Dan Mangan needs to clear the air: Winning a pair of 2012 Juno awards, Canada's equivalent of the Grammy, has not gone to his head. He says there's zero truth to the rumors Mangan now requires friends and family to refer to him as "Two-Juno Dan."
"Yeah, I've taken to getting introductions every time I enter a room," the 29-year-old musician jokes, dropping into an emcee voice: "Now, please welcome two-time Juno-winning idiot Dan Mangan!"
That bit's funnier if you're aware of Mangan's reputation as one of the humblest musicians on the fertile Canadian rock scene. Unless you're a close follower of that circuit, you may not even be cognizant of Mangan's existence. Among U.S. music fans, he's arguably the least-known of the acts in the Alternative Album of the Year category he won. His Oh, Fortune beat out LPs by New Pornographer Dan Bejar's Destroyer, Matador Records' punk provocateurs Fucked Up, Nick Cave acolytes Timber Timbre and shoegaze revivalists Braids.
Then again, maybe Juno voters don't know that much about Mangan either, since they also awarded him New Artist of the Year despite his having released three full-lengths since his 2003 debut EP, All At Once. But Mangan, who plays the Neighborhood Theatre solo with Blind Pilot on Thursday, doesn't seem concerned with any of this.
"It was a strange weekend for me," Mangan says of the televised award ceremonies, conceding he also had a great time. "But a week later I was almost happy to forget that it had happened and move on to trying to play good shows and write more music."
That blue-collar ethic won Mangan his early following. At age 20, he released his 2005 debut full-length, Postcards and Daydreaming, written under the romantic spell cast by the troubadours he'd grown up listening to — Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, etc. With a gift for clever storytelling, he fancied himself a fellow traveler, relentlessly touring Canada, the U.S. and Europe, often for just 20 or 30 dollars, pounds or Euros a gig.
During those peregrinations, Mangan wrote the songs for 2010's Nice, Nice, Very Nice, whose title he pinched from Kurt Vonnegut's novel Cat's Cradle. Mangan's arch wordplay and increasing pop sensibilities hit a nerve, charming listeners and the Canadian music press. It was shortlisted for a Polaris music prize — Canada's other top award.
But while touring for that record, Mangan says he underwent a "great transformation." With the extra liquidity brought in by Nice's success, Mangan hired a full-time touring band. He then raided Vancouver's avant-garde music underworld, pulling in experimental music big dogs such as Gordon Grdina, Peggy Lee, Jesse Zubot and arranger Eyvind Kang.
"I'd enlisted these players who were blowing my mind every night," he says. "All of a sudden it wasn't me writing and figuring out the songs until they were 95 percent done and then bringing in the band to just play along with it."
That's obvious in Oh, Fortune's more dynamic songwriting. The music shifts between quiet verses and rousing choruses, organic horns and strings contrasting with electronic textures and sonic maelstroms. Lyrically, Mangan turns from singer-songwriter fare to broad-brushstroke themes.
The question for Mangan was no longer the one every journalist was asking: How will you follow up on Nice? Instead, his entire paradigm shifted. In conjunction with his bandmates, he tasted the thrill of stepping outside one's comfort zone. Moving forward was now all that mattered.
"In order to have a great body of work, you have to evolve and grow and change," he says, applying that same idea to the simplistic notion that Oh, Fortune is a sad record. "It's kind of a victorious record, in that I want to suggest that having a deadline — knowing that you're going to die — is a really good kick in the ass to go and do some awesome things."
And maybe in surprising yourself, others will surprise you by acknowledging it with a gaudy award. Just ask ol' Two Junos.
Dan Mangan with Blind Pilot. $15-$30. June 7. 8 p.m. Neighborhood Theatre. www.neighborhoodtheatre.com.