Walking onto the hill for the first time during the 2014 Folk Festival, I smelled elephant ears, saw sunshine and was lured immediately by Dan Mangan’s gruff, sweet voice to one of the smallest stages. The gates had only opened a few hours before, and the live CBC Radio Active session was sparsely attended.
Before Edmonton’s four-day festival was over I saw Mangan + Blacksmith play four times on four different stages, prompting the joke that the event was, in fact, Dan Mangan (featuring Folk Fest), but this intimate introduction to his live performance was unforgettable.
The British Columbian musician has achieved critical and commercial success within Canada and abroad and has gained a reputation for being one of the friendliest guys on the scene. He seems slightly embarrassed when I ask if he is at the point where he is recognized on the street and while he admits that it does happen, he is quick to point out the downside to visibility.
“You have to kind of be on a constant balance of presuming nobody knows who you are, because if you walk around with the presumption that you’re very well known that’s a weird state of mind to be in, but also at the same time you have to be aware that if someone does recognize you you better be on good behaviour. It’s strange…”
Fans have gotten to know Dan Mangan through his thoughtful, soul-bearing lyricism, and he says his fans interpreting his music the “way it speaks to them, through their perspective, through their reality” is for him, the gift of being a songwriter.
“It’s not necessarily about people knowing exactly what you meant so much as just if they feel it. They feel it, and that’s important.”
No release date has been announced, and though he was tight-lipped about any details, he was openly excited about the upcoming follow-up to 2011’s Oh, Fortune, describing it as “by far the best fucking thing that we’ve ever done.”
This time the two-time Juno Award winner will be splitting the bill as Dan Mangan + Blacksmith, the band with which he tours and records.
“[Blacksmith] is amazing,” he says, “and I’ve never felt so confident about a record. Generally after finishing a record I feel like, I hope people like it but this time I don’t even care because I am really satisfied with it. I feel like we took a really long time. We took our time, we sat with it, we massaged it in a million different directions, and I think it’s a strong piece of work.”
While he doesn’t think the new album will alienate his loyal fans, if it’s ultimately too different for some, that’s okay with him. His frustration with how fans of artists are reluctant to see them change or grow past their initial burst of creative output came up multiple times in our interview — he says he has no desire to sound like he is “covering himself, years ago, covering the band [he] used to be.”
“It’s a weird thing when people want artists to keep recreating the same thing. That old material that they like is always going to be there, you can always go back and listen to it. Rehashing it is not really a part of my process,” he explains, earnest yet apologetic, distinctly Canadian.
“I have a real appetite to keep growing. I think one of my strengths is that I always want to try different things. I wanna have a really long standing body of work that goes in a lot of different directions.”
Dan Mangan is clearly playing the long-game in an industry defined by flashes in the pan, but he doesn’t seem to be cynical, so much as realistic about the creative process.
“I feel like people have a favourite part of you and that’s what they focus on, and as humans we have a lot of different parts, and so I need to just flesh out all my parts. Hopefully some of those parts appeal to people in different ways.”
Mangan became a parent last year, along with his wife Kirsten Slenning, an actor. He says that while there is a possibility his son might rebel against his artistic parents and become a stockbroker, if he does continue the family traditional of working in a creative field, he would have plenty of hard-earned, weather-wise advice to share.
“Be honest with yourself, be honest with the people around you, with your supporters. You can dress it up any way you want, but it always comes down to the work. At the heart of it all that’s why people are paying attention.”