Dan Mangan: populist puppy killer

Vancouverite shares his songwriting skills

This much he admits — Vancouver’s Dan Mangan is a singer-songwriter. We know: The term conjures images of melodramatic bedroom schmaltz played by oh-so-precious dudes named Austin. But unlike the sepia-toned mediocrity that digi-packs CD dollar bins everywhere Mangan’s carved his niche around hyper-literate commoner poetry quietly powerful pop melodies and playful optimism.

And whatever he’s doing it’s working: his most recent LP Nice Nice Very Nice has earned him a nomination for the Polaris prize nearly a year after its release.

“Just being on that shortlist is as good as winning” he says. “Being alongside those other bands — Caribou Shad Broken Social Scene — it’s incredible. But I’m approaching the Polaris thing like how I approach everything: You keep your hopes very high but you also have to protect yourself from disappointment. The attention is fleeting.”

It’s a telling comment; even over the phone Mangan comes across as self-effacing soft-spoken and ruthlessly genuine. Today he’s enjoying the near-endless daylight of the Yukon where he’ll be performing four sets at the Dawson City Music Festival before travelling to Calgary to perform at this weekend’s folk fest.

“It’s a grind” he admits. “But you remind yourself it’s everything you always wanted.”

And along with his witty road-hardened folk it’s that humility that makes Mangan so likeable both as a musician and an individual. Even bitter journalists have noticed: Most every article written about Mangan seems to praise him for his overwhelming gregariousness as if somehow he’s expected to have a Tommy Lee-sized ego.

“Maybe I should start killing puppies” he chuckles. “I think in previous decades the music industry did all sorts of things to perpetuate and indulge people who treated people like jerks. But the era of pedestalling rock stars is over.”

Indeed even if Mangan had a pedestal he certainly wouldn’t be bringing it to Calgary where aside from performing he’ll also be conducting a songwriting workshop. For the session he’s hoping for an open forum — “hopefully I’ll learn something too” he says — but he cautions attendees to take his methodology with a grain of salt.

“I would never claim I have the answer to songwriting” he says. “My process isn’t the process that other people use. It’s a matter of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks.”

And that for Mangan can be a process in itself. For him a song can take anywhere from a few days to five months to complete; Nice Nice was the culmination of four years of writing distilled into a six-week recording session. Mangan’s a discerning editor of his songs and along with keeping his songs fat-free he maintains each tune is built around a stack of memorable melodies.

“All the greatest songwriters write hook after hook” he says. “Just because something isn’t Top 40 doesn’t mean it’s laden with hooks. Look at Broken Social Scene — it’s all hooks.”

And then there’s his lyrics. Mangan’s still baffled to see people singing along to his songs but he has a few ideas about why his songs resonate.

“Everything I’ve felt has been felt a million times by others” he says. “On any given day someone could be having a great day or a horrible day — we’ve all had them but all at different times.”

And that’s what he refers to as the “infrastructure for universality.” It’s what gives Mangan’s songs a populist bent albeit not in Springsteen’s working-class-bard fashion. Like prairie poet laureate John K. Samson he’s a vivid visual storyteller adept at culling the magnificent from the mundane; instead of relying on the well- worn lyrical memes of who’s left and who’s leaving he draws inspiration from the endlessly replenished well of day-to-day experience.

“I’ve never been good at writing love songs” he confesses. “I steal things from everyday life like overheard conversations. It’s poking fun at humanity putting myself in a different character’s mind or a different perspective.”

As for futures Mangan’s planning little downtime. Following the folk fest he’s planning on touring the U.S. and Australia taking a brief respite in December to record the follow-up to Nice Nice for which he already has 17 tracks prepared. And he’s planning to be back in Calgary by November.

“There’s a great group of music lovers in Calgary” he says. “Ever since I opened up for Hey Rosetta! there a few years ago it seems like I can’t lose.”