BioWho is Daniel Johnston?
Put the name Daniel Johnston into any internet search engine and you will literally find hundreds of pages about America's most unlikely pop phenomenon and "outsider" visual artist. Daniel's career has spanned over three decades. He has spent the last twenty-two years exposing his heartrending tales of unrequited love, cosmic mishaps and existential torment to an ever-growing international cult audience, and as a result has been hailed as an American original akin to blues-man Robert Johnson and country legend Hank Williams.
Daniel was born in 1961 in Sacramento, California, the youngest of five children in a Christian fundamentalist household. Daniel started drawing at an early age, a long time before he took up music and grew to appreciate such artists as John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Bob Dylan, David Bromberg, Queen, Neil Young, the Sex Pistols and especially the Beatles. "When I was 19, I wanted to be the Beatles" says Daniel.
As a teenager, Daniel and his friends began to record their own cassettes and trade them amongst themselves. Unemployed and attending art classes sporadically, he began to spend most of his time in his family's cellar, writing and recording. The cassettes he made there included Songs of Pain and More Songs of Pain, which both centred around his unrequited love for a woman named Laurie who ended up marrying an undertaker.
The aspiring cartoonist - whose playful, symbolic sketches have graced the covers of his releases - moved to Texas in 1983. As manic depression began to manifest, Daniel stayed with his brother in Houston and then in San Marcos with his sister where he recorded the seminal cassettes Yip/Jump Music and Hi, How Are You?. The latter was recorded in the midst of a nervous breakdown. Both were recorded on a $59.00 Sanyo mono boombox and are quintessential of Daniel's desperate bid to get these creations out of his head and onto the record of human experience. Although lo-fi and amateurish in approach, these recordings are unflinchingly direct and painfully honest. For a short spell, Daniel joined a travelling carnival, selling corndogs. His five-month stint with the carnival left him in Austin, where he decided to stay. In the midst of that city's mid-eighties music scene, Daniel was a definite iconoclast. While he continued to hand out his cassettes for free, Austin record stores started selling them; in fact, they became best-selling local releases. Daniel's biggest break came when a camera crew from MTV's seminal "Cutting Edge" show decided to feature Daniel. His appearance on the show made him a minor celebrity, and the music press in the US and abroad began to take note.
With the surprise success of Daniel's poignantly personal homemade cassettes, independent label, Homestead, re-issued some of his cassettes on CD to a wider audience in early nineties. It was at this time that the disaffected grunge movement had begun and Daniel's unique lo-fi sound synched perfectly with the overall musical landscape earning accolades and name-checks from grunge heroes Nirvana, Sonic Youth and Pearl Jam amongst others. Kurt Cobain even wore a Daniel Johnston t-shirt to 1992's MTV Video Music Awards and members of Sonic Youth played on his Kramer produced 1990 album released on Shimmy Disc.
With songs included on Generation X film soundtracks such as Kids and My So Called Life, Daniel found himself propelled into the mainstream and mistakenly signed to Atlantic Records. At the time of signing to Atlantic Daniel was suffering from depression. Daniel's old friend Paul Leary of the Butthole Surfers, who he first met in 1985, was drafted in as producer of the project. "Daniel had trouble playing. I wish he could have played every instrument, but he couldn't" says Leary in hindsight. Under enormous pressure to complete the album, Daniel drifted deeper into depression. The sessions resulted in the ironically titled Fun album, which was released in 1994. Although Fun was competently recorded, it lacked the "humanness" of Daniel's early cassettes. The sales of Fun fell well below the expectations of Atlantic Records; Atlantic lost money on the album. So scared that he would be dropped by Atlantic, Daniel was at his lowest ebb.
Daniel returned to the Houston suburbs where he lives with his parents today. For the next three years he recorded with Brian Beattie of Austin band Glass Eye. Every four weeks or so, Beattie would spend two hours packing up a portastudio, three hours driving to Daniel's house, four to five hours recording, then break it all down and drive back to Austin. Due to Daniel's ever-changing health, sometimes they would not even get one song recorded. Other times, says Beattie, "Daniel's genius antennae would shoot up into the sky, and a song that sounded like it had existed forever would come uninterrupted out of his mind and his hands".
Still contracted to Atlantic, Daniel submitted a song for "The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" film, however, Atlantic rejected the song and conveniently dropped Daniel from their roster.
In 2001, Daniel's first record in seven years (since Fun) was released on Gammon Records, the aptly titled Rejected Unknown. Rejected Unknown was collected from the recordings Daniel had made with Beattie and was a return to the organic, free range Daniel. Although not as lo-fi as his early cassettes, it still remained genuine, honest and reflective of a individual talent. In the winter of 2002, Mojo Magazine, selected the album for their "1000 Ultimate CD Guide".
Not only is Daniel's musical career back on track, his visual art is blossoming too. Daniel's art has been exhibited in countless galleries around the world and he has become a permanent index fixture in "outsider" art books. His art is rooted deep in the iconography of his childhood; comic books, monster movies, Bible stories and the Beatles. "His (Daniel's) fan base is the artistic cream of the crop, but he may never appeal to the masses, at least not in his lifetime. Van Gogh was admired and mentored by superstar artists like Gauguin. Later in history they were considered peers, even though during their lives, Van Gogh sold nothing and Gauguin was a celebrity. This could easily happen to Daniel as an artist and musician" says artist Ron English.
Daniel Johnston is 41 now. Within his oversized adolescent frame and incongruously mopped grey hair, lies a history of crash n' burn volatility, which co-exists with prolific creativity in music and the visual arts. His output has been erratic, his career trajectory unpredictable, but Daniel continues to exert a powerful creative presence, despite the demons with which he is beset. As Dean Ween of Ween says, "most songwriters would have given anything to have written one song as good as any Daniel Johnston tune, and he has hundreds". Daniel's personal troubles have sometimes overshadowed his music legacy, but they have not derailed his prodigious talents.
Daniel is "feeling a lot better". "I'm on better drugs now, so it really makes a big difference" he says. Daniel can now be frequently found in recording studios, art galleries and on concert stages around the world. He was recently invited by David Bowie to perform at this year's Meltdown Festival at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London and the Lyon Opera Ballet commissioned New York-based choreographer Bill T. Jones to create "Love Defined', a 25-minute piece set to six Daniel Johnston songs.
At the dawn of the 21st century, Daniel Johnston brings us his 21st record and possibly his most outstanding to date. Fear Yourself is a collaboration between Daniel and Mark Linkous/Sparklehorse and is a giant step forward from Daniel's previous work. Daniel and Sparklehorse spent the week of September 14, 2001 at David Lowery's (Cracker) Sound Of Music studios laying down tracks for the record. Fear Yourself marries the like-minded qualities and distinctive styles of the two artists perfectly. Linkous is credited as producer and arranger of the sessions and has layered his trademark of eerie strings, Mellotron and chilling backdrops around Daniel's heart wrenchingly honest eccentric pop songs. This collaboration has produced an epic sound that will stir Daniel Johnston and Sparklehorse fans alike and could place Daniel into the mainstream once more.
Daniel maintains the support of many famous fans, from Matt Groening (creator of The Simpsons) and Johnny Depp to David Bowie and Kurt Cobain. Daniel is the musician's cult musician, whose music is appreciated for it's utter lack of artifice and the undeniable simple brilliance. A range of artists, such as Beck, Wilco, Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, Nina Persson (of The Cardigans), Sparklehorse and Pearl Jam have all covered Daniel's songs in the past.