Canadian Duo Whitehorse Revel in the Darkness

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The first question posed during CMT Edge’s conference call with Whitehorse comes from the duo’s lead guitarist, Luke Doucet: “Is Melissa on the line yet?”

Really, Doucet’s the one with the more immediate access to his bandmate and spouse, Melissa McClelland, considering that she’s directly upstairs from him. They’re conducting the interview from separate floors of their Toronto home, the idea being if they each have a cell phone to their ear, they’re each sure to hear and be heard. And that’s an important consideration for a duo of equals.

Get them talking about the chicly noir, duskily tuneful roots-rock narratives on their new album, Leave No Bridge Unburned, and what it’s like getting up onstage with your partner in music and life and singing about enigmatic loners, and you find they have plenty to contribute on the subjects. Their U.S. tour begins Thursday (March 10) in Nashville.

CMT Edge: You said in another interview that your producer nudged you to go in a darker direction with this album. Where were you headed before that?

Doucet: We’ve tended to write in darker tones and we’ve been using minor keys. For some reason, we started writing songs in major keys and thinking that would be a good idea. We tried that and Gus [Van Go] was like, “No, no. no. What is this? This isn’t Whitehorse.” And he sort of sent us back to the drawing board and said, “Just write the way you write. Don’t try and be a different band.” So we ended up having to go back and write some different songs.

McClelland: It’s funny in a backwards kind of way. He told us that our songs sucked. At the same time, it was kind of an ego boost, because he was saying, “This isn’t what you do. Do what you do. You do that well.” He actually made us recognize what we’re good at as songwriters.

Audiences tend to look at coed performing duos, especially duos they know are romantically attached, as sort of performing their relationships in their music. What is it like to instead do bleak, dramatic songs together?

Doucet: We [each] made a bunch of records before we started making Whitehorse records. We sort of grew out of the folk community, or the roots community, whatever you wanna call it. There’s a certain propensity within that community to be sort of solipsistic and to write personally about your life and about your love and about your heart. And we’ve done that. But I think that when we started Whitehorse, we spent a fair amount of time talking about what it means to be creative writers.

Some of the greatest writers that we know and love, they are creative people. They’re not necessarily just regurgitating what they did yesterday or what they felt last week or what they want right now. They’re telling these stories by embellishing commonplace things, the experiences they’ve witnessed in their lives. And I think that that has been really appealing to Melissa and me. We’ve tried to approach writing as a creative writing exercise where the job isn’t so much even to be honest — the job is to tell a story.

We revel in the darkness. We like to watch dark movies and read dark books. Our lives are not necessarily that dark. We’re a happily married couple and we have a family and we make music together and we travel. I don’t know that people necessarily want to hear about that.

McClelland: I feel like there is a lot of darkness in our writing, but there’s also some humor and some lightness. … There’s a superhero prostitute in “Evangelina.”

Oh, there’s definitely humor to that.

McClelland: I think writing our relationship would be probably the last thing we would do. We just had a baby, and we’ve been asked if we are gonna start writing songs about our baby. No, probably not. We do write a lot of lullabies at home for our baby. …

I think when it comes to songwriting, I don’t wanna write about myself. How boring. There’s a whole world around me. There are dreams that I have at night. There are books that I read and images that I see, and all these things are inspiring for us and things that we can create stories out of.

At shows, you build loops with a drum kit and bass, then play other instruments over them. I can’t figure out if that’s a rootsy thing to do, since you’re building the music by hand, or not rootsy at all, since people tend to look at looping as a mechanized thing. What do you think?

McClelland: I feel like it’s both of those things. I think that’s what we like about it. I think that’s why we started doing that in the first place. It’s always been important to us to play everything live onstage and not have anything pre-recorded or any samples. We’ve always stuck to our guns on that. So in that way, yeah, it’s very organic. But we’re [also] taking advantage of technology and we’re trying to do something interesting and creative with it.

Do you feel the music scenes you’ve been a part of in Canada have informed your notions of what roots music is?

Doucet: People across Canada will talk about Toronto as a roots music town. … The people who’ve probably influenced me the most are people you’ve never heard of, people like Jay Nowicki, who’s from Winnipeg. … Melissa has talked a lot in the past about experiencing people like Sarah Harmer when she was younger. Blue Rodeo was a really important band for us when we were younger. They were playing this weird kind of like space cowboy music.

Canadian music is such an interesting little microcosm, partly because of the funding system that exits in Canada and the Canadian content regulations, where you turn on the radio in Canada and you have to hear a certain percentage of Canadian music.

McClelland: I also think the difference in Canada is you don’t feel the music industry around you here. We’ve lived in different places in the states, like Nashville and New York. There are so many bands, so many musicians, and the industry is kind of right on top of you. In Canada, it’s a lot of people making music for fun. I think roots music is really fun to play, whether that’s blues or country or folk. And when you don’t have the industry breathing down your neck, you’re just gonna play for fun.

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