CityFolk: Looping back to the blues with Whitehorse

Melissa McClelland and Luke Doucet. Photo: Lyle Bell

Melissa McClelland and Luke Doucet are known for their innovative performances. They aren’t afraid to take a risk on stage, experimenting with looping pedals in a live setting.

But, in the past, the duo known as Whitehorse has been more conventional in the recording studio.

Not so now. And the spark has been a pair of EPs called The Northern South Vol. 1 and 2. The second of these discs will be out in early 2019 but the first song off it, Who’s Been Talkin, is now out.

These recordings are an homage of sorts to the kind of roots music that Whitehorse draws inspiration from, McClelland said in an interview before the duo’s performance at CityFolk this Saturday. They are also touring their last studio album called Panther in the Dollhouse with Luke on guitar, Melissa on bass and John Obercin on percussion.

But The Northern South is an ambitious enterprise worth exploring. Vol. 2 features five classic blues songs.

“It has been a really fun project for us,” McClellan said. “Initially we wanted to tackle different genres of American roots music — blues, folk and country.

“For the first one we decided to go with the blues. We really wanted to take our live set which, was at the time, Luke and myself with a looping pedal and a bunch of instruments. All these elements were creating rhythmic loops that would repeat and hopefully put you in a bit of a trance.

“Then we add to that and build. We had never done that in a studio and we thought. ‘Why don’t we just go into the studio and go in with that live mentality with the looping pedal and see how it goes’.”

It seems to have worked.

“We had a really good time making the first one. Every choice was very spontaneous. There wasn’t much production done. It was ‘Let’s dive into it and see what happens.’”

When it came around to do Vol. 2 they decided to stick with the blues. First, the songs are arranged in such a way that makes it easy to experiment.

“You can play with them. There is a lot of repetition and you aren’t doing a lot of crazy chord changes or key changes.

“We were also obviously digging into artists that we love. We were looking for particular hooks and a lyric we thought was compelling or a story we thought was compelling. Or a groove that we thought was cool.”

There is also the emotional appeal of the genre.

“We wanted to pay respect to this music. There is this sexy abandon and pain. That form of expression and that style of music grew into rock and roll and so much of the music that we know and love and play and write. It only makes sense to us to reach back and say thank you for leading the way.

So when it is released the EP will contain songs by Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed and Howling Wolf.

It also contains a version of the oldest known blues/jazz song St. James Infirmary Blues and another traditional called John the Revelator.

“We were reading through the lyrics of John the Revelator and we both realized we were reading separate lyrics. There are many different versions of the song throughout many different eras. It is obviously apocalyptic.

“We were wondering about which version we would go with and (eventually) we decided we could write our own end of time story. We are coming at it from a different time with a different perspective.”

McClelland said that the duo know that people may not agree with this choice but “we are OK with our decisions. We like the idea of stories being passed down and changing and evolving and becoming something else.

“There are some pressing issues in the world today with these apocalyptic undertones and we wanted to touch on that.”

In many ways it’s like the old campfire game where a story is passed around a circle and it evolves and changes by the end of the circle.

The same sort of creative thinking drives the duo’s arrangements. Let’s face, they are messing with everyone and everything.

For Whitehorse it’s: “Let’s do this to it and see what happens,” McClelland said.

These two Northern South projects have been liberating, she said.

“We have so much fun with these projects. We go in blind in a way. Basically we had a list of songs that we have both picked. It’s long list.

“We just start listening and we’ll land on a song and we’ll be like ‘OK let’s do this. and Luke will go ‘Let’s do a J.J. Cale feel for this tune and make it really chill and laid back’.”

Then they try to find the right key to work in.

“We usually argue a little bit over that.”

Once that’s settled, however, they create a loop and get to work

“We play that over and over until it feels like it has a real groove.”

McClelland and Doucet have become adept at finding ways to compromise. It’s why they are playing together and staying together as a married couple.

“Part of being a musician is sharing and opening up to other creative minds. It’s only going to make the music better. I think Luke and I both have that ability and that’s why we have been able to be a band or a duo.”

They do create some distance especially when they are writing original material.

“Writing and all of that is very separate for us and we come together and fuse it. We have our ways of doing that.”

If there is a defining idea around how they create it is to push each other out of their individual comfort zones, she said.

“That has been present from day one. It was something we decided to do. We just egg each other on. Pushing toward a different place keeps us interested. We don’t want to repeat ourselves; we don’t want to be boring.

“We want to play the music that we listen to. We want other people to care and be into it.”

That’s why they are experimenting on stage and now in the studio.

They love the thrill of “just going for it live on stage.”

And they also like the idea of delving into different genres “that maybe we have no right to do but we want to and we do it. We jump off that cliff holding hands. It’s easier when you have a partner.”

Whitehorse is in the throws of a hectic touring schedule that will have them in Hamburg, Germany, before their Ottawa gig and then back on the road.

McClelland professes to love the travel.

“We are jet-setting all over the place. It’s still festival season and they are always in great locations. Besides I’m a mom. I have mom super powers.”

She’s also reaching outside her own personal comfort zone by taking part in a songwriters’ camp in Denmark with other producers, writers and artists.

The goal is to write as many songs as possible.

“I have never done that before. I’m not much of a co-writer it always a very private solitary thing for me.”

Still, she says, she looking forward to it.

Later this fall the duo will return to Whitehorse, Yukon for two shows. This will be a bit of a big deal for them.

“We haven’t played there since we first formed as a band. It means something to us because we stole their name.

“We had just been to Whitehorse. They picked the name because it’s a “cool place, very Canadian and remote. Not a lot of Canadians go there. I am looking forward to that a lot.”

As for more Northern South records: Looks like there will at least be a Vol. 3.

“There is no reason to stop. We are having a lot of fun making those.”

They are also starting the process of an original album in the new years and they intend to take the lessons learned from Northern South to this next record.

Comfort zone, what comfort zone?

Where: CityFolk Festival City Stage
When: Sept. 16 at 6 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.