On the open road with Dan Mangan

The BC songwriter discusses popularity and priorities in the lead-up to his Oct. 21 show in St. John’s

When Dan Mangan called me from the other end of the country, he was driving to Abbotsford to install some equipment on his trailer. Talking on a wavering Bluetooth connection from his van as he drove along the British Columbia roadways, I warned him not to get distracted and run himself off the highway on my account.

“It’ll make for a really good article,” he laughed right away.

Thankfully, not only did he manage to keep his wheels between the lines, but once he started talking about his music and his life, shared plenty of stories.

With his 30th birthday still months away, the Vancouver singer-songwriter has an impressive list of accomplishments. His first, independent EP, All at Once, was released in 2003, followed by the full-length Postcards & Daydreaming in 2005. It was in 2009, however, that momentum hit hard: he released Nice, Nice, Very Nice on the Arts & Crafts record label – one of the more reputable indie labels in Canada, with close ties to Broken Social Scene among others – and was shortlisted for the Polaris Prize. Oh Fortune followed in 2011, and not only earned a Juno for alternative album of the year, but led to Mangan himself being recognized as the new artist of the year. Since then, he has toured extensively throughout North America and Europe, experimenting with his musical styling while retaining critical acclaim and enjoying the ride of his life. He also got married in that time.

It only makes sense that, when he spoke to me, he’d be driving 100 kms an hour into the sunny horizon.

Messing around to mess around

Mangan has played in St. John’s a number of times and is returning Oct. 21 for an early evening show at the Gower Street United Church. Despite his relative surge in popularity, he doesn’t feel particularly pressured to follow up in any certain way – at least not externally.

"Even though (music) is commoditized, there has to be an element of gratuitous enjoyment.” - Dan Mangan

“I do have a responsibility to myself to keep better at what I’m doing. I feel like there are some bands that come out of the gate with this unbelievable vibrancy, and then they stifle themselves as they get popular to be more accessible. I feel like, for me, it’s been the opposite,” he explains. Indeed, he has his influences (he touts Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” as the most beautiful lyric he knows), but he’s more concerned with making his own noise. “When I started making music, it was pretty straight-ahead, singer-songwriter music, and as I’ve proceeded I’ve pushed myself to get more and more experimental, more out of the box, and I feel a responsibility to myself to keep doing that.”

That’s not just a tidy answer, either – the shift from Nice, Nice, Very Nice to Oh Fortunereveals a noticeably heavier, multifaceted sound, the result of an increasingly collaborative songwriting process (he hadn’t met his current band when he released his earlier record) that relies more on avant-garde arrangements and musical imperfections.

“I don’t like how perfect a lot of pop music sounds,” he said. “It was really important to me to make a record that lived and breathed, and as we progressed making the record it got noisier and more chaotic and I started to really enjoy that – I feel like there needs to be an aspect of play in music. If you’re making music for radio or for consumption or to sell records, then you’ve lost the purpose of making music.

“Think about when you’re a kid, you’re just messing around for the purpose of messing around. That needs to exist in music. Even though it is commoditized, there has to be an element of gratuitous enjoyment.”

Wilful blindness to open ears

That level of enjoyment, insofar as lyrical play, is evident in the unexpected conversational tone of many of the songs. Take the mid-section from “Jeopardy,” where he rhetorically rambles, “What’s left to burn? What’s worth burning? What’s flammable? What happens when all flags burn together? Is that unity? Is that unity? Is it meaningful to be angry? Who’s angry? Are you angry? Why do I get the feeling you might be angry?” He admits that conversational is an apt description, with a subtle shift taking place.

“I thought a lot of the lyrics on Nice, Nice, Very Nice were kind of just like stream of thought. Whatever was on my mind, just kind of processing words and thoughts and how they came together. I think it’s changed somewhat since then,” he adds. “I can’t really explain how or why words fall into my brain other than they happen that way as a response to everything in my world, my universe that I’m witnessing and digesting all the time.”

“I find that, lyrically, I’m getting less and less cute, and more and more stern or something. I feel like I have more to say, I’m getting a little bit older and a little more opinionated, and I’m also feeling like I have less concerns about whether or not people are going to be offended by what I have to say. I feel like my lyrics are getting slightly more political; I don’t feel like I want to punch everyone in the ribs – it’s more just about feeling like there’s a certain level of wilful blindness going on in society, and so I want to discuss things like that.”

What does happen next?

The day before Dan Mangan returns to St. John’s, his personal CBC documentary What Happens Next?, which already aired in his home province, will have its national debut. The titular question is one that most artists constantly face, but it’s also one that he’s given some serious thought to.

“At times I feel like I’d want to write a film or a novel – writing is something that’s always come naturally to me, since high school anyway, I always felt like I could express myself through words,” he said.

“The most powerful way for me to do that so far has been through song, but I’m hoping to do lots of things. I feel like I’m deeply into a world of being a musician – I live that reality every day. But I’m open to other things.”

Following his October 21 performance here (one of his rare times as a duo, with only bassist John Walsh accompanying him), he will turn the van back west for shows across the country and the northern United States with the Rural Alberta Advantage, before embarking for Europe with Jason Collett (of Broken Social Scene) for a string of shows. Next year, in between recording a new album – he has songs written, but has yet to debut them for his band – he is challenging himself by scoring a film for the first time. As the static from a cell phone 7,000 km away became more pronounced, Dan Mangan turned his full attention back to the road in front of him.

“Most of the time I feel exhausted and overworked and over-busy, but the second I start to slow down I feel very bored and idle. I think it’s just gonna be one project or another – just trying to make an interesting life!”

Dan Mangan performs Sunday evening at 8 p.m. the Gower Street United Church. Tickets are $20 and available at Nourish, Fred’s Records and O’Brien’s Music. Visit Mangan’s web site for more info.

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