December 13, 2013 Sections
Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
They've toured Europe, sold out Toronto's Massey Hall and shared a stage with Neil Young.
But the venue that scares the bejesus out of the husband-and-wife roots duo known as Whitehorse is Birds Hill Provincial Park.
"I've often struggled at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, because it matters so much to me. My family and friends are there and people I grew up with, so I'm sometimes terrified to play in Winnipeg," says Luke Doucet, the Wolseley-raised singer-guitarist who makes up one half of Whitehorse with Melissa McClelland, his Hamilton-raised, singer-guitarist spouse.
"The folk festival is often a place where amazing things can happen, so I let my neuroses get the better of me," says the 40-year-old Doucet, who first left Winnipeg in 1993, when he joined Sarah McLachlan's band, and has since called Vancouver, Halifax, Hamilton and Toronto home.
"I will always be terrified of Winnipeg. I have no problem playing in front of 20,000 people... but if I walk into Times Change(d) on a Sunday and Big Dave McLean invites me up on stage, I'm terrified," he says. "Melissa keeps me grounded."
Since hitting the road as a 19-year-old sideman, Doucet has become one of Canada's more prolific musicians, recording six solo albums, three with his old band Veal and two with Whitehorse, including 2012's The Fate of the World Depends on This Kiss.
That album made the Polaris Prize longlist and helped Whitehorse into theatre-sized venues. That's a huge reward for a pair of singer-songwriters who've been grinding it out on the road for decades, usually playing small clubs.
"For the first time in a very long time, we're not chewing on our fingernails after soundcheck, hoping people are coming to our shows," Doucet says.
Longevity, of course, does not guarantee a fan base. One of the keys to the Whitehorse sound is the interplay between two singer-songwriters whose "intimate relationship" is not just a pop music cliche.
To avoid the tedium that can afflict any husband-and-wife business relationship -- but is intensified in a touring musical setting -- Doucet and McClelland tend to take separate holidays and maintain interests outside the band.
"We do specific things to keep ourselves sane," Doucet says.
McClelland, for example, runs an animal sanctuary in Hamilton, while Doucet runs marathons. He ran the 2013 Boston Marathon with a time of 2:55, finishing 12 minutes before the terrorist attack. He then went straight to his hotel room, fell asleep and only learned of the bombing when he woke up.
The other big element of the Whitehorse sound is the instrumentation, as McClelland and Doucet create live loops that allow themselves to play all instruments themselves.
At first, this was a matter of economics, as it costs money to pay backing musicians on the road.
"That was the beginning and then it became part of who we are," says Doucet.
"There was a practical aspect to it," adds McClelland. "The choices we made very quickly became artistic."
The loops are all created live, employing vintage instruments and percussion. This can inject a random element to the Whitehorse live show that winds up being riskier than playing alongside pre-recorded snippets or canned loops.
"We're kind of taking chances because we're creating on the fly," says McClelland. "Sometimes we get a loop going and we look at each other and say, 'No, stop -- don't do that!'"
While Whitehorse is hardly the first roots act to employ loops, the device has earned the duo comparisons to electronic artists who approach folk sounds from behind a laptop. But the electrofolk label doesn't impress Doucet.
"I'm not a huge listener or fan of electronic dance music in general. I don't feel a particular kinship with that world," he says. "I don't know who the artists are. I don't know their names."
A more favourable association is with the Yukon community that lends the duo its name. Doucet and McClelland chose Whitehorse to evoke the mystery and beauty of a remote location.
"We want there to be no mistaking this is a Canadian band," says Doucet of the Whitehorse moniker. "But from a search-engine perspective, it is kind of annoying."
Saturday, July 13
Winnipeg Folk Festival
Green Ash stage, 11 a.m.
Bur Oak stage, 2 p.m.
Mainstage, 7:10 p.m.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 13, 2013 G3