Adam Levy is doing the usual things local musicians with a certain notoriety do when they have a new album: A recent in-store appearance at the Electric Fetus. A release party this Saturday at the Cedar Cultural Center.
And then there are the events that point to just how special this record is.
Last month the Honeydogs frontman spoke and sang in a lecture series for Yale University’s psychiatry department. He appeared at the Twin Cities Jewish Community Conference on Mental Health, too. More speaking engagements are in the works.
He’s not just promoting music, in other words.
“My ability to talk about this traumatic experience and people’s willingness to listen has been a blessing as far as the healing process goes,” said Levy. “I didn’t start writing music again until I started talking about what happened — started understanding it better.”
The album, “Naubinway,” is named after the beach in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where Levy’s family spread his son Daniel’s ashes three years ago.
Daniel Levy, 21, took his life in January 2012. He battled mental illness from age 16, when he was diagnosed as bipolar. Fits of depression, delusional episodes, hospital visits and possibly schizophrenia were among his many worsening struggles. It got so bad that Daniel’s parents tried to get him into a full-time care facility, to no avail.
“I called and said, ‘My son is going to kill himself,’ ” Levy recalled. “I knew it. His therapist wouldn’t admit it to me, but I think he also knew it was very possible. The bureaucracy around this sort of care is very frustrating.”
Thus, he said, “Daniel’s story is something of a cautionary tale. There isn’t a happy ending, but it’s been helpful to me and to other people, I think, to process it through music.”
The first album issued under Levy’s own name after two decades of releases, “Naubinway” is as personal and blunt as music gets. All of the songs dwell on Daniel’s downward spiral or the foggy aftermath in some form or another. Five are all acoustic. One is brutally titled “How I Let You Down.”
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.
“I know Daniel really didn’t want to be immortalized in any way,” Levy said at his home in northeast Minneapolis. “I’d like to say we’re keeping his legacy going, but he wouldn’t have wanted this. So it’s very much more for me.”
Traces of his late son were everywhere around the house, from family photos to stacks of books featuring the young artist’s drawings to one large framed portrait on the wall of a fantastical meth lab that’s part Ralph Steadman, part Terry Gilliam and part Shel Silverstein.
Thumbing through the sketchbooks — filled with disturbing, monstrous characters in some diabolical-looking settings, but also some outrageously funny montages — Adam pointed out that none of the pieces had a date on them. A lot weren’t even signed.
“There’s never a sense he planned to show his art or wanted to chronicle it. And he always hated that idiographic idea that you had to be in pain to make great art.”
One of Daniel’s artistic cohorts and former roommates, Josh Journey-Heinz, said there’s little doubt when you see his artwork that it came from a pained place.
“In this day and age, it’s hard to produce something that’s truly shocking, but a lot of it is very shocking to me,” said Journey-Heinz.
He and Adam pored through Daniel’s artwork and tailored it for use on the cover and liner sleeve of “Naubinway.” The two are about halfway through piecing together an entire book of Daniel’s wildly imaginative imagery for publication. It hasn’t been easy, he said, but it has helped Adam gain a little more insight into his son’s predicament.
“A lot of times when we’re looking at his stuff, Daniel’s essence comes back into the room, and the process becomes very somber,” Journey-Heinz said. “It stirs up the sadness, for sure. There are a lot of moments of reflection — not just meditating on Daniel, but on the human condition and much broader things.”
Hold on hope
Amid Daniel’s artwork on the album sleeve is a lyric from Adam: “Hope is the wounded beast that never should be put out of its misery.” It’s from one of the rawer songs, “This Friend,” and it’s probably the best summation of why he put himself through the painful process behind “Naubinway.”
He didn’t write any songs for more than a year after Daniel’s suicide. The Honeydogs’ most recent record, “What Comes After,” came out just a few weeks after the tragedy. Though it was recorded earlier, it included songs that obliquely addressed the anguish and turmoil he and the family had been enduring.
“I was kind of sleepwalking my way through those first few months,” Adam admitted, though he said, “Getting up and performing and having to focus on that probably was good for me.”
It wasn’t until he started talking publicly about the tragedy — including a panel on musicians’ mental health issues at McNally Smith College of Music — that he thought about addressing the story musically. When he finally started writing, the emotional release was something like a flood.
“Personal songs, I find, are the easiest to write, and these are obviously very personal,” he said. “But I also just kept it very straightforward content-wise. The songs are much more plainspoken than I usually write.”
He tested some of the songs at intimate house parties or seminars and got a strong feeling he was doing the right thing.
“I would hear, ‘Oh, this really moved me’ or ‘This got me thinking in a different way,’ or it helped people going through things. I do feel like I’m honoring Daniel, but this is probably more for those of us who survived this tragedy, and others.”
He also hopes “Naubinway” and his appearances around it will help spark support and understanding for mental health treatment. The lesson, he said, is to treat it with more long-term dedication: “We’re set up for emergencies around mental crises, but not set up for long-term care. We’re set up for mental illness, not mental health.”
Once “Naubinway” was completed, Levy got back to enjoying his usual musical pursuits. He and the Honeydogs revisited the complex, genocide-themed concept album “10,000 Years” last summer for a 10th-anniversary reissue. They have a new album in the can that will be released next spring.
A fun yin to the emotional yang of Saturday’s release party at the Cedar, he and his band for the “Naubinway” show will blow off some steam playing cover songs Friday night at Lee’s Liquor Lounge (billed as When the Levy Breaks).
“Playing music still feels important to me, in whatever form,” Levy said.
However, it’s clear he sees “Naubinway” as the most important project of his career.
“Every musician is naïve enough to think that they have something relevant and meaningful to say every time they put out a record,” he said with one of the few brief laughs in our interview. Glumly, though, he added, “I really feel like I have a message now, and a story that should be told.”
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658