My guest on today’s show is Adam Levy, who you likely recognize from his work leading the Honeydogs, Liminal Phase, And the Professors, and the band he started with his two daughters, Ava and Esther, which is called the Bunny Clogs. Or maybe you’ve seen him around town, where he’s worked as an educator, mentor, and mental health advocate. Over the past few years, especially, Adam has been brutally honest and open about his own struggles and the experience of losing his 21-year-old son, Daniel, to suicide in 2012. It’s connected him with other musicians in the community and other people struggling with health problems in a deeply profound way.
I’m not going to lie: This is going to be a very serious conversation. Adam Levy’s life has been very serious these past four years. And he’s somehow managed to channel all of the complex emotions of grief, guilt, depression, and despair into a breathtaking new solo album called Naubinway, which is out October 23.
Naubinway is a beautiful collection. It’s Adam’s first solo album, and we’re left alone with him and his guitar as he sorts through the fog that descended on him following such a devastating loss. But something that I find myself drawn to is that throughout the record, there is also this feeling of hope. There’s actually a quote printed on the inside of the album sleeve that says, “Hope is the wounded beast that should never be put out of its misery.” It’s kind of a bleak sentiment, but also ultimately puts a light at the end of the tunnel as you’re listening to Adam’s record. You’re hearing these complex, heartbreaking feelings and experiences, but at the end, you’re ultimately feel that he has found some sense of peace amidst it all.
Listen to our entire conversation in the podcast below; it runs about 35 minutes. You can also download and subscribe to the podcast via FeedBurner and iTunes, and be sure to check out links to the previous episodes below.
Adam Levy plays a release show for Naubinway at the Cedar Cultural Center on Saturday, November 28.
Andrea Swensson: At what point in this process of losing Daniel did you feel like you could express this musically, what you were feeling?
Adam Levy: I think that up to about a year and a half after Daniel had died I didn’t really write any music at all, and I didn’t try to force it. I didn’t sit down and say, “Hey, I’m feeling so horribly right now I wanna try to put words into it and make it into a song.” I just left that alone because I needed to sit with it. I didn’t really try to do anything, and then it just kind of happened naturally. I was feeling the need to make music and write, and I had actually written a lot about what I was feeling, but in a non-musical way. I had a blog site and was doing some reflecting on there and had thought about doing some sort of memoir about my experience with grief and my family’s experience, and so from that there were little scraps and bits and pieces of things that I said that sounded to me like they could be put to music. The songs just started coming to me, and they came to me from different angles. Some of them were about my own pain and my own grief, and the different stages that you go through with that. And other songs were about Daniel, and the heavy question that hangs over everything—which is why did this happen, and why did we get to this point? Which is in a lot of ways my life’s work now: processing how we got to this point and why it happened, and then just getting through it and finding joy.
You commented through your lyrics about really trying to understand, almost like a detective, what was going on with Daniel by looking at his art afterwards. Can you talk more about that journey, and maybe getting to know him even better through looking at all these things that he was creating?
The only thing we have of Daniel is memories and his art, and we’ve got a lot of it. When he died, that was the first thing his mom and I did, was go through all of his sketchbooks. When the Liminal Phase record was being made I just thought, “Let’s have Daniel do something,” and that was in his last six months. It was one of the last things that he made, and thank goodness we’ve got these three pieces that ended up on this record, which are complete paintings that he did, and they’re quite remarkable. But there was a lot of stuff I’d never seen—mountains of it—and going through these after he died was a way to connect with him; a way to try to make sense of the pain that he had. He drew every day, and for him, drawing was clearly a therapeutic process. He didn’t sign his work. He didn’t date his work. So here is this giant mound of books. Josh Journey-Heinz is helping me do a book of his work, so we went through these books together. As I sat with him and went through things and looked at the development of his skills and technical and thematic approaches, it was really clear that there was a timeline of development, and definitely the later you go towards his death, the more amazing and unique the work that he was creating became. So, definitely, I feel this connection to Daniel in making sense of his life. This is like another puzzle piece for me of how things happened. And you can look at his work—there are points where things are really bleak and depressing and dark and people sitting in jail cells with bugs eating them or some monster that’s consuming somebody as they’re driving their car, or a head splitting open and a centipede emerging from it—really quite William Burroughs-esque imagery. But there’s also really playful fun stuff where he would stop these detailed drawing and just sketch pictures of fish or snails or these little odd alien-like characters; and there was a real sense of humor to his work in spite of all of the agony that he was in.
A tattoo on Adam Levy’s arm that features artwork by his late son, Daniel
One thing that I was thinking about this week when I was listening to it is I’ve never listened to a record that sounds so much like if someone made a pop record about depression.
Obviously you can draw comparisons to people who draw that line between melancholy and the brightness of pop music like Elliot Smith, but to me there’s this relentless feeling of hope coursing through the record even when you’re talking about such dark material. How do you go about setting a tone for something that is so personal and so serious?
I think that’s something I’ve always done in my music. I’ve reflected on subjects that maybe aren’t the realm of pop music. On the [Honeydogs] record 10,000 Years in 2003 a lot of people said there’s really catchy music in this. There’s a lot of beauty, but you’re talking about genocide and some really heavy social issues. How does that work? And to me I’ve never felt like I can make music that is absolutely dismally depressing. Melodies and chord movement and things like that always give me—my favorite songs, the hair on my neck stands up, and even if it’s a sad subject matter. There’s something that’s really life affirming in that process of listening to music that moves you. So that’s been innate in most of the work that I’ve created. This subject matter in particular is so near and dear to me, and unlike 10,000 Years, in which I was sort of an observer of other people’s stories, this is about being in my own skin. And so the words are very simple in a lot of ways on this record compared to previous records. I’m finding when I play these songs publicly I want to play them back to back with a Bunny Clogs song or something, because there’s a responsibility that I have of letting people be my therapist and listen to me ache about the pain that I’m in, and sometimes that feels like I’m burdening people with that. And so maybe the idea of having music that makes you actually feel good when you listen to it is a way of balming and countering that heaviness of the subject matter.
Where do you find new sources of hope?
I think there are different things. In relationships, you need to find ways to be hopeful that you’re not locked into the same pattern with somebody forever, and that you’re gonna be able to grow with that person. You need to find, with your children, that you have some sense that they’re going to become independent and live their lives creatively. I need to figure out ways not to do the same thing over and over again either professionally or creatively. So the idea that I haven’t written my best song yet is a mantra that keeps me going. Two years ago, if somebody would’ve said, “You’re gonna write this record about your son’s death that is gonna feel really like another plateau that you’ve reached creatively,” I don’t know if I would’ve believed them. But it’s so nice to be here and to say wow—this body of work feels cohesive and it feels representative of me and it feels like it’s something different, and I guess in some ways maybe better than anything I’ve done before. Those sorts of things allow you to feel hopeful.