Dan Mangan

Nice, Nice, Very Nice

BY Rachel SandersPublished Jul 23, 2009

Dan Mangan's debut record pegged him as a talented member of the sensitive singer-songwriter species. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but on his sophomore album, the Vancouver artist forgoes the angst in favour of a more upbeat approach. It's a solid progression and gosh darn it, it's a lot more fun. After the devastatingly perfect chorus of "Robots" knocks you flat on your ass, Mangan mocks you gently in "The Indie Queens are Waiting" and then makes you dance to the sound of your surrender in "Sold." A few songs are reminiscent of the bittersweet melancholy of 2007's Postcards and Daydreaming but more often, Mangan's tone is playful as he dissects humanity's quirks; his own most definitely included. With its occasionally dim view of the future, the album is foreboding, at times. But soaring horn- and string-heavy arrangements, as well as Mangan's voice (at once fleecy warm and sandpaper rough), keep things congenial, even when the outlook is gloomy. With backup from some of Canada's finest roots musicians - Veda Hille, Justin Rutledge and Mark Berube, to name a few - and a nod from NME as one of Canada's most promising artists, Mangan's career is clearly on the rise. Hop on board and enjoy the ride.

"Robots" is seeing quite a bit of success.
Yeah, it's really been a weird experience hearing it on the radio. It's been on two commercial radio stations here in Vancouver. It's been on the Peak and the Shore. And that's really bizarre. It's something I never expected. I had a friend text me the other day and tell me that he was driving along the Number 1 highway and someone had written on the back of a dirty car: "Robots need love, too." It's amazing when something gets beyond the periphery of people you know and the places that you've played and all of a sudden it's not owned by you. There are many aspects of my life for which I feel incredibly blessed and fortunate, and I think stumbling upon that song is one of them. I don't know where that came from but to the cosmos, thank you.

It's pretty catchy.
Yeah, I find that I've been apologizing to people. I keep hearing, "it's been in my head for two weeks!" and I'm like, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" There's almost something chromatic about that melody. It sort of sounds like eight billion other songs but then again, it doesn't sound like any song at all. I think I just stumbled upon a weird melody hook that feels really familiar. And it's instantly repeatable. I've been doing the live sing-along thing at shows now for a little while and if an audience is engaged enough to participate in that then it's amazing how quickly they get it. It's bizarrely memorable.

Did it surprise you how successful it is as a sing-along?
Totally. I mean, the lyrics are kind of absurd, when you think about it. And then I have a hard time deciphering between is it kitchy or is it more artistic than that? I'm always so cautious of being too aware of myself and taking myself too seriously and that was something after the last record that I really learned: that I needed to be a little less serious with the songs and a little bit more playful. And I think that writing "Robots" was an exercise in me trying to look outside the box a little in that regard.

What do you think the danger is in being too earnest in your songwriting?
I think that I'm a fairly easygoing individual with a fairly happy-go-lucky attitude. And the first record I made was so morose and melancholy; I think part of the reason I was able to be a fairly jolly type of human being was because a lot of those feelings went into the music and now that they're out there you can kind of move on. I think I was just more of a teenager when I wrote some of those songs and I was more of an adult when I wrote some of these songs. There are still some incredibly personal lyrics on this album though that are true to life and come directly out of harsh realizations about myself and other people. But in a sense, I was able to move further away from that whole sorrowful, victim, guitar-laden 20something male and become a little bit more of a universal songwriter and more of an adult.

What was it like working with artists like Veda Hille and Justin Rutledge?
It was amazing; they're all incredibly talented, wonderful artists. Some of the people on the record I've known for years and some I just basically emailed out of the blue and I'd maybe crossed paths with them once or something. And everybody said yes. I had specific songs that I thought they might fit in with and that worked out well. Veda is such a pro. She had broken her finger on her left hand - she was pulling on her boots or something and she was so tired because she had a one-month-old baby - and I was like, "well, you can still use your right hand." And she came in and did two vocal takes, two piano takes and two Casio takes all in the stretch of an hour and nailed it. It was amazing. The second she touched the song she changed the vibe and it became something it wasn't previously. And the song was forever changed because of it.

Can you tell me a bit about "Tina's Glorious Comeback"?
That's an important song to me. It's undoubtedly a song about Vancouver. The city has changed so much since I was a kid, in some ways for the better and in some ways for the worse. But it doesn't matter if it's better or worse; it's just different. The wooden bus stops that we used to have around town, they took them down and now there are metal ones and they're wiry and homeless people can't sleep on the benches because there are those little ridges. And it's as though the city forever became colder than it was previously because of those bus stops. So the lyric "we're not us anymore, we're not us," I mean, you could be talking about a relationship with a friend or a lover but it's me and Vancouver as the royal "we." Me and Vancouver are not us anymore. I don't mean it to be this horrible pessimistic thing about how Vancouver has sold-out to the man or anything; it's just different than it was. No matter what, it's always going to feel like it's not like it was.

And Justin Rutledge worked with you on that song.
Yeah, he'd just done five gigs in a row in Toronto; he called me up the morning he was supposed to come in and said, "I don't know if I can do it. I've been up until five a.m. every night." He came in and he's got this really rough voice and he says, "I don't know but maybe we'll try." But he goes in there and of course in pure Justin Rutledge fashion somehow just has this piercingly beautiful, smooth, pure voice. And even him on the raspy side was like me after drinking silk.

What is the sound at the beginning of it?
It's called a pop tube. It's kind of like a whirly gig - those things you buy at Science World and you spin them around - kind of looks like a slinky almost. Before I went to Toronto to record with John Critchley, I went down to the Kids Only Market on Granville Island to buy some noisemakers and random little percussive instruments. I didn't get to use them all on the record like I was hoping but it was an exercise in... I didn't want it to be just guitar, piano, bass and drums this time around. There is a lot of that on it but I wanted to be a little more experimental than I was with the last record. And I think that my next record will be even more experimental than this one. I'm slowly getting further and further from the "singer-songwriter" sound. I really wanted to move away from that kind of thing to become somebody who's just making really relevant and cool, important music. I don't know if we succeeded but that was the goal.
(File: Under Music)

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