The Hippo


May 28, 2020








Dan Mangan and Blacksmith. Courtesy photo.

Dan Mangan + Blacksmith

When: Friday, June 5, at 8 p.m.
Where: Music Hall Loft, 131 Congress St., Portsmouth
Tickets: $16 at

Mangan builds on Canada home success with US tour

By Michael Witthaus

Dan Mangan is an artist of renown in his native Canada, a two-time Juno winner and Polaris Award shortlister. On May 15, Mangan and his band Blacksmith were named Alternative Artist or Group of the Year at SiriusXM Indie Awards. 

Success south of the border is proving more elusive, however. 
The singer-songwriter looks to move the needle a bit with a short U.S. tour that includes two dates opening for the Decembrists. The eight-show run wraps up June 5 at Portsmouth’s Music Hall Loft.
“The States are such a big fish to fry,” said Mangan by phone from his home in Vancouver. “We haven’t really had our big break down there, but we’re gonna keep plodding away.”
Employing the collective pronoun to discuss his music is a fairly recent and very liberating habit for Mangan, who spent the early aughts playing solo. That began to change in 2009 when he recruited future Blacksmith members Kenton Loewen and Gordon Grdina for his second album, Nice, Nice, Very Nice.
Where did the collaborative urge come from? 
“The short answer could be loneliness,” he replied with a laugh. 
But there was something else tugging at him. 
“I didn’t want to fall into the hands of what I saw happening in the community … this sort of indie folk sound,” he said, spitting out the last three words like bits of sour fruit. 
Restless and inspired, he turned to the rich underground scene in his hometown. 
“I really just wanted to tap into that,” Mangan said. “In hindsight, I realize I’d fallen ass backwards into the hands of some of the heaviest experimental musicians in Western Canada. So it’s kind of a miracle in a way.”
He made 2011’s Oh Fortune with the band — and an über list of guest players. But Club Meds, released in January 2015, is the first record credited to Dan Mangan + Blacksmith. For Mangan, the name reflects seriousness of purpose — “The guys in this band are very much career musicians. They are lifelong,” he said — but also something seasoned and timeworn.
“In an age when you can find out how to do anything, from tie a tie to change a carburetor, with a YouTube tutorial, something should be said for a trade or occupation, a thing you spend a million hours doing,” said Mangan. “I think there is something romantic about … someone toiling away in a sweaty dank workshop and crafting pieces, objects, instruments and sending them off into the world. In a way, I feel that is kind of what you do with songs and records.”
As Mangan talks, it’s clear that with Blacksmith, he’s the inversion of a bandleader; the ensemble shapes his creative process like a hammer bending steel. He explains that on a classic singer-songwriter record, music is typically used as “a canvas, an infrastructure, and you just throw a vocal way above it [to] make sure everyone can hear every lyric. This music was so much more elaborate than everybody just playing along; to all of a sudden just cast that aside [for a] big crystal clear vocal … didn’t make sense.”
As a result, Mangan’s voice is an instrument on Club Meds, sometime fed through guitar pedals or inventively woven through many elements. Lyrically, however, Mangan is vital as ever; this is the most pointedly topical effort of his career. For that, he again credits his band with prodding him as a songwriter.  
“I would write these songs and they seemed more charming and cute and kind of wistful,” he said. “Then in the van I would be on some tirade about societal hypocrisy and the guys in the band would say, ‘Why don’t you write about that?’ I think it just took me a long time to figure out how.”
One of the album’s most powerful songs, “Mouthpiece,” took over a year to write. With images of book burning inspired by Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and lines about being “pummeled by the certainty of millions,” it’s a bracing call to arms. “Offred,” another track drawn from an Atwood novel, and “Vessel” both rail against conformity. In the latter, he memorably sings “it takes a village to raise a fool.” 
Mangan’s aggressive songwriting stance is one he feels many of his fellow troubadours have abandoned. 
“Now it’s dudes from Detroit and Ferguson — it’s happening way more in hip-hop,” he said. “In the folk community, everyone’s wearing vests and fedoras and singing about mountains and love. It seems a little bit too … what’s the word — mediocre. I would rather something was a little bit daring.” 
As seen in the June 4, 2015 issue of the Hippo.

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