With a sound that recalls the best of Paul McCartney, Ron Sexsmith, Emitt Rhodes, Eric Carmen and other melody-minded auteurs, Levy emphasizes melody over mayhem with the sweetest set of mid-tempo songs to come along since the demise of Badfinger. Oftentimes, Levy needs little more than an acoustic guitar and some subtle sweetening to get his point across — “Take It As It Comes,” “Marigold,” “Naubinway” and “Pitch Black Path” are some of the prime examples. But when things build to a peak, as is the case on “When Your Well Runs Dry,” it’s Levy’s keen blend of melody and melancholia that supplies the inherent charm. Naubinway is wonderful record worthy of wide discovery.
Adam Levy is a familiar face — and voice — in the Twin Cities music scene. Best-known as the founder and frontman of The Honeydogs, Levy has made his career in indie rock. His newest album, Naubinway marks a departure for Levy. It’s a solo project, dedicated to the memory of his son, Daniel, who took his own life by suicide almost four years ago. Levy joined MPR News’ Tom Weber to discuss the album, and the outreach he has been doing with mental health forums. At first, the intense grief over his son’s death left him hollow, creatively. “I couldn’t write at least for a year and a half,” Levy said. “The idea of writing a song about my experience, or trying to summarize my son’s pain in any kind of art, just seemed to trivialize it.”
One night in April, Levy sits on a small corner stage in the back room of Kieran’s Irish Pub — just down the block from First Avenue, formerly owned by Prince — and sings several of his new songs. The songs have a folksy feel, just the acoustic guitar and Levy’s taut voice. They’d almost be considered easy listening — except for their haunting narratives.
Adam Wahlberg, founder of Think Piece Publishing, which is producing Levy’s album and hosting this event, introduces the title song, “Naubinway,” as a landmark song. “This takes us to an uncomfortable place,” Wahlberg says. “I’m grateful for artists like Adam Levy who can take us there because it helps us make sense of this. This is a powerful song. Right up there with Dylan.”
The song is about the day six months after Daniel’s death, on his birthday, when Adam, Jennifer and Daniel’s two younger sisters gathered to spread Daniel’s ashes in Naubinway Bay of Lake Michigan. That’s the last place his mother remembers seeing Daniel smile.
Levy explains that, after his son died by suicide, he wanted to get as close to him as he could. “I wanted to touch his things, sleep in his bed, wear his clothes, go through his browser and visit every place he did in the past week, and touch his body — then in the form of ashes,” he says. “To put your hand in that bag of ashes makes a powerful connection.”
He sweeps his fingers down the strings of his guitar and starts to sing. The mood in the crowded room swells with the emotion. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust/We bid you adieu only if we must,” he repeats in the refrain. “Backwards baptism in Lake Naubinway/Cradle my baby on his deathbed.”
He sings with his eyes open. His voice is strong and clear. He bobs his knee in time. The guitar builds to an emphatic finish.
The 50 or 60 people in the room briefly compose themselves then break the tension with their applause. Levy tips his gray fedora slightly.
Between songs, he takes questions from the audience. A young woman asks, “Does it hurt when you sing these songs?”
“Music and conversation about my son’s life is cathartic,” he says. “The emotional impact for me is diminished after singing these songs so many times while rehearsing and recording this album, which in terms of trauma is a good thing. This is therapeutic for me. It only feels good.”
Adam Levy has been a visionary when it comes to melodic rock or alt. country with smart lyrical wordplay.
But tragedy can change everything, and three years ago Levy lost his young son Daniel to suicide. He’s chosen to speak publicly about this pain and Naubinway is his outlet to help start a conversation with his audience about mental illness, suicide and its aftermath.
Starting out with some acoustic songs, “Take It As It Comes” is a statement about helplessness felt, and the sophisticated folk finger-picking style “Potter’s Field” is a descriptive profile of his son’s struggle. However its not all grim, “Atoms Never Die” has a nice groove with its catchy bass rhythm. And the full production of “This Friend” gets profound as “hope is the wounded beast that should never be put out of its misery.” The pain of coping with grief is beautifully stated on the piano ballad “When Your Well Runs Dry” and poignant message to his son “How I Let You Down” continues the conversation.
