Twin Cities musician Adam Levy finds comfort in his old band the Honeydogs after a family tragedy.
Last Sunday was a happy day for Adam Levy.
His popular kids-music act, Bunny Clogs, played to massive crowds of pint-sized fans at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. His daughters and bandmates, Esther and Ava (ages 10 and 13), were beside him with smiles and whistles on. His 9-year-old nephew Isaac sat in on guitar and nearly stole the show.
Stepping outside for a smoke break, though, Levy fell silent for a moment.
"That was Daniel's dorm right over there," he said, pointing toward the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
Back on stage, he played a new song, a soft, sweetly strummed folk-pop tune with the hook, "Without you, it's always a long time." Whatever inexplicable force got Levy through that song without an emotional meltdown, he will have to muster it again Saturday when his band the Honeydogs celebrate its new album, "What Comes After."
Two months ago, Daniel -- his 21-year-old son -- committed suicide after a hard-fought battle with mental illness.
One of the Twin Cities' most ubiquitous and respected musicians, Levy wrote and recorded the album as he and Daniel's mother were swept up in the confusion and helplessness that floods families in that struggle. The songs -- including the buoyant, horn-spiked single "Aubben," which is already getting radio play -- carry a heavy dose of love, and what Levy now calls "a sort of naive hopefulness."
It's an unusually uplifting record, which is one reason its auteur is carrying on with Saturday's release party. The bigger reason might simply be that it's the practical thing to do.
"You have a lot of people involved in a record: a label, a distribution company, a lot of investment in time, radio solicitations," he said. "We're kind of powering through it.
"I would've liked a greater period of time to process Daniel's death. The only upside I can think of is, I've been really forced to engage in work."
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If there's one thing Levy has proven in recent years as he meandered through a variety of bands and mentored hundreds of music students, it's that the guy is dedicated to his work.
"The way he has remained such a fixture in the scene for so long and through so many different identities is an inspiration to all of us," said Suicide Commandos guitarist Chris Osgood, a vice president at St. Paul's McNally Smith College of Music, where Levy works as an administrator. "He encourages creativity in everyone."
After the Honeydogs flirted with the big time in the late '90s and early '00s -- landing the radio hit "Miss You" and major-label record deals with Mercury and Island -- Levy settled into a day job as a social worker while moonlighting in the '70s-baked cover band Hookers & Blow. He issued the Bunny Clogs album in 2009 and founded the improvisational electronic chamber-rock ensemble Liminal Phase a year later. He also became a teacher at the Institute of Production and Recording (IPR) -- a natural fit after years of working with youths.
"I was very much focused on these other projects for the last few years, and the Honeydogs record in some ways was an afterthought," he said. "I just started writing these songs based on where my mind was."
The Honeydogs recorded "What Comes After" at IPR last summer. Students actually served as hands-on engineers. Not only is that a testament to their know-how, Levy said, but it also points to what keeps him coming back to the Honeydogs.
"We work together so easily, even though we always try to rethink things and not retread what we've done before," he said.
Guitarist Brian Halverson rejoined in time for the Honeydogs' 10th record. The rest of the lineup includes bassist Trent Norton, drummer Peter Anderson, keyboardist Peter Sands and horn players Matt Darling and Stephen Kung. There's an organic, effortless but concise sound to the record.
"It was so refreshing, and really just so much fun, to come back to the Honeydogs record after everything else," he said. "It's an incredibly comfortable artistic setting where I trust everybody."
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That comfort zone was especially important since these are some of Levy's most personal songs ever.
One of the more touching songs on the album, a twangy ode to family called "Blood Is Blood," was written about his ex-wife, Victoria Norvell, the mother of Esther and Ava and a supportive stepmom to Daniel. The heavier dramatic title track, "What Comes After," embraces the mysteries of the afterlife with a hopeful and, yes, spiritual aplomb.
The most overt nod to Daniel is in the acoustic, string-laden ballad "Everything in Its Place," where Adam addresses the "evils" that took over his son's mind:
"Some day the many shades of us will be a painting / Harmonious, edifying, saintly / Some day everything makes sense, everything in its place / We will speak our minds without fear / We'll share all things that we hold dear some day."
Because he believes too many families dealing with suicide and mental illness are afraid to speak their minds, it's not hard to get Levy to talk about his son. What's hard from a journalist's standpoint is to leave it at that. There's no valid way of putting Adam's emotions into words besides his own. He's not even sure those are accurate.
"I feel like in those last few months of his life, my son's mind was hijacked," he said.
A budding artist who did album artwork for Kill the Vultures, Carnage and other Twin Cities music acts, Daniel suffered from bipolar disorder and depression. He was being treated at the Four Winds Hospital in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where he lived with his mother, Jennifer Delton. A dollar from every ticket for Saturday's concert will go toward the treatment center, where "so many people put a lot of hard work into helping Daniel, including Daniel himself," Levy said.
Still, "his mother and I were never completely satisfied with the diagnoses we got from a variety of doctors. I watch how people treat depression on a continuum, and it's the same sort of medications and cognitive therapies whether someone is just bummed out because they're losing their hair, or someone in Daniel's case who's in a really profound and agonizing depression they see no way out of.
"He was really possessed by a sense that things weren't right, and by an evil that he was experiencing. Which was very hard to hear, because he was such a wonderful kid and beautiful person."
A Minneapolis memorial was held for Daniel two weekends ago, which gave Levy and his family great comfort, something he's especially seeking for his daughters right now.
Asked whether Saturday's release party and future Honeydogs gigs might have some sort of redemptive quality, he replied simply, "I know Daniel heard this music and liked it. So at least I can think of that when I'm up there singing."
Here's hoping he remembers how much comfort and reparation the music brings the rest of us, too.