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Dan Mangan Gives Us A Walking Tour Of Commercial Drive

Full of kindness and empathy, the Vancouver songwriter's latest serves as a gentle reminder to appreciate what you have before it's gone.

by Leslie Ken Chu

“This neighbourhood looks like the world. My kids go to a school that is white minority, which is cool because the world is white minority. They’re getting an experience that’s real.”

Dan Mangan and I are walking down Commercial Drive, one of the most vibrant neighbourhoods in Vancouver, BC. Its beating heart lies in its cultural and socioeconomic diversity and abundance of amenities including playgrounds where, as a father, he spends much of his time.

Though Mangan was born in Smithers, BC, he and his family lived in Vancouver until he was six, when his parents divorced. He and his mother returned eight years later, after living throughout Ontario. Six years ago, Mangan, his wife, and their children moved to the Drive, the scene of his formative musical years.

“Back in the day, when I was starting out, [Commercial Drive] is where a lot of music was happening. The poetry scene was huge here. I’d play house concerts around here. We’d gather at Jess Hill‘s house.”

As we pass by Cafe Deux Soleil, a beloved restaurant and community art space, Mangan says, “I remember seeing poetry slams and open mics here and thinking, ‘I hope I can play here sometime.’ I remember seeing the Fugitives and Shane Koyczan performing here.” After 28 years, Cafe Deux Soleil announced its permanent closure two days before our conversation.

Mangan grapples with this sort of loss—of whoever or whatever stands as your compasson his sixth solo LP, Being Somewhere. Despite feeling isolated and helpless, the album’s protagonists are always spirited back towards hope. In defiance of life’s fleeting nature, Being Somewhere is a reminder to appreciate what you have before it’s gone, like his cherished memories of Cafe Deux Soleil.

Produced by Drew Brown (Radiohead, Beck), Being Somewhere is built on sparse, fluttering arrangements of warm synth pads, swirling electronics, knotty percussion, and ephemeral harps. Mangan calls Brown’s insistence on simplicity “ruthless” but acknowledges that it allows the songs to breathe, adding subtlety that encourages listeners to lean forward and pay attention to the music.

Mangan began writing Being Somewhere in 2018. The album took two-and-a-half years to complete because the pandemic forced him and Brown, who’s based in Chicago, to work via long distance. Mangan admits the recording process was “pandemic-y,” and though Being Somewhere ruminates on loneliness and fear, to call the album a pandemic record would be reductive; those emotions are evergreen.

As an antidote, Being Somewhere drives home the point that it’s cool to care about others. “There is a tenderness in the zeitgeist; for example, people talking about having safe spaces and taking mental health breaks and cancelling their tours because of mental health,” Mangan says, noting a sea change in public attitude.

Over a beat that throbs like a resting heart, the narrator on “Easy” begs someone to pluck them from their lethargy and despair, with casual hangs like watching a sunset. “I want this record to be the person that the narrator in ‘Easy’ is asking for,” Mangan says.

One of the most poignant lines on Being Somewhere appears on the track “Wish I Was Here.” “Can I help you be still?” Mangan asks over skittering percussion and light stereo panning that creates a sense of restlessness. “In a world that’s constantly moving, that demands something of you all the time, I want people to sit with headphones and let this record in and help them be still, because it’s in those moments that you are refuelled.”

In Mangan’s own moments of need, his family centres him. They’re a north star that quells his sense of dislocation; instead of merely “being somewhere,” with his family, he’s exactly where he needs to be first and foremost. “It’s so grounding because it gives you this default position, which is be at home.”

With such love comes the constant terror that something bad’s going to happen. “’No Tragedy Please’ is about the desire to hold on and not let anything bad happen to it,” Mangan explains. On the bright side, he observes, “The beauty, power, poetry, marvel, and bewilderment [of life] is in the fact that everything beautiful will be gone and will be reborn, and it will become beautiful again. But it’s all in this great cycle of letting things go. I couldn’t have written that song if I didn’t have kids.”

Many of Mangan’s friends have left Vancouver, but several of his established musician friends still live within blocks of the Drive. “We are part of the gentrifying in an already expensive city. We’re white people from elsewhere.” Conscious of their role in the area’s rapid change, he takes nothing for granted. “All you can do is hope you’re bringing something, getting involved in the community. There’s little things you can do to try and feed and nourish your local community and fill it with as much kindness as possible.”

Though existential questions loom large over Mangan, staying present and realizing that beauty always springs from loss help him appreciate the place he calls home. That, too, will disappear one day, but for now, he’s found stillness beneath the clouds.

Read Dan Mangan’s interview with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy