An Interview with Whitehorse

[Another one-on-one by frequent contributor Julia Wallace. – AC]

Whitehorse @ The Horseshoe June 19

I’m escorted to the back alley of the Horseshoe Tavern where I find Luke Doucet sitting on the hood of an old car – the kind that looks like a mini pickup truck – and Melissa McClelland standing in front of him. She is eight months pregnant and makes you realize that all the positive things you hear are true: the glowing skin, shiny hair.

Doucet is fiddling with his phone trying to check them in for a flight the next morning. I mention that they’ve had a pretty wild couple of years together, graduating from Sarah McLachlan’s backup band to successful solo careers, to their latest project Whitehorse, a band they formed together that consists of the two them and a collection of talented friends. Tonight one of those friends happens to be the man Canada loves to swoon over, Mr. Jim Cuddy.

“We’ve been friends for a long time, and the spirit of tonight is to pull people together that don’t normally play together… and that seems to be a thing. I don’t know if it’s a Toronto thing, or if it’s an everywhere thing, but certainly in Toronto it seems to come up a lot. And when it does, you always gravitate towards people who have been inspiring – I mean, Blue Rodeo and Jim Cuddy have been so inspiring to us for so long. They’ve been friends and they’ve been supporters, and they’ve inspired us for decades, so we jump at the chance to hangout and play music.” Doucet tells me cheerfully after completing the often soul-sucking process of checking in for a flight on a smartphone. The two will travel to Alberta for a few festivals before returning to Ottawa to play on the hill just a few days ago as part of the Canada Day celebrations.

“I feel like that camaraderie and the spirit of sharing the opportunity to play music and sharing the creative space… I mean obviously there are certain genres of music where that probably doesn’t fly. We’ve fallen – in different times in our careers – into the roots or the Americana/country/blues/folk whatever you want to call it. I guess it depends on who you are – you’ll have a different interpretation of what this thing is called – but that world is particularly conducive to people hanging out together and playing music.”

The spirit of collaboration in Canadian roots/Americana music (if you can accept something being called ‘Canadian Americana’) has always been strong – think about how Robbie Robertson managed to jam his way into the Hawks back in the late ‘50s.

Doucet explains why it works so well. “It has a lot to do with the arrangements of the songs and the space, I think, in the songs. I can hear one of Jim’s tunes once and I have a pretty good idea of how to involve myself in a way that is useful.”

“That kind of music should sound loose. You know?” McClellend pipes in. “It should be relaxed at least, and kind of off-the-cuff.”

Excited as the pair are to be sharing the stage once again with Jim Cuddy – someone whom they feel a sense of gratitude towards for taking them on the road in support of Blue Rodeo – they’re also looking forward to releasing their third full-length album next year. The upcoming album will mark the first time that McClelland and Doucet have had a real outside influence on the album, as they hired production team Gus Van Go and Werner F to produce the record – a task Doucet handled on his own for the past two albums.

“They made us better,” he says confidently. “When we first started working together Gus said ‘send us some songs’ and we’d been writing a bunch over the last couple of years so we kind of thought ‘we’ve got this in the bag.’ We sent him 15 songs that we thought were great. We figured ‘okay, out of the 25 or 30 songs – not all of them finished – we’ll send him the best 15 ideas we have and we’re going to blow his socks off. He’s going to love this.’ And his response was to cancel the recording session and tell us to go write more songs.

“It was like ‘we can’t make a record with these terrible songs.’ You have to write new songs.” [Laughs]

“He kicked our butts and it was great.” Explains McClelland. “We loved it. We’re totally game for that. We’re like ‘okay! We’ll do better! We’ll do better for you guys!” and it really triggered this creative flow for both of us, you know? We were home and we were just writing, writing, writing, and we’d send them off to Gus and Werner and eventually we got a great collection of songs, and we worked really hard at crafting them. And I think that was such an important process for us – working with someone else for the first time because Luke had produced our previous records, so that was a whole new experience for us, and I think it made for a record that is going to elevate what we do a little bit. That’s always the hope, right?”

For any act, it’s a daunting task to follow up a record. It’s particularly difficult when you’re following up an album that received as much critical acclaim as 2013’s The Fate of the World Depends on This Kiss, which was also shortlisted for the Polaris Prize.

“It never fails, every time I’m in the process – or us – of making a new record
– or usually it’s the interim – between the time when the record is kind of done
and when it comes out, you feel like… there’s kind of a high,” says Doucet. “There’s a postpartum euphoria. I mean the low, the postpartum depression that can follow… [there’s some laughter – his terminology is all too apropos given Melissa’s pregnancy] the postpartum high, it sticks around kind of until the record comes out. Because you think you’re a genius! You’re like ‘you’re never going to believe what a genius I am – or we are,’ and then the record comes out and you realize maybe we’re not geniuses. Maybe we just made a record like the other 35,000 records a month that get released in the world.”

“I always feel like you need that sense of delusion to be in this business alone.” McClelland explains honestly. “To have the nerve to make a record and put it out there you kind of have to be a little bit delusional, but I agree, you’re kind of…”

The owner of the odd looking car we’re sitting on abruptly interrupts. “What are you doing?” he yells to which Melissa yells back “an interview!” We invite him to join, but no such luck. “I think what he means is get the fuck off my car” Luke says laughing.

The conversation shifts to the fact that it is the 20th Anniversary of NXNE as well as the legacy of the Horseshoe Tavern. It’s been a while since Doucet or McClelland performed during NXNE – so long in fact, that neither can actually remember when they last participated in the festival. Doucet does take the opportunity to reflect on the first time he graced the stage at the Horseshoe, and what he thinks the venue means to him.

“I was 19, or 18 or something like that. On my very first tour across Canada, and yeah, we played the Horseshoe – and when you think about the legacy of this venue, 20 years is a drop in the bucket – which is kind of a cool thing. In some ways, as far as the Canadian music industry is concerned, the Horseshoe Tavern is one of the very few venues; maybe Massey Hall would qualify, and maybe the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver, and a very select few other places. When you’re in Europe, you see a lot of these incredible edifices that have been there for 700 years, and you realize ‘this building has outlived 25 generations of people’ – and it’s incredible, and it’s just a bunch of brick and mortar. But in Canada, we don’t really understand that kind of permanence. I think it’s pretty cool that within Canada there are actually a few sanctuaries that might actually do that and represent that. This building has been hosting music for over 100 years, if I’m not mistaken.”

And that night proved that it’s still the perfect venue for collaboration, and Whitehorse and Jim Cuddy keep that spirit alive and well. The show a is loose, exciting, and positively energetic mix of Blue Rodeo songs, Cuddy’s solo material, and Whitehorse originals. It’s plain to see how the relationship pays off – whether it’s Doucet contributing his guitar skills (almost unparalleled in Canada) to a Blue Rodeo’s ‘Five Days In Way’, Melissa offering her amazing vocal range to Cuddy or vice versa – it was clear that there was no better – or more Canadian – place to be.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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