Exploring the art of the protest song for a brand new era, Canadian Americana duo, Whitehorse, continue to push boundaries and fuse genres.
Known for their successful solo careers in the folk-roots worlds, and a talent for live looping, Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland are back with their fourth album, PANTHER IN THE DOLLHOUSE (released August 4).
This time around, the genre-hopping husband and wife team merged their creative talent with the New York hip-hop production duo, Like Minds (Kanye West, Snoop Dogg).
Along with long-time producers and engineers, Gus Van Go and Werner F, they embarked on a process of exploration, turning their storytelling-based songs into full-bodied beat machines.
“There’s always a lot of nerves going into a record release because you put your heart and soul into it,” explains Melissa. “There was a lot of anticipation before we put it out there and we were in the studio a year-and-a-half ago recording these songs, so we’ve lived with them for a long time.
“We’ve been so immersed in them, and cared so deeply for them, so we want people to respond to them, but, so far, it’s been pretty overwhelming.”
Described by the Huffington Post as a ‘power couple’ and as a ‘super duo’ by Rolling Stone, Whitehorse has never been afraid to push the boundaries, or think outside the box, creatively.
But, with three full albums, numerous EPs, and a French-speaking project already under their belts, they had reached a point where they were willing to be exceptionally brave this time around.
On PANTHER IN THE DOLLHOUSE, they explore issues of consent, sexuality, self-determination and freedom, told largely from the perspective of women.
Luke says he drew inspiration from many varying conversations to tackle the way different subjects were being talked about.
As observers, they found the discussion just as interesting as the actual topics and inspiration took over as they put pen to paper.
“There’s been a rebirth of the protest song,” says Melissa. “I think it’s a really great thing, because it did become a cliché for a while and that kind of died out for the most part. Now we’re starting to see that again.
“They’re coming from a different place, a different voice, a different generation, and I think it’s hugely important that storytellers, songwriters, artists, musicians are all expressing these really important things that are happening around us, because if we do just remain with the pages of our own diaries, we’re in endless narcissism. Art needs to challenge, it needs to push, it needs to change. It’s kind of our job, I guess.”
Luke agrees, saying music provides a great platform for political and social discussions to take place.
“It’s also a celebration, it’s a visceral thing,” he says. “Music makes you feel happy, or sad, or sexy, or whatever. It carries so much emotional impact, but it’s a really great place for politics and protest and for asking tough questions, because it’s not academic or studious, it’s not pedantic. It’s about music, right?
“I don’t know if the days of music being able to inspire real social change are behind us, or not.”
To gauge opinion on the never-ending viewpoints to tap into, Luke read widely, hitting up newspaper articles, Facebook threads, blog posts and social media discussions.
While the duo wrote separately, when they came together to work on ideas, they discovered they were on the same page with many of their draft plans.
“Some of these themes and stories we have just become aware about because we’re looking around and we’re asking people, and watching the world spin,” says Luke.
“Stigmas around the way people choose to live, and what is considered normal or abnormal, are things we find interesting. Also, issues around the relationships of different classes and how they view one another.
“What informs these songs is observing the world having these conversations and that in itself is an interesting story.”
Opening the doors to introduce a hip-hop edge to their sound was not necessarily a tricky leap for the beloved Canadian band.
“We’ve worked with people who have a history in that realm and we’ve been making loops and doing it on stage for so long, even though we didn’t think of it being in the hip-hop world,” Luke explains.
“We’d been playing with a lot of those ideas on stage for years as the backbone of this band, and then got to the point (we wanted to) find people in the hip-hop world who are cutting edge.
“When the time came to actually work with people who know the tools, who have the sounds, and have the repertoire of that music, it was a perfect fit and instantly it made sense to us.”
Melissa is also quick to point out that, with access to an entire of world of music at our fingertips, people don’t necessarily expect artists to stick to one sound or style nowadays.
“We have access to every kind of music out there, whereas a few generations ago it was a regional thing, depending on the part of the world you were in and what you were exposed to.
“We have a very diverse record collection, and I think that goes for any music lover these days. There’s very few people who are purists with one type of music. True music lovers really delve into all kinds of music.”
As Whitehorse continues to challenge modern music, they also had the incredible opportunity of honouring our icons, performing as part of the Canadian Songwriters’ Hall of Fame induction of Neil Young, Bruce Cockburn and others in September 2017.
For Luke the connection runs a little deeper, growing up in Neil Young’s old stomping ground of Winnipeg.
“I went to the same high school he did, but it took me moving away from Winnipeg to realise how important he is, because when you’re growing up here, he’s a local son,” he says.
“But, moving away, I realised he’s not just a hometown hero who gets celebrated in Winnipeg. When you consider what he’s accomplished, going from folk music to country music, to arguably the most aggressive, loudest guitar sound that’s ever been created, that can’t really be exaggerated. It’s really quite something.”
With a respect and appreciation for the past, and a vision for the future, it’s exciting to see what Whitehorse will be coming up with next.
There’s no telling what direction their love of music – in all its glorious forms – will take them.
“We’re passionate about all different kinds of sounds,” Melissa says.
“We always have an idea of where we want to go, but we’re always open to being surprised.
“We meander so much creatively that I think we always are surprised. We never want to repeat ourselves, we know that much.”