By Amanda Ash"I think I've slept in my own bed, like, 15 times since January," Dan Mangan tells me over coffee at a local cafe, noting how last night was one of those rare home-sweet-home moments. The Vancouver-based musician had just returned from a whirlwind three-day trip to Germany's Haldern Pop Festival, a slapdash voyage that would suck the congeniality out of any good-natured person, but Mangan shows no signs of wear or tear. And considering he's been scooting around the globe for a better part of a year, he doesn't even grip his coffee cup out of caffeine desperation.
Many Canadian musicians can only dream of the lifestyle and career Mangan has achieved. For one, the husky-voiced singer-songwriter boasts mass international appeal and the type of illustrious facial hair that makes all the girls squeal. XM Canada's the Verge Music Awards named him Artist of the Year in 2009, earning him a $25,000 prize. In 2010, his sophomore album Nice, Nice, Very Nice garnered a Polaris Music Prize short list nomination. And last but not least, Mangan has travelled the far corners of the world in support of his two previous full-length albums. He's spent nearly nine straight months on the road, not to mention five months cutting his new record Oh, Fortune, and won't catch a break until November when he'll finally get to take a few weeks off.
Call him lucky. Fortunate. Blessed, even. But for Mangan, traipsing around the world isn't so much a romantic idea anymore as it is part of the job description. The bearded bard has had to adapt to a lifestyle of perpetual movement, where exhaustion and strained relationships get packed alongside his button-up shirts and trusty guitar. But taking his cue from the fabric of Oh, Fortune, Mangan has learned to live and let live, making him one of Canada's most successful exports and one completely down-to-earth dude.
"It gets very real," Mangan says of touring. "I think when you first start, it's all a fantasy. It's kind of a magical game of going on tour and you're with your friends and you're totally broke and you're making no money and you're doing it just because you love it so much. When it actually becomes your work, your career, it's a different thing. It stops being about 'going on tour' and becomes more about just figuring out how to have a real life amidst constantly travelling. How do you have real relationships? How do you find time to go to the bank or do standard chores and errands amid this style of life?
"Knowing that it's not going to get all that easy makes it easy," Mangan continues. "That's the idea behind making an honest record. That's the idea behind having a great gig. That's the idea behind having a nice picnic with your friends ― just letting go. That is the goal for all things. We get so tied up with anxieties that come from the most menial crap. In all facets of music and life, the goal should be just to let go. And I think that's where the joy in the record comes from. It's talking about these things that are kind of morose and heavy, but at the end of it, the undertone, the subtext of the record should be to just let go and then it all gets better and it all starts to feel a lot more manageable, knowing that you're never going to figure it out, knowing that it's never going to be wrapped up in a nice little bow."
Communication has been the key for Mangan, and it's something he says has made him a better traveller. Keeping the chatter channels open, especially within the band ― which consists of Gord Grdina, Kenton Loewen and John Walsh ― brought them closer together and eventually led to the collaborative nature of Oh, Fortune.
Unlike Mangan's previous records, which he notes were quite rushed, Oh, Fortune was given some time to breathe. The songs were written and arranged over the course of two years with the help of his band. Thanks to so many creative minds moulding and sculpting each tune, the end product was decidedly different than the typical Dan Mangan sound.
Overall, the record covers a much broader sonic spectrum compared to the singer-songwriting nature of Mangan's past work. "About As Helpful As You Can Be Without Any Help At All" starts off with a collage of dreamy shoegaze arrangements, which then funnel into a single whimsical melody. "How Darwinian" experiments with sonic distortion. Even folky mainstays like "Oh Fortune" and "Starts With Them, Ends With Us" move toward more layered soundscapes.
"I think that Nice, Nice was very affected lyrically by the road ― the opening song is 'Road Regrets,'" he says. "I think this record is less affected lyrically by the road, but more affected sonically by being on the road with the band in that creatively, the band played such a more integral part on this record. I have to be careful how I talk about it as being my record because really, more than any project I've ever had, this was more of a collaborative project and there was so much input from these guys."
Mangan's intention for the record was to create a varied texture. Even the lyrics, which often feature death imagery or morose subject matter, are juxtaposed with uplifting instrumentals. "That was the goal: to make something that went in a lot of different directions, but at the day still felt cohesive," Mangan explains. "I'm still obsessed with records. I'm not done with the album yet. I really want an album to flow from beginning to end, and I want it to be something that matters. I want it to be something that feels like a piece of art, not just a collection of songs."
The past few years have been a prolific time for Mangan, but for the moment, his songwriting has hit the brakes. He admits he hasn't written a song since he finished recorded Oh, Fortune in April. It's a shocking confession, but Mangan doesn't appear unnerved by it all. Instead, in signature Mangan style, he gives a slight smile and simply lets go.
"I'm not really worried about it. I just kind of assumed that the universe would abide, but maybe it won't. Maybe I'll be a school teacher," Mangan laughs. "I think as long as you give yourself an interesting life to draw from, then that creativity will continue to flow eventually. As soon as you give yourself a boring existence, then that creativity will dry up. It's like we're sponges. You can't wring out a sponge if it's not wet."