The first time I saw Whitehorse, I was reminded that, sometimes, a particular artist will be more successful than others because they’re simply more charismatic, more energetic, more joyous, and just overall more talented. Husband-and-wife duo Luke Doucet and Melissa McLelland are a musical powerhouse.
Their albums have been critical darlings and audience favourites, showcasing a boundless creativity and an endless striving to push their music in new directions. Even in their early country(ish) days, the pair were using loop pedals on stage to weave beats and sonic textures into their live performance. Their most recent album, Panther in the Dollhouse, is a cinematic and diverse collection of songs, integrating synth pop, rock, and trip hop—as well as the producing assistance of Brooklyn-based duo LikeMinds (who have worked with the likes of Kanye West and Snoop Dogg).
The album also shows off a serious side of the band, taking a critical examination of gender politics and social issues, with many of the songs taking the perspectives of a variety of women dealing with exploitation and discrimination in our society.
When I spoke to Melissa, she had just gotten back from a whirlwind Junos weekend in Vancouver, where she played and the band was nominated for their third award.
1. Panther In The Dollhouse is quite a political album, which I would say is a bit of a departure for Whitehorse. Can you talk about the shift?
It’s funny, because I do consider us to have always been a political band. We don’t write strictly about politics, but it’s such a big part of our world that it definitely comes through in some of our songs. It’s interesting, this record is definitely being perceived as more of a political album, but I think that’s just the reality of the collective consciousness right now.
We wrote most of this record just as the Jian Ghomeshi trial was happening, so we started really thinking about those kinds of things. We happened to fall into a lot of female characters. Like “Trophy Wife,” I was kind of channelling Melania Trump, to try and see the world through different eyes and different experiences.
2. I wanted to ask specifically about “Nighthawks,” which is your second song about sex worker rights. Can you talk a bit about it?
On our last record, we had a song called “Evangelina,” which was written around the time of the Supreme Court case where a group of retired sex workers struck down the laws around sex work in Canada. “Evangelina” was a bit of a celebration. “Nighthawks” is a continuation of that song, but takes it into a bit of a darker place. The Harper government’s response to the Supreme Court case was kind of two steps forward, one big step back.
There’s still a lot more work to be done. When you push that work underground, when nobody talks about it and everything surrounding it is illegal, it creates a lot of victims and a lot of perpetrators. A lot of people don’t think it relates to them, or that it doesn’t matter, but it’s a massive human rights issue and it affects the most vulnerable people. I think it’s definitely something we need to discuss.
3. Speaking of gender-related issues, there’s been a lot of discussion recently around the topic in the Canadian music industry, with Hedley stories, #JunosSoMale, etc. What do you think we should be doing to encourage women in music?
I think simply by talking about it, it’s already happening. It needs to happen faster, and it needs to continue.
I feel like I’ve had a good experience in the Canadian music industry. I’ve surrounded myself with a lot of women. I work with Six Shooter Records, which is actually the only Canadian record label owned by a woman. I’ve only had female managers throughout my career. I toured with Sarah McLachlan, Butterfly Boucher, Ladybird Sideshow. And I’ve also surrounded myself by great men.
But I’ve definitely experienced sexism and misogyny. It’s more subtle, but I find it is a day-to-day thing.
From a young age I was really into the tech stuff. I was renting four-tracks and different instruments and creating music on my computer. I wasn’t overtly discouraged, but I wasn’t encouraged to go down that path. When I was ready to record songs, I went to a recording studio and asked the dude there if he would produce my stuff. Looking back, I regret that I didn’t take the initiative and do it on my own. Especially in the tech side—engineers, producers, that kind of thing—when we don’t have other women to look up to, it’s harder to create those roles. The more opportunities we offer to young women, the more we make them feel empowered.
4. It seems like there’s a constant evolution in style in the music of Whitehorse. Is that intentional on your part?
Yeah, I think Luke and I are always egging each other on. A big theme of our band right from the start was to push ourselves and push each other out of our comfort zone. When we were solo artists, we might have felt a bit more restricted, but there’s a feeling of security working together, that we can take these risks. A kind of “hell, if we’re going down, we’re going down together!” attitude.
We don’t consciously decide, ok let’s do something wildly different, but we’re always, “hey what if we tried this or that?” We don’t want to get bored with ourselves, so we’re always trying to find different sounds to play with. Music is the most fun to play when you’re taking some kind of risk.
5. Finally: you’re playing in Peterborough this month. Name the top 5 things you know about Peterborough.
Oh my god. [laughs] Ok, Serena Ryder’s from there…. Luke says the half marathon is really hard there… I think I drove through some very intense fog there?…. Greg Keelor lives close by. We hung out at his place, and he sung backup on my song “Skyway Bridge”… umm…. Oh, Kawartha Lakes is more affordable to have a cottage than the Muskokas.
See Whitehorse live at Market Hall on April 19 (more info).
Images courtesy the artist.