If Dan Mangan learned anything in the couple of years leading up to his fifth album, More or Less, it’s that stability can have its downside.
“There was a moment in 2015 where I didn’t know if I had more songs in me,” the Vancouver singer-songwriter says candidly, speaking on his cell from a Portland tour stop. “You know, like where I considered putting in my official application for a job at the CBC. There were some dark moments.”
Ironically enough, those dark moments can be traced back to Mangan feeling profoundly lucky away from the stage and the recording studio. After the 2015 release of Club Meds—a record that he’s justifiably proud of—he became a father for the second time. As anyone who has kids knows, life changes dramatically with the responsibilities parenthood brings.
Suddenly, the life that Mangan had embraced ever since the release of his 2005 debut full-length, Postcards & Daydreaming, didn’t seem nearly as appealing as it once did.
“I think part of what happened was that I had my identity in my 20s, which was all about being a globetrotting troubadour,” he observes. “I invested in that identity and what it meant. Then there was having kids and having this entirely different identity with them and with my family. That ultimately became more important.”
After making his peace with that, he was able to seriously begin work on More or Less, a record that somehow manages to be as ambitious as it is immensely likable.
“There was a reconciling of those two identities,” Mangan says. “Realizing that you have to feed your kids, while at the same time realizing that, in 2019, there is almost nothing less cool than a 36-year-old white dad. And I think that the record is about some of those feelings.”
The singer isn’t afraid to take a stand on the world around him on More or Less, which, with Drew Brown in the producer’s chair, smartly bridges new-millennium folk and highly textured adult-alternative rock. The driving and insistent “Troubled Mind” was inspired by the MAGA mess that’s unfolded over the border in the past couple of years.
But much of the album is personal, right from the point when Mangan sings, perhaps autobiographically, “The truth is you don’t know where to begin,” in the slow-building kickoff track, “Lynchpin”.
The easygoing “Cold in the Summer” finds him contemplating where he’s at now as an established artist: “You said it, I’m losing touch/The opposite of every kid out on the run.” Elsewhere, “Peaks & Valleys” acknowledges the stability that having a family can bring with “They cannot spare you from the valleys/But they will give you something you can lean into.”
More or Less can, in some ways, be seen as Mangan deciding to get back on the horse after Club Meds. The record was released just as his domestic life started creating demands that made everything seem overwhelming.
“I was so busy with kids and other things, and then there were some dynamics in the band that got more complicated during the touring of that album,” he reflects. “All of us were so excited about the record when we made it, and we thought that the second it dropped in the world, everyone was going to know it. It came out, got some great reviews, and then a few weeks later it was obvious it didn’t make the splash we thought it would. It was our own fault for putting great expectations on good work. It’s not that the record failed, but we set ourselves up to feel like it did.”
Things didn’t get any better from there.
“It was sort of a difficult touring cycle,” he says. “Then a series of events happened that year. I had a really tough show in the summer where I kind of fell apart on-stage. Shortly thereafter, the record was snubbed from the Polaris long list. And shortly after that, there was a real blow in my personal life. It felt like I was getting kicked over and over again. Usually, when life is hard, at least you can go play shows and it feels good, but that became difficult with kids.”
But all that was a blessing, even if he didn’t realize it at the time.
“Anything that’s important is going to be hard,” Mangan says philosophically. “If it wasn’t hard, it wouldn’t be important. So you have to go there to come back.”
That Mangan is in some ways at his warmest on More or Less, then, is quite intentional. Turn on the nightly news and it’s hard not to feel like the world is an increasingly terrible place, whether it’s the reality of global warming, the rise of the intolerant right in America and Europe, or a wealth gap that’s never seemed more pronounced.
More or Less is Mangan’s way of trying to make things a little better.
“I don’t want to shit on Club Meds, because I love that record,” he says. “That record accomplished artistically something that I’d been trying to do my whole life. But the one thing that it isn’t is warm. It’s not a record about an embrace. That record is a jab to the face.
“In the climate of our politics,” Mangan continues, “and in my new role as a dad and everything, I just desperately wanted to make something that felt like an embrace—a safe place you could turn to for some reassurance that the pros outweigh the cons.”
Mangan isn’t about to pretend that the world’s perfect on More or Less. Ultimately, though, the album suggests that, after going through a rough patch, he’s perfectly content today. That’s perhaps most evident on the beautifully muted “Lay Low”, where he sings “Every single party needs a no-show.”
“I know what it’s like to go out and party my face off,” he says with a laugh. “I did that a lot, so I know what I’m missing. Because I know what I’m missing, I think it’s easier for me to go ‘Okay, I don’t need that right now. What I really need is an extra hour of sleep.’ ”
Sleep, though, isn’t necessarily the first thing on his mind. He’s been busy helping to develop an app called Side Door, which is meant to connect working and touring musicians with fans on a strong grassroots level. Side Door is designed to take some of the guesswork out of touring by giving artists a good idea of how many people might be interested in turning up for a show before they point the tour van towards Moose Jaw, Hope, or St. John’s.
Just as important, he’s beyond happy with the way that More or Less turned out, to the point where he’s already thinking about a follow-up. Life might be chaotic, but it is so in the best of ways. The key is to accept that.
“You have a kid and you dive headfirst into the swimming pool,” Mangan says. “You’ve never been under the water before, and it’s like, ‘Whoa, everything feels so different.’ Eventually, you pop back up above the water, and you see that the rest of the world is still going on like it was before. Your body is still submerged, so you’re half in and half out, and you think, ‘Okay, it’s time to regain my sense of self in the world, and at the same time I have to build a new sense of self with my family.’ Those themes and ideas are quite earnestly discussed on More or Less.”
Dan Mangan plays the Burnaby Blues & Roots Festival on Saturday (August 10).