Q&A: Luke Doucet (Whitehorse)

Halifax-born, Winnipeg-bred singer-songwriter and bonafide guitar-slinger, Luke Doucet, has come a long way since starting his career as a hired gun for Sarah McLachlan’s band back when he was a teenager. Over the course of the past 25 years, he’s fronted Vancouver surf rock band Veal, released six solo albums while having played on countless others, performed alongside Chantal Kreviazuk, Bryan Adam, Kathleen Edwards, and Blue Rodeo, produced records for a host of artists including NQ Arbuckle and Rose Cousins, and even been called “the best young guitarist in the country.”

These days, Doucet is one-half of the critically acclaimed folk rock duo, Whitehorse, a post he shares with wife and long-time musical collaborator, Melissa McClelland. The pair’s third album, Leave No Bridge Unburned, which was funded on the back of a successful Kickstarter campaign, took home the Juno Award for Adult Alternative Album of the Year in 2015, and the two haven’t stopped since.

Ahead of the release of their fourth album due out via Six Shooter Records this spring, Doucet will take over NMC’s headquarters from January 3 – 12, as our first official Artist In Residence of 2017. We spoke with him about his passion for the blues and pre-Beatles era American rock ‘n’ roll, songwriting as a couple, the role of a good producer, and his ever-evolving relationship with his signature Gretsch White Falcon.

You and your wife, Melissa McClelland, formed Whitehorse back in 2010 but you both were already established singer-songwriters in your own right. What prompted you guys to join forces musically when you did?

You know, we had been making music together since the day we met. In fact, we met making music. We were working on a record of Melissa’s and that’s how we got to know each other. Then we made something like seven albums together––three of hers and four of mine––and we just ended up being in each other’s bands all the time. We also worked together as hired guns, playing in Sarah McLachlan’s band. I had been working with Sarah since I was a teenager actually, but I sort of pulled Melissa into the fold.

Man, it took a long time though because Sarah kept going through backup singers and I’d always say, ‘Sarah, I know the perfect person for you!’ And Sarah would always roll her eyes and say, ‘I’m not bringing your girlfriend on the road.’ [Laughs]

Finally, after years of me badgering her, one of her singers had to go off and do some gigs with Bob Seger and some dates were added to the back of a tour because Sarah had been sick for a week, so long story short, she finally said, ‘Okay, fine! Bring your girlfriend out and she can do five dates with us,’ then of course if it was a total train wreck, no harm done.

In any event, Sarah came to me after the first show with tears in her eyes and said, ‘I have never felt more comfortable on stage with another singer.’

That’s a pretty moving first impression…

Melissa is pretty special and there’s just something about the way that she sings. She doesn’t overdo it, she doesn’t use too much vibrato, she’s always a little bit behind the beat, and she just sinks into whoever she’s working with––it’s really kind of shocking.

Before I ever met her, I got a little brown manila envelope in the mail with a blank CVR in it. I don’t always listen to everything that comes across my proverbial desk but I just had a feeling about this one and I knew right away. She almost sounded a bit like Suzanne Vega and I’ve always been a big fan of hers because she has this very direct, candid, deadpan way of delivering everything––Melissa really reminded me of that.

From there we worked with Sarah’s band for a number of years until we got to a point where we just said, ‘Okay, it feels weird when we’re not together.’ I didn’t particularly like performing when she wasn’t around and she didn’t particularly like performing when I wasn’t around either. People almost started to expect us together and would somehow feel ripped off when we weren’t, so finally we just picked a band name and made it official.

Did things change at all once you made that move?

It was really quite amazing how much things changed once we simply acknowledged that we were now a unit musically and that this unit has a name. Arbitrarily, we could have called ourselves anything, but just the fact that we became a band, started to think as a band, and share a brain officially, it really changed the way we made art together.

All of a sudden it wasn’t just: ‘I’m a solo artist and you have to do what I think is cool,’ and vise versa. It was: ‘I need to consider you when I write songs and we also need to speak with somewhat of a unified voice.’ So, it definitely affected the way we wrote songs but it was also strangely liberating.

When you’re a solo artist and you’re sort of cut from the cloth of Americana, folk music, roots music, country or blues––and that tended to be where both Melissa and I operated from––you sometimes feel as though you have to remain within those traditions. As soon as we became Whitehorse, we felt like we had all the freedom in the world to do whatever we wanted. If we wanted to be a new wave band we could. If we wanted to play self-indulgent art rock we could do that too. And why not? It was really eye-opening.

Obviously, Whitehorse is this sort of inevitable byproduct of your working relationship over the years, but it really does seem as though this band chose you guys and not the other way around.

People always say things like, ‘How did it happen?’ ‘How did you get to where you are musically?’ And I always say, ‘Circumstantially.’ How do you get to be in Whitehorse? Well, for starters you have to hangout together for six years and make a bunch of albums that have nothing to do with Whitehorse. Then, once you’ve toured together 100 days a year for a half a decade and lived together, then you can start a band together––that’s how you get in Whitehorse. [Laughs]

That was the education required for us both to be ready to be in this band. We had to have all of that experience under our belts before we could start making Whitehorse records.

Do you think your musical partnership is enriched by your personal partnership as a couple?

That’s a really difficult question to answer because I can’t separate the two. It’s just impossible because we’re together all the time. It’s not as if when we’re making music we take off our husband and wife hats––those hats always stay on.

