Ken Newman boldly tackles society’s deepest and darkest fears on What Am I Afraid Of?
The San Francisco indie-rock singer-songwriter and guitarist deftly uncovers and deciphers a multitude of emotional traumas, violent conflicts, racial injustices and political tensions on his insightful debut album.
“It was gonna be called ‘Dreaming of Guns’ based on that one song. At some point, somebody else recommended another title, and I tried that for a little while, but that didn’t quite resonate,” Newman said.
“And then Scott (Mickelson) and I were talking about it, and I said, ‘What if I just called it What Am I Afraid Of? ’ Then, the two of us went, ‘Oh my God, of course, that’s what everything’s about.’”
For Newman, “everything” serves as an umbrella of personal and societal challenges ranging from everyday anxieties to teen suicide to homelessness to gun violence. The album’s 11 gripping tracks provide a poignant wake-up call for the nation to strongly unite, take action and instill change.
“The thing about this album is essentially the same paradigm that’s kind of dictated my entire life,” he said. “I don’t exactly know what’s happening until I look in the rear-view mirror and go, ‘That happened.’”
What Am I Afraid Of?
Newman thoughtfully illustrates those What Am I Afraid Of? happenings through purposeful lyrics, vigorous instrumentation and massive rock soundscapes. The album is a must-listen for fans of Bruce Springsteen and Leonard Cohen.
“It’s this wonderful little accident of ‘Oh, I did that’ and ‘Oh, I did this,’ and I look back at these 10 or 11 tracks and go, ‘They just all have this kind of connection,’” he said. “It’s like doing a concept album without having a concept.”
Whether intentional or not, the album provides a seamless 39-minute analysis of individual and societal reactions to a variety of fears. The forthright title track spotlights the phobias people experience throughout different life stages and the media’s role in perpetuating them.
An indestructible force of electric guitars, bass, keys, drums and cymbals surround Newman as he sings, “Is it the bullets pouring from the sky? Is it hearing her last goodbye? / Is it a crowded street? A bag left on a seat? / Is it the cold dead look in his eye? / Is it the holy book in his hand? Or his words I can’t understand? / Or a face that I just can’t see? Or that he just don’t look like me?”
“Scott (Mickelson) gave me a loop that he’d been using on one of the songs, and I said, ‘Do me a favor? Give me six minutes of that loop because it’s really awesome.’ And I listened to it, and ‘What Am I Afraid Of?’ came out of that,” said Newman, who also released a compelling video co-directed by Calvin Kai Ku.
“It was almost half-spoken and half-sung, and Scott liked the spoken version so much he recorded it and said, ‘Just speak the lyrics,’ and it’s way down in the mix. If you listen to it, you can hear me saying the lyrics not totally in sync with the singing of it, so it creates this extra little weird bed.”
After identifying life’s growing fears on the title track, Newman acknowledges a family’s heart-wrenching grief from teen suicide on “Danny Don’t Go Upstairs.” Sorrowful acoustic guitar, cautious electric guitar, solemn bass, soft drums and tearful cymbals provide a welcome emotional release.
Newman sings, “Kid, it’s time to say good night / Don’t punch the wall, leave on the light / Danny, don’t go upstairs / Didya steal the money in the drawer? / Didya leave the evidence on the floor?”
“When I started to do the album, I didn’t just want to sit down and write a song about something that I didn’t care about,” he said. “The first song that came to me was because of this horrible thing that happened to a young friend of my son who committed suicide.”
Newman also highlights the increasing loss of Black lives on “I Can’t Breathe,” a heartfelt tribute to Eric Garner, who died in a chokehold by New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo on Staten Island in 2014.
Despondent acoustic guitar calls for change as Newman sings, “How many lines have been crossed? / How many lives have been lost? / When a man falls to the ground with no one around / Does he make a sound? / Oh, it stops today / Oh, it stops today / It stops today.”
“I was walking down the street in Houston a year after Eric Garner died in a chokehold on Staten Island, and a kid was holding a sign that had a transcript of Eric’s last words. It was windy, and he was falling down, so I held the sign for him. We walked for a while, and I asked if I could take a picture of the sign, and he said, ‘Sure,’” Newman said.
“I took the picture, and I thought of this little kid and all these people. I went to my hotel room, and I didn’t have a guitar, so I wrote down all those lines. And I started writing other versions, and that provided the departure point for me to script the rest of the story that I wanted to tell.”
