"If we're right about what we're trying to do, they'll see something they've never seen before, ever."
Luke Doucet, the stylish song-crafter and pro guitarist, is talking in the office of Six Shooter Records, the Toronto roots-music label. To his left at a boardroom table is Melissa McClelland, his wife and accomplished songstress. Setting aside their solo careers a year ago, the couple formed the two-piece band Whitehorse. It's a full-on endeavour.
"This isn't two singer-songwriters under a banner," says Doucet, a small, intense and handsome man. "It's a band."
Adds McClelland, a willowy, affable brunette: "We're challenging ourselves beyond our comfort zones."
If the husband and wife are committed, Six Shooter is fully on board as well – you might say the plucky independent outfit has hitched its wagon to Whitehorse. "We absolutely have," affirms Shauna de Cartier, label owner. "Luke and Melissa are, and always have been, an integral part of Six Shooter. They're a big deal for us."
Whitehorse, which released its self-titled debut album last year, is a big enough deal for the label that de Cartier has opened a branch office in New York – a move that wouldn't have happened if Doucet and McClelland hadn't recently transplanted there themselves. They're based on the Lower East Side; Six Shooter maintains office space in Brooklyn. "It gives us an American address, and it gives us the infrastructure to work there more frequently," de Cartier says.
A New York beachhead gives the label a presence in one of the top music-industry centres in the world. "In this business, it's all about relations," says Brendan Bourke of Canvas Media, a small publicity firm that has worked closely with the Toronto-based Arts & Crafts label. "You have to be able to get that face time."
Bourke operates out of Brooklyn, where Canvas Media currently provides support for Vancouver's friendly troubadour Dan Mangan on Arts & Crafts, this country's largest independent label. Other Canadian clients include the orchestral-folk act Woodpidgeon, on Vancouver's smartly curated Boompa outfit.
On Friday in Toronto, Whitehorse plays a sold-out Winter Garden Theatre, a larger venue (at 1,000 seats) than either of the performers would have filled on their own. "They're a sum greater than their parts," says de Cartier.
In the past, Doucet and McClelland have collaborated on solo projects and performed together, but in a song-swapping format rather than the duo-band setting they now present, adding looping pedals, stomp boards and kick drums. "We've shed our old personas," explains McClelland, who has released four albums of noir roots-pop (the last three produced by Doucet).
And so, while a swaggering blue-stomp such as Killing Time Is Murder sounds familiar, the tender, McCartneyesque lullaby Night Owls is like nothing from them previously. "The point is to find the areas where we're strong between the two of us," says Doucet, "and to find that common ground and say 'that's the sound of this band.' "
As for the label's confidence in Whitehorse, Doucet isn't surprised. "They don't do anything half-ass," he says. "There's a lot of fire behind the Six Shooter crew. You have to be careful about what you wish for around them, because it will happen."
Whitehorse plays Waterloo, Ont., Feb. 23 and Toronto, Feb. 24, with Western Canadian dates to follow in April.