Married duo Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland share unique onstage chemistry
TORONTO - Since married duo Melissa McClelland and Luke Doucet joined forces as Whitehorse in 2011, their spine-tingling chemistry and intimate interplay onstage has become an essential element in their appeal.
They perform together, alone. Their voices harmonize beautifully. And they coo into the same microphone, stealing glances at one another, while rapt audience members optimistically read romance in each of the pair's shared stares.
Even when it's not necessarily romance that's in the air.
"We do have funny moments onstage — everything from actually feeling this incredible connection and love, or we're giggling because Luke just burped and we're sharing a single mike," a laughing McClelland said in a recent interview, seated next to her husband.
"And it's funny, because people afterwards will be like: 'I saw that sweet little moment.' I'm like, oh, when he burped in my face?"
Well, that's an extreme example. But it's clear that this talented duo is a bit uneasy trading on their undeniable chemistry.
Initially, however, the magnetic musical connection between Doucet and McClelland was a principal reason they both decided to put thriving solo careers on indefinite hold to pursue a partnership.
It wasn't an easy decision. The Manitoba-raised Doucet had courted acclaim (and a Juno nomination) for his deft guitar work and inspired songwriting, which blossomed over the course of five solo records between 2001 and 2010. McClelland's own solo career followed a surprisingly parallel arc, with the Hamilton-raised singer garnering praise for her eclectic range of blues and Americana influences and her robust vocals.
They married in 2006. They talked for a long time about merging their careers, but were understandably apprehensive.
"We worked so hard to develop our fanbase and to find people who like our music," Doucet said. "You know, I'd been trying to be Luke Doucet for a long time. Why would I want to throw all that away and call myself, you know, the Wheels or Whitehorse?"
At first, they thought they each might contribute songs separately and take turns singing live. McClelland acknowledges that she might then have been in the mindset to "save" a wonderful song she'd written for her next solo record. And, mutually used to calling the shots, both artists worried about the loss of autonomy that would come from a collaboration.
So, the fledgling partnership seemed in danger of landing in that dreaded musical zone of ill-conceived one-offs and hastily executed throwaways: the side project.
But then they became more comfortable. The flow of ideas became smoother. And they started to recognize the myriad advantages to joining forces.
"The upside is, hey, wait a minute, it's not all on my back," Doucet said. "When you're onstage (alone) and you have to be for 90 minutes, you have to be charming and witty and banter or whatever. If there's two of us, I can just step back, tune my guitar, have a drink and have a breath and Melissa's got a story to tell."
And, as the duo figured out how to complement each other's songwriting, the compromising became easier.
"We know that good things can come from being loose about it and experimenting with it, and letting it meander and letting each song find its place," McClelland said. "So I think that helps us work together in a studio and not tear each other's hair out."
Added Doucet: "Certainly as time goes by, we've become less and less precious."
Meantime, their collaborations have only become more valuable.
In the fall, Whitehorse released its sophomore album, "The Fate of the World Depends on This Kiss," a simmering melange of blues, folk, country, Americana and rock. While it came out only a year after their self-titled debut, the band's second record showcased the rapid growth of a partnership that was previously only personal.
"I feel like this band has a lot more to offer now that there's two chefs instead of one," Doucet agreed.
Their live show has gained a sterling reputation too, and as they prepare to begin a lengthy cross-continent trek on Jan. 26 in Vancouver, they're aware that part of that rep is based in their charming interactions.
Which is, in many ways, a tall order for a couple who spends almost all its time together on the road. How many married people could commit to standing in front of an audience each night and publicly basking their spouse in a moony-eyed gaze?
"If we're on each other's cases, sometimes we're on the road and the last thing I want to do is be close to you. 'Get away from me!'" Doucet says, his wife smiling in agreement.
"Just before we go onstage, there's a moment of: 'We're good, right? Let's go do this!' And we've managed to leave whatever baggage we might be carrying at that particular moment backstage."
Fortunately, this isn't generally something that requires work.
"I think 90 per cent of what is perceived as chemistry is us just doing our jobs," Doucet said. "We just sing the songs the way we do and we happen to share a microphone and therefore, our faces are close together. And that reads as chemistry.
"The other 10 per cent — we connect on a lot of things. There's certain lyrics where we can't look at each other when we sing them because we're both going to burst into tears. Because a lot of the stuff hits close to home."
Which is why they're simultaneously a bit uncomfortable with being known for their onstage spark.
Both seem to have a deep aversion to anything that could be perceived as cutesy.
"That chemistry between us, and the fact that we're husband and wife and that's a thing people are aware of, it seems to be part of what people are coming to see — there's a voyeuristic element to that that I'm not always comfortable with," Doucet said.
"And the chemistry that is expected of us, that we're going to charm each other and we're going to look deep into each other's soul while we're playing — we're not entirely comfortable with that, either.
"I sure wouldn't want to feel like it's incumbent upon us to put on a creepy little show for people."
"We're not here to gross people out — let's put it that way," added McClelland.
"For me, there's a line in the sand," agreed Doucet. "We're actually making music, and that's the important thing. If you want to see us make out, you're going to have to break into our hotel room."
Fortunately, all the other possible pitfalls of husband-and-wife acts don't concern these two much.
Although they're currently without a home base (they're renting out the house they own in Hamilton while they shuffle about the continent), the travelling life suits them.
"I think we won the lottery," Doucet said. "We live like James Bond. That's how I feel about our life."
And they have other individual pursuits.
McLelland helps run the Ladybird Animal Sanctuary, an animal rescue, foster and adoption organization in Hamilton, while Doucet is a devoted marathon runner.
"We tend to keep those things separate," he said. "It's really important that we have those things. It keeps us sane."