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Brian Belknap Contemplates Loss, Celebrates Friendship With 'In Lieu of Flowers' (album premiere)

Jedd Beaudoin
Photo: Pete Lee / Courtesy of artist

Veteran San Francisco musician Brian Belknap gets help from stellar friends on his new emotionally charged LP, which he tells us all about in an exclusive interview.

When it came time to make his latest album, In Lieu of Flowers, San Francisco-based musician Brian Belknap called on some of his closest friends. Chief among those was Portland, Oregon-based producer Mike Coykendall (kirk-en-dahl), a multi-instrumentalist and studio wizard whose credits include a long-term stay in the M. Ward (and She & Him) camp as well as work with Blitzen Trapper, Richmond Fontaine, and Bright Eyes. There were other friends too, including backing vocalists Erma Kyriakos and Carlos Forster, whose voices provide another dimension of warmth to the proceedings.

What's evident in speaking with Belknap is how please he is with what his friends contributed. As well he should be. He should also be able to take pride in the cohesive body of material that comprises the album. The mournful blues/country intersection "For Kevin" sounds like one of those rare songs that entered the world without an author and has simply always been. "Sad Confessions" finds a comfortable resting place between Johnny Cash and Rodney Crowell; others, such as the titular piece and "Epitaph" are the kind of ramshackle country the Rolling Stones favored throughout the 1970s. Here, that tore down music sounds like it's gliding closer to perfection, becoming perfectly comfortable in the hands of those who've brought these songs into being.

Elsewhere, "High Wire" establishes itself as a tune that deserves to become part of the permanent lexicon of song, one that gets passed around at picking parties and living room jams for ages to come. The same may be said of "Bearing Witness" or, really, anything on In Lieu of Flowers, a record born of personal and emotional upheaval but which finds its footing nicely and surely by the end, reminding us that there is peace to be found.

In Lieu of Flowers is out Friday, 11 May.

Belknap will celebrate its release with a San Francisco gig at Brick & Mortar Music Hall that evening with Sallie Ford and Mike Coykendall.

There's a specific mood to this album and, it seems like, some thematic connections.

The title track is about my trip to my father's funeral. I hadn't been home in quite some time. I have had a lot of loss at different times in my life. This is a record that's about loss of different kinds, loss of friendships, the loss of my father. Different shades of that. It looked for a moment like it was going to be a different record. I had some different songs. It was going to be called something different. There was a song called "Strike Up the Band" that I hope will make it on another record. More of a New Orleans flavor. Mike really looked at the songs and said, "A couple of these don't fit and I'm seeing this in a different way." I'm so grateful to him for that. He has a remarkable sense for how things should be. I've known him for a long time and I really trust him. He really gets into songs and knows what a song needs. I just put things in his hands.

Was there a period of estrangement with your dad?

There was. I have a lot of respect for my father. He was born in Hell's Kitchen on a kitchen table at the heart of the Great Depression. He didn't come up easy. But there's another story that I think sums up the life that he had: He was the second best half-miler in the state of Massachusetts and never won a single race because the best half-miler went to the same high school, same year, and never missed a meet. He fought in Korea, got polio. The doctors told him he'd never walk again. Then he walked with braces, then without them. When I was growing up, he walked without them, although not easily. He was a very, very determined man. I think I inherited some of that determination.

My dad was pretty worried about me leading an "artistic lifestyle". I didn't want to listen when he said, "That can be pretty tough." Then, about ten years after he died, I said, "What he told me wasn't exactly wrong."

There was a similar conversation with my father. He knew guys who played around during the big band era and had some sense of what that was like, himself. It's easy to forget those kinds of things. I play on the street a lot, and I just ran into this guy who played in Alabama, Black Oak Arkansas, friends with Willie Nelson. He's 70 now and just had to say that enough's enough. His hands are all torn up. There's going to be some attrition. You don't see that end of it when you have stars in your eyes. And a love of music. Because music was one of the few things I felt like I could hold on to. Then and now.

You mentioned Mike Coykendall and the help he gave you on this record. You met him when was still in San Francisco and playing with The Old Joe Clarks.

I went to see a Richard Buckner show and his manager said, "The next show is with the Old Joe Clarks. You don't want to miss this." I went, saw Mike play and I was just blown away. Instantly. I was electrified. We traded tapes of our work and although a lot of times nothing comes of these things, Mike listened to the thing and called me the next day and we struck up this friendship. That was probably in 1994.

There's a lot of space in the music and I think it really enhances the emotional content of the lyrics.

I think so. I've got a voice with character, shall we say. I'm a self-taught musician. I have a basic proficiency. You're not going to get something pristine with me playing it but I do think that you get something different. I do think that we managed to capture something on this record. The other people playing are really pretty remarkable musicians. Tom Heyman is an extraordinary guitar player. Michael Mullen is a great piano player. Michael has an incredible ability to play a song. A lot of people can put their fingers on the keys but he just brings something really, really special.

My friend, Dave Hull, who I met down in New Orleans came in and did some beautiful stuff on the organ. My longtime drummer Michael Hoffman did great work, Johnny Blair did a tremendous job filling in on bass for a friend of mine who couldn't make the session.

There's evidence in these songs that you guys are all listening to each other. That there's intuition there. What's that line between being prepared and knowing the songs well but them still being fresh enough that you find new things?

A lot of that just has to do with who's in the room. I had to find the right players. Tom and Michael Mullen are the kind of guys who aren't going to play the same thing more than one time. I could say to Michael, "I like that part, that's beautiful" and he'd say, "I hope you enjoyed it because you're not going to hear it again!" There's some spontaneity built into it. He and Tom are beautiful feel players. Those are the kind of people I look for, the people who really serve the song.

Was there anything that surprised you in the making of the album?

The leadoff track, "Sad Confessions", was placed differently. Mike said, "I really think that should be the first song." I resisted for a minute, then listened to order as he suggested it and I said, "Gosh, he's right." It stuck out funny where it was because of what Mike did with the harmonica part. I don't know how he thinks of these things, he's brilliant that way. It worked great to start the record and everything else flowed once that thing was in place. "Sad Confessions" sets up the title track beautifully now. But it's not for me to say how well the album works overall. [Laughs.]

I have to say that for songs born from loss, at the end of it, I feel better. I took some inspiration away from it all.

I guess it's the way that you hold it. People tell me that they find something optimistic in the songs. The last one, "This Time", is sort of in that vein. I didn't know if that song would make it on the record. The production and the performances all came together. It ends the record on a hopeful note. I think it gave all the musicians a place to really shine.

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