The great thing about Naubinway is that even though it starts out slowly it explores elements of a life lived and being loved. Levy is in top form, with gorgeous ballad “Marigold” and the casual brilliance of “Handful of Sand.” But he brings us back into focus with the powerful title track, a brutally honest display. “Life goes on in spite of great tragedy,” he said. “So here I am.” Emotional and vivid descriptions of spreading his sons ashes across the water cap off one of the most heartbreaking albums I’ve ever heard.
Adam Levy doesn’t have a problem paging through the body of work his son Daniel left behind.
Because Daniel’s body of work, is his life’s work.But not having a problem with it doesn’t make it any less devastating to see.
“Feels like he is still here in a lot of ways you know, this stuff is really wrenching,” Levy said looking at the sketches.
Adam Levy was, is, the father of Daniel Levy.
Adam Levy – the frontman of the band the Honeydogs – was father to Daniel Levy, the aspiring artist, until January of 2012.
“It wasn’t a cry for help. He was so thorough about it,” Adam said, starting to talk about what happened on that day when Daniel, after years of struggling with depression, took his own life.
You are hearing from a father who for the last three and a half years has been mourning; and learning and creating his most personal work to date.
“It might seem like wow, writing a record about your child’s death that must be really hard and yet once I started getting into it it wasn’t hard at all – it was really natural,” Levy said talking about the album, Naubinway, to be released Friday, October 23rd.
Because just like his son, Adam’s emotions are expressed most clearly in his art.
The album is named for the place in Michigan where Daniel’s ashes are scattered.
And the art that covers Naubinway is one of Daniel’s final works.
If you didn’t know the circumstances of it, seeing and hearing it, you would only be applauding that father and son finally collaborated.
“As I listen back now, it does feel like a story we have laid out for people,” Adam said.
A story that lays out this boy’s life.
As this father sees it.
“Part of the record is looking at Daniel’s own struggles and telling his story and trying to give a voice, a musical voice, to what he drew and the words he used to describe the pain he was in,” Adam said.
Because Daniel had a life that he ended.
And not talking about that truth doesn’t make suicide less real.
That is why you are looking at a father who is speaking that truth, the only way he knows how.
Nearly four years ago, the founder and lead singer of the rock group, The Honeydogs endured the most painful moments of his life.
Adam Levy’s son, Daniel, committed suicide.
“His mother and me were just, what could we have done more?” he said. “What went wrong?”
Daniel, 21, was an artist, living in upstate New York, who had battled depression for about four years before his death in January of 2012.
“There’s no getting around the guilt of losing a child to suicide,” Levy said. “It’s profound and it haunts you.”
“When Your Well Runs Dry” begins with a sweet piano prelude, followed by Levy’s gravelly voice singing “We’ve had a surplus year of grieving/Double takes and prison cells/They all ask me when you’re leaving”, John Lennon-esque decrescendos and simple percussive rhythms throbbing in the background. Though his voice is a vehicle for anguish, Levy’s vocals are tenderly treated, raw, and exposed in the best ways. His songwriting is uncomplicated but clever, begging the question “Where you gonna drink when the well runs dry?,” referring to an inevitability of creative relapse all artists face but can solve with renewed passion and vision. In the face of tragedy, singer-songwriter Adam Levy has soared with a grace and talent reserved for only the most seasoned professionals. Continuing his son’s legacy, Levy bares it all on “When Your Well Runs Dry”, a poignant hello, not goodbye, told by clean piano, honest songwriting, and hypnotic hooks.
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.