We’re really different people so sometimes Melissa will say, ‘I think this record is really about this.’ And I’ll say, ‘I think it’s about that.’ But, we still have to find a way to meet in the middle so there is a certain degree of soul searching involved. I think we both expect a certain amount of intellectual accountability as well, so that just means that you spend a lot more time being self-aware than you might otherwise.

You guys self-produced your first two albums but opted to bring in producer Gus van Go [the Stills, Said the Whale, Hollerado] for your third release, 2015’s Juno Award-winning Leave No Bridge Unburned. Why was that?

When we first brought Gus a batch of songs for that last record, he declined all of them. He said, ‘None of these songs are the Whitehorse I hear in my head that I want to make a record for. Go write more songs.’ You just can’t do that for yourself.

A producer is someone who holds the mirror up, tells you what you’re saying, and then asks you if it’s what you want to be communicating, you know? For me, personally, I was thrilled to be able to hand the keys off to someone else. With a producer, it’s not so much a hierarchical thing but there is a certain amount of power in that job and it has to be that way. There’s no sense in hiring a producer if you’re not going to give them the reigns and say, ‘Go. Take this.’

At the same time, there’s a lot of misunderstanding in the music world about what the job of a producer actually is. I think people confuse music producer for film producer. A film producer signs the cheques, hires people, and makes sure the train keeps running so that the director, the writers, and the actors can make the art. In the musical world, your producer is your best friend. They are the bandleader, they’re the co-writer if need be, they play whichever instruments need playing and if they can’t do it they hire someone else who can. More importantly, they provide a general direction for the music that is based on the music they’ve made in the past.

I have no doubt that there will come a time when Melissa and I will produce ourselves again but having an outside producer was absolutely essential and so Gus really is perfect for us. He’s so enthused. If a 6-foot 7-inch guy could jump around the studio that’d be him because he gets that excited. I mean he’s as passionate about our wardrobe as he is about the songs, and he’s really passionate about the songs. Gus just has this ability to step back a mile from the project and say, ‘I know what you guys are, I know what these songs need to sound like, and I know what stories you have to tell.’ It’s pretty incredible to have someone around you who will go to the wall for you that way.

Sonically, Leave No Bridge Unburned, draws direct lineage from a few very classic eras, particularly early rock ‘n’ roll, swampy blues, 60s soul, and of course folk rock. What about those specific sounds speaks to you guys musically and are we going to hear more of that on the new record or are you taking things in a different direction?

The sort of birthplace or seminal tones of rock ‘n’ roll have always been compelling to me. When I was 15-years-old, I wanted to be a blues man. Of course it was silly for a skinny white kid from Winnipeg to think of himself as a blues man but that’s what I was into. I thought it was dark and mysterious and it just had so much soul.

In the early days of Whitehorse, people would often come up to us after a show and say, ‘Wow, that was really great, what do you call that?’ I always thought that was such a strange question because the guitar tones are 1959. The way Melissa is singing is pulled directly off a Patsy Cline record. I never understood how it all came across as so mysterious because to me the ingredients were all so obvious––they’re all just classic pre-Beatles American tones, and yet, when put together in just the right way, I guess it is a bit of a head-scratcher.

When we started working with Gus, he wanted us to keep all of that but he also has a far more contemporary sensibility when it comes to arrangements. Now, on this new record that’s about to come out in May, we went mining for new things that we had never even considered to be available to us before. We were listening to a lot of Portishead, a lot of British trip-hop, and even bands like the Gorillaz.

When I think about us as a band, we’ve been making loops for a really long time, my guitar tones tend to be strictly old school, and all of my gear is from the 1950s. Then I think of Melissa’s voice and I realize there are examples of how these things can come together and we can borrow from that and see how we can infuse our songwriting into that production approach. We’ll see if we’ve accomplished that. You’ll have to be the judge because I’m not sure what we’ve made but that was the goal. I think this new record is going to come as a shock to a lot of people.

You’re obviously a guitar guy and have been for many years. Perhaps you can speak to how your relationship with the instrument has grown or adapted over the course of your career.

When you’re young, when you’re a teenager, I think you’re sort of obsessed with the instrument and what it does and your relationship with it to the point where it sort of defines you. I mean, I’m a pretty small guy, so in high school, once I realized I wasn’t going to be an athlete, music sort of became this very exaggerated facet of my identity. I think it’s fantastic though and I’m glad it did because there are so many potential negative influences on a young person’s life.

Like I said, I grew up in Winnipeg during the 1980s so there were a lot of things I could have done that would have had a far worse impact on my future. Instead, I just stayed in my basement and tried to figure out how to play the blues, how to be Led Zeppelin, and how to play Beatles songs. For a long time, it was a pretty good way to pass time, but at some point reality catches up to you and that relationship with your instrument starts to change to some degree.

I’ve always sort of been a hired gun, so the instrument has stayed personal to me, but really, when I think about my musical priorities now, it’s not necessarily at the top of my list in the grand scheme of things. Now, I think songwriting is more important. I think singing is arguably more important. I think being a bandleader is more important. So, the guitar is a significant piece of the puzzle for me but when I think about music as a whole, writing a great song that has an honest delivery and that really touches people, that’s what it’s all about.

And yet, in some ways, I still liken my guitar to being like a skateboard; even though I’ve grown up and I have a job now, I still like to take it out for a ride once in a while, you know?

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