The maturation of Dan Mangan

Dan Mangan will be performing with the NAC Orchestra.

Dan Mangan jokingly calls his current string of concerts “a comeback tour.” As if.

The Vancouver singer-songwriter and musical entrepreneur is coming the the National Arts Centre on Saturday to perform a selection of his songs — old and new — with the NAC Orchestra.

Playing with a symphony orchestra is the kind of challenge he relishes, but more about that lately. First let’s catch up.

Mangan released his first album of new material last year. The record More or Less was his first in several years. Now that he is touring it, he’s feeling pretty good about it all.

“I feel with this album, I have accomplished what I hoped to do which was to feel the momentum again of where things were a little while ago.

“The biggest success I have felt with the record is playing shows and hearing people recognize a song — even a new song — from the opening chord. The new songs are getting that kind of immediate enthusiasm live, as much as the old songs did.”

It’s proof of life in the music.

“I feel I was an artist attached to some nostalgia for awhile. Personally I feel that in my shows and songwriting I am at the top of my game. I feel like I have never felt stronger in the work. It is a good feeling that there are lots of possibilities in me still to be discovered.

The question then is nostalgia for suckers.

“Artists are interested in progressing,” Mangan said. “Under what pretence can you say to somebody: ‘Can you just be like you were 10 years ago?'”

In politics, there certainly is a problem in looking back to a time that probably didn’t exist.

In music, the reason why someone loved a certain kind of music at some point is because the person experienced it in the moment, Mangan said. “Chasing that dragon is not healthy.

“It serves you better to look at today.”

These days Dan Mangan is a dedicated family man. He has a six year and an almost three year old. He’s married and he does stuff like sweeping the floor.

“Having children and being a parent teaches you humility and how selfish every moment of your life has been up to then.”

Being a parent has brought a sense of responsibility to Mangan and that same feeling is shaping his music too.

“It raises the stakes for me. A: I want my kids to discover this music when they are adults. I want them, when they are 16 and 17 and exploring art and music, to find this. All of my music is going to be at least peripherally in their lives.

“I want them to appreciate it as adults, so I also want it to be really good.”

Before he becamde a dad, Mangan said, music was fun.

“Music was this thing that I did. I would write songs whenever the muse came. I flew through life by the seat of my pants.

“Now that my life is far more regimented and music is work. If I am working, if I am on tour, that means I’m not with my kids.”

That takes away some of the romance and it increases the pressure to make the music  worthwhile.

“I don’t want to be in the studio making a bunch of bullshit. That’s my life’s work and it has to be good, otherwise it’s time wasted.”

If you know Mangan’s music you know his work is not wasted. he’s got a couple of JUNOs to prove that point. But he certainly is more serious about his profession.

Speaking about writing a song, what’s his secret?

“I try to ask the right questions.” There is one song on More or Less that resonated with those good questions.

It’s called Why Go Just to Say So and it’s about NOT going out on the town.

“I spend a lot of time at home. I don’t go to shows very often any more. I am often inside as of 7 p.m. The 20 year old me would find that depressing; the 36 year old me is totally fine with it. One of my favourite things to do is sit with my wife on the couch and hang out.

“I think that song is sort of an introvert’s anthem, but it is also about feeling all right with yourself.”

Mangan said he knows what it’s like to go out and try to have the best night of your life 1,000 times in a row.

“When you are young you are focussed on going out and being a part of everything because you are worried what you are missing.”

When you are older you know exactly what you are missing. It’s not to say that you are going to sit on your couch your whole life.

“It’s also about feeling comfortable and strong enough in your skin to not need that outside world validation. I don’t need to tell people what to feel. I just prod and poke a nerve in myself and I find that almost everyone else has had a similar feeling.

“Songs are a visceral interpretation of a thought. I write a line and you hear that line and we are both less alone for having participated.”

Mangan is going out — on the road — because “I feel my work is not done.”

And the show in Ottawa with NACO is very special, he said.

He has done this before with Symphony Nova Scotia in Halifax so a lot of his older material has orchestral arrangements.

As the NAC does with these concerts, some new material has been arranged. One of the arrangers is Sarah Slean.

“It’s a really powerful thing to be on stage with an orchestra. There is a big wall of sound. I remember one moment in a Halifax when we were halfway through a song and the double bass section got going with this roaring rumbling line. To have four of them going right behind your left butt cheek it’s powerful and visceral.

“The thing that trips me out most about a symphony is the synchronicity of dozens of people scratching horsehair on metal at the same time. It creates this crazy energy.”

There are 15 songs on the bill including five from More or Less.

It took Mangan two tries to get the hang of playing with the orchestra.

“I realized the second time that it would be more effective if I synch into what the symphony is doing and allow conductor to actually do his job. Once I made that decision, to properly listen, the show got much better.

“It’s like anything with music. It’s about listening. If you are off in your own little world you are inherently not part of it all.”

He believes the process of taking one of his songs and putting into a different musical environment through an arrangement is a litmus test of the strength of the song.

“I’m happy to report that I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the arrangements in the other concerts. As an artist you have all kinds of doubts about the work. This process validates it somewhat.”

He says the classical world is very different from pop world “so it’s nice to have a handshake between the worlds.”

Mangan has also been writing for film and TV including for a movie featuring the british actor Simon Pegg called The Search For Happiness.

Mangan and his partner were even in that film “for 2 1/2 seconds.”

There is a lot of learning in film work, he said.

“I’m used to my vision being the purpose of the exercise. With movie you are a cog in a much larger wheel. It’s not your money on the line. You job is to turn director’s vision into a soundscape.”

It can be humbling to work on something for days and think it’s amazing, he said, and “send it in to the set somewhere in China and get a five word response saying, essentially ‘Nope.'”

He’s also helped develop an online community platform called Side Door that  connects hosts and artists for performances in every day spaces. This could be a living room or a bookstore, a gallery a backyard, you name it.

Side Door opens doors to artists and underserved communities, he said.

“Artists can make a living playing small shows with very little overhead.”

Side Door launched this past February and already some 1,800 artists and 750 hosts have signed up, he said. As well some 600 shows have been booked into 2020. It’s a very powerful tool.

He started music, he said “so I wouldn’t have to have a day job.” There is some irony then that Side Door is a day job. Maturity rocks.

Dan Mangan with the NAC Orchestra
Where: Southam Hall, NAC
When: Nov. 23 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.