Proving nice guys sometimes get exactly what they deserve, Dan Mangan has spent the past couple of years living the kind of impossibly charmed—and completely surreal—life that few in the business of making music ever get to enjoy.
Sipping coffee at South Granville’s Bean Around the World on a sun-soaked summer morning, the Vancouver-based DIY success story is happy to divulge some of the more bizarre moments of what’s been a wild ride. There was the business of meeting Prince William and Kate Middleton in Ottawa on Canada Day a couple of months back, this coming after playing to a crowd of 300,000 on Parliament Hill.
At the opposite end of the celebrity spectrum, there aren’t many who can claim to have spent time with Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg on their tour bus. Other believe-it-or-not stories to tell his future grandkids include doing SXSW with Elijah Wood, and meeting Radiohead, a band that ranks high on his list of all-time favourites.
Mangan’s 2009 breakthrough album, Nice, Nice, Very Nice—featuring his amazingly infectious single “Robots”—didn’t just have him hobnobbing with the rich and famous. After years of playing open-mike nights in tiny coffee shops and half-empty clubs, the singer suddenly found himself thrust onto a much larger stage, an ace backing band in tow. Think Glastonbury (twice!) in the U.K., Sasquatch in the U.S., and the massive Woodford Folk Festival in Australia.
Tellingly though, as Mangan gets ready to release his excellent, career-reshaping third album, Oh Fortune, none of this seems to impress him much.
“I’m not a celebrity—I’m not some big Hollywood star or anything like that,” says the 28-year-old who’s earned a well-deserved reputation as one of Vancouver’s most likable musicians. “What we do every day is very simple and real and matter-of-fact. We show up to a gig, and then we’re sound checking, then we’re eating, then playing, and then signing things after. That becomes your life.
“And that brings about new challenges,” he continues. “Rather than just worrying about trying to get a gig or an agent someday, you learn new things to freak out about. Like ‘Am I going to totally exhaust myself? Am I going to have anything left at the end of this tour? How am I going to be able to sing tomorrow if I scream tonight? Am I eating well enough that I’m not going to turn into a waste case? Am I ever going to have time to relax? Am I ever going to have kids? Or be a reasonable partner for my girlfriend to be with?’ ”
Consider that fair warning that Mangan had some heavy things on his mind while he was writing Oh Fortune, which hits the streets on September 27. The biggest one—as you might infer from song titles like “If I Am Dead” and “Regarding Death and Dying”—was the final curtain call that awaits each and every one of us on the planet.
“There are a lot of images of death on the record, of burning, of grand exits,” Mangan suggests. “There are lyrical throw-outs to setting yourself on fire and other grandiose gestures. Lyrically, it’s kind of a morose album.”
Mangan has a good idea why he might have been obsessed with the dark side, that having something to do with the fact that he’s been on the road constantly since the release of Nice, Nice, Very Nice.
“I spend a lot of time in quickly moving vehicles,” he says simply. “So many, many times I’ve imagined my own demise—I’ve got a vivid imagination in that sense. I think about it a lot. Also, the last few years have been utterly nuts—I’ve gotten to do a lot of things that many people do not get to do. I don’t mean that to be taken in a vanity sense as much as in a bewilderment sense. Like ‘Look at me singing up here—surely this has all got to end soon because it cannot last.’ ”
As he’s perfectly happy to acknowledge, there are no made-for-the-masses sing-alongs like “Robots” on Oh Fortune.
“It’s a very different record from Nice, Nice, Very Nice,” he says, picking at a breakfast burrito. “I think that Nice, Nice, Very Nice was the best record that I could have made at the time—it really opened doors for me and the band, and changed my life. I feel that this record is less flashy—right out of the gate, it doesn’t have as polished a feel. But I feel it’s a deeper record. It takes longer to get to know than Nice, Nice, Very Nice, but in the end I think it’s going to be a longer-lasting record.”
Mangan worked on Oh Fortune at the Hive with respected local producer Colin Stewart (Cave Singers, Black Mountain), his full-time backing band fleshed out by a small army of string, woodwind, and horn players. The recording process was different from both Nice, Nice, Very Nice and his singer-songwriter-ish 2007 debut, Postcards and Daydreaming.
“It took me a long time to make it—we recorded it over about six months,” Mangan says of Oh Fortune. “Every time prior to that, when I’d made a record, I felt rushed. I felt like we were scrambling to meet a deadline. This time we just took things slow, but that was really healthy for me.”
The results suggest he was indeed in a great place artistically. Oh Fortune wastes little time announcing its grandness, with the kick-off track, “About as Helpful as You Can Be Without Being Any Help at All”, starting with ghostly washes of strings and then building from an elegant chamber-music waltz to an exercise in percussion-powered cabaret pop. From there, things never stay in one place for long. The driving “Post-War Blues” is thrillingly flared with Williamsburg-cira-2001 guitar fireworks; “Daffodil” is half haunting Lynchian noisescape and half double-whiskeyed Waits lullaby; and “Leaves, Trees, Forest” injects gauzy alt-country with a straight-from-the-Caribbean calypso undertow. Mangan and his bandmates prove themselves as confident stomping on the distortion pedals and channelling their inner Crazy Horses (the Stand By Me–inspired “Rows of Houses”) as they are dialling things back to a round-midnight hush (“How Darwinian”).
