Unmaking Fear, Remaking Happiness

Music is the key to happiness, as my life’s research continues to inform such a hypothesis, it continues to be more and more true. Live music as an audience or performer continues to bring community together in delightful ways. As a hobby musician I have always greatly enjoyed being present while others explore musical topographies of placemaking. This quest has taken me through hills and valleys of emotion, road trips, and friendships. I am so very grateful for all of it. In early years, this was led by live folk concerts in Athabasca, AB; in recent years it has been the independent music production of friends and/or well-known musicians across Canada as I continue to seek out joy in each place I visit. (Thanks to parents for keeping the Alberta-Maritime duality alive!)

For over two years, the 17th of each month has been a day of synthesis, of surprises, and of inspiring moments which have continued to merge into each other. This month, June 2016, has been no less than the same kind of surprising wonderful.

While in Montreal recently I bought a book entitled DIY Magic, and while flipping through the short chapters, I stopped at chapter 17, curious about what it held. Mystically perfect, it was about bringing this kind of serendipity into our lives by welcoming patterns and supporting the factors which help contribute to increased collaboration. I chuckled, at this very synthesis reinforcing itself.

In mentioning this to fellow enthusiasts of living while in Montreal, they supported my wondering: what would take place on this 17th?

The answer was indeed a beautiful surprise, and a synthesis of many of the unravelings I have experienced since February 2014. Another neat form of influence on this reality, and because I’ve been opened and broken to see beautiful patterns, I smiled and savoured that perhaps the 17th is not just important to my own psychology, but important on the cosmic level.

Cosmic patterns notwithstanding, I am quite pleased with Dan Mangan’s ‘surprise’ release Unmake EP as a reminder and distillation of the wisdom of Club Meds.

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It is a self proclaimed artistic compilation of gratuitous play, as Dan wrote and refined his most recent full length album songs like Whistleblower came to be but didn’t have a place among the other songs. The internet seems to agree this EP release is a fine home for such gentle works.

I wholly enjoy the title ‘Unmake’ as it refers to the dissolution of what has been for 5+ years as his band formed around him and informed each new sound development. Loel (of Wintersleep) takes over on drums as Kenton Loewen focuses on more solo endeavours, though Gord Grdina remains as +Blacksmith is notably not a part of this new product. A stripped down solo structure for these songs is a continuation of the mini-tour Dan constructed in Fall 2015 through BC and Alberta. Hearing songs like ‘Vessel’ without the band or studio effects (or animated cartoons from the psychadelia-inspired video) was my first introduction to what this new sound might be like, patiently waiting for the next release.

Unmake also speaks to the subject matter of the poetry in Race to the Bottom – where the idea of destabilizing normal could actually be seen as progress in the eyes of individuals not benefitting from the corporate model of happiness. From his initial philosophy which helped get a Polaris Prize nod in 2010 “spent half my life in the customer service line” (Robots, NNVN) this angst and anxiety about the state of the world has only grown to be a deeper creative metaphor.

These songs can be understood as a snapshot of the realities of being a North American in 2016. We have an idealization of our lives dominating how we understand and interact with the world. The point of Kitsch, Forgetery (with Tegan), and these new additions ‘Whistleblower’ ‘Race to the Bottom’ + ‘Hang With Me’ (Robyn cover), are about embracing the alertness of vulnerability in daily interactions. To remember moments are both important and fleeting specks in time helps adjust our nostalgic tendencies.

During the performance with Nova Scotia Symphony in January 2016 Dan explained Kitsch to have a double meaning: both as the rustic style of craft and/or vintage home décor being ‘kitschy’ considered to be in poor taste but in an ironic or knowing way; but also the idealization of successful people to be heroes without seeing the human qualities of their living.

I am grateful for these opportunities I have seized to be witness to Dan’s live performances if only for these moments of wisdom. For, of all people to have kitschy idolation over, I have most commonly turned to Dan Mangan for his soothing tenor and conscious undoing of this mess of culture we’re in.

