We’ve gone an entire trip around the sun without the physical presence of lo-fi/DIY pioneer, Daniel Johnston, and boy has the world changed without him in it. No, this is not to say his death was the onset of the apocalyptic year to come. One year later, however, his death presents a poignant opportunity to look back at Johnston’s unbridled, raw sentiments of love as we bear the continual dissolution of the world-at-large—or more precisely—this devil town.
Through a vast body of work, this beautifully imperfect mind orchestrated beautiful imperfection by unendingly pushing the concept of love—requited or unrequited—to the forefront of every one of his artistic endeavors, even when it seemed hopeless and evil thoughts prevailed. Empathy was his calling card. And conveying empathy—both toward himself and ultimately toward others—is what made and continues to make his impact more extraordinary than we initially realized.
In observance of this day, we spoke to nine artists, who have in one way or another, been profoundly struck by Johnston’s art and overall nature. It isn’t easy to glean Johnston’s spirit within many of the following individuals’ body of works, which range from country, synth-pop, and even alternative R&B. But because these talents cover a broad spectrum of styles and experiences, it goes to show how deep Johnston’s influence runs. So we asked each artist just one question:
What has Daniel Johnston’s music/art meant to you, one year since his passing, and has he/it shifted meaning since?
Daniel left a strong legacy and impression on me and my career, and purposefully so. He had an unwavering vision and refused to compromise, and I think we’re very much kindred spirits in that way. I’ve always adopted a lot of his ethos as I trekked this crazy career of mine over the years, and that certainly hasn’t changed, even a year after his death.
Earlier in the year, Shamir surprise released their first album of the year titled Cataclysm, which can be streamed here, and is already following the record up with another, set to be dropped independently on October 2.
Joshua Loftin (Tiña):
The raw beauty and honesty of Daniel Johnston’s art was so special that it changed my world pretty instantly when I first discovered him. In a way I feel it’s like he hasn’t gone; he’s like a slighted angel—some kind of hero brought to earth to show us something so unique about who we are. And yet, he’s still here with a strong presence. Like how people say “love doesn’t go anywhere,” that is how I feel about Daniel. He channeled something so intensely human and yet otherworldly. He showed me how humor can be used in tandem with despair and darkness in a way that carries the feeling across even more poignantly than without it. I’m so grateful for his spirit and yearning for expression. I feel blessed to have even seen him play.
Tiña’s debut record Positive Mental Health Music is set to be released November 6 via Speedy Wunderground, the first ever album release from the label. Listen to Loftin and company’s latest single from the new record, “Rosalina”, here.
Discovering his music as a child really informed the way I listened to him into my 20s. His entire discography carries this childlike wonder, and it inspires me knowing he was still writing that way well into adulthood. Even after his death, his songs evoke an unparalleled hopefulness despite the sentiment being often painful.
The rising star that is SAMIA dropped one of the best debuts of 2020 titled The Baby late last month, and you need to check it out and support her here. After, give her cover of Johnston’s “True Love Will Find You In the End” a spin, you won’t regret it.
Like an entire generation, my entry to all things Daniel Johnston came with a “Hi, How Are You” shirt adorned by none other than our modern-day savior, Kurt Cobain. I soon realized he was far more than a shirt. There was such a raw purity and heartbreaking honesty to so many of Johnston’s songs, which this past year has been crystallized for me. I listen to his music in times of joy and pain and always come away with some kernel of hope through the darkness. He feels at once, otherworldly, and as an old friend. Is there really a more beautifully plainspoken lyric than, “Don’t be sad I know you will. Don’t give up until True love will find you in the end”?
We were lucky to have him.
Just a few months ago, Bradanini dropped ONLY A WOMAN, her debut album under her own name via Cosmic Thug Records. You can buy and listen to her smoldering new record here.
