists who depend on touring to make a living, Whitehorse took a big hit from the global pandemic that wiped out their travel itinerary. Leaving them questioning their future heading into 2023, Doucet and McClelland still found a way to write and record songs for their eighth full-length studio album, to be released on 13 January. The bittersweet throwback to America’s classic country and Americana’s authentic sounds comes with a title that connects the sad and solitary past with the post-pandemic present. I’m Not Crying, You’re Crying (Six Shooter Records) might be their finest — and most unpredictable — work yet.
During a thoughtful, often jovial interview over the phone from their small Winnipeg condo ten days before Christmas Eve, Doucet and McClelland traded quips about: their status as a working couple blessed with eight-year-old son Jimi (spelled like the ultimate guitar hero); how this latest album evolved from a straightforward collection of songs to a deeply intertwined artistic achievement; and why one prescient comment made in our first phone interview ten years ago was either a lucky strike or the mad musings of a self-described “drama queen”.
Breaking the Laws of Convention
Married since 24 June 2006, loyal Canadian Doucet and Chicago-born McClelland moved from supporting players for other artists like Sarah McLachlan while launching separate solo careers before coming together as Whitehorse in 2010. Now a power couple who were nominated for five consecutive Juno Awards (Canada’s equivalent of the Grammys) from 2016-2020, starting the streak with a win for Leave No Bridge Unburned (Adult Alternative Album), they have kept a relatively low profile since releasing two albums (Modern Love, Strike Me Down) in 2021.
While the coronavirus outbreak certainly affected their career as a touring act, they found silver linings among the dark clouds. Topping the list was spending much more time at home with Jimi, who this holiday season had “fully acknowledged that we’re no longer pretending Santa Claus is real,” Doucet reveals. “He’s a smart kid” who’s still “into the make-believe of it” McClelland proudly shares as their boy began to focus more on musical instruments (including a set of electronic drums for Christmas) instead of Legos and toy swords.
Nearing their 17th wedding anniversary this summer, they both understand the perils of leading a 24/7 joint existence (Doucet likens it to “getting away with murder”) but readily accept the challenge.
“The laws of convention that say you’re not supposed to work, you’re not supposed to mix business and pleasure. I feel like we’re more successful at that than we’ve ever been without getting too personal,” proclaims Doucet, a quick thinker, and even faster talker. “We’re better at sharing our work, and we’re better at sharing our life. We’re better at this thing we’re not supposed to do. … And now we have Jimi in the mix. He’s a delight.”
Homeschooling their son for a full year during the onset of COVID-19, “Jimi really thrived in that,” maintains McClelland, who speaks softly and carries a soothingly melodious singing voice. “… He just has the right personality for that. And we had the time to focus on that and focus on him” while valuing their time together by taking walks around the neighborhood, playing math games, or talking about history and geography. “We all learned a lot that year. (laughs) Everything slowed down, or everything kind of came to a screeching halt. But there were a lot of really nice things about that because we’d been nonstop moving our entire adult lives. Nonstop traveling, which we love, and we hope to get back to that. But I enjoy the pause of that and just kind of being in one place. Being at home.”
As far as their professional relationship goes, McClelland states, “Working together in music has always connected us from Day One. It’s so much a part of our individual identities but also a big part of our identity as a couple. It was interesting during the lockdown when we weren’t connecting in that way anymore because everything stopped. Essentially, for two years we weren’t touring, we weren’t on stages, and we weren’t doing what we do together. So, it was like a different interpretation of our relationship. It was a different expression of what we mean to each other. I do find that shared passion of music and creating together and playing together on stage and singing songs together, sharing a mic in front of an audience is a really incredible way to keep that kind of heart connection.”
So that time off the road was eventually utilized by writing at home and recording in the studio for a pair of revived performers. “I’ve heard from other writers that said the pandemic just shut them down creatively,” contends Doucet. “To me, the fact that the sky was falling in so many different metaphoric ways, you know, some of them really obvious, and some of them less obvious, like what’s happening with culture and people and politics and philosophy and ideology, that to me there’s so much to write about.
