Interview with NMC Artist in Residence, Luke Doucet

December 23, 2016


Halifax-born, Winnipeg-bred singer-songwriter and bonafide guitar-slinger, Luke Doucet, has come a long way since starting his career as a hired gun for Sarah McLachlan’s band back when he was a teenager. Over the course of the past 25 years, he’s fronted Vancouver surf rock band Veal, released six solo albums while having played on countless others, performed alongside Chantal Kreviazuk, Bryan Adams, Kathleen Edwards, and Blue Rodeo, produced records for a host of artists including NQ Arbuckle and Rose Cousins, and even been called “the best young guitarist in the country.”

These days, Doucet is one-half of the critically acclaimed folk rock duo, Whitehorse, a post he shares with wife and long-time musical collaborator, Melissa McClelland. The pair’s third album, Leave No Bridge Unburned, which was funded on the back of a successful Kickstarter campaign, took home the Juno Award for Adult Alternative Album of the Year in 2015, and the two haven’t stopped since.

Ahead of the release of their fourth album due out via Six Shooter Records this spring, Doucet will perform a public workshop at Studio Bell on January 12 at 1:30 pm (with paid admission), as our first official Artist In Residence of 2017. We spoke with him about his passion for the blues and pre-Beatles era American rock ‘n’ roll, songwriting as a couple, the role of a good producer, and his ever-evolving relationship with his signature Gretsch White Falcon.

Juliette Jagger: You and your wife, Melissa McClelland, formed Whitehorse back in 2010 but you both were already established singer-songwriters in your own right. What prompted you guys to join forces musically when you did?

Luke Doucet: You know, we had been making music together since the day we met. In fact, we met making music. We were working on a record of Melissa’s and that’s how we got to know each other. Then we made something like seven albums together––three of hers and four of mine––and we just ended up being in each other’s bands all the time. We also worked together as hired guns, playing in Sarah McLachlan’s band. I had been working with Sarah since I was a teenager actually, but I sort of pulled Melissa into the fold.

Man, it took a long time though because Sarah kept going through backup singers and I’d always say, ‘Sarah, I know the perfect person for you!’ And Sarah would always roll her eyes and say, ‘I’m not bringing your girlfriend on the road.’ [Laughs]

Finally, after years of me badgering her, one of her singers had to go off and do some gigs with Bob Seger and some dates were added to the back of a tour because Sarah had been sick for a week, so long story short, she finally said, ‘Okay, fine! Bring your girlfriend out and she can do five dates with us,’ then of course if it was a total train wreck, no harm done.

In any event, Sarah came to me after the first show with tears in her eyes and said, ‘I have never felt more comfortable on stage with another singer.’

JJ: That’s a pretty moving first impression…

LD: Melissa is pretty special and there’s just something about the way that she sings. She doesn’t overdo it, she doesn’t use too much vibrato, she’s always a little bit behind the beat, and she just sinks into whoever she’s working with––it’s really kind of shocking.

Before I ever met her, I got a little brown manila envelope in the mail with a blank CVR in it. I don’t always listen to everything that comes across my proverbial desk but I just had a feeling about this one and I knew right away. She almost sounded a bit like Suzanne Vega and I’ve always been a big fan of hers because she has this very direct, candid, deadpan way of delivering everything––Melissa really reminded me of that.

From there we worked with Sarah’s band for a number of years until we got to a point where we just said, ‘Okay, it feels weird when we’re not together.’ I didn’t particularly like performing when she wasn’t around and she didn’t particularly like performing when I wasn’t around either. People almost started to expect us together and would somehow feel ripped off when we weren’t, so finally we just picked a band name and made it official.

JJ: Did things change at all once you made that move?

LD: It was really quite amazing how much things changed once we simply acknowledged that we were now a unit musically and that this unit has a name. Arbitrarily, we could have called ourselves anything, but just the fact that we became a band, started to think as a band, and share a brain officially, it really changed the way we made art together.

All of a sudden it wasn’t just: ‘I’m a solo artist and you have to do what I think is cool,’ and vise versa. It was: ‘I need to consider you when I write songs and we also need to speak with somewhat of a unified voice.’ So, it definitely affected the way we wrote songs but it was also strangely liberating.

When you’re a solo artist and you’re sort of cut from the cloth of Americana, folk music, roots music, country or blues––and that tended to be where both Melissa and I operated from––you sometimes feel as though you have to remain within those traditions. As soon as we became Whitehorse, we felt like we had all the freedom in the world to do whatever we wanted. If we wanted to be a new wave band we could. If we wanted to play self-indulgent art rock we could do that too. And why not? It was really eye-opening.

