Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.

Agate generously supports MinnPost’s Mental Health & Addiction coverage; learn why

Adam Levy: Son’s suicide, and his family’s grief and survival, inspire indy rocker’s latest work

He’s been thinking about organizing discussion forums/concerts centered on mental illness, suicide and its aftermath.

Adam Levy performing at the Southern Theater on Sept. 4 in Minneapolis.
Photo by Tony Nelson

Honeydogs frontman Adam Levy used to be best known for his intelligent indy rock songs. But since his son Daniel died three years ago at age 21 as a result of suicide, his focus has shifted radically.

“These days, it’s hard for me to write anything that isn’t related to Daniel,” Levy said. “Every song in some way is.”

In the last year and a half, Levy has begun talking and singing about this devastating experience. Lately he’s been thinking about taking a new kind of show on the road, organizing discussion forums/concerts centered on mental illness, suicide and its aftermath to audiences around the country. The events would likely feature Levy and other artists talking about the relationship between creativity and mental health.

Levy, who is also assembling music for new solo recording featuring this latest work, is still finalizing a format for the forums, but right now he envisions them as “a conversation between the artists and the audience, an opportunity to start a conversation around mental health and creativity. “

Article continues after advertisement

Earlier this week, I spoke to Levy, who was on tour, playing music for audiences along the East Coast. Tonight, he’s back in the Twin Cites, where he will perform in Minneapolis at a house concert, and later at other venues.

During our lengthy conversation, Levy, who also performs with his two daughters in a kids music group called Bunny Clogs, and the orchestral rock ensemble And The Professors, told me about his latest work, his feelings about his son’s death, and his excitement about his upcoming plans.

MinnPost: Lately you’ve been spending a lot of time speaking out about your experience as a parent who lost a son to suicide. What’s inspired this activism?

Adam Levy: I’ve been thrust into this role through no choice of my own but through circumstance as somebody who’s become public as a survivor of grief. As an artist, I’ve chosen to speak openly about my son’s struggles with mental illness as well as my own personal struggles and how those struggles influence our art.

It feels really good for me — therapeutic, even — to share my own story and talk about my own artistic process while at the same time fielding questions from other people, addressing their concerns and helping them sort through the various stages of the grief process.

Any public conversation I’ve had about mental illness has been welcomed by so many people. I feel like it’s time for me to do this. The culture is shifting so that people are finally ready to have conversations about their own experiences with mental illness. The shame around mental illness and suicide is beginning to break down. People are beginning to be able to talk about this so the stigma is being chipped away.

MP: You’ve said you’re concerned that you might not be a good spokesperson for anti-suicide efforts. Why is that?

AL: In some ways, Daniel’s death didn’t come as a surprise. Leading up to his suicide, it was like we were dealing with a terminal illness. We had months and months of panic and sleepless nights wondering if the next call would be the one where we’d hear that Daniel had killed himself.

For all of us, witnessing this struggle was a trauma. But Daniel’s mother had the greatest weight on her shoulders. When I was growing up, my mom ran a women’s shelter. I worked with the kids there when I was in high school. Near the end of Daniel’s life, I started to see that Jennifer was having a trauma response similar to the kind of trauma response the women in the shelter experienced. She was overwhelmed by the shame and the guilt and the stress of what was happening to her son. It was killing her.

My story is not, “My son was saved because we did xyz.” My son died. My beliefs about suicide are somewhat unconventional: I believe there are people who want to leave so badly, that they are in such pain, that we don’t have the means to keep them here. We don’t have the resources to keep them alive. We can’t stop them from not wanting them to stay here with us.

MP: In the three years since your son’s death, much of your music has focused on your grieving process. Now you’re talking about launching a tour of sorts, performing these new songs and speaking about the creative process behind them. What makes you want to do this now?

AL: I’m very conscious about the fact that I won’t want to make a living off of the death of my child. These forums are a nice fit because I’ve been writing music that documented my own grief process, my own recovery, making sense of what happened to Daniel. I also feel I’m fairly reflective about the process that I’m in in a way that is accessible to a lot of people.

The idea of me doing talking circuits as well as playing is a really good fit. I’m starting to get approached by people. The University of Minnesota approached me recently and said, “Would you be willing to come to the university and do an event where you moderate and invite other artists to talk about their own struggles with mental illness?” So this thing is taking off on its own. People see me as somebody who has connections in the music community and is interested in bringing people together around this issue.

I’ve been out east this last week performing at a mixture of venues and house concerts. On this tour I have been talking about my experiences in the past few years and people have been very receptive. I’m also going to be the closing keynote speaker at the NAMI conference in St. Paul on November 15. I’m going to talk and sing. I know NAMI is interested in this kind of stuff. Hopefully we can put our heads together.

Things are percolating. There is this serendipity happening.

MP: What shape will these forums take?

AL: I’m thinking that the NAMI event will be a dry run. I’ve been thinking, “How can I do something that is more conversational and also include music?” Right now, when I play, I’m playing a lot of Honeydogs music and also walking people through my body of work at the same time.

What I’m interested in talking about at the NAMI event is what I am doing creatively right now, which is writing and recording a batch of material that’s reflecting on Daniel’s mental health issues, his suicide and our survival in its wake. I’m thinking, “This topic is so freaking dark. Am I really bringing people down with this?”  But so far they seem really fascinated and interested. It feels natural and right for me.

MP: When did you feel ready to start writing about your son’s suicide?

AL: After Daniel’s death, I kind of shut down musically. We had a record that was coming out right after Daniel died. I contemplated shelving the record, but the PR was already under way, so I just kept going. It turned out to be a mixed blessing. It got my mind working, at least. I was out there playing music, which always felt good.

I went through a period of a year and a half where I couldn’t write any original music. I couldn’t write anything because everything I tried to write felt really trite. I didn’t feel I could capture the immensity of what I was going through or what Daniel had been going through before he died.

So I set everything aside, and then last summer I started writing and I felt the muse was visiting. I let it happen and subsequently wrote a bunch of songs that felt like a body of work that feels honest and comfortable.

MP: This is your next album. Have you given it a name?

AL: I’m tentatively calling it “Naubinway.” It’s a place in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It’s the last place Daniel’s mother saw him smiling and laughing and happy. She thought it would be an appropriate place, so after Daniel died, we walked into the lake until the water was up around our waists and chests, and we scattered Daniel’s ashes.