Interview: Dan Mangan

Vancouver based singer-songwriter Dan Mangan completed his first EP in 2003, and has since released four full length albums and three EPs, won two Juno Awards, been nominated for the prestigious Polaris music prize, toured the world, composed music for film and television, and produced albums for fellow Canadian artists.

I first discovered Mangan with his excellent single “Road Regrets” from 2009’s Nice, Nice, Very Nice, and have been steadily following his career since. At the start of this year, Mangan released the heartbreaking new song “Fool for Waiting”. Three other great songs, “Troubled Mind”, “Just Fear” and “Cold in the Summer” followed, building up to the release of  his upcoming fifth album, More or Less, coming out this Friday, November 2nd.

Dan was kind enough to take some time away from his current tour with Snow Patrol to discuss his new album and the influences behind it.

Indy Review: For past releases, you’ve changed up your processes for writing and recording, at points doing very stripped down acoustic songs, and other times working with more experimental musicians and taking your sound into new territories. What was your approach for recording More or Less?
Dan Mangan: The album reaches forward as well as backwards to some extent. In a way, it’s quite minimal, and most performances were left entirely intact with very little editing – at the same time, it doesn’t really sit firmly in the traditional singer/songwriter world either. There are a lot of colours and flourishes that are hard to identify as being any one kind of sound or another, and I really like that. Much of the album’s sonic texture was the work of Drew Brown, who produced 80% of it. He was very stringent about what he would allow into the song or not, and it was a very helpful gut check for how many layers each song needed.
Very interesting. What were some of the rules Drew laid down for each song? Which ones were the most challenging for you to follow?
He was insistent on pallet. That there wouldn’t be a song where suddenly there was an entirely different set of sounds/instruments being used – that there was a cohesive feeling to the whole thing. Beyond that, he just has good taste and didn’t want anything in the recording that brought down the standard.
How have these various approaches to writing songs and collaborating changed your approach when sitting down to write something new?
More than ever, I want the songs to be able to live without bells and whistles. If you can strip a song down to a single guitar or piano and it still works, then there’s a good chance that it’s a good song. I strayed away from “choruses” for a while, but I’m enjoying them again, and enjoying writing them. I wanted to write an album of songs that the world could know. I think these songs are directly inspired by my own life and what I’m experiencing as a parent and provider in 2018.
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How much are you thinking about the musical and lyrical cohesiveness of the album when you begin the album writing process? Do you generally have a direction you want to take it, or do you let the songs you write dictate where the album goes?
Ebbs and flows in all directions. Sometimes I’ve got pages of lyrics and I need to find melodies, and other times, I’ve got a drumbeat and everything comes from that. I think that, in most cases, the album takes on a character or arc because the songs were written over a period of time, and in a sense, me writing them is me telling the story of me figuring it all out. The last song on the album, Which Is It, was also the last song I wrote before recording, which made a lot of sense.
What are some of the songs on the album that began as lyrics looking for a melody, and which stemmed from a beat or musical inspiration? 
“Can’t Not” started as a demo on this little 8 bar loop from my Korg Monotribe, and thus the chord progression is basically monotone. That loop isn’t in the recording, so the song has fully migrated from its original resting place to a new arena. Conversely, a song like “Troubled Mind” – the words and melody for the verses were spinning in my head and then I had to figure out what to put underneath them.. It became very clear that the song didn’t need much more than a single note being played underneath it on the guitar, which is why the recording is very sparse. Mostly drums/bass/vocal with a distorted acoustic guitar note.
Based on the songs released already, there seems to be a running theme about insecurity running through your songwriting, whether with relationships (“Fool for Waiting”), the state of the world (“Just Fear”) or mental health (“Cold in the Summer”). Would you say that’s accurate, or is there another through line in this record you were trying to achieve?
I’d say that’s accurate. I think we’re living in a fairly insecure world at the moment. Even if people aren’t overtly afraid of imminent collapse, there just isn’t the same sense that there was in the 90s or whatever that things are brimming along in a particularly steady way and will continue to do so for some time. Politics are more erratic and radical. The president of the USA openly contradicts himself daily in a non-stop spout of lies upon lies, and his supporters think that people who desire facts and truth or accountability just can’t handle how “real” he is because he operates outside the standard expectation of decorum for the position.
We are definitely going through an unheard of political insanity here in the states, and it’s interesting that it’s having an influence on artists outside of our country as much as in it. Do any songs on the new album or your past albums reflect the political climate in Canada specifically?
“Mouthpiece” has a line “Question period’s over. Don’t you feel it? I do.” which is referential to the part of Canada’s parliamentary process called “Question Period.” The government at the time of the song’s inception had made a joke of it. It is supposed to be a time where the opposition can hold the government’s feet to the fire and demand answers, and they just smugly back patted and mocked people. But also, at the same time, they were actively stifling scientists and removing language from policy that was based on evidence or research so they could lean on ideology… It felt Orwellian… That there was no longer any room for “questions”. Only answers.
How often do you find yourself writing from your own perspective, versus that of a character, or telling a story of someone else you know?
These days, much moreso from my own perspective. I think I used to write more from characters in my head. Some of what I’m talking about on More or Less is just literal descriptions of my life. I’m busy as hell, but in a different way than when I was 25. I’m more stable of mind, but have sacrificed some spontaneity for that stability.