“I feel like watching society come to terms with its very existence is like, ‘How can you not write about that thing?’ But obviously, that’s not everybody’s way of responding. It’s like other people have different trauma responses. Then maybe their trauma response is just to curl up in a fetal position and drink yourself half to death. You know, we wrote a bunch of country songs and drank ourselves half to death.”
From an Idea Grows a Concept
Doucet was at least half-kidding about their alcohol consumption during the pandemic but took certain subjects seriously while staying occupied with initial plans to record an EP of 1970s country songs as almost a means of survival. Developing into a writing project during a catastrophic crisis, it sounds like he was fulfilling a mission to connect the dots while tackling songs on a grander — some would say epic — scale. Was this possibly a concept album in the making?
“We sort of bounce between post-apocalypticism, then back to universal themes around love and unrequited love and sadness and loneliness, which there’s a deep connection,” ponders Doucet. “I think sadness and loneliness that’s in the classic country canon, the Americana canon, it’s of course essential. But it’s also been an essential theme for a lot of people in their actual, practical lives, trying to survive for the last few years. People have had a hard time.”
McClelland quickly jumps in with an answer in line with her partner’s while taking a more direct approach.
“It’s interesting because I’m actually just realizing it now after you asked that question that really this is the first record we’ve ever made with a theme in mind,” she says. “Every record we’ve made, there are themes that pop up. Luke started writing. I don’t think you even had this theme in mind. It’s just what you were writing about. Then I set out to write my songs. Every song, you know, I was thinking it has to be about this. I’ve never approached songwriting that way. I found it very difficult to approach it that way but very gratifying in the end. Now we have this collection of songs that really kind of tell a story of that time and place.”
So turning I’m Not Crying, You’re Crying into a concept album was either a deliberately dandy decision or a beautifully brilliant mistake, depending on where Doucet and McClelland ultimately stand on the matter. One question — was it intentional? — got two opposing opinions:
Doucet: “No, it wasn’t intentional.”
McClelland: “Well, I think it was intentional.” (laughs)
Not quite conceding the victory to his wife, Doucet went on to modify his answer. “Well, I was going to say … OK, it wasn’t that we sat down and decided to do it, but I think that it was clear as we were writing that that’s what was happening. We weren’t necessarily under any allusions that it wasn’t happening, but we didn’t sit down and make a plan.”
Regardless, they both agreed the “trigger” to launch this ambitious task beginning in April 2020 was the death of everybody’s folk hero, John Prine. “We had started dreaming up that project before everything shut down [in March 2020], McClelland explains, later adding, “We have cowritten a lot before in the past, but I think our natural tendency is to go into separate corners of the house and do our thing and then present each other with a collection of songs.”
Prine’s death from COVID-19 complications on 7th April that year motivated them to listen to his records and albums like Red Headed Stranger by Willie Nelson and Trio by Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, along with others by Gram Parsons and Harris, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Guy Clark, and Kris Kristofferson. They also watched the animated docuseries Mike Judge Presents: Tales of the Tour Bus, which included “amazing stories” about performers such as Johnny Paycheck and Waylon Jennings.
While dipping into rock, folk, blues, and pop throughout their career before and after forming Whitehorse, the duo, according to Doucet, thought, “What if we are more specific? What if we use Gram and Emmylou as the template? And what if we restrict ourselves instrumentally in production to guitar, bass [both sharing duties], drums [John Obercian], pedal steel [Burke Carroll], and our vocals and no overdubs, no percussion, no keyboards, no horn sections, nothing. Just the basic elements that you’d expect coming off the stage at Robert’s [Western World] in Nashville. So we set up those kinds of parameters. We didn’t necessarily establish lyrical themes as the parameter. But just something about having the parameters, then as the theme emerged and that became a guardrail that, again, it wasn’t preordained, but it emerged.