Chris Stewart (Black Marble):
Some things I picked up along the way from Johnston, is that an artist should always be working and never forget death. It felt like Daniel really understood his mortality and tried to put a certain vulnerability into his songs. That’s hard to do. And he tried to work and work, at least before he got sick. I really appreciate this attitude and approach. It’s very easy to hide behind some gimmick or another, but it feels like at some point, everyone has to try and face up to asking people to take or leave them based on who they are—to take the risk of saying how you feel and trust it’s not just you. I think part of the reason he connected with so many people was because he wasn’t afraid. He wasn’t afraid to trust his music and do what he had to do to get it in front of people. He struck me as a brave guy. It’s unfortunate, the problems he had later in life, but people will remember him for when he was well, and his music and his fearlessness will continue to inspire people.
Last month, Black Marble delivered one of the better covers project you’ll ever hear in I Must Be Living Twice, so go listen and buy this beautiful nostalgic trip over here.
Charlene Kaye (KAYE):
When I was in college, I played in an experimental instrumental band called Perhapsy, who was led by my friend Derek Barber. Derek exposed me to so much music that still influences me today—Laura Veirs, Elliott Smith, and most notably, Daniel Johnston. I could see how Johnston influenced Derek, who had a very joyful, childlike approach to music and embraced imperfection in his work, much like Johnston did. As a notorious perfectionist myself, this is something I still think about as I move forward as a musician—the way Johnston’s voice cracks in “True Love will Find You in the End” is ugly singing at its most beautiful. It’s also what I love about Fiona Apple and Tom Waits—their ability to harness those textural aspects of their voice for storytelling at its most visceral.
Formerly of San Fermin, KAYE’s just surprised us with a super fiery new standalone single, “What A Time To Be Alive”, which you can check out right here.
Daniel Johnston proved that lo-fi amateur recordings can be very, very powerful, but only if you are a good writer. And Daniel Johnston was an extremely good songwriter. People always notice how “primitive” his sound was, first. But he was, in fact way, far more advanced as a writer and as a curator of his own world. He wrote so much, and yet his songs were so intertextual with one another, cross-referencing recurring images and characters in a masterful way. He showed us that you can build a world that completely draws people in, even if you only have a boombox and an untrained voice. He used his limitations–crappy equipment, no band, and shaky voice–to his advantage. He used them as doorways to freedom. He decided to care about the songwriting and the pathos of the recordings, while not worrying about anything else. That’s what Danny did, and that’s what I aspire to do.
Listen to Furman’s work on the Netflix show Sex Education‘s Original Soundtrack, here, but not until after you check out Furman’s honoring cover of Johnston’s “Walking The Cow”.
Nick Mckinlay, drummer for Fast Romantics:
When I listen to Daniel Johnston’s songs now, it all feels a little hyper-real, the sentimentality, the whimsical, the fear, and most of all, the honesty. Anyone can pick up a guitar or pluck a piano and be on their way to learning one of his songs, He kept it simple, but he was a virtuoso because of it—a virtuoso of his own truth.
Check out Fast Romantics’ new album Pick It Up, released last month, right here.
Oliver Wilde (Pet Shimmers):
I think in the throes of this unfamiliar time of forced self-reflection, shared tribulation, and collective tragedy, the quest for absolute pure distilled humanity and love seems more poignant than ever—something Daniel Johnston made a life’s work of. After all, he wrote songs that make the whole world sing. One year later, his music still serves as an anchor back to Earth, towards the things that really matter in life, love, community, and belonging. These are gifts his music has given me and continues to give many people long after his physical form left this world—a world he transcended in his lifetime, anyway. His art will endure because he was a pure original and the last of a dying breed.
Pet Shimmers’ second album of 2020 Trash Earthers is out October 2 on PS Records and can be preordered, here. You can also check out their criminally underrated first project of 2020 Face Down in Meta, here.
Daniel Johnston’s legacy continues to raise awareness for mental illness through the Hi, How Are You? pledge, which you can sign up to take here.