At first, Grant Lawrence was skeptical about the strange, bearded singer-songwriter who seemed intent on ruining his Christmas party.
As a veteran Vancouver punk rocker and host on CBC Radio 3, a publicly run station exclusively dedicated to airing Canadian indie music, Lawrence’s annual holiday gatherings drew music biz types from around the city to his apartment where they would take in acoustic sets by local bands then inevitably drink too much. But around 11 p.m. — long after the guitars were stowed and the booze was flowing — when his pals in indie-pop outfit Said the Whale requested he turn down the stereo to give an unknown eager beardo, Dan Mangan, a chance to sing, Lawrence was reluctant.
“I’m like, ‘This is going to be awful.’ But the Said the Whale guys said, ‘No, no no. You’ve got to trust us. Let this guy play,’ ” remembers Lawrence. “I introduce him to this party of 65 or 70 people packed into my apartment and they fall pin-drop silent. Dan Mangan was able to silence every single drunken slob in this room. Everyone at the party was like, ‘Who is this guy?’ “
Five years after that surprising December night, they know. Mangan, 29, has since won two Juno awards, an XM Verge nod for artist of the year, and a Polaris Prize shortlist nomination for 2009’s Nice, Nice, Very Nice. Furthermore, the quirky, romping earworm he debuted that long ago night has prompted singalongs in sold out theaters across his native Canada. Now, he’s looking to grow crowds south of the border, playing a smattering of American tour dates and festival stops this summer with plans to return in the fall. “He’s way too big to play our little Christmas party now,” says Lawrence. “But that’s a cool thing.”
Mangan’s success hasn’t been nearly as meteoric (or widespread in the U.S.) as, say, fellow Canucks Grimes or the Weeknd — after all, he already has three albums to his name — but with characteristic humility, the baritone attributes his recent winning streak to a fair bit of luck. “I think we caught a lot of breaks and a lot of things went our way that didn’t necessarily have to,” he says from a community center in Trier, Germany before soundcheck. “Every day the idea and scope of what you think is possible changes and grows, but the method is still the same. It has to come down to making the best music that you can. Buzz and hype and all that stuff is fleeting and it can go away very quickly if you don’t focus on the things that got you [attention] in the first place.”
Recently, though, that focus shifted from the earthy, earnest folk tunes that first won him a loyal legion of fans (whom Lawrence dubs the “Dan Mangan army”) to a more experimental bend that culminated in last fall’s Oh Fortune. Sure, Mangan still strums an acoustic guitar and unleashes that distinct growl, but now it’s marked by noisy atmospheric rumblings (“If I Am Dead”), raucous drums (“Rows of Houses”), and free-flowing sax (“Jeopardy”).
For this release, Mangan — who describes his songwriting process as “very slow” and driven by “little notes and phrases and thoughts” — sketched songs during three years on road then fleshed them out with his band of free-jazz players. “When I started hanging out with him … more than anything there was an honesty in what he was doing that I appreciated,” says drummer Kenton Loewen. “He’s developed a lot, how he approaches his writing. I feel like he’s come into his own in a really different way. If we kept making Nice, Nice, Very Nice I wouldn’t be interested anymore. It’s about development.”
While Mangan found inspiration in stories gleaned from films, theater, and politics, the singer tapped into especially morbid themes while crafting new songs. (Three songs on the new album explicitly mention death.) “I’m kind of surprised that people are so surprised that I could be a happy guy who thinks about death,” he says. “I just think about the world and what I want to do in my time here and death happened to be on my mind, but so did joy and so did life. For me, creating things is very much therapeutic and it creates this catharsis. It’s healthy to talk about these things.”
The doom and gloom didn’t scare off the Juno jury, who saw fit to nominate Mangan for more awards this year than Justin Bieber. In the end, he garnered New Artist of the Year and Alternative Album of the Year wins. While Lawrence deems the honors his “coming out on a national stage,” Mangan all but shrugs. “I understand that winning awards does a lot to introduce more people to my music,” he says, “so that’s really exciting. At the same time, as soon as it’s done you have to forget it ever happened and put your head back to the pavement and just keep working.”