Dan Mangan Celebrates 10 Years of 'Oh Fortune' and "Breaking Out of the Singer-Songwriter Box"

"I remember feeling really driven to move as far away from the whole folk-revival thing as possible"

Photo: Jonathan Taggart

BY Alex HudsonPublished Nov 19, 2021

In 2011, Dan Mangan wanted to be more than nice, nice, very nice. His sensitive folk pop tunes had earned him a sizeable following and a deal with Arts & Crafts, but rather than recreate the success of "Robots" and "Road Regrets," he aimed for something much grander with his third album, 2011's Oh Fortune — which today was reissued digitally in a 10th anniversary edition with a pile of bonus tracks, including outtakes and demos. (Vinyl will follow in 2022.)

Beginning with a chaotic orchestral swell leading into the stately baroque strings of "About as Helpful as You Can Be Without Being Any Help at All," Oh Fortune is ambitious and arty — the arrangements are ornate, the lyrics are cryptic and dense, and Mangan's gruff croon sometimes curdles into a growl. From the distorted drum fills that slice through "How Darwinian" to the brass band crescendo of "Starts with Them, Ends with Us" to the morbid abstractions of "Regarding Death and Dying," Oh Fortune is a more dense and difficult album than Mangan's fans were used to hearing at the time.

It was a path he would continue down on 2015's Club Meds, making Oh Fortune something of a transitional point in the songwriter's discography. To celebrate the album's 10th anniversary reissue, we spoke with Mangan about the intense pressure he felt when making the album, the things he wishes he could change about it, and breaking out of "the singer-songwriter box." He also shared an update about the making of his next album. Oh Fortune's 10th anniversary edition is available here.

How did the success of Nice, Nice, Very Nice impact the music you made next — in terms of resources, and also in terms of what you wanted to tell your audience?

I felt a lot of pressure to deliver. I'd just been signed to Arts & Crafts, and that was a very big deal for me. I'd literally paid for Nice, Nice, Very Nice using a line of credit — bless the poor bank employee who looked into my broke artist eyes and took a long shot. A&C had the resources to help me get grant funding, as well as give me an advance, so I could afford to lock in Eyvind Kang to write arrangements and get full horn and string sections into the Armoury in Vancouver.

NNVN was very "singer-songwriter," and I remember feeling really driven to move as far away from the whole folk-revival thing as possible. I didn't self-identify with the arena-selling bands that had come to prominence through that movement. I wanted to go sonically sideways. NNVN was quaint and direct and whimsical, and I wanted the next record to be vast and explosive and fantastical.

What do you remember about making Oh Fortune?

I remember [guitarist] Gord Grdina was going through a divorce and I could hear it in his guitar playing. I remember making the lengthy drive out to Coquitlam every day to the Hive. I remember the big glass door and how it was always locked, and how [producer] Colin Stewart always had a big smile on his face when he came to unlock it for me. I remember planning a gang vocal session and inviting like eight singers from other Vancouver bands, but there was this crazy snow storm and none of them could even get their cars to the highway. I remember the juxtaposition between recording at the Hive (which felt like a punk-rock opium den) and doing orchestral overdubs at the Armoury (which, by contrast, felt like a dentist's office). I remember, as we were recording horns for the ending of "Starts with Them, Ends with Us," I gave all the players a shot of whisky and then asked them to imagine there'd been a revolution the night before, and they were a marching band leading a procession early in the morning down war-torn streets filled with rubble.

Where does this album sit in terms of the rest of your discography?

I suppose Oh Fortune is the connection point between Nice, Nice, Very Nice's "I am here and I think I'm a songwriter now" and Club Meds' "we're f'd so here's a demanding and complicated articulation of why."

I was getting more daring, and more confident, and was getting an education in music from the band as we went. As a live act, we were coming into our own and growing from festival side stages to main stages. I wanted to push the boundaries. I didn't want to live in the singer-songwriter box.

Looking back at Oh Fortune now, what stands out about it?

The performances from the band. Kenton [Loewen]'s shuffle on "Leaves, Trees, Forest," Gord's guitar solo on "Rows of Houses," Johnny [Walsh]'s bassline on "How Darwinian," and the lush arrangements of horns and strings. I've grown as a singer since then, and when I listen back, I'm not crazy about how I sang on this record. But I think the songs are strong, and there are a few that have really stood the test of time.

Is there anything you wish you did differently on this album? Conversely, is there anything you did better here than any other time in your catalogue?

It's funny because this album won two Juno Awards — it's the only album that did so. And yet, it's a bit of a middle child in my repertoire. Club Meds is the weirdest album, and Nice, Nice is the most sensitive album, and More or Less is the most modern and mature album. Oh Fortune has touches of all of these traits, but it's hard to affix a superlative to it.

I wish I sang more lightly. When I hear it now, I hear myself pushing the vocals. But that was the time and place, and that's who I was then, and that's what happened.

I do think that one thing Oh Fortune really has going for it is that we went for it. We weren't afraid to go big. The ending of "Post-War Blues," and the ending of "Starts with Them, Ends with Us," etc… We were unapologetically grandiose, and as a marker of my head at that time, I like that.

Has revisiting Oh Fortune influenced the music you're making next?

Not particularly, but it's given me a dose of self-forgiveness. I think a lot of artists have a tendency to get down on their old work, but time also heals. It's like babies. I don't remember the intricacies of hardship and sleepless nights from when my kids were babies — I only remember how cute and sweet they were. In a similar way, when I listen back to Oh Fortune, I find myself relaxing my shoulders and just enjoying the nostalgia of those moments, and appreciating all the musicians for what they gave that work, and the moments that lead to its inception.

What are you working on now?

I've been working long-distance with [Beck and Radiohead engineer] Drew Brown for two years. He's been in Chicago throughout the pandemic and I've been in Vancouver. It's been a long, slow — and, at times, painful — process, but man I just cannot wait to share these songs with the world. Drew is a wizard, and has cooked up some very tasty ear candy.

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