Friday, January 21, 2011

Interview with Melissa McClelland: Canadian Singer Songwriter and Co-Founder of LadyBird Animal Sanctuary

Melissa McClelland is one of Canada's finest singer songwriters.  She is Canada's answer to Bonnie Raitt.  Her voice is timeless, pure, stunningly beautiful and full of heart.  It will melt yours in the process.  It is hard to pinpoint in which genre she best fits because her voice so effortlessly makes all of them better.  That's what timeless voices do. 

Melissa has had an impressive career of her own, having put out 2 critically acclaimed and award winning albums so far, 2006's "Thumbelina's One Night Stand" and 2009's "Victoria Day."  In addition to that she has had a successful career as a backing vocalist for several bands, most notably, Sarah McLachlan.  Melissa and her husband, fellow Canadian singer songwriter/producer/gunslinging guitarist, Luke Doucet, keep very busy touring the world in support of her music, his music, their music and in the backing band of Sarah McLachlan.  It is never ending; they are ubiquitous; truly working musicians.  Living the dream. 

On this very wintry day Melissa, on a short break from the latest leg of Sarah McLachlan's tour and after having spent a few days in the studio recording a duets album with Luke (hopefully out this fall) was kind enough to spend some time chatting about music (obviously) and the new animal sanctuary, LadyBird Animal Sanctuary, that she has co-founded with friends and fellow musicians in her hometown of Hamilton, Ontario.  Having long been a fan of her music I recently connected with her because of our love of animals.   On with the interview...

First the animals...
Eric: Tell me about how LadyBird Animal Sanctuary came to be (including timeline)?

Melissa:I used to play in a group called the Ladybird Sideshow.  It was myself, Lisa Winn, Janine Stoll & Erin Smith.  The four of us would play our own songs in the round with lots of added harmonies .  The group only lasted a couple years, but we've all remained really close friends.  Erin moved out to Maui so unfortunately she doesn't have a role in the sanctuary, but we'll put her to work if she ever moves back!  The remaining three of us had been throwing around the idea for a couple years.  We're all animal lovers.  Lisa has been fostering for years & working on & off at the SPCA.  It got to the point a few months ago where we decided we either needed to just go for it or stop talking about it.  So Janine worked really hard at getting the website up, we came up with a mandate & started to set goals.  We put the word out just before Christmas & as I predicted, the momentum just took off.  Now we're all learning the ropes as fast as we can & gaining confidence as we go.  We are a tiny operation at this point, but we plan to grow leaps & bounds over the next few years. 
E: What are your short term goals for the sanctuary?

M: Right now we have three different focuses.  Mine will be fundraising, Lisa's will be organizing fosters & Janine will be developing our web presence.  We really just want to learn as much as possible right now in all these areas.  We want to figure out what exactly is needed & then develop programs to address these needs.  We want to work with people within our community & allow this to become more then helping only animals.  Once we have established ourselves, received our charitable status & have become a well oiled machine; we will then buy some land where Lisa will live full time & run the sanctuary from there.  For now, we rescue animals through a system of foster homes.
E: Where do you see the sanctuary heading longterm, say in 5 years?  Right now you mentioned that the sanctuary is focusing on word of mouth to get the name out there and fostering animals in volunteers' homes.  Do you envision having a physical structure to act as a safe haven and temporary home for them on an actual piece of property with a building?  A physical sanctuary if you will.

M: We definitely aim to have our own land in at least five years.  This will give us so much freedom in what we want to do & a place to house so many "unwanted" animals.  This is the pinnacle of our dream, but we want to be prepared for it.  Once we have opened the space, I hope it will bring the community together even more.  I want to host festival style fundraising concerts.  Maybe have a free spay & neuter clinic on site.  These plans are very far out of reach at this point, but we are moving in the right direction!

E: You have long been friends with Sarah McLachlan who is, in addition to having superstar musician status, long been an animal rights advocate as well; acting as the face and voice of the ASPCA here in the U.S.  We all know those sad commercials... Has she been involved in LadyBird in anyway?  If so, to what capacity?

M: Well, Sarah was the first person to offer a donation!  She is such a generous & open human being & she is a good friend.  Who knows if & how she will be involved in the future.  That would certainly be wonderful.  

E: Starting an animal rescue group of any kind is no small feat.  It requires a lot of time, effort and energy.  With that being said how do you balance the busy life of a touring/recording musician that travels the world with what you are starting with LadyBird?

M: I love having another passion.  My whole life has been about music, from the time I could open my mouth & start singing.  I tour constantly & the whole idea of 'home' has really just become an 'idea' for now.  I was looking for something to balance me out.  Something to take me out the world of music.  & not that I'm doing this for me, but I was definitely looking for an alternative focus in my life.  Now I sit on the tour bus with my laptop, shooting e-mails back & forth with Janine & Lisa, researching, brainstorming, writing it all out.  You can't tear me away.  & each 'ladybird' is in her own corner of the world working away.  It's something that's brought us together even though there is physical distance.  & when you're passionate about something there's no such thing as 'too much work'.
Let's talk some music...
E: How did you and Luke meet and when?