JJ: Obviously Whitehorse is this sort of inevitable byproduct of your working relationship over the years, but it really does seem as though this band chose you guys and not the other way around.

LD: People always say things like, ‘How did it happen?’ ‘How did you get to where you are musically?’ And I always say, ‘Circumstantially.’ How do you get to be in Whitehorse? Well, for starters you have to hangout together for six years and make a bunch of albums that have nothing to do with Whitehorse. Then, once you’ve toured together 100 days a year for a half a decade and lived together, then you can start a band together––that’s how you get in Whitehorse. [Laughs]

That was the education required for us both to be ready to be in this band. We had to have all of that experience under our belts before we could start making Whitehorse records.

JJ: Do you think your musical partnership is enriched by your personal partnership as a couple?

LD: That’s a really difficult question to answer because I can’t separate the two. It’s just impossible because we’re together all the time. It’s not as if when we’re making music we take off our husband and wife hats––those hats always stay on.

We’re really different people so sometimes Melissa will say, ‘I think this record is really about this.’ And I’ll say, ‘I think it’s about that.’ But, we still have to find a way to meet in the middle so there is a certain degree of soul searching involved. I think we both expect a certain amount of intellectual accountability as well, so that just means that you spend a lot more time being self-aware than you might otherwise.

JJ: You guys self-produced your first two albums but opted to bring in producer Gus van Go [the Stills, Said the Whale, Hollerado] for your third release, 2015’s Juno Award winning Leave No Bridge Unburned. Why was that?

LD: When we first brought Gus a batch of songs for that last record, he declined all of them. He said, ‘None of these songs are the Whitehorse I hear in my head that I want to make a record for. Go write more songs.’ You just can’t do that for yourself.

A producer is someone who holds the mirror up, tells you what you’re saying, and then asks you if it’s what you want to be communicating, you know? For me, personally, I was thrilled to be able to hand the keys off to someone else. With a producer, it’s not so much a hierarchical thing but there is a certain amount of power in that job and it has to be that way. There’s no sense in hiring a producer if you’re not going to give them the reigns and say, ‘Go. Take this.’

At the same time, there’s a lot of misunderstanding in the music world about what the job of a producer actually is. I think people confuse music producer for film producer. A film producer signs the cheques, hires people, and makes sure the train keeps running so that the director, the writers, and the actors can make the art. In the musical world, your producer is your best friend. They are the bandleader, they’re the co-writer if need be, they play whichever instruments need playing and if they can’t do it they hire someone else who can. More importantly, they provide a general direction for the music that is based on the music they’ve made in the past.

I have no doubt that there will come a time when Melissa and I will produce ourselves again but having an outside producer was absolutely essential and so Gus really is perfect for us. He’s so enthused. If a 6-foot 7-inch guy could jump around the studio that’d be him because he gets that excited. I mean he’s as passionate about our wardrobe as he is about the songs, and he’s really passionate about the songs. Gus just has this ability to step back a mile from the project and say, ‘I know what you guys are, I know what these songs need to sound like, and I know what stories you have to tell.’ It’s pretty incredible to have someone around you who will go to the wall for you that way.

JJ: Sonically, Leave No Bridge Unburned, draws direct lineage from a few very classic eras, particularly early rock ‘n’ roll, swampy blues, 60s soul, and of course folk rock. What about those specific sounds speaks to you guys musically and are we going to hear more of that on the new record or are you taking things in a different direction?

LD: The sort of birthplace or seminal tones of rock ‘n’ roll have always been compelling to me. When I was 15-years-old, I wanted to be a blues man. Of course it was silly for a skinny white kid from Winnipeg to think of himself as a blues man but that’s what I was into. I thought it was dark and mysterious and it just had so much soul.

In the early days of Whitehorse, people would often come up to us after a show and say, ‘Wow, that was really great, what do you call that?’ I always thought that was such a strange question because the guitar tones are 1959. The way Melissa is singing is pulled directly off a Patsy Cline record. I never understood how it all came across as so mysterious because to me the ingredients were all so obvious––they’re all just classic pre-Beatles American tones, and yet, when put together in just the right way, I guess it is a bit of a head-scratcher.

When we started working with Gus, he wanted us to keep all of that but he also has a far more contemporary sensibility when it comes to arrangements. Now, on this new record that’s about to come out in May, we went mining for new things that we had never even considered to be available to us before. We were listening to a lot of Portishead, a lot of British trip-hop, and even bands like the Gorillaz.

