Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland are not only passionate musical partners. These Canadian singer-songwriters, who blend roots music with experimental rock as the band Whitehorse, are also husband and wife.
Their second album together, The Fate of the World Depends on This Kiss, shows the couple completely in sync creatively. Interestingly, they tend to arrange songs that start off simply but grow ever more complex, much like the process of falling in love.
After winding down their solo careers, their time and energy is now focused like a laser beam on the new band.
“We put out two records within a year and pretty much toured nonstop,” says McClelland, a striking redhead with a disarmingly sweet voice. “We toured to the point where we gave up our home and decided to live full time on the road.”
While out on the road, they’ve been treating fans to eccentric and sometimes frantic live performances. At times, they seem to dance around each other like cooks in a kitchen, adding a drum loop here and a splash of feedback there.
McClelland called into CMT Edge to uncover the method behind Whitehorse’s madness and in the process also talked about falling in love with Doucet and getting to punch her husband in the face for a music video.
CMT: You are a married couple who also perform as a duo, but you each have your own musical background. How did this band happen?
McClelland: We met in the music scene in Toronto about 10 years ago. I had actually approached him to produce one of my records. So that’s how we met and started working together, and it quickly became unprofessional. (laughs) Very fast. Basically, right away there was obvious chemistry. And then we got married about three years later.
So we’ve always had a working musical relationship. It was just never officially [a partnership]. We always went under our own names and had our solo records and solo tours, but we played in each other’s bands. So we had tons of experience being on the road together, playing onstage together, working in the studio together, even writing together, but it never really occurred to us to come together as a duo until just a couple of years ago. People really responded to it, and we thought, “This feels really good. This feels right.” We started to feel like we kind of made up for what the other person was lacking and kind of completed each other musically, in a way.
You’re both creative people. How do romance and creativity intersect for you two?
I think the fact that it’s a lifestyle makes it kind of romantic — the fact that it’s not just a job. We’ve abandoned our home, and we’re living on the road. We live and breathe it. Every day, it’s unexpected, and I think there are huge amounts of romance in that. Music is really everything to us. It’s injected into every aspect of our life in an all-or-nothing kind of way, which sort of reflects the title of the record, The Fate of the World Depends on This Kiss. It’s kind of an all-or-nothing career path, you know?
“Achilles’ Desire” has this real sinister tone to it. What does that track mean to you?
That was a true co-write in a sense. Luke had been singing it for a while, just the guitar riff and a set of lyrics he was using. He’s from Winnipeg, Manitoba. His family is there, and there are a lot of interesting stories and fables and tales that go along with that city — the coldest city in the world — so we kind of took it in that direction. It’s supposed to be this steamy romance, but it takes place in the coldest city in the world. And I can attest to that. I was just there for Christmas and it was minus 27. (laughs)
I really loved the video, too, which features a boxing match between the two of you. What was that experience like?
That was really fun. We filmed it in this really great boxing gym in Toronto, and I think it’s the oldest boxing gym in Canada or something. It was just a super-sweaty, grungy-looking place. So we had a boxing coach with us, and I was encouraged to actually hit Luke. The coach put Vaseline all over our faces so the boxing gloves would just sort of slide off, and he’s just screaming in my ear, “Hit him like you mean it!” At first, I was so timid – like, “I don’t want to hurt him!” But then by the end, I’m getting all my aggression out. Poor Luke.
“Devil’s Got a Gun” has this really swampy intro. Being from Canada, where does that influence come from?
That song was the last one we wrote for the record and we were living in New York City at the time. The whole Occupy movement was happening following the Arab Spring, and you just felt this buzz in the world. We’re still feeling it, and there are a lot of dramatic, almost apocalyptic type things happening, like global warming and riots and protests, and it just feels like things are shifting a bit. That one kind of reflects the air of desperation and change.
Your live performances offer so much to take in. There are noise makers all over the stage and electronics, and you create really complex songs with just two people. “No Glamour in the Hammer” is a good example. So what does having a telephone onstage help with?
(laughs) Yeah, we actually have these two telephone mics a guy in Winnipeg put together for us. It sounds exactly like you are talking into a telephone. But it all goes into this looper that we have along with all these bells and whistles, drums, bass, tons of guitars, keys, this wooden stomp box that I’m stomping on with a pair of cowboy boots, the phone mics and lots of percussion. Half of the set, we keep really intimate. We just have one mic at the edge of the stage, and we both share that and play the songs stripped down. But the other half of the show is at this station where there are all these instruments, and we build all these loops together live. Each song kind of develops these different arrangements, and it’s made for a really exciting live show for us. It’s different every night, and it can go oh-so-wrong. (laughs) It forces us to be brave onstage and I think it’s been fun for the audience, too.
Have you ever had a complete train wreck?
Yeah, a couple of times for sure. But the last couple of times when that should have happened, we’ve been able to save it, so I think we’ve turned a corner. There have definitely been situations where we’re like, “I can’t believe we managed to get out of that one.”