M: Luke & I met about 8 years ago through the Toronto music scene.  He ended up producing a record for me & it got very unprofessional very quickly.
E: Is it ever difficult to work so much and so closely with your spouse (read no separation of work and home)?  Do you try and separate the two?  I would imagine that it's hard to not write music at home although you are in a lucky position where music is your livelihood, living the dream...  But i would imagine that it does not feel like work to you, or does it?

M: It is sometimes difficult, but we have managed to pull it off.  We do acknowledge that we're playing with fire & we try & be smart by actually booking time apart.  Whenever I take a vacation it's usually without Luke!  This sounds odd to people, but we do spend a lot of concentrated time together.  That being said, we just spent two months apart this past fall.  It's the longest we've ever gone without seeing each other & we have vowed to never do that again.  It's fun to miss someone desperately.. to a point.  
Writing for me can definitely be 'work' sometimes.   When it just naturally flows out, that's the best feeling in the world.  It's probably my favorite state to be in, when the creative juices are flowing.  But they don't always & its my job to create no matter what state of mind I'm in.  Luke & I just finished 3 days in the studio & it's the first time I've gone into the studio without a single song.  Apparently writing under pressure can make for decent results!  I was literally sending the engineer out for 10 minute breaks so I could quickly finish a lyric or come up with a melody.  Got it done!

E: Does Luke's infamous Gretsch White Falcon (a perfect and gorgeous guitar for all the non musicians reading this that Luke named his band after) sleep between you guys in bed?  

M: Not a chance!  Sometimes he annoyingly noodles all his fancy guitar licks while we're watching a movie.  He just can't help himself.   

E: What are your 5 favorite albums of the last year and why?

M: I'm a terrible music fan these days, so I'm ashamed to say that even a top five of one year would be a stretch.  I'll tell you, though, the records that haven't left my player for the last couple years.   Timber Timbre's untitled record of 2009 is an all time favorite of mine.  So moody & sparse.  I listen when I'm already a bit melancholy.  I loved the Black Keys 'Attack & Release'.  It is my clean the house cd, or my anything cd, really.  I have their newer cd, but I haven't given it a fair listen yet.  Harmony Trowbridge, a friend of mine from Vancouver let me listen to her cd 'the more we get together' long before she put it out.  I fell in love with it & then basically harassed her until she finally released it.  It's brilliant.  & of course, my ladybird Janine Stoll put out a record with her band the Donefors called 'how to have sex with Canadians'.  It's cheeky, yet serious in all the right ways.  Gorgeous musicianship & well thought out songs.  They're working on a new one right now.  Luke's brother put out an EP with his band Ultra/ Mega that didn't leave my cd player for a good long while.  I also loved Neko Case's record, 'Middle Cyclone'.  Randy Newman's 'Harps & Angels'.  Shad.  Elbow.  Just discovered Karen Dalton, but I'm about 40 years late on that one.

E: Tell me about the "duets" record that you are working on with Luke?

M: Mine & Luke's music has been so intertwined for years now, but we have never officially joined forces.  Whenever we play overseas, it's always as a duo because it makes the most financial sense.  What we came to realize is that it makes the most musical sense too.  We're on the same record label & management team, so we all decided that the best thing to do would be to finally make a record together that involves both my songs & Luke's.  We work beautifully together in the studio & we're so happy with what we're accomplishing.  It will be great to get out there & tour this record with both of us taking center stage.  It's due out either this fall or early next year. 

E: What are your days like when touring, the schedule, the day to day if you will.  Including the rare off days?  Do you get to see much of each city?

M: It all depends on the tour & Luke & I both find ourselves wearing many different hats. When it's our own tour, we take on a lot of the responsibilities, like carrying gear, setting up, tearing down, settling up with the club owner, organizing merch, checking in & out of hotels, flights, car rentals.. sometimes the easiest part of the day is when we step on stage.  On bigger tours with people like Sarah Mclachlan or Blue Rodeo, we get to focus only on the music, which is such a treat.  It leaves my days to exploring, working on animal  sanctuary business or getting some much needed rest.  I do try & see as much of a city as possible, but that only happens on days off.  Show days are too focused & our down time is usually broken up by sound check, dinner & getting ready.  This past tour we spent a day off in Washington DC & we were lucky enough to get a private after hours tour of the Smithsonian.  The curator took us around & gave us exquisite insight into all the exhibits.  I'll never forget it.  What a treat.  We are so lucky that we get to see the world & explore new places while playing music that we love.  I never forget that for a minute.
Thank you Melissa for taking the time out of your very busy schedule to chat.  Good luck with the sanctuary and looking forward to more music this fall, especially when you tour that record.  You'll have to visit the farm next time you're in Buffalo.
Please check out Melissa at on twitter: and on facebook at:!/profile.php?id=836200152
For those of you in the Hamilton, Ontario are please consider adopting and animal from Ladybird...

*Recently Sarah and I met Melissa and Luke at the Sarah McLachlan show here in Buffalo.  This was a great night where it (the tour) was coined Sarah & Friends where each of the backing vocalists, including Melissa, got a chance to play 4 of their own songs and Sarah McLachlan became a backing band member.  Very cool!  Melissa, when it was her turn, tore the roof off the place!  
Melissa was nice enough to invite us backstage where we hung out for a bit before they headed off into the snowy night to another show in another city.  Here are some photos (copyright 2011 Eric Kancar).

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