“Mining the classics enabled us to focus on different parts of the process of writing. Like the minutiae of the lyrics and the stories and how to tell a story a certain way. Because the music itself, you can just hear it in our heads. We didn’t have to think very hard about how it was gonna go. Because the songs told us,” proclaims Doucet, who produced the 12-song LP made at Toronto’s Revolution Recording in June 2020.
“It was the music kind of floating through our home during that time,” McClelland offers. “When we’d put Jimi to bed, I’d go upstairs to our bedroom and Luke would go down to the kitchen and he’d open a bottle of wine, and he’d start playing guitar. I wasn’t necessarily feeling creative at that time. So I wasn’t drawn to that. But Luke was in this really prolific songwriting state of mind. I’d wake up in the morning and look at my phone, and there would be a voice memo, a demo that Luke had sent to me that he’d just recorded at the kitchen table. Every day all these songs were pouring in. That’s when I recognized the very strong theme of lockdown and isolation and sadness and loss. That’s when I was like, ‘OK, I’ve got to get on this train, too.’ So I dusted off the guitar and was like, ‘All right, let’s do this.’ And really wrote with that theme in mind.”
Taking a mighty first swing, McClelland connected right on the nose with “If the Loneliness Don’t Kill Me”, also supplying lead vocals on the album opener and debut single off I’m Not Crying, You’re Crying.
Getting Into Characters
In admiring his wife’s work on that song and others, Doucet repeats McClelland’s witty remark that the tune “is basically a dedication. It was inspired by our recycling bin.” As she laughs, he mixes jokes with praise, saying, “We keep drinking wine at the rate we are; we’re not going to make it. It’s such a great punchline. Melissa, if I may, she’s excellent at writing the punchline zingers.”
The specific zinger he refers to follows the song title after each verse of “If the Loneliness Don’t Kill Me”. For example: “I could drink myself to Sunday / It’s my only cheapest thrill / If the loneliness don’t kill me / Then the good times surely will.”
Sharing credit on all their songs, no matter who writes them, Doucet/McClelland take after another pretty fair pair of crafty pop-rock composers.
Called a one-two punch by Doucet, the lyrical combination in “If the Loneliness Don’t Kill Me” is reminiscent of the Beatles’ “Getting Better”, when Paul McCartney’s optimistic approach (“I’ve got to admit it’s getting better / A little better all the time”) is taken down a notch by John Lennon’s sarcastic “It can’t get no worse.”
The primary difference in Whitehorse’s knockout number, of course, is that McClelland provided the topper to her own setup. According to Doucet, that “really set the tone” for the rest of the record.
Still, they doubled up to offset the heavy messages with a bit of lighthearted humor. “This just can’t all be sad. We have to have fun with this, too,” declares Doucet, who was 15 when he began playing guitar in his dad’s blues band. “People are gonna have to dance. If it’s gonna be a country record, there’s gonna have to be dancing and drinking and partying. So let’s not just be sad bastards or It’s not gonna work.”
Going down that country road, the duo also found fun with some of the colorful inhabitants within the songs. “There’s something about this genre of music that really personally allowed me to kind of embody these characters,” reveals McClelland, who based the protagonist in “Sanity, TN” on A Streetcar Named Desire’s Blanche DuBois. Imagining her alter-ego in lockdown wearing a “ridiculous” negligee, she continues, “I don’t know, there’s like a little more room for playfulness,” her dreamy delivery in the placid number accompanied by easy-breezy pedal steel.
McClelland can’t help but laugh again when her slapstick sidekick salaciously cracks, “These characters are a whole lot sluttier than we are in real life. These are some dirty motherfuckers.”
Yet Doucet can get to the nitty-gritty, too. He writes about “Skateboarders running red lights” and a busker “who tends to blow his lunch everywhere when he sings” in the more contemplative album closer “Scared of Each Other”, their lovely duet recalling some rough times experiencing “the kind of loneliness that we were feeling in Toronto.”