Even though Daniel’s death suicide wasn’t a shock and it wasn’t an accident, the confusion, sadness and questions still smacked his family into a stunned grief. “Suicide is a disruptive act,” Levy acknowledges. “It leaves huge questions and we have no power to understand it. Daniel’s plane was hijacked somewhere. I can’t lay the blame at his feet.” For a year, Levy couldn’t even use his music to cope with the pain.“I knew right away that I wanted to write about it. But, I didn’t feel I had a way of doing it without doing with sounding trite and predictable,” Levy developed the first words of Naubinway as blog entries as he patiently waited for the language of healing to come. The result is an album that is both sad and beautiful. Be prepared to feel deeply when you listen. Levy doesn’t spare his emotions and wants to bring the listener with him on his journey. “I don’t want to soft pedal the expression of alienation and pain, but music can transcend that feeling of alienation. Come with me through this dark tunnel and we’ll feel better afterwards,” Levy promises. “I want to give you a glimpse of the pain in the hopes that you’re going to take something away.”
I talked to Adam in detail about the tragedy of losing his son, Daniel, to suicide and how he found his voice afterwards. Let’s face it, as a parent it’s the worst thing you could ever imagine having to live through. Adam has been able to use this tragedy as a tool to help other people going through comparable circumstances. “Tragedy has a way of providing strength,” he says.
“People have reached out to me to say, ‘I’m so glad you’re talking about this, I haven’t been able to talk about my brother’s death for 25 years,’ or ‘My spouse is really suffering.’ So getting the anecdotal stuff from people about what they’re going through and seeing the commonality has been really helpful in me knitting together my story about what happened,” said Levy, sitting in a back table at the Spyhouse coffee shop in Uptown last week.
“What I hear a lot, and it’s mildly frustrating, is, ‘Oh you’re so brave, thank you so much for doing this.’ And it was very flattering at first, but now my response is that bravery is when you encounter something that you don’t want to do and you do it anyway. This isn’t bravery. This is something I feel compelled to do and it’s been really helpful to talk about it. The more I talk about it, the story that I’m telling evolves and enlarges and sometimes there’s parts of it that all of sudden don’t make sense to me, so I need to replace it with something else.”
Through the months that followed, Adam lived one day at a time. He attempted to write songs about Daniel after his memorial service toward the middle of 2012, but he admits he wasn’t ready. Instead, he wrote music for other projects until, almost a year later, he found he was able to write about his son. Then, slowly, he began pouring his thoughts onto paper.
“It took a while to coalesce. The things I was writing felt trite; I didn’t want to go there,” Adam reveals. “My girlfriend and daughters would hear it, and they were moved. I played one of the songs for Jennifer on the anniversary of his suicide, and she couldn’t listen. It’s still painful for them to hear this stuff three years later, but they can hear it, and it resonates. I’m giving voice to a lot of the feelings they have.”
In his reflections of grief, Adam wrote about the different aspects of who Daniel was and why he did what he did. He also agonized over what it’s like for a parent to go through such things, and the continual sense of what he felt he did wrong. He wondered how he’d ever find joy again. The title track from Naubinway was assembled like a scrapbook, heavy in intent but dreamy in execution. Weaving heartbreaking specificity with artistic abstractions, the rest of the album follows a similar pattern.
“All in all, the album blew me away when I heard the final mix,” shares keyboardist Peter Sands, a contributor on Naubinway. “It’s a beautiful tribute to Daniel. I feel very fortunate to have been included in the making of the album.”
Naubinway is gorgeously elegiac, beautifully performed, and replete with the wistful uplift of the love that remains after loss.
With a CD sleeve adorned with Daniel’s gonzo illustrations, it’s that rare piece of art that melds the personal and the universal with remarkable grace and honesty.
The last song, the title track, could wrench tears out of the most hardened listener. It recounts the day Daniel’s parents and kid sisters took his ashes to the last place his mother remembers seeing him smile.
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” Adam sings, “We’ll bid you adieu if we must / A backwards baptism in Lake Michigan / I cradled my baby on his deathbed / Sleep my beautiful son in the shallows of Naubinway.”
