[3 February 2012]
PopMatters Features Editor
At just 28 years old, Dan Mangan has secured a favoured spot among the short list of “buzz” artists in his home country of Canada. A famously dogged worker—Mangan seemed to rise to his current success through sheer force of will—he is also a committed craftsman, and his three successive records have demonstrated not just his own evolving talent as a songwriter, but also his maturing approach to presentation and performance. His most recent album, the well-received Oh Fortune, finds him working with a full band sound for the first time, his rather minimalist and “folky” songs surrounded and lifted by clever arrangements and lush production. It is a very big feeling record, at times, from a guy who a few years ago would have been described as a rather archetypal singer-songwriter, all introspection and acoustic guitar and scruffy beard. Not so any longer.
I caught up with Dan Mangan as he was getting ready to wind up his tour opening for Blind Pilot in the southwestern United States. Chatting by phone from a rest stop on the side of some highway just south of Dallas, Texas, Mangan sounded relaxed, but energized—a man who knows both what he wants and how to get it, but thoughtful enough to understand the distinction.
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Your last record [Nice, Nice, Very Nice (2009)] introduced you to a much wider audience, and it opened you up to big tours as support for the Decemberists, the Walkmen, and others. And then you made the Polaris Prize shortlist for best Canadian record. How is this new album informed by that experience of sudden success?
It was a real evolution. That record was very much conceived while I was on the road playing solo, writing songs, traveling around with my guitar. And the unexpected success of that record pushed me into a realm where I needed to start touring with a band. So I gathered a bunch of players from around Vancouver and it’s really become a cohesive band over the course of the past few years. On a lot of these songs, although they were lyrically and melodically written by me, there’s a lot of arranging that came from the band. A lot of the songs were actually worked out while on the road. I’d start playing a new song that the band hadn’t really heard before, and they would just kind of pick them up as we went. It was a really beautiful, cohesive, and collaborative situation, more so than I’d ever really had before. You know, I’d always sort of been a “solo guy”. So, it was ... nice. They all come at music from a very outside-thinking kind of place and I really learned a lot from them. It’s been a great couple of years. But, it’s hard to explain how dynamically things have changed; it’s hard to have any perspective on this because I think we’re all still kind of in the eye of the storm.
Is it the kind of thing where you’ve been a solo artist called Dan Mangan, and now you’re in a band called “Dan Mangan”?
Yeah, it’s funny, that’s how I’ve been describing it! You know, we’ve talked about changing it so it’s “The Dan Mangan Band” or something, but so far that seems a bit old and tired and ... a little bit cheesy, I think. [laughs] I mean, it’ll work for some people but it hasn’t made sense to us, yet. I think if you were to go and see, say, [Canadian art-pop darling] Patrick Watson or something, you’d expect to see a band. It’s very much a band project that happens to be named after the lead singer. For now I kind of see that as being our way. Things could change, you know, but in the meantime, I’m happy to be in a band that’s called “Dan Mangan”. It’s almost a joke, you know, it’s kind of a gag, but it also makes sense.
Oh Fortune is much bigger in sound, broader in arrangements than the last one—if we used to categorize you as a folk-rocker or singer-songwriter, we probably can’t anymore.
It’s funny. Not that I have anything against the genre, but I was not enjoying being boxed in as Dan-Mangan-the-singer-songwriter. There’s kind of this limitation the world imposes on you as soon as that label is put on you. Think of ... there’re a lot of incredible artists out there who write songs and they sing them. But, I wouldn’t really consider them to be singer-songwriters. Like [Canadian indie rocker] Chad VanGaalen, or something. It’s just music. People who are putting music together and the project happens to be named their name. It’s really important to me. I feel that with each record since my first I’ve moved further from the singer-songwriter box. Again, I have a lot of love for the genre, but it’s important for me to stretch my capabilities, to try and wander outside beyond my comfort zone. I have this terrible fear of being stagnant. It’s a really healthy exercise to try new things. To keep expanding your horizons.
Speaking of horizons: you sure sing about death a lot on this record. Swimming with sharks with your legs dangling like meat, lyrics about aching for breathable air, and it goes on. Why this preoccupation? Is this a metaphorical death, or are you thinking about ... the end?.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently. Yeah, there are two songs on the record with “death” in the title. There’s a lot of imagery about setting yourself on fire. There’s a lot of “end” music, or “end” thoughts. It’s about getting older, but it’s also about these last ... experiencing these last transformative few years. I think there’s a bit of, you know, things have been going along so peachy keen and, well, it’s all gotta end. What’s going to happen next? And it’s also me thinking about what it means to exist. My life has changed a lot. It used to be that I would sleep in my own bed most of the year and now I’m sleeping in my bed a couple months worth. So much traveling. It really changes your perspective about what it is to have a home, or to have a lifestyle. It gets you thinking about what it means to be anything at all. It’s nothing new. People debate the great ending all the time. But, for me, coming to terms with the end is a really healthy part of me learning to appreciate just being here. To understand what it is to not take things for granted.
There’s this theorist, Jacques Derrida, who once wrote something to the effect that once an artist signs his name on his work, that’s death. I guess the lesson there is that it’s death because it immortalizes you—it’s a recognition that you are impermanent, but this work is what’s everlasting.
