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Lyrical Love Letters to Vancouver

In a city that can sometimes be hard to like (think housing crisis, aloof citizens and a ‘No Fun City’ rep), musician/songwriter Dan Mangan's songs are a nostalgic tribute to the place he knows is home.

Rebecca Bollwitt

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Recording artist Dan Mangan can make any song sad, but that brings him — and sold-out audiences across the country — a whole lot of joy.

The award-winning B.C.-born, Vancouver-based musician/songwriter will definitely crack a smile, beam with delight even, when talking about a venue full of fans singing along with him, the recent success of a whimsical single (Say When), and of course, his family. 

“I’ve always loved this city,” Mangan said while sitting in the window seat of a favourite local coffee shop in East Vancouver.

“I like how it smells. I like how many trees there are. And I love this neighbourhood. It’s amazing how you can go for a walk at like 6 or 7 p.m. on a Saturday and it’s just bustling. There’s so much life. There’s something really special about Vancouver.” 

Mangan, 40, grew up in Vancouver but spent a few childhood years back east before returning for Grade 9. The city has always played an important role in his music (at age 16, he and classmates started a band called Basement Suite) — not just formatively but also lyrically. 

Downtown Vancouver

 Digging through your bag 

Ripping out the pages

 Of the local music mag 

— Dan Mangan, “Tina’s Glorious Comeback” (Nice Nice Very Nice, 2009)

He’s lived in almost every neighbourhood, from UBC and South Vancouver, to Dunbar, Main Street and Kitsilano. He was a regular on the #4 or #7 bus.

“Much of my youth was spent headphones on, head against the window pane on the bus, listening to music, getting obsessed with music, and experiencing the rainy, grey, Pacific Northwest.” 

Most years, those moments last from October to April, watching water droplets streak across the glass horizontally as the bus picks up speed over the Granville Bridge. “I think that’s informed a lot of my music,” Mangan says. “I mean it’s a blessing and a curse, I guess, but I can take any song and make it sound sad, and I think Vancouver is imbued in that — in me.” 

The artist’s artist

Mangan has released six studio albums, several EPs and singles, and toured extensively in North America, Europe and Australia. He has won two JUNO awards for his 2012 album Oh Fortune (New Artist of the Year and Alternative Album of the Year), and has been Polaris Music Prize shortlisted three times for Nice Nice Very Nice (2010), Oh Fortune (2012) and Being Somewhere (2023). While he didn’t recently win the prize for which he was shortlisted in 2023, he was voted “Best Cardigan,” which he rightfully boasted about on social media.

As someone who has been around Vancouver most of his life, he’s seen his share of changes. With the housing crisis, venue closures and a crunch on the arts scene, Mangan says he’s less worried about Vancouver’s “No Fun City” moniker and more so about this becoming a “No Soul City.”

“I think that with the affordability squeeze, if we don’t have any more soul there’s not going to be much fun happening anyhow. I think that’s much more the thing that we need to worry about, which is keeping the city affordable for creative people. There has to be more to living here than just high property values. To me, I guess fighting the ‘No Fun City’ has never been my thing. Fighting the culture war is more appropriate.”

In 2017, Mangan co-founded Side Door, a community marketplace platform for the arts that seeks to democratize and decentralize the entertainment industry by allowing any space to be a venue. In 2022 he took this concept to the CBC television series Dragons’ Den and secured $500,000 in financing from VenturePark CEO Arlene Dickinson.

Mangan and co-founder Laura Simpson, a music promoter from Halifax, saw that artists were struggling to make a go of their music careers — partly because of the lack of suitable venues. The idea was to bridge the gap between people who have space for artists to perform and artists who need a venue. As of September 2023, Side Door has facilitated 2,271 shows and artists have earned more than $1.5 million.

Creating accessible spaces, and being accessible to fans, is essential for Mangan. In fact, if you follow him on social media or have been to one of his shows, you probably have his phone number, which he readily shares with audiences, encouraging them to text message him.

“Part of it is just pragmatic, having a career in the public sphere and maintaining an ongoing relationship with people that care about my music is beneficial to me in hopefully having a long career. The other part,” he added, “is in the sort of hierarchy of importance above father, husband, musician, artist, or citizen, or whatever just being a good human is at the top. I just want to be a good person, and a good person responds to messages.”

That being said, Mangan said it is possible to give too much of yourself and have nothing left for your own family. “

“I do want to have parts of my life that are inaccessible, that are just for my family and I, and I feel like that’s important too. You can’t put your whole life online. I feel like there has to be a healthy separation. The online version of yourself is always going to be manicured, through a filter through a lens, and I kind of struggle with that a little bit but at this point, it’s necessary.”

