The solo singer songwriter jumps on the band bandwagon
by Craig Silliphant
Dan Mangan + Blacksmith
Up to this point, Dan Mangan has been handing in albums like 2010’s Polaris-shortlisted Nice, Nice, Very Nice and 2011’s Juno-winning Oh Fortune, which had earned him comparisons to artists like Nick Drake, Bon Iver and The Swell Season.
Nice had some sparse, sad songs, but also tracks like “Robots” — cute and quirky in a cheek-pinching sort of way. Oh Fortune was more lush and orchestral, as Mangan grew more sure-footed in both his writing and delivery. But his latest album, Club Meds, sees another evolution in Mangan’s sound: it’s dreamy and narcotic, like a hazy gauze covering your eyes, with things becoming clearer as row upon row is unravelled.
This metaphor extends not only to the music, but also to the lyrics (which have a strong socio-political bent), as if lifting a shroud off this fucked up world to explore it for what it really is.
“I’ve done the singer/songwriter thing,” says Mangan over the phone from his home in Vancouver. “It’s kind of where I came from. When I was really invested in that world and in that sound, I really believed it and that’s what I wanted to do. And this is kind of what I want to do now.”
The new album has jettisoned comparisons to willowy folk singers in favour of association with acts like Peter Gabriel or Radiohead. And while Mangan’s name and songwriting is still front and centre, he credits a lot of the sound to his band, Blacksmith — so much so that they’ve now become part of the official moniker: Dan Mangan + Blacksmith.
The name Blacksmith comes from the idea of the meeting point between craftsmanship and artistry, says Mangan.
“Musicians spend their lives in dank basements,” he says, “toiling away with their instruments, their tools. It’s reminiscent of a romantic, nostalgic ideal of the smiths. [Blacksmith’s members] all come from quite a different musical background than I do. I come from a kind of street-schooled, singer/songwriter thing — and they’re all seasoned jazz, avant garde, experimentalist kind of people. This cross-pollination of ideas has become really great.”
Mangan says they probably would’ve made the name change earlier if they hadn’t been so busy touring to keep up the momentum of both Nice and Oh Fortune.
“I felt like I was getting all this luck tossed at me and the second I stopped, the horseshoes were going to fall out of my ass,” he laughs.
After those album cycles, they stopped touring for a couple of years and took time to focus on other projects, as well as their actual lives. When they came back to it, it felt like a new thing — the beginning of a new era, as clearly marked as sediment layers on a cliff.
“It’s hard to turn a large ship, a fast-moving ship,” Mangan says. “But the ship had slowed down enough that we could sort of move it in a new direction.”
The other factor that Mangan cites for this new turn was the birth of his child, Jude. He retreated into family life for a while, he and his wife raising their son. This gave him some time to think about what was going on in the world, from the Arab Spring to Trayvon Martin. Lyrics and themes on Club Meds formed as Mangan tried to reconcile his happy home life with the world’s scariness.
“And also, trying to be an example for a kid and saying, ‘what kind of musician do I want to be? What kind of person do I want to be?’,” says Mangan. “If I’m going to be a musician, I’m going to be a musician that’s trying to do something that’s artful and relevant. I think that gave me some confidence to step forward with the socio-political stuff,” he says.
The major theme behind Club Meds is what Mangan refers to as “sedation in the face of reality,” — the way we hide from the real world with everything from following celebrity gossip to gobbling up Xanax in order to dull our senses to the important noise of the world.
“It can be narcotics, over-the-counter,” he says, “it can be booze, all kinds of things. But it can also be the quiet, wilful blindness to everything. Life is chaotic and complicated and difficult, so I understand the attraction to turning off. More than anything, this album isn’t about, ‘Wow, we really fucked up and we failed and we’re terrible.’ It’s more about, ‘If we can be honest with ourselves about our failures, then we’ll come to accept ourselves a little more deeply and find more compassion and more peace.’”
Club Med’s cinematic music can be traced back to some recent soundtrack work that Mangan did for the Simon Pegg film Hector and the Search for Happiness. And a little piece of trivia: through Hector director Peter Chelsom, Mangan met Dave Grohl, who ended up doing a cameo on Meds.
“I can’t claim that we’re best buds or anything,” Mangan says. “I think I was kind of in the right place at the right time. He liked the song, so I sent him the bed tracks and he did a bunch of recording overtop of it. He cameos on stuff all the time — he’s a really sneaky guy like that. We had to be really careful about how we approached it, in terms of we have this major superstar on our album [but] we can’t just flog that and ride his coattails.
That said, if they wanted to take us on tour with them, I wouldn’t say no.”
Dan Mangan + Blacksmith play with Hayden and Astral Swans at Darke Hall on Saturday, March 7. Doors at 7:30 p.m.