With a new sound and a new venture, an Airbnb network for concerts: Dan Mangan is keeping busy

Dan Mangan

Dan Mangan performs two shows in the GTA this week: a sold out solo affair at the Great Hall’s Longboat Hall on Jan.19 and a free performance with his band in Stouffville at the Wintersong Music Festival on Jan. 20.

By Nick Krewen

Special to the Star

When you hear Being Somewhere, Dan Mangan’s sixth and latest album, you may notice something a little different about his voice.

You’re not hearing things: the two-time Juno Award winner admitted a combination of health issues and a new stylistic approach made his appealing tenor sound a little more restrained than usual.

There was vocal exhaustion,” Mangan admitted recently from his car in Vancouver, minutes after dropping off his kids at school. “It’s a probably a combination of TMJ (temporomandibular joint) in my jaw and acid reflux and years of bad habits. And during the pandemic, man, everybody was doing Zoom meetings all the time. And I’d find that after a couple of meetings, I’d just have nothing left … no voice.”

Mangan said he worked with speech therapists and vocal coaches to remedy the malady.

“I almost had to relearn to sing,” said Mangan, 39. “Part of it is that I’m not that young anymore — I can’t wail. And that was a tool that I always had in my arsenal — I could just bellow. I could stand in the middle of a huge club and my voice would carry over everybody else’s. I’m just not a young buck anymore. I can’t really do that.”

But health wasn’t the only issue.

“Throughout all of this, Drew Brown — the producer of Being Somewhere — was always encouraging me to sing just above a whisper. And really, it was just a stylistic choice — he just preferred that range of my voice and was always encouraging me to use that when we were tracking.

“So, it is a different approach…I’m much more in tune and my voice has a lot more tonality to it. When you’re not jamming so much information into a microphone, the microphone can do its job and pull out all that richness or whatever else you’re putting into it.

The vocals are much more strange and whispery and stuff but I have to say that despite all the struggle and years of lost sleep worrying about losing my voice and being able to tour, we just came back from Europe in November and my voice held up great. A lot of it is just warming up and approach and technique.”

You’ll be able to judge for yourself when Mangan performs two very different shows in the Toronto area this week: a sold out solo affair at the Great Hall’s Longboat Hall on Jan. 19 and a free performance with his band in Stouffville at the Wintersong Music Festival on Jan. 20 (Ombiigizi opens; Stars and Men Without Hats appear Saturday.)

The veteran singer and songwriter says the Longboat show — An Evening With Dan Mangan — was initially road-tested in smaller coastal towns like Squamish, B.C.

“Last year, by happenstance, I played a handful of solo shows mostly in tiny little towns and they were a blast,” he recalled. “I did a show in Squamish and I stayed on stage for two-and-a-half or three hours. I scrapped the set list, took requests and told stories. It was so much fun — and I thought, ‘these solo shows, I always do them in small towns — I never do them in major cities.’ So this was an opportunity to do something small, quaint and intimate in major cities.

At Longboat Hall, it’s only going to be me: No pretence, no big lights or smoke show — just hanging with me for a couple of hours and I’ll tell stories and take requests.”

The Wintersong Music Fest will be a more conventional Dan Mangan appearance with bandmates Don Kerr (Rheostatics, Ron Sexsmith) on drums, guitarist Mike O’Brien (Zeus) on guitar and Jason Haberman (Zeus/Yukon Blonde) on bass.

“I feel very lucky to have this band,” said Mangan. “We spent a month in Europe together in a van and there was not a passive-aggressive moment. Everybody was enjoying themselves and giggling the whole time.”

Mangan promises that a full-blown Canadian band tour will occur in the fall, since he wants to promote Being Somewhere, a project that took over two-and-a-half years to record — mainly in isolation — while everyone took pandemic precautions. But he says that not all the nine songs that comprise the album are related to life as affected by virus.

“You’ve got to be careful, right? Because if you write an album about being in a pandemic, when the pandemic is over, the album is already irrelevant,” Mangan explained. “When you listen to old Bob Dylan songs that are political, they’re still relevant today because the kind of struggle or injustice or dynamics at play at the time are ones that are timeless.