On Twitter, you’re reasonably open about your thoughts on current affairs, including what’s been happening here in the U.S. Did the current social and political climate act as an influence on your songwriting for this album?
Unquestionably. Particularly with “Troubled Mind”, “Which Is It”, or “Just Fear”. Just Fear was written shortly after Trump was elected, which was at the very same time that my second son was born. I was grappling with the shitstorm going on online vs the glow of new love for this wonderful little guy in my own home.
On your website, you discuss taking a longer-than-planned six year break from recording and touring to be with family and recharge. What would you say was the catalyst that brought back your desire to write an album again?
Well, it’s not entirely true – because I made an album in 2015 with Blacksmith that is VERY dear to me. But I couldn’t give that album the same amount of love and attention when it came to touring for a handful of reasons – largely because I had a young family to attend to and I couldn’t tour it alone (it was a “band” record) and it’s more expensive to tour with a band, so I had to be more picky about what touring was possible. It’s been since 2011 that I put out an album just under my own name, so it feels like I’m grabbing the wheel again to some extent.
Going back to your earlier response about wanting to write songs that can go without the bells and whistles, would you say there’s also a practical reason for setting that goal so that any of these songs can be played as easily on a solo tour as they could when out with a full band?
Somewhat. Certainly, I need to set myself up to be able to perform in all kinds of situations. I just did some shows with Snow Patrol solo. I’m about to play in Europe with an entirely new band that I’m sharing with Laura Gibson. Then in January/February, I’m touring Canada with a completely different and new band once again. I want the songs to live however they can at different times. If the words and melodies are strong enough, they can survive a shift in arrangement.
“Fool for Waiting” came out back in February, and the new album is being released in November, with three other singles being released prior. On your site, you mention that the recording process was a bit piecemeal over some time – was that what lead to the very extended release rollout, or was it more of a response to the new ways singles and albums are being released in the streaming age?
“Fool For Waiting” and “Troubled Mind” were recorded in 2016 with Simone Felice and Ryan Hewitt. I was talking to Drew Brown and a couple other producers at that time also, and was figuring out the best foot forward. For a time, I thought maybe I’d work with three or four producers and piece it all together that way. In the end, it made sense to finish things with Drew, but it took a long time to align all the pieces – he wanted Joey Waronker and Jason Falkner and Darrell Thorp involved, and he wanted to track in studio 2 at Eastwest. To get us all in the same place at the same time took a lot of juggling. I’m so happy that it came together though – I wouldn’t trade that session for anything.
How involve do you like to be with all the facets of an album release outside of writing and recording the songs? The album art, videos, marketing, radio pushes, etc?
The truth is that you HAVE to be very involved with all of it. As an artist, it’s like you’re the CEO of your project – and it lives and dies on your watch. Every little element of the album and how it gets out there ties in to who you are, now moreso than ever before. I wish that making a great record is enough, but it’s not. The world and this industry requires you to juggle everything all the time – social media, online content, newsletters, interviews, touring.. It’s suffocating. That’s why even if you don’t like a band, you should respect their victories, because NOBODY becomes successful at this by accident – nobody.
Which of these elements of releasing an album have you found to be the most difficult (or most exhausting) to deal with? Any parts of it you’ve found yourself surprisingly enjoying more than you thought you would?
I’ve always had a taste for the business side of it, but I’ve never properly enjoyed that element. If I could just make music and not worry about how many followers I had on social media, I’d be a happier person.
What are your plans following the album’s release? Will you be touring the states?
I’m in Europe in November, then Canada in Jan/Feb. Looking at the USA in March/April, as well as returning to Europe again, then hopefully Australia. I’ve been dormant in the touring department for a long time – I’m ready to take it on more than I have been recently.
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I’ll be keeping an eye out for Los Angeles dates! Based on your experience, would you say there are any main differences in how the Canadian music scene and market run compared to that of the U.S.? Is it easier for a musician to make a living there than here?
Trying to break into the USA is like trying to swim up a 360 degree waterfall. It’s nearly impossible. Even the greats from Canada who did it – Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen.. . They all had to GO to the USA and live there. There is so much culture coming FROM the USA that it’s hard to find your way into the cultural fabric. But I want to spend more time there. Canada is just a very small place by comparison. There are more people in California than there are in Canada.
Are there any new Canadian artists you’re excited about that you think we should be listening to here in the states?
La Force is amazing. She’s on Arts & Crafts also. She’s joining me for some of the Canadian tour.
One last question: If you could make one lasting impact or change to popular music as it is now, what would it be?
I’m a bit tired of hearing autotune on fucking everything. I don’t mean when it’s used as a tool to make something sound a touch better here or there – I’m talking about as an effect on vocals for an entire song. But I think we’re finally at the point where the dead horse has been beaten and beaten and it will become unfashionable very soon. I can’t wait for ten years or so from now when it all sounds so dated. It’ll make this record sound better by comparison.
No argument here! Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me!
Cheers!

 

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More or Less comes out Friday, November 2nd. You can pre-order it and find other great bundle offers on Dan’s website here: https://danmanganmusic.com
See when Dan is playing your city here.
Follow Dan Mangan on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook at @danmanganmusic

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