Luke Doucet: "If this is the last record people buy, it should give a lot"
It’s quite a sight to see Luke Doucet bent double over his beloved Gretsch White Falcon guitar, pouring out the music that’s had him on the road since he was 19. But when the Canadian artist – who’s now 37 – sat down to think about his sixth solo album, he had something more than just the music in mind.
Doucet’s new album, Steel City Trawler, is as remarkable for the CD booklet as for the contents of the shiny disc. It’s a brightly-coloured comic book featuring Doucet walking – and running – round his new home town of Hamilton, Ontario. It was drawn by Hamilton cartoonist David Collier, and was a deliberate move by Doucet to offer something in the CD that wasn’t available to those buying the album in electronic form.
“As the sun sets on the record industry, it occurs to me that at some point people will purchase their last CD, and that time is probably imminent. Many people already have,” Doucet says.
“If that’s what is possibly happening as people buy this record, then it should give a lot, and it should give a lot of the things that you won’t get when you buy a record off iTunes, namely something tactile, something more than just something to put on your iPod and listen to.”
Doucet recalls, as a child, choosing records to play from his mother’s collection because of the covers.
“I would choose JJ Cale’s Naturally because of the record, Leon Redbone because there was a cartoon image of a frog on the back, and I would choose Tom Waits’ Closing Time because there was a naked woman with ‘pasties’ on her nipples on the cover, and that was compelling, I thought ‘I wonder what this sounds like’.”
The idea for the comic book was borrowed from Doucet’s wife, singer-songwriter Melissa McClelland, who had talked about the idea but had never got round to doing it.
He gave carte blanche to Collier to do what he liked in the book, and had not insisted that it be related to the songs. In the end, Collier used lyrics drawn from the songs along with snippets of Doucet’s life drawn from an evening they spent together.
“Melissa and I went over to his house and had a meal together with his wife and son and we chatted and we went for a nice walk in the evening for an hour and then bid our farewells and we left. And in that time we talked about all kinds of things. And from the discussions we had, he gleaned enough content. I didn’t realise I was being interviewed. Had I known I would have chosen my words more carefully!”
Doucet was not worried that he had no artistic input into the booklet.
“I think most great records, somebody else does the album and produces and somebody writes some of the songs maybe. Singer-songwriters we have a tendency to be navel gazers and think everything is about us, but can you imagine if everything Picasso did was a self-portrait? It would be fucking awful, right?
The songs themselves are heavily influenced by Hamilton, where Doucet and McClelland recently moved after deciding that they didn’t want to live in Nashville.
“I’m on the road 10 months of the year and I have been for 18 years, but you write about what you know, and unfortunately that’s kind of all I know, so geography plays an unusually large role in my work, and Hamilton’s a new city, it’s a whole new labyrinth of geography to discover. I wouldn’t say the songs are about Hamilton, but strangely the record is, if that’s possible.”
Doucet and McClelland met because both of them were in the band of major Canadian artist Sarah McLachlan, and they continue to play with her as well as pursuing solo careers and performing together. Additionally, Doucet sometimes goes on the road with another Canadian legend, the band Blue Rodeo. In their most recent UK tour, he stood in for Greg Keelor, who was unable to travel because of problems with his ears.
It’s a difficult ask, to take the place of an artist like Keelor in front of the many loyal and knowledgeable Blue Rodeo fans, and Doucet admits to some embarrassment when the other frontman, Jim Cuddy, didn’t immediately tell fans what was going on, but says he was warmly welcomed.
“Sometimes we’d come out to start playing and Jim would wait five or six songs before he would address the fact that Greg wasn’t there and I was. I’d be going: ‘Jim, can you fucking tell them, explain. I can tell they want to know. Where’s Greg?’ It’s not like you can take John Lennon out of the Beatles and nobody’s gonna notice.
“To people who are Blue Rodeo fans, they’re a very special band. And to have one of the two main front guys not present is not insignificant. But once we got playing it was great.”
A life on the road makes it difficult for Doucet to keep at things, but he was determined this year to complete something he’s been working up to for some time – running a marathon. So when his plans to compete in a race in Toronto were scuppered because he had to play with Sarah McLachlan in Vancouver, he scoured his diary for another free day, and found that he had one in Britain. A search for marathons that weekend revealed only one. And that’s how Doucet found himself running in the Dartmoor Vale Marathon in Devon in October.
"I didn’t realise how beautiful it was going to be. It could have been a horrible, flat, grey industrial part of the country and I still would’ve run it and I probably still have loved it,” Doucet says.
It was far from an easy run-up to the race for Doucet.
“I had an injury in my foot and was very, very concerned about it, and I developed a head cold two days before, and I had all these things working against me, to the point that I had a lot of people saying ‘don’t run, you’re crazy’,” he says. And I was like, ‘you guys don’t understand how much this means to me, I’ve been working so hard’.
“I was under the impression it was going to be a relatively flat course. No no! It was up and down the entire fucking way, it was insane. But it was beautiful, just stunning, not a cloud in the sky. It was spectacular.”
Doucet completed the race in ... well, the Dartmoor Vale organisers give the time as 4 hours, 8 minutes, 44 seconds. Doucet insists it was 4:06. Whatever, it was a great achievement, especially since two days later he was on stage in Winchester at the beginning of his UK tour.
“There was some pain involved” in performing in Winchester, Doucet admits. “But once you’re on stage, being on stage is like running a marathon, adrenaline kicks in and you just get through it.”