It’s something we all want. It’s something we all think we have. Yet it’s something few truly understand, and many misunderstand. Lack of perspective keeps some from getting the most out of life and others remaining bitter, angry, and out-of-touch to the world’s realities. Still others view the world from too narrow a perspective that closes their eyes to what matters most. One definition, according to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, is “a mental view of the relative importance of things.”
Perspective is something Dan Mangan sings about a lot on his latest album Oh, Fortune, released in September. It’s one of many themes and metaphors he mines from the recesses of his mind. The Vancouver singer-songwriter’s last disc Nice, Nice, Very Nice (2009) certainly exceeded his expectations; it helped him put his music career into perspective while opening many doors. The record was his coming-out party, if you will. It was shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize, it won iTunes Album of the Year in the singer-songwriter category, and he was named XM The Verge Artist of the Year, an honour that came with a $25,000 prize..
“What I’ve learned is that it’s okay to not have the right answer… I don’t need to suffer because I haven’t figured it out.”
Words + Music caught up with Mangan in the musician’s perennial home away from home – the tour van – following the white line and passing the time talking about the 11 choice cuts on Oh, Fortune, which debuted at No. 9 on the Soundscan charts.
One of the songs that speaks directly about perspective is “Leaves, Trees, Forest.” “That song is about isolation, and it’s also about perspective,” says Mangan. “The idea is that when you are focused on the leaves, then all you see are the leaves. When you focus on the tree, you forget the leaf, and all you see is the tree. Then, when you look at a great distance, you see the forest in its entirety. You are now so disconnected from how incredibly intricate and marvellous that leaf was in the first place.
“That’s a metaphor for a lot of things,” he adds. “The world is very chaotic with a lot going on… Trying to give yourself as much perspective as you can is really all you can do. What I’ve learned is that it’s okay to not have the right answer. It’s okay to say, it’s bigger than me and I don’t need to suffer because I haven’t figured it out.”
Like Grammy-award winner Daniel Lanois, Mangan is also fascinated by sonic textures. He appreciates both the sounds and the emotional places where they take him. “I love how different sounds make me feel,” he says.
On Oh, Fortune, those sounds lead down some roads less taken. The literate songsmith opens listeners’ eyes and ears to many issues without preaching or teaching. Through metaphor and music, Mangan sends a message; but, when asked about it, he says he’s not trying to enlighten anybody.
“I don’t give myself enough credit to do that,” he says. “It’s just my own mental process to take the thoughts in my head and put them to music… I’ve written a lot of songs in my life. I’ve changed perspective of the songwriter and that voice. My last record, a lot of it was stream-of-consciousness and my perspective.
“With this record, there are more narratives – fictional or non-fictional characters,” Mangan continues. “We [me and my band] spend a lot of time on the road, and we meet a ton of people – gas station attendants in the middle of nowhere, for example. You stop, top up the tank, buy a cup of coffee, and you look at someone and you think, ‘What is your life like?’ It’s got to be very different from mine. Having spent the last few years travelling around the world, it’s inspiring. It reminds you how different everyone is.”
While Mangan feels the new record is the “most honest representation of my thoughts and the noises in my head,” the cut he’s most proud of is “Jeopardy.” The song starts off very personally and then branches into broader territory.
“It’s a very healthy thing to get vulnerable sometimes,” Mangan explains. “One of the lines in that song I am most proud of is: ‘What happens if all flags burn together?’ It’s this idea that everybody has this age-old one-up on each other, looking at each other and seeing where they stand in the structure. If I burn my flag and you don’t burn yours, it’s sort of like I’ve gotten vulnerable and you haven’t.
“You don’t want to get vulnerable,” he adds. “But what if we all burn the flags at the same time and just go back to zero? Maybe that’s unity… Maybe that’s letting go and all being vulnerable together.”