The singer is perfectly aware of the growth that he’s shown on Oh Fortune, the title of which was inspired by the story of swimmer Gertrude Ederle. In 1926, Ederle received a ticker-tape parade in New York City not only for becoming the first woman to swim the English Channel, but for breaking the previous record for the crossing. Old images of the parade would prove fascinating to Mangan, to the point where, stepping back and looking at the larger picture, he sees the title Oh Fortune as encapsulating the kind of mammoth events that, if only for a moment, catch the attention of the entire world, whether it be Michael Jackson dying or a man landing on the moon.
“Those events define cultures and societies, and people,” he says. “For a moment, everyone kind of turns to each other and stops. It could be something good, and it could be something bad. That, to me, is ‘Oh, fortune.’ ”
If fans are going to find themselves unified on one thing after hearing Oh Fortune, it’s that Mangan has never sounded more liberated.
“I think my previous two records were easily classified as ‘singer-songwriter’,” he says. “I don’t think this is a singer-songwriter record. It more just sounds like a bunch of people making music together.”
That bunch of people includes a battery of session musicians providing the horns, strings, and woods necessary to pull off the arrangements that Mangan commissioned from Seattle’s Eyvind Kang, a virtuoso who’s worked with everyone from Laurie Anderson and Bill Frisell to Mike Patton and Beck. As for the core group of players who make up his band, if there’s one thing that the singer makes clear over the course of the interview, it’s that he couldn’t be more indebted to them. He might be the leader of the project, but it’s obvious that, in many ways, he’s in awe of the people that he takes to the stage and studio with: guitarist Gord Grdina, drummer Kenton Loewen, bassists John Walsh and Colin Cowan, trumpeter JP Carter, and keyboardist Tyson Naylor.
“When I made Nice, Nice, all those songs had been worked out on the road,” Mangan says. “I’d been playing them solo for a couple of years, travelling around on my own. So by the time I went into the studio, they were moulded, done, finished—all we had to do was add some textures. This time, I’d spent two years travelling with the band, so, as the ideas were coming out of me, I’d give them to the band and go, ‘What do you guys want to do with this?’ They come from different schools of thought than I do when it comes to playing music, so obviously what we came up with was more expansive. Influences of jazz, folk, indie rock, all kinds of things.”
But as much as Oh Fortune is a group effort, the songs begin with Mangan. If he’s understandably proud of what he’s accomplished with the record, it’s because he didn’t exactly start out as one of those Conor Oberst wunderkinds who was coming up with instant classics the week after he first picked up the guitar.
“It’s been a lot of hard work just to figure out how to write a decent song,” Mangan says. “I had to write about 200 songs that were terrible first.”
But looking back, he remembers always loving and appreciating music, to the point where he formed his first band, Basement Suite, back in high school on Vancouver’s West Side.
“I think our first gig was at the Dunbar Community Centre,” he recalls. “In fact, somewhere, I think there’s a video of us playing there when we were 17 years old. We covered the Foo Fighters’ ‘Everlong’. There were, like, 12 people there, but one of my friends started crowd-surfing, even though there were only 12 people.
“I remember getting off-stage,” Mangan continues with a laugh. “Like ‘We rule! We’re such a good band!’ But we were terrible.”
It wasn’t until the release of Nice, Nice, Very Nice that he realized he was probably onto something. At that time, he’d long given up on his early childhood dream of being a vet, and was working a steady job as a waiter at the Keg on Granville Island. It was a position he would hang on to even after he committed to packing up his guitar and hitting the road as a touring artist.
“I never really quit—I wanted to keep working there for the longest time because I never felt that I had anything stable enough to leave the job for,” he recalls. “I always pictured this grand last shift where I’d no longer have to serve tables, and I could go out and be a musician. Have a big dinner ’cause I’d paid my dues, and then say goodbye to the Keg. It never really happened. I stayed on staff six or eight months after I worked my last shift. They were like, ‘You should just quit,’ and I was like, ‘No, no, no—I’ll be back for some more shifts.’ So eventually they said, ‘Dan—we’re quitting for you.’ ”
Today, Mangan isn’t having to worry about going back to waiting tables. Oh Fortune is not only going to blow plenty of minds when it hits the streets, it’s going to be remembered as one of the best, most daring records of the year. To get a sense of the anticipation surrounding it, consider this: the album is only a pre-order at the moment, and yet the singer’s upcoming cross-country tour in support of it is already close to being sold-out for most dates.
As for Mangan’s following in Vancouver, umm, he’s headlining the Orpheum on November 9. That’s right, the 2,800-seat goddamn Orpheum.
“I’ve seen Wilco play there, I’ve seen Sigur Rós play there, I’ve seen Feist play there,” he marvels. “It’s insane.”
It’s also confirmation that Dan Mangan is indeed living a charmed life these days. He may have doubts and worries about what lies ahead as he prepares to spring Oh Fortune on the world, but there’s at least one thing that he’s sure about.
“I feel like this record, sonically, is more ‘me’ than anything I’ve ever done,” he says. “It’s the record that I’ve been trying to make for a really long time. That comes down to being honest, and trying to make something that’s indicative of what you are. When I started out, I was really into the idea of being a folkie singer-songwriter. Now, that’s the furthest thing from my mind.”