Canada's Whitehorse: "It's Just Roots Music to Us"

Whitehorse were finalists for Canada's top music prize, known as the Polaris, with 2012 album The Fate of the World Depends On This Kiss.
Whitehorse were finalists for Canada's top music prize, known as the Polaris, with 2012 album The Fate of the World Depends On This Kiss.
Photo by Paul Robert Wright/Courtesy of Six Shooter Music

Melissa McClelland, one half of the Toronto-based marital duo Whitehorse, has a little bone to pick with this Americana thing. She and husband Luke Doucet operated as two independent solo acts before joining forces in Whitehorse. The duo picked the name Whitehorse, the capitol of Canada's Yukon Territory, for its Canadiana associations.

"We named our band Whitehorse as sort of a gentle response to the term Americana," McClelland laughs. "Whitehorse, even by Canadian standards, is in the middle of nowhere, but that resonates to Canadians. It is actually a great little town and a fun place to play music, so naming ourselves after Whitehorse is a bit of tongue-in-cheek Canadian humor. And us pushing back just a little bit."

"The roots music scene in Canada is much more organic and friendly than south of the border," she adds. "I think that's mainly because there's less of an industry presence up here, so you have to do it for the love of doing it and music first. It seems more business first, music second in the States. And sometimes that Americana tag seems like it excludes some of us or at least doesn't recognize us."

So Ameri-Canadiana would be better?

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"It's just roots music to us," says McClelland. "Blue Rodeo, Fred Eaglesmith, Cowboy Junkies -- there are a hundred really good Canadian roots bands. And we all have a lot of friendliness towards each other and support each other. It's not a competition up here like can be in the States.

She continues:

Those guys in Blue Rodeo, they've helped us immensely, let us open shows, let us join them onstage. I really look up to them and the way they handle themselves and their business. And there are huge stars like Sarah McLachlan, who is so down-to-earth and approachable. She really is just like she seems to be, and is constantly helping upcoming younger artists.

The thing to understand about Canada is even most of the little towns out in the hinterland, they've got someplace where people gather at night and drink and enjoy music. There may not even be much money in it for the band, but it's a way of life up here. Roots music really is just about everywhere.

The couple is out on a month-long tour with SXSW and Houston as the southernmost parts of the journey. It's the first tour for their seven-month-old baby.

"I'm so looking forward to this," explains McClelland. "We both love being on the road. When we're home, we fall into this routine, you know, laundry, clean the house, grocery shopping, and the music gets kinda pushed to the back of the line.

"Out on the road, it's just get to the gig, do the gig, move on, and we both love that focus it brings," she says. "Laundry? Just let it go. Let's play."

Whitehorse is an unusual duo in that both members sing and play (numerous) guitars, as well as an array of instruments. It gives them a full-band sound without a drummer or any extra sidemen.

"We've got nine guitars, two basses, various keys and percussion instruments, telephone mikes we sing into, and plenty of pedals," says McClelland. "We also build loops live, so half of the show has this big band sound. The other half is just us with two guitars singing through a single condenser microphone. So the show has a lot of sonic variations to it as we go along. And we move around a lot."

Story continues on the next page.


The new album, Leave No Bridge Unburned, is...pardon us...a dark, thoughtful Americana dream album. It features fabulous harmonies, inventive arrangements and playing, and sultry take-your-clothes-off vocals that are irresistible. The band's PR describes the album as "Whitehorse amplified."

You think you like Shovels and Rope or Civil Wars? This takes that whole man-woman duo to a whole other level.

Opener "Baby What's Wrong" nails the relationship puzzle as the couple makes "love in the aftermath of a sad, sad song." But the quick segue to the moody "Tame as the Wild Ones," which kicks off with McClelland's chilling voice, assures that the listener will follow this music to its very end. By the time they break into dark rocker "Downtown," it is apparent that this is a great album.

For her part, McClelland is not exactly Cinderella here, singing on the fascinating "You Fake Your Death (And I'll Fake Mine)" that "I'm the villain in this piece and back when I was a thief/ I broke hearts like they were teeth."

McClelland says her favorite tune on the album tends to change day to day, but is currently "Tame As the Wild Ones."

"We really don't listen to our albums much, it's very rare," she notes. "But that's a complex arrangement on [the song], and it's really been fun to play live."

For her part, McClelland is happy to be on the way to Austin again.

"Just to escape the winter for a while changes your mindset, you know?", she says. "People talk bad about Austin a lot, but we can't wait to get down to Texas."

Whitehorse performs 7 p.m. Thursday, March 19 at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk.

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