Why Whitehorse’s new album turns up the twang: the pandemic was so apocalyptic, ‘only country music seemed appropriate’

New release I’m Not Crying, You’re Crying sees Toronto duo exploring a part of their musical tastes that Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland say has always been a part of what they do.

By Nick Krewen

Special to the Star

Well, this is an interesting turn.

For the newest Whitehorse effort, the Toronto-based husband-wife duo of Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland has switched gears from the hip volcanic mélange of ultracool vibes and harmonious folk, rock and pop that has been their musical trademark of the past.

Unlike their previous seven albums, I’m Not Crying, You’re Crying, released Friday, features shuffle and twang, yearning and heartache, some tasteful picking and plucking and the vividly fluid pedal-steel contributions of Burke Carroll, with drummer John Obercian providing the pacing in its classic country grooves.

The reason for Whitehorse’s current transition into three-chords-and-the-truth territory?

“It was partly accidental,” explained singer and guitarist Doucet over the phone from Winnipeg. “John Prine died early in the pandemic and we sort of did a headlong dive back into the ’70s. I grew up with (singer-songwriters) J.J. Cale, Randy Newman, Tom Waits and Emmylou Harris and Maria Muldaur and late ’70s music, which included some country music, Willie Nelson and (Bob) Dylan’s Nashville Skyline.

“Sometimes you get pulled into Fleetwood Mac or into Paul McCartney’s Wings, but for some reason, the pandemic was apocalyptic enough that only country music seemed appropriate.”

McClelland, who shares lead vocals with her husband, added: “Kenny Rogers passed away around that time as well. That music was playing inour house around that time and we were completely absorbed with whatever was happening within those walls.”

However, McClelland said the five-time Juno Award nominees injecting more of the hayseed element into their music this time around isn’t that far of a stretch.

“Country has always been a part of what we do, even as solo artists,” asserted McClelland (both have released four solo albums). “I think back to when Luke and I first got married, we hadn’t formed Whitehorse yet. We moved to Nashville for the year and we really just listened to every kind of vintage country album the whole time we were there, whether it was Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris or Gram Parsons — you name it, we listened to it.

“I recorded my solo record Victoria Day at that time and it was very influenced by vintage country. It’s always been a part of our Whitehorse sound, but I think this is the first time we decidedly really zeroed in on an era and a sound.”

Doucet said the sonic focus of I’m Not Crying, You’re Crying covers the country era of 1969 to 1979; a far cry from the general beer-and-whiskey, pickup-truck and tailgate-party sentimentality that seems to frequent today’s charts.

“That’s because we kept our vices to red wine and cocaine,” Doucet joked, before turning serious, adding that the usually unrestrained Whitehorse approach to creating music had a few more of what he calls guardrails, to hem them in a little.

“There is something ironically liberating about having guardrails,” Doucet stated, “It freed us to not have to think so much about what production meant, because we thought, ‘no pianos, no keyboards, no choirs, no weird effects, no percussion overdubs — let’s just record this like a band.’

“Once that decision was made, before we went into the studio, there wasn’t much to think about except the songs. We spent six weeks just tweaking … is this the right lyric? Is this the right performance? Is this the right guitar lick? It enabled you to shut a certain part of your brain off … which I certainly welcomed.”

The care afforded the dozen songs that comprise I’m Not Crying, You’re Crying is certainly evident in the storytelling. Both the McClelland-sung “The Road” and “I Miss The City” reveal the emotional chasm felt by Whitehorse when the pandemic forced them and every other performer on the planet to shut down their livelihood overnight, with no apparent return to touring in sight.

Then there’s the ingenious acoustic-driven heartbreaker called “Division 5,” when a spurned lover visits the RCMP to implore them to find his lost partner and gets laughed out of the station; the trotting rhythm shuffle of “If The Loneliness Don’t Kill Me, The Good Times Surely Will” is another of the many highlights, among these tales woven in Whitehorse’s imaginative and original manner.