When I think about us as a band, we’ve been making loops for a really long time, my guitar tones tend to be strictly old school, and all of my gear is from the 1950s. Then I think of Melissa’s voice and I realize there are examples of how these things can come together and we can borrow from that and see how we can infuse our songwriting into that production approach. We’ll see if we’ve accomplished that. You’ll have to be the judge because I’m not sure what we’ve made but that was the goal. I think this new record is going to come as a shock to a lot of people.

JJ: You’re obviously a guitar guy and have been for many years. Perhaps you can speak to how your relationship with the instrument has grown or adapted over the course of your career.

LD: When you’re young, when you’re a teenager, I think you’re sort of obsessed with the instrument and what it does and your relationship with it to the point where it sort of defines you. I mean, I’m a pretty small guy, so in high school, once I realized I wasn’t going to be an athlete, music sort of became this very exaggerated facet of my identity. I think it’s fantastic though and I’m glad it did because there are so many potential negative influences on a young person’s life.

Like I said, I grew up in Winnipeg during the 1980s so there were a lot of things I could have done that would have had a far worse impact on my future. Instead, I just stayed in my basement and tried to figure out how to play the blues, how to be Led Zeppelin, and how to play Beatles songs. For a long time, it was a pretty good way to pass time, but at some point reality catches up to you and that relationship with your instrument starts to change to some degree.

I’ve always sort of been a hired gun, so the instrument has stayed personal to me, but really, when I think about my musical priorities now, it’s not necessarily at the top of my list in the grand scheme of things. Now, I think songwriting is more important. I think singing is arguably more important. I think being a bandleader is more important. So, the guitar is a significant piece of the puzzle for me but when I think about music as a whole, writing a great song that has an honest delivery and that really touches people, that’s what it’s all about.

And yet, in some ways, I still liken my guitar to being like a skateboard; even though I’ve grown up and I have a job now, I still like to take it out for a ride once in a while, you know?

JJ: Your residency with the National Music Centre will run from January 3 – 12. What will you be working on during your time there?

LD: Actually, it’s funny that we’re talking about my relationship with the guitar because this residency has really driven me to go deep on that and to try and figure out what that is again. We’re going to be making an album but because I don’t have that pop structure––and I use the word pop loosely––to guide the songwriting, I really am having to look at my relationship with this instrument from a fresh perspective for the first time in decades.

When I found out I was going to be able to come out to Calgary and spend some time at [Studio Bell], I was asked by the folks at my label, Six Shooter Records, what I’d like to work on and all I could think of was that I wanted to play with John Convertino from Calexico. He’s since agreed to come out and play, which is pretty awesome, but once I knew he was onboard I sort of had to formulate a plan of attack. Now, I’ve got Kurt Ciesla––who you might know from Corb Lund’s band––coming out to play bass, along with a few other super musical geniuses, and we’re just going to see what we come up with.

I know they’re hoping I’ll send them some demos but I think I might not bother because the sound of people discovering music together in a room is a pretty good sound. I’m really hoping that will be a big part of this recording.

Also, a lot of these little instrumental pieces of music that I’m collecting right now, they’re the product of me sitting backstage at shows, warming up and waiting, for the past twenty-years. I’ve just sort of realized that I have a million little riffs and melodies that don’t have a home so I’m excited about spending this time at [Studio Bell] and seeing what they all become.

JJ: I’ve had the chance to speak with a few artists now ahead of their NMC residencies and I think everyone sort of agrees that the coolest part about this program is getting the chance to tackle something you’ve always wanted to do musically but haven’t yet had the chance.

LD: It’s a total luxury, especially in this day and age when album budgets are dropping and nobody’s buying records anymore. People are just becoming so much more pragmatic about when and how and why they record. To have an opportunity to build something that wouldn’t have a chance to be made any other way and simply for art’s sake is really quite remarkable.

It would be remarkable to do that in a friend’s basement never mind in probably one of the most spectacular shrines to music ever created.

JJ: What motivates you as an artist?

LD: I’m going to paraphrase something I once heard Gene Pierson say and when he said it I just thought: ‘Yeah that’s exactly the approach I take.’ I may be wrong about ascribing this to him but I don’t think I am. Basically, he said that when you look at your record collection, see what you have, and realize what is missing, you tend to wonder if you yourself can create that missing thing. I guess that’s an overly ornate way of saying you don’t want to make something that’s already been made, so you’re constantly trying to find opportunities to fill in the cracks.

