Brian Belknap is a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter in the mold of Lucinda Williams and Townes Van Zandt. His music— a rough blend of broke-down folk, junk-country blues, and gut-bucket gospel, rendered on accordion, slide guitar, and mandolin—is a product of the rich cultures of San Francisco and New Orleans, the two cities he calls home. Belknap’s latest offering, In Lieu of Flowers, once again finds him in the capable hands of producer Mike Coykendall (M. Ward, She & Him, Bright Eyes, Blitzen Trapper). The record is about coping with loss (both personal and collective), and finding redemption in a world in its own time of reckoning. Never one to shy away from darkness, his own or other people’s, Belknap’s songs not only tell stories, but are able to convey a level of subtlety, nuance, and compassion that is the province of someone who has been down a long and difficult road and has lived to tell the tale.
A lifelong veteran of several music scenes, Belknap holds music deep in his bones, and also holds a special place in his music community. His real-life history indeed reads like that of a bygone era. Leaving a troubled home at an early age, he thumbed cross country making what money he could by playing on the streets. Factory work not only allowed him practice spaces to hone his skills, in boiler rooms and on loading docks, but also woke him up to the plight of the working-poor. In between working and playing, Belknap started organizing to protest the awful working conditions he often found himself in. What developed was a deep-seated dedication to social justice that would embed itself into Belknap’s music and identity for years to come. In the 90s, Belknap founded a band called Turpentine, during SF’s heyday of folk, bluegrass, and country. Turpentine was soon sharing the stage with the likes of Cake, Calexico, Richard Buckner, Mike Eitzel, Tarnation, and early-era Train. At the same time, Belknap started to feel the pull of the working-class struggles he was participating in and singing about more strongly, and that led him to leave music to commit himself to social justice movements more fully. A 10-year musical-hiatus followed, during which Belknap fought on the front lines, and wondered if music was a part of a past lifetime. Fate dealt a different hand, however, and ironically, Belknap was forced back out onto the street after losing his apartment to gentrification – where he started performing those old songs again to make ends meet. Mike Coykendall, a longtime friend from the Turpentine days, coaxed Belknap back into the studio, from which 2010’s Lucky Me was born. Cradle to Grave, another Coykendall-produced record, was soon to follow – and Belknap was back to stay.
Upon his return, not only was he welcomed back heartily by the alternative music stalwarts, but a younger group of musicians immediately embraced Belknap. Settling into this scene, Belknap deepened his songwriting craft once again, while also deepening his place in the rich new musical community he’d found a home in. This deepened commitment was repaid when, shortly after the loss of his father, a group of friends and fellow musicians secretly pooled enough money together to send Belknap to New Orleans. A love of the music of New Orleans had been with him for years; as soon as he arrived, the connection was immediate. Soon, he was taking his place as a busker on Royal Street, a time-honored tradition and veritable art form down in New Orleans. Indefatigable as always, Belknap managed to scrape enough money together to realize another dream: owning a home he could call his own. He sold his beloved 1942 Martin D-18 and used the money for the remainder of a down payment on a house in New Orleans. The rest, as they say, is history. Belknap now splits his time between San Francisco and New Orleans; pounding nails in New Orleans to build his dream-sanctuary, a welcoming home for both traveling and local musicians to come through as a place of refuge and safety from being priced-out of rapidly-gentrifying neighborhoods, and pounding the pavement in SF to make money to pay for all those hard-earned nails. A beloved member of two different musical worlds, not only has Belknap has found his place in both communities, but his music, passion, and commitment epitomize the very best of both traditions.
Next time you think you have a tough job, think about Brian Belknap.
Belknap is a one-man band who plays on San Francisco streets and in BART stations, depending on the kindness of strangers for his income.
WWOZ New Orleans
A self-taught musician who left a troubled home at an early age, Brian Belknap thumbed cross country making what he could playing on the streets. Finding factory work, he honed his skills practicing in boiler rooms and on loading docks during lunch breaks, organising when he could against the horrible working conditions he often found himself in.
Brian Belknap is a singer-songwriter whose music has a knack for tapping the darkness of his soul and being joyful at the same time.
Whether performing solo or with a full band, Belknap is well on his way to becoming a San Francisco force.