“The writing is really important,” stated McClelland, “My personal philosophy around songwriting has always been that we shouldn’t limit ourselves to diarylike entries. We’re writers, so we have all the freedom in the world to come up with all kinds of fantastical ideas whether they are truth or fiction or somewhere in the middle.”

Doucet said the challenge is to look outside themselves for material.

“I think the legacy of some of the singer-songwriters — or ‘songersingwrecker,’ as Andrew Scott of Sloan would call it — is a very solipsistic little corner of the music world. We’re not really a country band. We’re either folk rock or Americana or whatever you call it, but we ourselves have been those solipsistic songwriters in the past and maybe there comes a point where you don’t want to rip the page out of your diary and set it to a melody.

“It’s not very interesting.”

But that doesn’t mean that Whitehorse doesn’t use experience to knit a good yarn.

“Melissa has a pretty funny story about ‘If the Loneliness Don’t Kill Me, the Good Times Surely Will,’” Doucet explained. “She looked at our recycling bin during the pandemic and realized that she didn’t know how to explain to our son why there were so many empty wine bottles in it. And that informed the song.

“I’ve been pretty happy with the idea that to accomplish the job as a songwriter, you need to take a very small step away from your influences and the things that inspire you.”

The release of I’m Not Crying, You’re Crying, which McClelland and Doucet said was written and recorded over a three-month period during the lockdown, is the latest result of a fertile period of creativity that saw the release of two strong and decidedly non-country albums (2021’s Modern Love and Strike Me Down) and an upcoming EP “that no one knows about,” but whether Crying remains Whitehorse’s only pure country entry remains to be seen.

“We figured that once this record came out, it might be difficult to put the toothpaste back in the tube,” Doucet explained. “As Melissa pointed out, we’ve been making country music for a long time, but this is the first time we’ve really tried to stay in that lane. We’re going to tour it — I hope we can tour it for a long time and I would love to make more records like this — it’s really hard to predict what will happen. It’s really going to be fun.”

Although Whitehorse is planning a spring tour that should see a Toronto date around May, McClelland says it’s been difficult to stick to any postpandemic plans.

“It’s a hard time to predict the future, even the future of touring,” she said. “It’s been very difficult post-pandemic. We toured all last spring, through the summer and through the fall — and it hasn’t been easy financially. It’s hard to see the road ahead … ideally we’d like to get back to a place where we’re touring all the time. And you know, we love being on stage and playing these songs — and the country songs in particular are really, really fun to play live.”

In any event, the duo is looking forward to calling Toronto home again this summer after spending a year in Winnipeg tending to family matters.

“My mom was very sick and she ultimately passed away in August,” revealed Doucet. “We moved here so that we could we closer to her and we wanted our son Jimmy to have a chance to get to know his granny better. We thought she’d have more time. But we had already made a plan and rented out our house in the Junction Triangle.

“We signed a lease on a place here in Winnipeg not far from where I grew up. Jimmy was enrolled in school and we thought, ‘let’s just stick it out for a year and do some ice fishing and skate on the river.’”

The family did sneak in a Toronto visit over the holidays, but found being tourists in their own city to be a surreal but rewarding experience.

At least, McClelland did.

“Oh man, I loved being a visitor in Toronto,” McClelland exclaimed. “I did so much more. Typically, I would get home off of the road, and I’d be so burnt out that I’d become a hermit for the week that we had off before we’d leave again. So to enjoy time off in Toronto as a visitor and prioritizing all these visits with friends; going to shows out to restaurants, I’m experiencing the city the way I should have been.”

Doucet, perhaps not so much.

“We were watching gigs, just sort of hanging out and enjoying ourselves, but we didn’t have a place to live and were staying at a hotel behind city hall. It’s a weird f–king thing to be in your hometown and staying in a downtown hotel. I really didn’t like it. It felt completely wrong.”