Yes. That’s right. That’s interesting. I like that. I think a lot about the phrase “a body of work”. It’s an interesting phrase because it’s all about immortalizing yourself through what you do. You become this body of work outside of your own body that’ll live on long after your body dies. I feel like this fame is very fleeting. The media can take your side or not, and the general perception of the public will change. But, at the end of it all the thing that will be the most satisfying is that body of work. To know that you’ve worked your ass off, and ... at the end of the day it has to be about that. Because if any kind of notoriety or fame or wealth comes from the body of work, that’s kind of an afterthought. The intensity of what you’re doing has to lie in the creation of the work. You can’t focus on all that other stuff.
This is a real craftsman-like approach to the work. It’s what one might expect to hear from, like, the farmer working the field. You measure your life by what you’ve accomplished for yourself, and not external validation.
It’s like if you were carving an armoire, and the whole time you’re carving it you’re worried about how much money you’re going to get for it, you’re probably going to get less money for it than if you had just focused on making a beautiful armoire. And at the end, someone will look at it and be enchanted by it. You know? At the end of the day, insincerity is so visible. People can smell bullshit. You know, at least good people can. [laughs] You just have to be honest with what you are, and who you are, and allow your art to be an audible or visual portrayal of that.
You’ve got a line on the record that says: “People don’t know what they want/They just know they really want it/I should know better by now/There’s only so much to go around”—is this what you’re talking about?
Oh yeah. I’ve felt that before. I feel like there’re so many people on this planet that are just yearning so badly for something and they just have no idea what it is. The truth is, I think it’s easier to get what you want if you know what it is—the hardest part isn’t getting what you want, it’s figuring out what you want. And it’s hard to define. It’s a very vague question. What do you want? I mean, what do you want out of life? Whatever it is, well, people are kind of grasping at straws. People are afraid to do anything for fear that it’s not going to work. There’s this feeling that it’s easier to not try than to try and maybe fail. So rather than decide on something that you want and really go after it—and this can be anything, I’m not talking just about tangible objects—this fear can stop them. The big stepping stone is just figuring out what you want and getting beyond the fear of what it might take to actually get.
So what’s preventing people from knowing what they want, uh, is the fact that they know they want it so badly that it blinds them to it?
I think that’s very well put. It’s sort of ... not knowing what you want certainly doesn’t hinder you from wanting it! A lot of people turn to religion because they feel a void or something like that. Which is an interesting human concept. But, at the end of the day, I think that if you can fill your life with enough love, you’re going to feel pretty fulfilled. You have to surround yourself with people who make you feel good about living; because there’s enough reasons to not feel very good about living.
The record opens with a song in which you talk about your blood being gasoline and getting set alight, and ends with a song in which you ask “What’s left to burn? What’s worth burning? What’s flammable?” What is fire in these metaphors?
It was very deliberate. [...] You know, in life, there’s always this push and pull between, what if I get vulnerable and you don’t? Then, we’re in a tough position. Think of any kind of conflict in the world, whatever it is, if one side is vulnerable and the other isn’t that’s a sticky situation. It happens in everything, relationships, love, whatever. And the trick is for all sides to get vulnerable at the same time, and in that vulnerability actually growing together, and learning to appreciate one another. So there’s a line in there about burning all the flags. What if we burn all the flags at the same time, are we back to zero? Then maybe we’d have the room to grow. But fire, I don’t know. I love fire, you know? How many billions of hours have humans stared into fire? It’s beautiful. It’s life-saving, it’s destroying, it’s ... this fire imagery is certainly an easy metaphor to go to, but, it’s life. It’s chaos, always burning, always consuming, but also always giving. Fire is both birth and death, in a sense. It’s a good metaphor to use. It may be an easy one to get to, but it was certainly helpful in my lyrical adventure on this record.
Let’s talk about the last song on the record, “Jeopardy”. There’s an almost Confucian element to it, asking a series of questions. It’s searching ... but, there’re no answers there.
Yeah, yeah. You know, having that song as the last song on the record… on the one hand there’re all these statements about things on the record. You know, how it is, and how it should be. And then at the end of it all there’re all these questions. The song is entirely questions. Which is kind of fitting, you know? Because you can turn the universe inside and out. You can have an incredible conversation. But, at the end of it, you’re just left with questions. More questions. I can’t remember the ancient philosopher who said that it’s the foolish man who thinks himself wise and the wise man who thinks himself a fool; I totally agree. The second you think you’ve got it all figured out is the second you become completely delusional. At the end of the day asking questions is what’s important. It’s what getting educated is all about. You know, going to university is not about learning facts. It’s about learning how to question things, and realizing that everything, absolutely everything down to the bottom, is more questioning.
Socrates, one of the things that got him killed was that he always claimed he didn’t know anything. And the authorities complained “how can the ‘smartest man in Greece’ not know anything”? And he said he didn’t really know anything, so he just asked questions.
Oh, I love that. I love that. It’s so true. [...] And there are no easy answers—all the important things don’t have easy answers. But, that’s OK. I mean, that’s part of the amazingness of everything. That’s the important thing.