Dan Mangan, BA’06, has earned a reputation for being something of a teddy bear. A gifted songwriter with a fuzzy face and cuddly demeanour, he’s the kind of performer one expects to stick around after the show to have beers with his fans. “I’ve read a lot of articles talking about how I’m, like, a cuddly nice guy and I got this beard and (aw man) probably give good hugs,” he says, and his sophomore album, Nice, Nice, Very Nice (2009) probably had a lot to do with it. “There was something that was very cute and charming about [that album],” he says, “and even if you didn’t really love it, it was easy to have on. That’s fading. I feel less cute than I used to be. I do give good hugs, but most people who really get to know me know that I have a pretty crass sense of humour and I have a dark side, too.”
Reviews of his third album, Oh Fortune (2011), note a darker tone and more serious subject matter. The National Post described it as “a kind of education in how to be human in a strange and — as its namesake amply demonstrates — harsh world.” Now an indie darling with a slew of awards under his belt, Mangan recently returned to his home town of Vancouver to wind down from six years of touring and take a well-deserved rest. The musical progression from his 2005 debut Postcards and Daydreaming to the Juno-winning Oh Fortune marks the sort of growth one can only get from the sink-or-swim nature of the road, graduating from the earnest naivety of a singer-songwriter to the introspective maturity of a man who has slept on more couches than beds.
So attuned is he to his musical evolution, Mangan jokes about hiding from his early work. “I listen back to my first album and I think it’s terrible,” he confesses. “There are a couple of decent songs on there, but when I hear songs from that first record, I think of music that I hear now and don’t like. Every time I sell it at the merch table after a gig, I’m like ‘Really? You know, are you sure? Listen to the other one first!’”
He recorded his first EP, All at Once, during his second year at UBC in 2003.
It was a different man who recorded his first EP, All at Once, during his second year at UBC in 2003. The 20-year-old Mangan had settled in as a student of history, sociology, and English, but his commitment to music never wavered. Absent from the musical community he enjoyed in high school, Mangan focused on his song-writing and playing open mics on campus and in small venues around town. With the support of friends and a $600 grant from the Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent on Records (FACTOR), he recorded All at Once, printing 500 copies to give to friends and score gigs at local venues like the Backstage Lounge, the Media Club, the Railway Club, the Anza Club, and Calhoun’s.
Mangan credits his UBC experience for the personal growth he would need to endure the gruelling life of endless touring. “There was a lot of grinding in university,” he recalls, “— classes I didn’t want to do, books I didn’t want to read, papers I didn’t want to write. But I was learning how to question things. The number one reason you should go and get an education is just to actually learn how to question. In university, the best teachers that I had were the ones who said, ‘Ok, everything you’ve ever known — throw it out the window. Start again.’”
After graduating in December 2005 Mangan turned to music full-time, recording Postcards and Daydreaming at a friend’s home studio and borrowing his mom’s Subaru for what he describes as a “horribly planned tour” through BC and Alberta in the spring of 2006. He quickly discovered how much more he had to learn. “The thing that you’re fighting is your lack of knowledge,” he says. “When you’re starting a career in music, you’re facing the threat of not being good at music. But you’re also facing the threat of not having a fucking clue what your next step is, all the time. I didn’t know what the difference was between a label and a distributor, an agent and a manager. It all just seemed like this big infinite cloud of unknowing.”
The successes came gradually, growing from small gigs for a dozen strangers to sold-out shows around the world. Despite all the accolades, there is no complacency. “I think a lot of people are afraid of that feeling that their peak is behind them,” he says, “but you have to consciously decide to not let that happen. You really have to decide to keep getting better because it doesn’t just happen organically. You have to maintain the appetite. Because as soon as you’re sort of like, ‘Naw I got this figured out, I’m really good at this,’ then you start getting a little bit more comfortable, a little bit lazier, a little bit less ambitious about learning, and then you get worse.”
Mangan was married at the UBC Farm in September.
With the exception of a few festival dates, Mangan plans to spend 2013 in Vancouver, where he’s writing his first film score, recording his next album, and spending time with his new wife Kirsten Slenning, an actor and theatre director whom he married at the UBC Farm in September. “It feels like I’ve spent seven years just spinning the wheel, you know, grinding it, and now the wheel just got enough momentum that I could let go for a little while and it’ll keep spinning.” Artistically, Mangan hopes to continue his evolution from his beginnings as a coffee-house troubadour, a label he’s still trying to shed. “When I was younger, my image of what I wanted to be was this guy that travelled around the world and played my acoustic guitar and was a bit of a hobo. At the time I was really enamoured with the kind of coffee-house acoustic dude and sang emotional songs, and as I progressed it just got less interesting to me. I just started being less enamoured with it. I’m sure in ten years I’ll feel the same way about music the I’m making right now, you know. It’s all part of the process.”