Dan Mangan has learned to exercise a little more caution in life. The heartwarming Canadian born singer-songwriter now finds himself in a place where his consistent efforts have to pay off; he doesn’t have to risk his sanity and credit rating for opportunities to bring his gutsy brand of folk rock to audiences far and wide.
While many in Mangan’s boat suffer from a Canadian complex, in that they manage success and acclaim in their homeland but fail to break through elsewhere, the soft spoken and pensive Mangan has managed to make hopping across oceans look routine. But it didn’t come easy.
“Before Canada had taken off for me, I’d really laid a lot of groundwork overseas,” says the 28 year-old, reached on the phone from his Vancouver home. “I look back on those years, playing alone with a guitar and it’s absurd how optimistic and naïve I was. I’d get an email from somebody who might run a coffee shop in Cologne, Germany and they’d ask if I ever toured Europe and if I’d like to come play their coffee shop. I thought, “Yeah, OK, I’ll go over there, lose $6,000 and tour Germany.” I was so steadfast and dedicated to the idea that this was what I was doing that I would lose money hand over fist, over and over. I ran up a big, long credit line. It was pretty risky, but it meant that all my eggs weren’t in one basket.”
The release of Oh, Fortune, Mangan’s latest full-length, marked not only a stirring change of aesthetics, but also his outlook on his future. Nice, Nice, Very Nice, Mangan’s 2009 album, was an undeniably surprising record, garnering him a shortlist nod for Canada’s Polaris Prize. While many of his contemporaries might seem intent on milking the proverbial cow as much as possible, Mangan speaks with a sense of poise that distances himself from Nice, Nice, Very Nice. Oh, Fortune is a more complex listen, rich with thought-provoking turmoil. When Mangan offers insight on said turmoil, his songs end up stretching onto a canvas as grand as the country he calls home.
“When Nice, Nice, Very Nice was released, I never expected the reception it got. Those years, 2009 and 2010 were such life-changing years. I did a lot of growing up; I’m touring all the time, going around the world, playing all these festivals. And really, I’m not done. If I’m going to make a lifetime of music, that’s only the beginning. We kind of got a head start on the game; so what do I want to do from here?”
It’s an overwhelming question. But for Mangan, the only option was to look at the big picture.
“I thought about what a body of work means and what kind of legacy I might leave behind. I began to think about Oh, Fortune as being very crucial. I got a little bit of attention because I made a silly song about robots. So what do I want to do with that attention? It’s a darker record, it’s a deeper record and it’s a sadder record. I don’t want all of my records to sound like that, but it’s the beginning of taking new directions and not wanting to be put into any sort of box. Not wanting to have any labels. I had a little bit more confidence on this record to tackle grand things. I had to show my chops or prove something to myself. I want to do something that has legs. I want to do something that lasts a long time.”
Early critical response to Oh, Fortune has been immensely positive. So much so that The Guardian, one of the world’s most respected newspapers, asked Mangan to pen a story on what makes for a successful gig. Still, Mangan stays guarded. He understands that while critical acclaim may have immediate benefits, it is the validation of his peers which could ultimately provide the staying power he desires.
“It’s been incredible to get such praise in the press. But still, as a general rule, I try not to believe anything that’s written in the press about me,” he says with a dry chuckle.
“If I believe the good stuff, then I’ll probably end up believing the bad stuff as well. Because the truth is, they’re both right and they’re both wrong. The real validation for comes from my peers and musicians that I respect. To hear them say what I do is worthwhile is what works. At the same time, as proud as I can be of anything, it’s hard for me to take credit. I’m not good at that. I’ve got some safety mechanisms that separate myself from positive feedback. But I’m just so glad to have the record out; I feel like it lived in my brain for a very long time. So now people can actually hear it and form opinions of it.”
It’s when Mangan brings Oh, Fortune to life onstage that he finally lets his guard down. He understands that vulnerability is an important quality in a performer, as is the ability to continue his quest.
“It’s a weird thing. Sometimes you can step onstage and from the first note, you know you’re just going to conquer. Then other times, you get towards the end of the set and you’re fighting to get people’s attention. And that’s what [The Guardian article] was getting at; the importance of just being able to allow whatever is going on to go on. And then get over it. And then use that energy to proceed and move forward in a positive way. You have to take whatever energy the crowd is giving to you and give it right back to them however possible. It’s an interesting world, getting up onstage every night. To use a colloquial term, it’s a bit of a headfuck.”
Still, Mangan seems entirely capable of keeping focus and admitting who he is: a man with room to learn, and a penchant for growth. “When I wrote that article, I was worried that I was going to come across as the all-knowing guy, because I play gigs, etc. And the truth is, I’m just learning as I go. It’s very freeing and exciting. I still feel very young and I know I’ve got a lot to learn.”
BY JOSHUA KLOKE
DAN MANGAN plays the Northcote Social Club on Wednesday February 22. Oh, Fortune is out now on ABC Music/Universal.