Headlining at the Vogue on Dec. 9

“There’s no career in music without social media presence. I sometimes think that if I had nothing to promote, if I wasn’t making music or whatever, I could just walk away from all social media, but it’s a great tool.”

It was that desire to spend more time with family that led to Mangan scoring the soundtrack for the feature film Hector And The Search For Happiness, starring Simon Pegg, as well as television shows for Netflix and AMC. That pursuit began in 2012, when his wife was pregnant with their first child (he’s now a father of two) and he had been touring extensively for the past five years.

“I said to my manager, ‘I need a year of no touring. It doesn’t mean I won’t play a show, but like I can’t do any big tours. I need some time off, we’re going to have a baby, I want to be home for the baby.’

And I do like the road 

But I’d be better at home

 I will pine for the oak streets 

And pine for the cedars and you

— Dan Mangan,”Pine for Cedars” (Nice Nice Very Nice, 2009)

“So magically right around that time, I got a phone call from a producer asking if I was interested in doing film scoring.”

Being self-taught and streetschooled musically, unable to read or write music, made the experience quite intense for Mangan, but as he admits, also really good for him.

He was also used to making all of the decisions musically, but was then a smaller cog in a much larger machine.

“It’s never going to be as fulfilling as writing my own music, but every time I’ve scored a TV show or a film, it has informed my other work in some way. The two work copacetically and it’s fun. I feel like it’s a nice thing to do every few years.” 

Hitting the road

 In support of his 2023 Polaris Music Prize shortlisted record, Being Somewhere, Mangan is touring across Canada this fall, accompanied by Canadian singer-songwriter Gabrielle Shonk and Aysanabee, an Oji- Cree singer-songwriter, also from Canada.

Mangan will be headlining a show at the Vogue in downtown Vancouver on Dec. 9. This will wrap up the Canadian stretch of the Going Somewhere Tour and he’ll have some time off through the new year before touring Europe in February and March.

“The tour is crazy, by far it’s the most extensive Canadian tour I’ve ever done. We really want to make this the most special show we’ve ever had. You always want to be improving. The show has developed into a pretty tender, intimate kind of a thing and I just want to up the ante.”

Mangan said they always try to create a very theatrical ending and they’ve got some surprises in store for audiences this time around, and he said it’s the best thing he and the band has ever done. 

It’s Christmas in Vancouver, no snowflakes falling down

Won’t all the cars be happy, the bike lanes go year round.

It’s Christmas in Vancouver, no need for tire chains

The heat from our hot yoga is fuelling climate change.

– Dan Mangan, “A Very Vancouver Christmas(CBC’s On the Coast, 2012)

Anyone who’s been to one of his shows or follows him on social media can see that performing is his passion. After a summer show at Deer Lake Park in Burnaby, where the crowd sang along to one of his tunes, Mangan told Instagram followers in a video the next morning that if he could do this forever, he’d be very happy.

“It never escapes me how fortunate I am. Obviously I want things to be bigger and brighter, and I want to be able to play to huge crowds all over the world. I have ambitions. I’ve always been really ambitious, but I’m also just really thankful that my wife and I are both self-employed artists, and that we can have a life here in Vancouver is really special.”

He hopes his best record is decades away yet, and for the time being he has a lot in him to share.

“Not everyone gets to do it forever. Or some people have a heyday when they’re young then sort of recede into the background, and I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to just scrape the barrel of 10 years ago, I want every record to stand on its own as a piece of work and I want my career to have eras in it.”

To complement 2022’s Being Somewhere, Mangan also released a single, “Say When,” in July of 2023, which was a bit of a departure — sounding like nothing else on the record.

“I think Being Somewhere is my best record, but there’s no obvious hit on that record, there’s no obvious charttopper. My label was like, ‘Do you want to just swing for the fences with a big silly hit in between, before you make your next record?’ And I was like, ‘Sure!’ ”

The truth is that nobody can predict a hit song and Mangan said you can’t just do the same thing over and over again if you want to flex different parts of your creative muscle.

“I had a blast making that song [“Say When”]. It’s an exciting song, it’s so fun. You can love “River” by Joni Mitchell and you also love “Buddy Holly” by Weezer, we all have room in our lives creatively for different things. Sometimes you want a really exciting pop song, and sometimes you want something that can lean your head against a window pane on a foggy night. It’s all just part of the journey.”

Filed under: Arts

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Rebecca Bollwitt

Rebecca Bollwitt


Rebecca Bollwitt has been writing about events and travel in B.C. since 2004 on the multi-award-winning blog Miss604.com. With 25 years of digital publishing experience, she has co-authored and technically edited five books on the subject, and founded her own agency which assists clients across North America with their social media strategies and website development. Community is at the heart of her mission, and Rebecca partners with and sponsors campaigns for more than 20 charities each year. She also serves as a board executive for two local non-profit organizations.

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