In Conversation With Whitehorse’s Melissa McClelland
Earlier this year, Whitehorse -- the husband and wife paring of Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland -- released their third studio album, Leave No Bridge Unburned. Clearly highlighting the musicians' progression from their debut self-titled album together, their latest effort is an amalgamation of a multitude of genres and sounds, making for a listening experience few others can replicate.
We recently had the chance to catch up with one-half of Whitehorse, chatting with McClelland about the new record, how she and her husband decided to make music together and what it was like being pregnant during the making of Leave No Bridge Unburned. Check out our exclusive conversation below:
First things first: H does it feel to have your third full-length wrapped up and out?
For every release I find that there's a period of time where there's high anxiety. [Laughs] A kind of no man's land ... you've done the creative process and all the work and it's just waiting until you put it out. That time can actually be torture for a lot of musicians. This record was unique for us -- I was pregnant when I wrote the songs and when we recorded the songs. Then we took a break and I had a baby. [Laughs] I was pretty preoccupied with that, so to revisit it and dig into it again has only been a positive thing. It's been great to step away from it and then get right back into it. We're really proud of it, we worked really hard on it and when we did step away we were 100-percent satisfied with what we had done. It feels really good to be in that position. Handing it out to the world just felt like a really good next step -- people responded really well to the songs and to the album. So far so good.
Your pregnancy aside, did you approach this album differently than The Fate of the World or your debut?
I think with the last record we were still really trying to find out exactly who we were as collaborators, even though we worked creatively together for years. As a duo we were still trying to find our unified voice. I think on this record we really just stepped into it nicely in the writing and recording process. I really feel like that was possible because we invited a producer into the mix, Gus van Go and his partner Warner Hess. They played a big role in everything from the songwriting to the production and just throwing ideas around. We spent weeks just sitting in the living room at our house, just playing each other songs and talking about music and having these long drawn out conversations about certain bands or artists. I think having that -- the third party there, this objective perspective that was outside of our own Whitehorse brain -- we had someone who could point out what were our strengths and weaknesses and help us shape that a little bit better than before. I think it was definitely an evolution for us.
I think people might assume that a husband and wife who are both musicians and are creative in their own right could collaborate really well right off the bat, but that's not necessarily the case. What led to the beginning of Whitehorse? How did the two of you come to the decision to make music together?
At that point we had worked together so much unofficially that we were putting out records under our own names and touring those records with our own bands. We found that not only our fans but we really missed having the other person with us on stage or with us in the recording studio. It just became what people wanted and expected and it became what felt the best for us. We were always sharing in each other's music and I think once we made that realization we thought, okay, let's try something.
It started off as a side project, putting a record out together. The idea actually came up when we were touring in Europe and to cut costs we just -- the whole idea was we'd go over together, we'd share a stage and we'd trade off songs. It went really well. After the show, people would want to buy "our" CD and we'd have to explain we each had our own. They'd give us this confused look. By the end of that tour we were thinking maybe we should do this. Maybe we should put out a record together. It started off as just a casual idea, nothing too serious, just a side project and we'll see how it goes. It kind of snowballed from there and by the time we were ready to put out the first record it was clear to us that this was no longer a side project and we were taking a big step away from our solo projects.
What's the live show like? What is it like between you and your husband when you're on stage as Whitehorse?
The live show was the thing that really helped us become our own; when we started Whitehorse we just wanted it to be the two of us on stage. But then the more we thought about it, we didn't want it to just be two guitars and two voices. We started playing around with it, we rented a professional stage and messed around. We had a looping pedal and started playing around with that. The looping pedal allows us to record live on stage and then layer instruments on top of that. So, we started rearranging songs -- I feel like approaching the live show this way really helped us form our identity as a duo. We really had to learn this monster of an instrument and learn how to read each other's minds on stage.
There's like this massive game of trust. I had to push this button at this time and he had to play this note at that moment and we had to do all of this while it still being musical and fun. So it took a lot of work and it was really intimidating but we definitely got to a point where it was musical and we were having fun on stage -- it was always on the edge, and still is [Laughs]. Many train wrecks, but that's become what we love about the show, that it can go so wrong and when it does, we laugh about it and start over. The audience is in on that with us. It's a unique show in that we're playing a million instruments at once but we also spend half the set just stripping everything away and we step up to a condenser mic that we share and just play our two guitars. We didn't want to lose the intimacy in all of that.
There is definitely an authenticity to messing up and being genuine with the audience. I haven't had the opportunity to see you live, but I imagine that they appreciate that sort of honesty.
