"I'll spend the rest of my life trying to figure out why Daniel killed himself."
That's longtime Twin Cities musician Adam Levy recently at the Spyhouse in northeast Minneapolis. The Honeydogs frontman stares out the large front window of the coffee shop, reflecting on the darkness of the years before and after his son Daniel, 21, committed suicide in 2012. Much of that time was filtered into the 13 songs that comprise Adam's first solo effort, Naubinway. The album is named after a small strip of beach on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan — the last place Daniel's mother, Jennifer Delton, remembers seeing her son smile.
Daniel showed signs of depression around age 16, and he was candid with his family and friends about the disease. Adam, who struggles with depression himself, recognized his son's turmoil, so the family consulted doctors. Daniel experienced psychotic episodes involving semi-hallucinatory and paranoid periods that may have pointed to schizophrenia, but the symptoms didn't lead to a formal diagnosis.
Through conversation and medication, Daniel learned to cope with his bipolarity, channeling the images in his mind into his artwork. Adam sifted through those dark, dense, and foreboding paintings and drawings when he was seeking artwork for the cover of Naubinway.
In the weeks before the suicide, Adam would have daily phone conversations with Daniel, who lived in New York with his mother at the time. Daniel would often express how his will to live had ceased, and Adam would implore him to summon the strength to go on.
"[Daniel] said, 'I can't do this anymore. I don't want to be here,'" Adam says, remembering a conversation with his son two days before his death. "I said, 'If you killed yourself, there will not be relief. You're going to destroy everyone around you, and you really don't know for sure you're going to a more peaceful place. What if you enter into a zone of everlasting horror?' Daniel paused, and told his mom, 'I think dad's right. My time isn't yet.'"
The next day, Daniel confessed to his father, "I can't be here anymore." Adam attempted to console his son, reminding him about the stories of others who overcame their suicidal thoughts, to which Daniel replied: "The difference between those people and me is that I don't want to be here."
"That was my wake up call," Adam remembers. "His life and future was an everlasting state of being haunted by visions of terrible things. The world was too painful for him."
On a Thursday morning while at work, Adam was called out of a meeting by Daniel's mom. She reported being concerned that Daniel had been downstairs for a while, and it was unusually quiet. Adam instructed her to go downstairs.
"She went, and he was in the process of killing himself," he recalls. "She screamed, and I freaked out and couldn't get ahold of her for an hour. There was an inevitability to where things were going, but I felt all along, 'He's not going to die. This is how bad it had to get before it gets better.' That was me denying the fact that he had so thoroughly created an exit strategy for himself that there was no way of reviving it."
A few days later, Adam and Jennifer took Daniel off life support.
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 death, 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."
Raised to be forthright and open, Adam was very public during his grieving process, seizing on opportunities to speak openly about mental illness. It proved therapeutic for him, yet his pain is never far from the surface.
"I still get triggered," Adam admits. "Daniel was very much into the skateboard culture. If I hear a skateboard hit concrete or a street, that is a sound that — boom! I'm back with Daniel. I get this tug, this pain knowing that I'm never going to hear that or see him again, never going to hold or hug him again. It's obscure little moments, but we go on. I honestly thought I would never enjoy music or eating again, but you do. The human spirit is resilient — and that sounds cliché — but for those that want to live, the spirit to be hopeful is essential to our existence."
Album-release show for Adam Levy's Naubinway
With: Franklin Gappa, Ana Tuiran, School for Girls.
When: 7 p.m. Sat., Nov. 28.
Where: Cedar Cultural Center.
Tickets: $12-$15; more info here.