This EP has been received with mixed reviews, but those who get it are wholly appreciative. I had the opportunity to share ‘Race to the Bottom’ with my high school social studies teacher (a vegetarian social justice advocate, a guerrilla geographer and former soldier, presently taking great joy in retirement life in Northern Alberta forest and farms). He properly used the ‘sad face’ emoticon on Facebook to express how true this commentary is to the state of the world. It doesn’t offer many solutions but the perspective of the pale blue dot image for scale of our problems does capture the heart and purpose of living. It may not be a cheerful song, but a catchy hook with meaningful lyrics enables enjoyable reflection on these larger than life issues.

In the indie88 Facebook Live interview on the morning of June 17th, Dan reflects how they may not be happy songs but he is generally feeling pretty decent – these are not meant to be depressing. Merely reflective and encouragingly insightful. I hope to continue to use this music and other clever songwriting to enable conversation about interesting problems in the world. This is the ultimate way to find a solution, silence will never solve anything.

Regarding Robots – Dan is bringing it back to live shows without the expectation of making it bigger and better each time, but instead “playing it in the present rather than fulfill nostalgia.” It is a song of happy repetition, and of course one of his most famous works, but as mentioned in an interview in December 2015 “you go crazy doing the same kind of show over and over again.” I can only imagine.

In this vein, regarding both Redux-es, these ‘cover songs’ from Club Meds, a fascinating approach of: ‘can they survive a different treatment?’ is applied, and hearing Forgetery with Tegan Quin is a beautiful reminder of many possibilities within the same formula of music and lyrics. It was also key in this new project to engagingly empower strong women in the pop realm, which is a new trajectory from +Blacksmith being all males.

The way I understand it, fear is a crippling monster which will tell us not to say/think/do/believe something in the world but it will also limit our opportunity for joy. I have come to settle on this understanding in some part thanks to Dan’s own progression of life informing lyrics informing our audience’s reception. His song ‘Jude’ offers a meditation on maturation – ‘so much for fear’ being a focus of the lullaby to his son. It is also used as a score for Hector and the Search For Happiness, underscoring the importance to fight for a better world. We should not be afraid of our past, nor the uncertainties of the future. Race to the Bottom is a reminder of the trauma of daily life in the present which can be unsettling but we gain nothing by being afraid. We may not always be happy, but we are working to preserve the good in the world. This preservation of good maintains the memory of happiness, and ensures it is possible in the future, for prolonged generations to come.

A line from the film is inset into the cadence of lyrics in Race to the Bottom “nostalgia just isn’t what it used to be.” Upon rewatching the film I take great pleasure in seeing this crossover – clearly an artistic choice on Dan’s part, having been so involved in the production but also personally aligning with the sentimentality of the message of searching happiness in his work.

One lesson I take from a few days’ reflection is to Unmake the pillars of nostalgia in our memory banks, but keep the strength and joy and lessons. We are aware the colonial legacy of our ancestors is something which is now quite outdated. The world deserves our creativity to do the work of goodness.

This recurrence of serendipity will continue to guide my way through the world, but I have no way of knowing what it is I will discover as the 17th rolls around again. A philosophy which I began to be a peace with thanks to Dan’s assurance: serendipity is life.

In the wisdom of Hector’s journey seeking and studying happiness, we must learn (through whatever means necessary) to ‘take comfort in the rich, random patterns of life’ to reconcile our desire for happiness in the routine of the everyday.  Once we do, fear and sadness (under the code names anxiety and depression) continue to distance themselves from our daily reality.

 

Dan Mangan weaves Baskets of Forgetery with enthusiastic subtlety & activist melodies

Philosophical wonderings have been Dan Mangan’s blessing and curse for the extent of his career. he’s redefined what we can or should expect from radio play by questioning our expectations of ourselves. Self-indulgent lyrics became self-aware serenades with longstanding teamwork alongside the men of his complete band (newly titled + Blacksmith). 

This fall he forged a solo version of newest compositions as offerings of growth next to old favourites and softened his setlist with proper introductions to songs not often given the spotlight. Focusing on admonishing others producing valuable music, the tour focused on returning to bard-with-a-lute songmanship. Dan reflected on the importance to leave the band behind for this quick low-key tour. “i like that people can hear all the lyrics. i think it’s important to have variety. you go crazy doing the same kind of show over and over again.” Balancing solo shows with monumental orchestrations (Halifax January 2016), this philosophy is given life.

