Mike Mangione performs at the Newman Centre Chaplaincy at the University of Toronto. Photos, including cover, by Byron Chan

Close encounters

By 
  • June 6, 2019

In between sold out events for thousands of people, Mike Mangione looks forward to quiet moments when it’s just him, his guitar, his harmonica and sometimes a tambourine in front of about 20 faces in the crowd. 

“As a performer, you feed off the people you’re performing to and it’s easier to see and read an audience when they’re right next to you,” he said. “There really isn’t a feeling of me and them. It’s more of a feeling of us.”

Mangione is a Catholic musician based in Wisconsin known for his poetic, Americana approach to songs about eternal life, spiritual pilgrimage and God. He describes his approach to music as a response to that universal human question.

All his albums have been an exploration of these questions, from his 2005 album, There And Back, to his fifth and most recent album, But I’ve Seen The Stars, released in October 2017. 

“Faith and art is broader than a genre,” he said. “Music for forever has been an expression of that question of who am I, what am I and where am I going? And it’s an attempt to tap into something bigger than myself.”

Mangione held an intimate concert at Newman Centre Chaplaincy on May 27. It was part of his Toronto tour with The Cor Project, which aims to spread the teachings of St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body through its Made For More conferences. 

As the music ministry leader, Mangione often leads worship on a larger stage. He plays music co-ordinated with multimedia presentations. His role is to help guide the audience’s reflections during the talks. But in a quiet room in the main floor of the Newman Centre, this, too, was a ministry for him. 

“There’s like a lot of dead space between you and the audience and a lot of things can happen in your head. But when you’re right close with people, there isn’t much emotional space and you pick up on every little movement and facial expression,” said Mangione. “You can still do it with large audiences, you just have to be a little more animated and intentional about what you’re doing.”

He told the Newman Centre audience stories about life on the road and the songs that came from it. He got to know each person in the crowd by name and he even joked that he might title one of his new songs after an audience member named Freddie.

“I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much at a concert ever and a lot of people mentioned that to me as well,” said Erin Kinsella, director of campus ministry at Newman. “It’s clear that he does his music as ministry in the way that he interacts with the people that he’s ministering to, both when he’s singing and when he’s talking with people.”

Music has been a part of Mangione’s life for as long as he can remember. At a young age, he used music as an outlet. His parents bought him a drum set to keep him from fighting and hitting his older brothers. When one his brothers took up the guitar, they bonded over learning chords together. 

He also has another famous musician in the family. Jazz flugelhorn player Chuck Mangione, a two-time Grammy award winner, is a distant cousin removed a couple of times. 

For most of the year, he tours with The Cor Project, which he co-founded in 2010 with Christopher West, Catholic speaker and president of the Theology of the Body Institute in Philadelphia. Mangione is also director of events at the TOB Institute since 2008.

In between, he likes to find small venues like local pubs, coffee shops, parish halls and chaplaincy centres where he can play to  more intimate crowds.

Mangione is a musical vagabond at heart and about seven years ago he truly lived like one. Freshly graduated from Marquette University (established by the Jesuits) with a degree in environmental affairs in 2002, the 23-year-old decided to move to Los Angeles to pursue his music. 

While he was there, he met another artist and talked to her about his aspirations to pursue music. Mangione said she didn’t consider herself to be commercially successful but then she handed him a piece of paper with a list of her tour dates. She was playing 80 shows in three months and he was blown away.

“I realized there’s a whole, large middle ground between not playing and being on the Billboard charts. There’s a middle ground of working musicians and troubadours and I wanted to be that so I took her sheet and I booked myself on most of the same rooms that she had on her list,” he said.

Mangione decided to sell his apartment in Los Angeles and most of his possessions to buy a van that he could drive across the country. He lived and toured in the van for two years nonstop, playing in the same kinds of small rooms that he still seeks out today. 

Early in his career, there was a moment when he felt tempted with aspirations for more commercial success, especially as he watched an old high school classmate, Patrick Stump, find success with the rock band Fall Out Boy in the late 2000s.

“Watching their success at the same time as I was living in a van was a little like, ‘Oh man, I’ve gotta figure that out,’ ” said Mangione. “But by the time I wrote my second record, Tenebrae (2007), I really started to understand that it’s more important for me to create songs that are from me and that are of quality than to try to match a certain format.”

Most Mangione songs don’t follow the formulaic structure of most mainstream music today, especially in the Christian music genre. He likes to describe his songs as narrative-driven, with verses that are more akin to prose. 

Mangione is now a family man with a home base in Milwaukee with his wife and three children. He still tours about five or six times a month but not as a travelling troubadour, but anchored by his family and his home.

“I’d say it’s like a two-to-one ratio. Like for example, what I did here in Toronto with two conferences and one concert,” said Mangione. “I do see it all as ministry and I’m all about trying to make a connection with people and help them in their pondering. To do that, you have to have a pretty good balance of intention and Holy Spirit.” 

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