In “Division 5”, he also finds a little tenderness between a sensitive cop from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and a broken-hearted, aimless “sad sack” who enters a police station to file a missing persons report — on himself. Depending on the kindness of strangers — in whatever scenario — is a universal theme, though Doucet believes he was second-guessed at Six Shooter, their Toronto-based indie label, for humanizing a fictional law enforcement character in a song written shortly after George Floyd’s 2020 murder in Minneapolis.
“It’s just a country song about two people who happen to share a moment of compassion and empathy,” Doucet presents in his defense. “Surely, there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s interesting that one has to consider things like that in this day and age.” Today (10 January) at PopMatters, Whitehorse present an exclusive premiere of their official live performance music video for “Division 5” below.
Word Playing to Win
Whitehorse also had to put up a fight to see I’m Not Crying, You’re Crying become the album title. “There was a lot of controversy. Some people didn’t like it,” discloses Doucet, singling out concerns from Shauna de Cartier, Six Shooter’s founder. “We had to have multiple meetings and lots of votes. Yeah, the story is it sort of struck me, for only the obvious reasons, it was a delight or a total disaster. And depending on who you ask, nobody is on the fence on this one. … She was worried that it was gonna somehow be viewed as a cheap meme.”
That brought a giggle — and this reply — from McClelland, who stood by her husband: “Well, it is a cheap meme. That’s what we like about it. The thing that I like about it is it sounds old school, and it fits very much with the genre, you know, that era of country music but it’s very much a current term.”
Though the word “crying” is only mentioned in one of the album’s songs (lively rocker “I Miss the City”), the apt phrase that relates to young and old, the past and present, is spread boldly across the bottom of the album cover, signaling another Whitehorse win at the finish line. “I can picture Lyle Lovett or Dwight Yoakam or Tyler Childers writing a song with that, using it,” Doucet concludes. “That’s what made me think it belonged because those are some of my heroes. I’m like, ‘OK, if I can imagine one of those guys singing it, or Dolly Parton, Emmylou, then it counts.’”
Like McClelland, Doucet obviously has a way with words, too. They love to embrace the occasional duet, even when he jokes about his “Kermit the Frog-ass voice” on “6 Feet Away”. Their vocal blend turns his lyrics into a precious COVID love song that really captures the feeling of those times. It proves how Doucet’s complex thoughts and sensibilities are easily digestible as his material digs far deeper than typical country songs that involve booze, babes, and good ol’ boys.
“As society bifurcates into tribes, there are lots of reasons why it looks as though we’re afraid of each other,” he reasons as new variants of COVID, or strains of other diseases seem to raise the fear factor in our lives. “And they’re not limited to concerns about viruses, as it turns out. Maybe it’s politics or philosophy or ideology. … I’m just as concerned about that as I am about the concern of a virus wiping out humanity. Both have the potential to be existentially threatening.”
So, as he speaks his mind and wails on his twangy guitars (check out the hoedown-worthy “Manitoba Bound”), Doucet is becoming the thinking man’s music man of working-class folk heroes. Oh, and he’s also one helluva prognosticator.
Apocalypse Then … and Now
It’s been a pleasure to feature Whitehorse (and present music video and album stream premieres) at The Huffington Post and PopMatters in the past, highlighted by our first eye-opening phone interview with Doucet and McClelland ahead of their second album.
Titled The Fate of the World Depends on This Kiss, it was released on 15 January 2013, almost ten years to the day before this latest album comes out. After answering a question then about the dangers of a married couple basically working/living together as professional musicians (“It’s not apocalyptic,” he asserted), the sharp soothsayer went on to say all of us were living in a time when “apocalyptic things seemed to have grabbed our attention like rarely ever before.”
What prompted “the fate of the world” and “apocalyptic things” to enter the minds (even creatively speaking) of a promising duo just three years after giving birth to the Whitehorse project?