“So, if you’re writing a good song, you really need to try and not get toospecific. I cringe every time I hear someone use a phrase like ‘trolling on my phone,’ because it takes you out of the universal, in a way.

“I was writing about things that were unquestionably pandemic-related. ‘Fire Escape’ was written in June 2020, as all the outrage and protest about (the police-instigated murder) of George Floyd was going down. Some made it into the songs, as I was feeling a lot of the same feelings that people were going through and wanted to articulate them, but I was cognizant the whole time that I didn’t want a record that would only make sense in the context of the pandemic.

“Hopefully, that’s what the songs are doing: they are sort of fuelled by some of those moments, and yet, speak to things that are a little bit more timeless.”

Due to pandemic isolation protocols, Mangan left it to producer Drew Brown — who has worked with Radiohead, Beck and Paul McCartney, among many — to choose the musicians that contributed to Being Somewhere, including ace session drummer Joey Waronker (Atoms For Peace, Roger Waters), guitarist Jason Falkner (St. Vincent, Jellyfish), keyboardist Thomas Bartlett (Taylor Swift, Florence and The Machine), Dave Okumu (Adele, Amy Winehouse), harpist Mary Lattimore (Kurt Vile, Sharon Van Etten) and Toronto’s own Broken Social Scenester, Kevin Drew.

I have to give a lot of credit to Drew Brown,” said Mangan. “I gave him the keys to the car and said, ‘Here you drive.’ He was in Chicago. I was in Vancouver.”

“In a way, it was an incredible experience because I really had to let go. I’m pretty used to being hands-on in a fairly dictatorial way, and in this case, there were times where three weeks or months would go by, and I’d be waiting to hear back about what was going on. It was this drawn out process.

“And in truth, I wasn’t really in a rush to release a record during the pandemic. I think it all worked out.”

And speaking of Brown’s McCartney connection, Mangan recalled meeting the famous Beatle when he was recording his More or Less album in Los Angeles in 2018.

Paul McCartney popped into the studio for a second, and just said, ‘Oops! Sorry,’” Mangan remembers. “And we all looked at him — that’s Paul McCartney! I think he was working with (producer) Greg Kurstin on Egypt Station, and so they pulled him back into the studio and we chatted with him for 25 minutes.

“I got coffee an hour later and he was just leaving the studio. He told me, ‘Oh yeah … just thinking about your song.’ We chatted a little bit and I texted my parents — ‘I just met Paul McCartney!’ He made some recommendations on our song ‘Lay Low,’ that we ended up scrapping. But we joked about cheekily giving him a writing credit on that song so his name would be next to mine.”

Mangan is also busy running the business he owns with entrepreneur Laura Simpson called Side Door that they formed in 2017, at the same time he was recording the album.

Side Door, an innovative marketplace for shows in alternative venue spaces, found Mangan and Simpson appearing recently on Dragon’s Den to secure $500K in funding from angel investor Arlene Dickinson.

“Yeah, we got offered a deal from Arlene,” Mangan confirmed. “Side Door is clipping along — it’s about 6,000 artists and 3,000 spaces in North America. It’s akin to an Airbnb network for concerts.

“The goal that we have is very lofty: if Side Door could become a large and legitimate part of the live entertainment escape, what that would mean is a world where there is more art in unlikely places all the time. Everybody wins: artists get paid, make a living and build followings; hosts get to curate art for their communities — and audiences would have access to awesome artistic experiences happening right in their neighbourhoods.

With the controversial concept of dynamic ticket pricing settling into large venues promoting superstar acts, does Mangan envision Side Door as a solution to the trend?

“I don’t know if we’re the answer, but we are certainly an alternative,” he replied. “The issue is that everybody wants to see Taylor Swift. Everybody wants to see Beyoncé. Everybody wants to see Billie Eilish. And when you have these absolute gargantuan megastars, there’s a disproportionate supply-and-demand.

“Whereas, if we had hundreds of thousands of middle-ground artists, we would be artistically satiated closer to home without people needing to spend $600 to go to a massive venue. That’s my take — and I think that Side Door is a way that people can participate and be involved in live entertainment in ways that they never anticipated, but which could be incredibly fulfilling in their life: not just in the audience, but as a stakeholder in the industry as a DIY/promoter/host.”