As heartbreaking and personal as it gets, though, the album is equally uplifting and universal. It’s not just an album about one family’s sorrow. It’s about trying to understanding mental illness and human condition. It’s about living beyond death. It’s about fighting to love life. It’s about the creative struggles endured by artists like Adam and Daniel, who was a budding visual artist. And it’s periodically just about Daniel.
As Adam Levy’s six-person backing band took the stage last Saturday night and created a wall of sound that grew in intensity until it melded into the intro of “Eucatastrophe”, a slideshow of grotesque and surreal artwork was projected onto the wall behind them. This was to be a visual counterpart to the underlying focus of mental health and suicide awareness on Levy’s newest record, Naubinway. After the unimaginably tragic loss of his son Daniel to suicide in 2012, Levy managed to carry on by becoming a beacon of support and guidance for families experiencing similar tragedies. As stated by Bill Gray of People Incorporated earlier in the evening, Levy has helped countless others cope by speaking out with his own story, and by writing music to help us all connect with each other. Last night, Adam and friends treated the Cedar to the entirety of the record, all translated beautifully from studio to stage.
On longtime Honeydogs frontman Adam Levy’s solo album, Naubinway, the Twin Cities musician is writing about the suicide of his son, Daniel.
The thing that Adam Levy knows about and is writing about here is a kind of sadness that people fear. Every mother who reminds their kid to buckle their seat belt, every dad who yells at his daughter for staying out too late without calling — that’s the fear of what Adam Levy lived through.
Levy’s son took his own life in 2012 after a long battle with mental illness, and, after a long time without musical productivity in the wake of this loss, the songwriter found he was inspired to compose directly about the experience of losing his child. Before long, he had crafted the songs that make up Naubinway, an album named for the Michigan town where Adam and his family scattered Daniel’s ashes.
It’s a tricky move to pull off. In the wrong hands, an album like this could end up too sentimental, maudlin or off-putting.
Fortunately, Levy lets his years of experience, his poetic leanings and his sincerity lead the way. The album doesn’t end up as a too-personal test of endurance, as it easily could have. Instead, it’s a gently rolling mix of fingerpicked folk and Americana that doesn’t announce itself as the product of tragedy, but rather acts as an acknowledgment of pain and loss, a tribute to a son and an unstated proclamation that the only thing to do is keep on singing.
Musically, the album pulls a bit of a bait-and-switch, putting the starkest material up front and then moving into more upbeat, fleshed-out songs. The slight-of-hand here is that the solo-acoustic tracks up top are not the ones that most overtly address Levy’s loss. Rather, “Take it As it Comes” and “Potter’s Field” set an emotional tone, and once “Atoms Never Die” begins, the bleak singer-songwriter album that “Naubinway” seemed to be is suddenly subverted by an uptempo, groovy, spacey pop feel that could pass for any number of U.K. dance-rock groups.
“This Friend” is shimmery pop with noisy Mellotron and guitar overdubs, “When Your Well Runs Dry” is a Beatlesque piano ballad, and “Eucatastophe” gets close to Wilco’s weirder moments, where bizarre noises are used to shock a fairly simple track to life.
Lyrically, Levy swings between imagistic lines about blackbirds and photos and demons — somewhat typical pop/rock lyrics — and straight-up addresses to his son, as in “How I Let You Down.”
“Daniel, I’m worry-worn about the things I didn’t do,” Levy sings over his acoustic guitar, “how I let you down, couldn’t get you through, how we tried in vain.” It reads like a man in his darkest hour, but Levy is led by a strong instinct to leaven his words with music that is somewhat bouncy. This isn’t Joy Division, though it has the right to be. It actually speaks well of Levy’s skill as a songwriter that he chooses to tie a kind of musical balloon to the anvil of his words.
On first approach, “Naubinway” appears like it could easily be a descent into one man’s personal nightmare, one that most people go out of their way to avoid daily, but Levy’s talent makes it an album that honors his son and acknowledges his loss while being an interesting, listenable, sometimes playful set.