Now looking back to what he calls the “halcyon days” of 2013, Doucet admits there was no need for concern because “Obama was still the president; we had never even heard that a carnival barker was going to end up being president.”
Apparently addressing humans in general, but specifically voting Americans, McClelland teasingly exclaims, “Well, you fools! You had no idea. You had no clue what we were in for!”
Their snappy repartee was interrupted momentarily when Doucet was complimented for his one brief quote that somehow managed to predict the future. In 2013, it was more Apocalypse Later (as it took seven years for all hell to break loose with the pandemic). Yet Doucet needed only seconds on this day to cheekily counter, “I appreciate that. … You would be forgiven for just accusing me of having been a drama queen.”
More Chapters and Verses?
Still, it’s hard for this unpredictable couple to predict what the future holds for them after this release followed by a Canadian tour scheduled to begin in May. After spending time in Winnipeg to be with his mother Margaret (who died in August), Doucet, McClelland, and Jimi are moving back to Toronto in late June. There, he can see his daughter Chloe (also a musician) more often, she’ll be closer to her folks again after growing up in nearby Hamilton, and their son’s new Christmas gift won’t disturb the next-door neighbors nearly as much as his real drum kit once did.
“We’ve acknowledged recently that it really does feel like we’re in this kind of transition in time and life and we’re just trying to see what the next chapter is,” McClelland expresses. “Like, what’s next? I feel like the pandemic really shook things up for us and for everyone obviously. And, you know, is there a way to get back to what it was before? We don’t know yet. So life is certainly different on the road. Financially speaking, it’s a little more challenging touring than it was before. …
“We’re just kind of in this wait-and-see spot in our life. And I think in the next couple of years, it will start to kind of become clear as to how it’s gonna go. How we’re gonna work, how we’re gonna travel, and where we’re gonna plant our roots.”
Doucet’s view expands beyond music-making as he considers what this current state of flux will bring: late-stage capitalism, the world devouring itself, or the end of the American Empire? Such thoughts might only make life more confusing.
“Maybe because I’m pushing 50 [set to hit the milestone on 9 June] and I’m like approaching my get-off-my-lawn years. I remember at one point my father-in-law, Melissa’s dad, hit me with that trope that ‘If you’re not a liberal when you’re young, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative when you’re old, you have no brain,’” Doucet recalls. “I was like, ‘Fuck you, watch. You just wait and see, man. I’m going to hold out, and I’m gonna be a communist my whole life.’ And all of a sudden, I find myself pushing 50 like, ‘Hey, I’m not a communist anymore. What happened?’”
The couple share more laughs before Doucet contemplates somber notions and tougher questions. “We’ve never been more divided, you know, according to, even reasonable people are saying this,” he points out. “Are we headed toward civil war? That’s crazy hyperbole but, again, even reasonable people are starting to ask these questions. Where are we going? Where are things going? Are we gonna be OK? Are we gonna make it?
“Now that financial inflation is what it is, and people are panicking financially, maybe I am a drama queen. I’m watching with bated breath. Who’s gonna win the election in 2024? I just think we’re going through a lot. And it’s a difficult thing to even talk about.”
Who really knows what the fate of the world depends on but expect to see more Whitehorse songs in the future after “piles and piles” of demos were left over from Doucet’s country writing sessions. Using a stinky metaphor that won’t be repeated here, he explains the way they work: “I write 20 songs to get five good ones. Melissa writes five songs to get five good ones. We just have a different process.”
While they usually write separately, though, what really counts is how they spend their life together, Doucet concedes. “We are influencing each other constantly, with the things that we read and the conversations we have and the music we listen to and the podcasts that are playing when we make dinner. We share a brain.”
That should surprise no one. After all, these big thinkers manage to keep pickin’ and grinnin’ their way through all the trauma and drama. After feeling the emotional pull of Whitehorse’s newest — and most potent — record, you may ask yourself: Who’s crying now? Anyone who believes in the healing power of music deserves to shed a few tears of joy.