Dan Mangan has had a rather romantic career trajectory over the past two years: modest singer-songwriter builds a small but dedicated grassroots following, releases an album (his second) on a small but dedicated local indie label, which catches the ear of a small but dedicated number of indie Canadian radio programmers. Cue then the awards and nominations, the bigger label, the worldwide touring and attention. Cue, too, two years of non-stop work promoting the breakthrough album, Nice, Nice, Very Nice, during which Mangan also had to fit in some time to make a new album along the way.
“I feel like I haven’t been in Vancouver for longer than a week or two in a couple of years,” Mangan says on the phone from, you guessed it, not Vancouver, but Toronto. He’s in town to attend the Polaris Prize gala as a guest, and for a number of interviews and appearances.
“I feel a little bit like my life is always catching up to the present moment. Nice, Nice was staggered in its releases internationally, [so] it was a bizarre kind of scenario to have this brand new record that you’re working on, and at the same time having another brand new one to the ears of other people.”
With no time off to make his third full-length, Mangan and his band met producer Colin Stewart (Yukon Blonde, Ladyhawk, Black Mountain) at Vancouver’s Hive Studios in stages, coming off the road and leaving to go back out, slowly recording throughout the winter of 2010 and the spring of 2011. Mangan also assembled what he calls a “ramshackle” studio at home, which he used for additional solo sessions. Despite the endless chaos surrounding Mangan’s life and the recording, Oh Fortune, even in its grand arrangements and intensity, sounds still.
“I’d had a few more years of traveling and thinking and writing,” he says. “I think that it’s a darker record, and it’s possibly a deeper, more mature record. It’s also sonically a bit more expansive than I’ve ever gone before.”
He speaks understatedly—there’s hardly a moment on Oh Fortune without a near symphony of sounds. Gone is the acoustic troubadour image, and in its place, a band leader, conducting upwards of 14 collaborators on most of the tracks, bringing in layers of subtle vocal harmonies, rich strings and brass, and warm organs. It’s a sound Mangan says was inspired in sound and in career approach by musical brethren M. Ward and Bon Iver, jazz (“There are flubbed notes all over this record,” he notes), and the ever-chameleonic Radiohead. Though previous releases have also featured a host of guests, this is the first time Mangan has written and recorded with a group mindset. But as much as the singer-songwriter image has faded into the mix, it still felt like a deeply individual project for Mangan.
“It’s really interesting because this is a record with a lot of collaborating. There are so many performances on it by a lot of incredible musicians,” he says. “But then at the same time, I feel like it’s a most honest portrayal of the sounds in my head. I simultaneously want to say that this record is the result of a lot of different people’s hard work, but I also feel this incredible ownership over it. That it was this kind of long labour of love. I invested myself wholeheartedly into it and just kind of lost myself in it for a number of months.”
Mangan also knew going into making the record that, even apart from his many new collaborators, he wasn’t entirely on his own anymore—there were a lot of eyes on him now. In the past he’d been able to write and record and assume no one would hear it, but this time, there was a new sort of pressure. He knew that not only would people be expecting him to prove the hype, but that long-time listeners could be disappointed with a change. Through the looking glass, Mangan says there was only one thing he could do—create honest and meaningful work for himself.
“It’s really easy to root for the underdog,” he says. “But as soon as you have people’s attention and you’re no longer the underdog, people approach you with a little bit more of an arms-crossed body language, metaphorically. On some level, that does effect your conscience.”
“[At the same time], I think there’s a tendency, once you get a bit of an audience, to get comfortable, when in fact the reason anybody liked you [in the first place] was because they sensed something honest in what you were doing. Focusing on the work and not being afraid of continuing to work hard for what you want to do is, I think, so important. I would never want to feel stuck in one thing.”
Check out Dan Mangan on tour this fall as AUX, CBC Radio 3, and Exclaim! present the cross-canada Canada dates.
Oct 14 – Ottawa @ Bronson Centre
Oct 15 – Kingston @ Sydenham United Church
Oct 16 – Montreal @ Theatre Outremont
Oct 17 – Quebec City @ Le Cercle
Oct 19 – St John’s, NFLD @ Cochrane United Church
Oct 20 – Halifax, NS @ Matthew’s Church
Oct 22 – Fredericton @ Wilmot United Church
Oct 25 – Waterloo @ Starlight
Oct 26 – London @ Aeolian Hall
Oct 27 – Hamilton @ The Theatre at Hamilton Place
Oct 28 – Toronto @ Queen Elizabeth Theatre
Oct 29 – Guelph @ Dublin Street Church
Nov 1 – Winnipeg @ The Garrick Centre
Nov 2 – Saskatoon @ The Broadway Theatre
Nov 3 – Edmonton @ McDougal United Church
Nov 4 – Calgary @ MacEwan Hall Ballroom
Nov 9 – Vancouver @ Orpheum Theatre
Nov 10 – Victoria @ Alix Goolden Hall