Yeah, I think they do, especially in this day and age where there are so many backup tracks and samples. You never really know how you're being fooled when you go to a show. Maybe being fooled is the wrong word, but it's really important to us that everything we're doing up there is spontaneous and in the moment. We don't have anything prerecorded and it's all happening in that moment and people are experiencing that. So yes, if it all goes wrong that that's just a part of it. It's just a part of what we're doing.
I think that authenticity is found in your music, too, especially this new album. It feels unique to me, and part of that is because it's hard to answer the question of what genre you fall into!
You think by now I would know how to answer that question. When I was asked what it sounds like, I had no answer. It'€™s not like we'€™re doing anything crazy or experimental, it'€™s not. It'€™s pretty much within the bounds of recent rock and roll. But It's a little bit of all of that. I always find it hard to pinpoint exactly what it is we'€™re doing. We're just doing what feels good and what sounds good to us.
Well, it definitely sounds good. With this album, from start to finish, it all kind of ... it blends together. There€ are a lot of different sounds and one song might sound, not poppy, but it'€™s got a catchiness to it. Another one, I think it's "€œDear Irony,"€ it'€™s very somber. Yet in the scope of an album, they mesh well together. I think all the songs blend together to make this one, cohesive record.
Well that's really nice to hear.
Talking about the album experience, I'm a big fan of vinyl and I know this album is out as a 12"€. Is that something that'™s really important to you?
We listen to vinyl. We have a vinyl collection at home and we listen to a lot of records. We listen to a lot of records on iTunes as well. We're not like, only vinyl! [Laughs] we love putting on a record and we love the way it sounds. There'€™s nothing like an album cover. I love that there's a revival of that and people are going back into that. When you buy a record on iTunes you don'€™t get to see the liner notes. You don'™t know who played on the record, who produced it. So that'€™s a really important piece of the puzzle I think. I think having that in your collection is a good thing. We have stacks and stacks of vinyl that we're always digging into.
You mention liner notes and the album cover; it doesn't have to be an intricate album cover, but almost everything looks better on a 12"€ jacket than your iPhone screen. Can you talk about the cover art for Leave No Bridge Unburned? How involved were you guys with that? It'€™s very distinct to me.
The artist is Jud Haynes and we went through a lot of ideas and photos and as soon as he latched onto this James Bond poster and Hitchcock kind of look, as soon as he got into that we we'€™re like, "Yes! That's it! Just take that and run with it." I think it matches up with our sound really well. We've had so many comments now about how people could hear our songs in a Bond film. [Laughs]
You'€™re a Canadian musician, Whitehorse is a Canadian band and your last EP [Éphémère sans repere] was in French, but those are all songs that you previously released in English, right?
As a Canadian artist, do you ever feel a backlash for not doing more songs in French?
I wouldn't say that, no. But it is interesting when you go to Quebec and start playing and all these towns, there are all these music lovers and people who are excited to come out to shows and it made us realize, why are we not touring this part of Canada? We're flying over to Europe and playing in pubs around the U.K. Why are we not jumping over one province to Quebec and doing that? We really asked ourselves that and that'€™s when we decided to do the French EP because we wanted to get over there. Not that we couldn'€™t as English artists, but I think it was out of respect to the language. It's our national language, as well as English. He can speak French fluently, I speak it pretty badly [Laughs]. Enough so I could learn French lyrics, though.
It was actually a lot of fun. It was hard work to relearn the songs in French, but once we got it, it was so much fun to play. Our first show in Quebec, we opened the show with our song in English and then played all the stuff in English and then at the end we came back out and played "Devil'€™s Got a Gun"€ again, but all in French. The reaction from the audience was so amazing that we just both had chills. People were so moved that we had relearned this song in French and were performing it for them. It was really over the top and made us realize it was really beautiful. Then we went out and talked to a lot of the people in the audience and they were so excited. That really inspired us to keep going with that. I'€™m sure we'€™ll put out another French EP at some point. Quebec is a beautiful place to tour.
Are you already thinking about the next EP or album? Or when you release a record do you take a step back and really soak it in?
I'm completely soaking it in right now. Like I said before, I'm a new mom [Laughs], so it can suck up all my time, energy and passion and love -- everything for the last six months. So to be refocusing on this, it'€™s been a lot of fun and has injected new meaning into life and to what we do for a living. We'€™re about to take our baby boy on the road with us. It'€™s going to be a pretty cool experience. I think I'€™m completely in the moment right now and I won'€™t start thinking about the next thing for a while. I've only got so much space in this brain right now. [Laughs]