It speaks volumes that a national music blog, No Depression, ran a favorable review of this record and didn’t once mention the words “suicide” or “mental illness.” In other words, the Honeydogs frontman’s folky solo debut stands up well even if you don’t know its tragic back story. Unfortunately, many of us know all too well about family members suffering from depression and psychosis, which took the life of Levy’s son. There’s solace and strength along with memorable melodies and lyrics in songs such as the Lennon-esque “Pitch Black Path” and the heart-wrenching title track.
Naubinway is a sad album whose sound is not sad. Many of the songs move at a trot or a canter and the guitar picking shines the way a butterfly dances in light. It almost seems trivial to discuss the music elements of the songs because the content is so heavy and so important. You can hear acceptance of the struggle, the pain and the grief. Adam told MPR, “Life goes on in spite of great tragedy, so here I am.” And that is a great summation of the feeling of Naubinway. When something terrible happens in this life it is natural to want to hit the pause button. But even if we choose to stand still in reflection of terrible things, everything else continues to move. At some point, you have to get back on and move with it. Listening to Levy’s journey through that process is a beautiful privilege and we should be grateful he was brave enough to share it.
In this touching tribute to his son, Levy delicately moves through Naubinway with rhythms and beats you want to keep hearing. It’s musically lovely, and lyrically poetic. In “How I Let You Down” he speaks directly to Daniel, telling him his exit isn’t something he’s accepted yet. In “This Friend,” he describes depression as someone who steals his breath and leads him down a downward spiral. With Naubinway, Levy delivers one of the most beautiful and impactful albums in Minnesota music history.
Before listening to this album I was somewhat intrigued by the stark and rather disturbing imagery on the cover and inner sleeve and was interested as to how the artwork related to the album. I was aware of Adam Levy as band leader and singer-songwriter with Minnesota band The Honeydogs, but was completely unaware of the motivation and the event that lead to the recording of this solo effort.
Written in the memory of his son Daniel, who having battled with mental illness for a number of years, tragically took his own life in 2012, Naubinway is understandably anything but an easy listen. The lead up, event, aftermath and topic of suicide and mental illness are dealt with openly, honestly and was no doubt part of a grieving process surrounding such a painful ordeal. Understandably Levy found it impossible to write creatively for a couple of years after the loss of his son but was eventually inspired by Daniel’s artwork, having poured through the many sketchbooks he left behind. The album’s title Naubinway is the name of a small beach at Lake Michigan and is the last place that Daniel’s mother saw her son smile.
The lyrics are often pain staking to read and one can only imagine how difficult they must have been to compose and record. Tracks such as How I Let You Down (“Daniel, all your sketchbooks are a journey, the pain revealed…..We’re still learning how to be without you. Daniel, you ventured on to the thin ice. We threw you so many lifelines. You burned them to the quick”) and Pitch Black Path (“It’s long and its dark. It’s a pitch black path lit by nothing but a spark and it won’t get any better till you move on”) leave nothing to the imagination.
The title and closing track, detailing the trip to dispose of Daniel’s ashes in Lake Michigan, would challenge any listener as would the accompanying photograph of the young man beside some of his striking artwork. (“A backwards baptism in Lake Michigan. I cradled my baby on his deathbed. Sleep my beautiful son in the shallows of Naubinway”). As with the opening track Take it as it Comes it features only vocal and acoustic guitar by Levy suggesting that the message was too personal to have an input by others.
However, beyond the despair and darkness the album reveals itself as a beautifully constructed, intelligently written set of songs, quite a few which recall a mid 60’s Beatles sound, How Your Well Runs Dry, This Friend and Atoms Never Die in particular. Marigold is a lovely honeyed ballad, IWish You Well an equally upbeat love song both of which feature some dreamy steel guitar courtesy of Joe Savage.
Levy is on the record saying that the album was not about immortalising his son, which he would not have wished for anyway. It was primarily written by way of personally dealing with the loss.
Produced by Adam Levy and Scott Miller and recorded at both their houses and at Essential Session Studios Naubinway is a striking body of work that deals honestly and compassionately with a particularly difficult subject matter. Well worth investigating.