It’s interesting with rock and pop music­­––and again I use all of those terms very loosely––but they’re just such simple forms. Western music is simple to begin with but the pop and rock canons are almost defined by their simplicity––three chords and the truth. When you think about it in those terms––and it’s been 70 years since the advent of this stuff, especially if you want to go back to Louis Jordan in 1949, which some people argue is the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll––I mean wow. Three chords and the truth for 70 years? A lot has been done.

So, it can be a real challenge sometimes to find a spot to own a little piece of real estate and say, ‘This is me. I’ve got this.’ And, ‘Nobody else has done this quite like I’m doing it.’ I think that’s what motivates me as an artist though. If at the end of the day you can claim to have taken one small but meaningful step outside of the canon that has inspired you, then I think you’ve succeeded.

You don’t have to be as ambitious as Radiohead or Björk––though my hat goes off to them because they are completely inspiring––I just mean that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to do something significant. I think it might take a lifetime to do it but I’ll be perfectly happy if I can ever look at my musical heroes and feel as though I did one little thing they didn’t do. That’s it. Plant the flag on that pile of dirt and that’s all you get.

JJ: It seems that in music and in most other areas of life for that matter, it’s the simple things that resonate the most. I mean, who hasn’t asked themselves, ‘How didn’t I think of that?’ But, when put together in just the right way and combined with your own personal experiences, those same simple things tend to look new again don’t they?

LD: Yeah, you’ve touched on something that I think is really interesting and that’s that simple things are often the most impactful and profound, especially when you’re young. When you are a young artist or musician, I think most of what you should be doing is learning from other people, regardless of whether you’re learning drum fills or guitar licks or learning how to write songs.

If you want to learn how to be the greatest songwriter that ever lived you should probably learn the greatest songs ever written. That means you’re getting a private lesson with Irving Berlin or a private lesson with John Lennon or Liz Phair or Chrissie Hynde. Who are you into? Get a private lesson with those people. How? Learn their fucking songs. [Laughs]

Simplicity, as we’ve acknowledged, is way harder than people think. Imagine writing a song where the entire chorus is, ‘Oh, Oh, Oh, sweet child ‘o mine,’ and you wouldn’t do it. Your friends would look at you, laugh, and say, ‘No. C’mon, that’s a joke. We can’t do that.’ Or a song where the entire chorus is just, ‘Taking care of business,’ over and over again. You’d say, ‘Forget it. It’s too stupid. It’s too basic.’ And yet, those are the songs that stick in your mind forever.

JJ: Talk about a record or artist that is close to your heart and why.

LD: Going into this project with NMC and probably because I’ve got guitar on the brain right now, I feel like I have to say Tom Waits and more specifically guitarist Marc Ribot. I think every guitar player I know has had a moment when they realized who Marc Ribot was. For most people it was probably Rain Dogs, which was 1985 I think, and there’s just a certain way he plays, a certain tonality he uses. It’s a lot of flat fives, sixes in a minor key, and major sevens in a minor key, and he always sounds like he’s just about to fall off the stage––like he’s not going to make it. Ribot’s not a smooth, fast player but he’s played with a lot of people on a lot of different records and he’s the kind of musician that has poked his head out in such a weird way and so often that I’ve always found him sort of inspiring.

When I was young and still trying to figure out what I sounded like, I found myself stealing from him quite a bit because I knew how to play Sarah McLachlan’s songs and I knew how to copy Hendrix and copy the Stray Cats, but I wasn’t sure what it sounded like when I just did whatever I wanted to do. His influence is one of those things that is not unlike getting really good at playing Stevie Ray Vaughan songs though––it’s harder to learn how not to do it. [Laughs]

That said, I think that one of my goals for NMC will be to draw from that whole Tom Waits canon of Beat poet to drunken smoky piano balladeer to the weird post-modern carnival barker that he is now. There’s just so much there and so I think if there’s anyone I’ll have in my pocket to keep me grounded it’ll be Tom Waits and Marc Ribot.

About the Author

Juliette Jagger

Juliette Jagger is a Canadian music journalist. Her byline has appeared in such media outlets as The Huffington Post, Noisey, and This Week In Palestine. She currently is an editor here at Amplify, and is the creator of NMC’s ongoing interview series Origin Stories, which uncovers the stories behind hit songs. She is also associate editor of US-based outlet CelebrityAccess.

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