Dan Mangan: How fatherhood changed his world and his music

Burnaby Now

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 Dan Magnon
Dan Mangan is in the lineup for the Burnaby Blues + Roots Festival at Deer Lake Park on Saturday, Aug. 10.
Photo: Dan Magnon

If Dan Mangan needed a reminder that he’s no longer the up-and-coming 20-something indie rocker taking Canada’s music scene by storm, he got it at a recent performance.

“The other day at a merch table, a grown human – like, a man – came to me and said, ‘I’ve been listening to your music since I was in Grade 3.’” Mangan pauses. “It blew my mind. It was a reminder that I’m no longer a fresh face in this racket.”

Mangan’s warm baritone conveys a combination of wry humour and acceptance. It’s the tone of man who knows where he’s been and where he’s going and who feels pretty comfortable with both. (And, for a guy who’s stuck in traffic in Tacoma while he’s taking time out for a cellphone interview, he also sounds pretty chill.)

Mangan is on his way to play Pickathon in Happy Valley, Oregon. Next up is the Edmonton Folk Music Festival before he loops back for the Burnaby Blues and Roots Festival on Saturday, Aug. 10.

“I’m looking forward to it. It’s a great lineup. I’m a huge admirer of Feist, and I’ve heard good things about Lord Huron – I’ve never seen them play,” he says. And there’s no denying the location is a big plus. “There’s always a little excitement around a hometown show.”

The Deer Lake festival is about as hometown as it gets for the Vancouver-based Mangan. And it comes with the added bonus of daytime hours (Mangan’s onstage starting at 5:30 p.m.) and a family-friendly venue, so Mangan’s two children can come hear him play. His six-year-old was at his show at the Vogue in February, but it’ll be a first for his two-year-old.

Having his children as part of his life in the music industry is important for Mangan, whose view of his life and his work has undergone a profound shift over the past six years.

Partly, that shift comes from aging. At 36, Mangan has a different outlook on life now than he did when Nice, Nice, Very Nice shot him to public attention in 2009 and got him shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize in 2010.

“It never has been more clearly demonstrated that I am no longer young than by putting out this record that’s kind of about being torn between the identity of being a dad and the identity of being a musician,” he says. “The music industry is so youth-oriented and so cool-oriented. Not that this will come as a surprise, but dads are not cool.”

But the change is much more profound than that.

“Up until I had kids, I think music was my identity. That’s who I was; I was a musician. Then you start to feel, ‘I’m a person, I’m a dad, I’m a husband; I’m an individual who happens to be a musician,’” he says.

“In some ways you’re letting go of a romantic idea of what music is in your life and adopting a slightly more pragmatic one, but, weirdly, in my mind, making peace with that actually brought back some of the romance of it.”

Mangan admits music never used to feel like work. Now, though, when his kids ask him why he has to go away and he says, “This is Daddy’s work,” it frames his life as a musician differently.

“Strangely, it’s never mattered more to me,” he says.

His children are a huge part of the reason why he wants to keep making music that’s personal, and relevant, and as good as it can be – so that, in the future, when his kids rediscover his music as young adults, they will realize their father had something to say.

Which means that all the songs on More or Less are pretty much his life – as a dad, as a husband, as just a guy in Vancouver watching the news and wondering what it all means for the planet.

“The bad news is that it’s not cool. The good news is that it’s relevant. There’s lots of other people experiencing that,” he says.

And that, for Mangan, is at the heart of the artist’s mission.

“Any time you do anything creative or you build something or you make something, you’re just sending your little smoke signal out into the world that says, ‘This is how I feel.’”

Finding someone who feels the same way? That, he says, is rewarding for both listener and artist. “Both parties are a little bit less alone because of it.”

Don’t be misled; Mangan’s work isn’t all warm fuzzies about fatherhood. He still tackles state-of-the-universe and fate-of-humanity sorts of questions, and he still uses his music to reflect on the dark side of society.

“‘Hell in a handbasket’ has kind of always been in my work, but I think the tone has changed,” he says, pointing to his 2015 album, Club Meds. “That’s my most political, jarring and sort of lyrically punchy work, but that was before there was a narcissist sociopath in the Oval Office.

“I think that if anything this new work is as political, but it’s a little warmer, a little bit more endearing or earnest. In 2015, I had my dukes up and I was ready to fight. I think, at this point, I just wanted this record to feel like a benevolent sort of place where you can rest your mind from the insanity.”

If that benevolence happens to come along with even more commercial success, who’s he to argue?

But “success,” in the sense of sales and fame, isn’t what drives him to keep on.

“If you start to define your worth based on the response to your work, then you’re subject to the whims of the world that you can’t control,” he says.

Which means he tries not to listen to the compliments or to the criticisms.

“If you believe one, then you have to believe the other. I sleep better if I try not to believe either,” he says.

He’s candid, too, about the fact that, despite all his success in the music industry so far, he still feels in many ways like an outsider.

“I’m signed to a big record label. I’ve got an agent and a publicist. Strangely, maybe it’s just weird perpetual denial or something, but I still feel on the outside of the industry, on the outside of having been embraced on a large level,” he says.

That said, he knows he’s been able to do incredible things – he’s earned JUNO nominations and awards, he’s performed on late-night TV, he’s even performed for royalty (for Will and Kate for Canada Day on Parliament Hill in 2011).

“The 10-year-old version of myself would not believe any of that,” he says. “You have to try to appreciate every little moment.”

Which is exactly what he intends to do at Deer Lake Park, when he offers up a combination of his older hits and new work. There are some songs, he knows, that he just can’t leave the stage without performing and some that simply carry better in live settings. So, festivalgoers can expect a bit of a “greatest hits” set.

Not, he’s quick to add, that he characterizes any of his songs as huge “hits.”

“There’s still a whole lot of people out there who’ve never heard any of my music,” he admits.

Some of them, he hopes, will discover him at Deer Lake Park next weekend.

GET YOUR TICKETS

What: Burnaby Blues + Roots Festival 2019
Where: Deer Lake Park
When: Saturday, Aug. 10, 1 to 10 p.m. Gates at noon.
Cost: $60 single, $200 for a four-pack in advance. Day-of-show single tickets at gate $70. Children 12 and under free with adult ticket (call 604-205-3000 to book).
Buy: www.ticketmaster.ca or 1-855-985-5000
Information: www.burnabybluesfestival.com