“I Can’t Breathe” soon resonated with Garner’s daughter, Erica Garner, who asked Newman to perform the song at her late father’s memorial.
“And several months later, my acoustic guitar in hand, I did just that,” Newman said. “And it was a deeply moving and ultimately uplifting evening.”
Next, Newman reveals another type of emotional and physical loss on the gospel-tinged ballad, “We Should Do This Again.” An outpouring of thoughtful piano, somber bass, calm electric guitar and hypnotic percussion offer hope and support for the homeless.
Newman sings, “He said, ‘Smile, you woke up this morning, how bad can it be?’ / He said, ‘It looks like you’re lookin’ for love, but you ain’t looking at me’ / He said, ‘I once had it all, then it was gone, someone erased it’ / I guess someone erased it.”
“I was on my way to Oakland one day, and I was stuck in traffic on the approach to the Bay Bridge. There was a guy with a sign … so I rolled down the window, and I gave him five or 10 bucks,” said Newman, who’s also worked as a magician, actor, comedian and corporate entertainer.
“He came over to the car, and I must have had a look on my face that showed I was stressed out about something. I gave him the money, and he looked at me and said, ‘Smile, you woke up this morning, how bad can it be?’ That’s the first line of the second verse.”
In fact, it’s also the track’s second appearance on an album. In 2019, Newman collaborated with producer Scott Mickelson on a benefit compilation album called Blanket the Homeless, which is named after Newman’s charity to support Bay area homeless.
“When Scott (Mickelson) came up with the idea to do Blanket the Homeless as a compilation album, I had already written that song,” he said. “I had already been doing the Blanket the Homeless program for a while … handing out items and talking to people on the street and talking to audiences about people living on the streets.”
Newman started the charity seven years ago to help distribute care packages containing emergency blankets, socks, hats, first-aid kits and other essential items to the homeless. To date, more than 9,000 care packages have been distributed to local people in need.
Newman’s bold, creative journey for What Am I Afraid Of? started in 2016. At the time, he asked Bay area singer-songwriter Jeff Desira to recommend a producer – Scott Mickelson – for his debut album.
That spring, Newman traveled to Mickelson’s studio in Mill Valley, California to record the 11-track album, which features nine songs written by Newman, one co-written with Mickelson (“What Am I Afraid Of?” and another penned by E.G. Phillips (“The Fish Song”).
“He said, ‘Well, do me a favor. Why don’t you send me a couple of the songs that you’re working on, and I’ll decide if it’s good for us to work together,’” said Newman, who’s inspired by Jeff Tweedy, Bob Mould and The Black Keys.
“I didn’t say anything for a second, and he went, ‘Just so you understand, when I’m working on an album, I’m listening to the same section over and over again. It has to be something that I want to listen to.’ I got a kick out of that … so I sent him a couple of tracks, and he listened to them and went, ‘Yeah, there’s a lot there to work with … come on in.”
With their musical partnership in place, Newman and Mickelson assembled a top-notch team of collaborators to hone the album’s striking sound.
Guest musicians include: Dennis Haneda (guitar), Frank Reina (drums), Kyle Caprista (drums), David Hayes (bass), Kevin White (bass), Brendan Getzell (piano), Adam Rossi (piano), Luke Kirley (trombone), Dave Len Scott (trumpet) and Lilan Kane (vocals).
“This album is in many ways a collaboration with a producer who is also a brilliant songwriter and who has become a dear friend,” Newman said. “Over the years we’ve worked together, he has never heard one of my songs and said, ‘Yup. It’s perfect. Let’s start recording.’”
Newman and Mickelson finished recording What Am I Afraid Of? in 2020, but Newman opted to delay the release until he could have an in-person album release show. His wish was granted in April, when the album officially dropped on streaming platforms and included a vinyl release
Nearly six months later, Newman continues to play additional live shows, including a Sept. 24 “Balanced BreakFEST” show at Amado’s in San Francisco. He’s also performing Oct. 15 at “Echoes in the Valley,” an outdoor house concert in Cole Valley.
In the meantime, there’s a new batch of material brewing to succeed What Am I Afraid Of?
“For this album, I definitely had something to say, but this next one is probably going to be something to say and be a lot louder,” Newman said. “I got nothing else to do. I’m gonna die one day, so I might as well do the thing I want to do now.”
Saturday, Sept. 24 | 7:30 p.m. to midnight PT
Balanced BreakFEST | Amando’s, 998 Valencia St. in San Francisco