Whether referring to leaving Robots to fight for their own love, or revisiting the humble power of a single guitar, these words are penultimate to the work Dan has created. His intention to contribute a voice with value to the maddening soundscape informed Club Meds, the 2014 touring break, and film scores for Hector and the Search for Happiness and The Valley Below. 

JK: how does set list writing compare to an album order, in flexibility and in permanence?

DM: albums are totally self serving indulgences. it’s important to never ever think about what people might like because most of the time you’re wrong about what people like and you just need to trust your gut and try to imagine the rest of the world doesn’t exist. live shows are the opposite,.. you might not want to play particular songs but you have to check your ego a bit and realize that people are reserving an entire night of their all too short lives to be with you, and that some of them actually love your work (whether or not you think that work is worth loving) and they deserve some reciprocation.. so you play a mixture of what you want and what they want and hopefully there’s a lot of overlap.

On stage between songs, Dan’s poignant storytelling recalls moments from early solo tours as being less forgiving. These boyish habits of sneaky-kind-of-selfish double-sided comments informed 2009’s Nice, Nice, Very Nice; but figured out honest success comes from giving it everything you’ve got. He’s not everyone’s favourite pop star. His “sweet summer jams” aren’t professing love or pretending to. Comfortable in uncertainty, his voice resonates from dark, vulnerable places of personal anxieties wry with clever wit. 

In present day, he supports as he was supported. By individuals who give a damn. Always making time for a chat and an autograph, it is with sincere gratitude and a moments of human connection he still sustains his fan base. An audience extending to digital connection thanks to insta-updates and quick twitter quips, fulfilling our need for internet chatter.   

JK: Does it get overwhelming? 

DM: “It can. Everyone loves receiving compliments. So I take it in, express thanks, savour that moment.. When I’m home I set the experience aside and savour the present, try to forget about the rest…”

A friend to melancholy lyrics and experimental sound, the emotion rising from Dan’s growing discography resonates with hope. And despair. But a despair offering comfort, in the humanity of it all. My curiosity and attachment to this soundscape was due to this vulnerability exposed and explored, resonating with my own insecurities.

I grow more curious about the intent of messaging in each fragment of lyrics I choose to digest. When I first began absorbing the complicating statements of this discography, they eroded such damning complacency of sociocultural patterns from adolescence. Existential, intelligent lyrics promised hope, beyond stifling rural simplicity and shrouded media messaging of the early 2000s.

I asked Dan about the particular lyricsm and context of his body of work relating to the dynamic changes involved in this newer album’s composite flair since adding + Blacksmith as an equalizing moniker. His response reaffirms a progressive songwriting style, as well as having independent value and meaning.

would you liken Mouthpiece (a song of statements) to Jeopardy (a song of questions), as a response? 

interesting connection. i suppose, to some extent, both songs are the opposite of what they are. jeopardy is full of questions, but feels rhetorical and manipulative, because there are answers implied (“what happens when all flags burn together? is that unity?). mouthpiece is chalk full of statements, but there’s a bit of a self awareness to the onslaught of self indulgent musings (even calling it mouthpiece), which opens up questions about where all those statements come from and how much should we be critical of their certainties? i guess what i’m saying is, questions or answers, it’s all a bit in the air, isn’t it

Club Meds’ casual genius reflects personal and professional growth in musicianship. It doesn’t sound recycled from anything else, yet is a simple culmination of influences. He cites Margaret Atwood as post-apocalyptic literary guidance for lines “books we tried to burn” and claims his spirit animal is a bookshelf. (link) His art remains smart, with a smattering of self-indulgent reflection… bringing clarity to those of us on the receiving end overwhelmed by conflicting biases of living.

Dan’s hope carries political musings as rooted storytelling to various niche baskets of ‘wicker-enthusiasts’ around the world, and exposes vulnerability and acute awareness of our sedation. If it means spending the next 5 years with Club Meds underscoring our cultural understanding in an updated version of Nice Nice Very Nice pleading love for robots, I’ll buckle up for the ride.

“‘Cause when I taste it – just one moment of TRUTH – what I’m wishing would linger seems to leave me. And I fear that distraction ever near me. So I’m open and broken. Feels like teething. The sweet pain of the PROCESS. Forgetery. Forgetery alive and well.” – Forgetery, CLUB MEDS. (2015)