Whitehorse rides into arts fest for Sunday sets


BG Independent News

Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland started out as musical collaborators playing in bands together and working on each other’s projects.

“Our relationship was strictly professional … for weeks,” Doucet quipped. “Our relationship was very close, very intimate early on. We found each other.”

That was about 14 years ago, and now Doucet is talking on the telephone with their 3-year-old son in the background. He wants a boat ride, Doucet said.

For years, Doucet and McClelland continued on their separate careers as solo artists and “hired guns,” though they worked together as much as they could.

Then six years ago, tired of their schedules pulling them apart, they formed Whitehorse, a musical act informed both by their long musical and personal relationship

Whitehorse will perform at the Black Swamp Arts Festival, Sunday Sept. 11, at 12:30 p.m. on the Main Stage and then at 2:45 as the penultimate act on the Family Stage.

Reflecting on those early years, Doucet said “our musical lives were very confused.” They were including each other so much in their own bands that when their schedules didn’t allow them to play together, their fans would ask where the missing party was.

They also toured together with fellow Canadian Sarah McLachlan. Doucet had been backing the star for a while. As McLachlan’s backup singers came and went, he suggested he knew someone.

“She rolled her eyes and told me: ‘I’m not hiring your girlfriend,’” Doucet recalls. Then a backup singer left just as McLachlan was heading off on a short tour with Pete Seeger. She relented. McClelland joined the band for the tour.

After the first show, Doucet said, McLachlan “came to me in tears. … ‘I never felt so supported by another singer,’ she said.”

That was no surprise to Doucet. McClelland has “the ability to ghost another singer … to be sensitive and supporting … like nothing I’ve heard in another singer.”

Those harmonies are central to Whitehorse. Though the band expands for some gigs, at the Black Swamp festival, they will perform as a duo. Just their voices, and Doucet’s electric guitar and McClelland’s acoustic. They’ve used loops in the past, he said, but now favor a sparer sound.

Once they took the leap to create Whitehorse, they wondered why they hadn’t done this before. “For me personally, my music benefits so much for having her around.”

Both being married and singing to each other, and about each other, are forms of intimacy. “It’s an interesting existence.” They’ve gotten to know each other in a way that may take other couples 40 years.

Each has a personal style and influences. McClelland has been inspired by other Canadian singer-songwriters, and favors a pop folk style.

Doucet has deep roots in country and blues colored by the songwriters he heard while growing up – Neil Young, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Randy Newman and Willie Nelson. “I was pretty deep in that mind set.”

He said McClelland would “pretend to sing the blues and country,” taking a stab at sounding like Patsy Cline or Etta James. But while she would “mock” her own efforts, Doucet heard something “so legitimate, genuine, and sincere.”

That was a sound he wanted to integrate into Whitehorse. Now they are drawing other influences, such as David Bowie, trying to push themselves out of their comfort zones and become more unpredictable, even “absurdist,” he said.

Still “she has her personal direction, and I’m going in mine,” Doucet said.

They write independently. Once the songs are in final draft stage, they share them, for editing. The understanding is that if one of them doesn’t like a section, then it’s up to that person to write a new chorus.

“We share a brain,” Doucet said. That intense closeness means when it comes time to take a vacation, they go their separate ways. Right now he’s with their son visiting family in Winnipeg while she’s with her guitar seeking inspiration in the mountains of Alberta.”

“It’s great we have that kind of relationship,” he said. “That’s going to keep us sane. That’s best thing for us.”

Doucet and McClelland will be back together on stage at the Black Swamp Arts Festival giving voice to shared life in music that’s strictly personal.