Daniel Johnston

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Daniel Johnston
Daniel Johnston at Emos 1.jpg
Johnston in December 2006
Background information
Birth name Daniel Dale Johnston
Born (1961-01-22) January 22, 1961 (age 56)
Sacramento, California, U.S.
  • Musician
  • singer-songwriter
  • visual artist
Years active 1978–present
Website hihowareyou.com

Daniel Dale Johnston (born January 22, 1961) is an American singer-songwriter, musician, and visual artist who is regarded as a significant figure in outsider, lo-fi, and alternative music scenes.[1][3] Most of his work consists of cassettes he recorded alone in his home,[4] he spent extended periods of his life in psychiatric institutions[4] and has been diagnosed with schizophrenia[5][6] and manic depression.[7][1]

Johnston's music is frequently cited for its "pure and childlike soul",[8] it was in the 1980s when he started gathering a local following by passing out tapes of his music while working at a McDonald's in Austin, Texas.[9] His notoriety among underground circles was launched once Nirvana's Kurt Cobain began wearing a T-shirt that featured artwork from the album Hi, How Are You (1983).[4] In 2005, Johnston was the subject of the documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston.

Early life[edit]

Johnston was born in Sacramento, California, and grew up in New Cumberland, West Virginia, he is the youngest of five children of William Dale "Bill" Johnston and Mabel Ruth Voyles Johnston (1923-2010). He began recording music in the late 1970s on a $59 Sanyo monaural Boombox, singing and playing piano as well as the chord organ. Following graduation from Oak Glen High School, Johnston spent a few weeks at Abilene Christian University in West Texas before dropping out, he later attended the art program at the East Liverpool campus of Kent State University, during which he recorded Songs of Pain and More Songs of Pain.[10]

Music career[edit]


Johnston's musical work gained some notability when he moved to Austin, Texas. Johnston began to attract the attention of the local press and gained a following augmented in numbers by his habit of handing out tapes to people he met. Live performances were well-attended and hotly anticipated,[11] his local standing led to him being featured in a 1985 episode of the MTV program The Cutting Edge featuring performers from Austin's "New Sincerity" music scene.[12] Subsequently, he performed at the 1985 Woodshock music festival in Austin, where he was featured in a short documentary of the festival, Woodshock.

In 1988, Johnston visited New York City and recorded 1990 with producer Kramer[13] at his Noise New York studio, it was released in 1990 on Kramer's Shimmy-Disc label. This was Johnston's first experience in a professional recording environment after a decade of releasing home-made cassette recordings, his mental health further deteriorated during the making of 1990. In 1989 Johnston released the album It's Spooky in collaboration with Half Japanese singer Jad Fair.

In 1990, Johnston played at a music festival in Austin, Texas, on the way back to West Virginia on a small, private two-seater plane piloted by his father Bill, Johnston had a manic psychotic episode believing he was Casper the Friendly Ghost and removed the key from the plane's ignition and threw it out of the plane. His father, a former Air Force pilot, managed to successfully crash-land the plane, even though "there was nothing down there but trees", although the plane was destroyed, Johnston and his father emerged with only minor injuries. As a result of this episode, Johnston was involuntarily committed to a mental hospital.[14]

Interest in Johnston increased when Kurt Cobain was frequently photographed wearing a T-shirt featuring the cover image of Johnston's album Hi, How Are You that music journalist Everett True gave him. Kurt Cobain listed Yip/Jump Music as one of his favorite albums in his journal in 1993;[15] in spite of Johnston being resident in a mental hospital at the time, a bidding war to sign him ensued. He refused to sign a multi-album deal with Elektra Records because Metallica was on the label's roster and he was convinced that they were of Satan and would hurt him. He also dropped his manager after having a psychotic episode at a Butthole Surfers concert.[16] Ultimately he signed with Atlantic Records in February 1994 and that September released Fun, produced by Paul Leary of Butthole Surfers.[17] It was a commercial failure; in June 1996, Atlantic dropped Daniel from the label.

Johnston contributed two songs to the soundtrack for Larry Clark's controversial 1995 film Kids, produced by Folk Implosion and Sebadoh's frontman, Lou Barlow. Johnston later covered Schoolhouse Rock!'s "Unpack Your Adjectives" for a compilation of the popular education songs called Schoolhouse Rock! Rocks in 1996.


In 2004, he released The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered, a two-disc compilation. The first disc featured many artists, such as Tom Waits, Beck, TV on the Radio, Jad Fair, Eels, Bright Eyes, Calvin Johnson, Death Cab for Cutie, Sparklehorse, Mercury Rev and The Flaming Lips covering songs written by Johnston. The second disc featured Johnston's original recordings of the songs.

In 2005, Texas-based theater company Infernal Bridegroom Productions received a Multi-Arts Production/MAP Fund grant[18] to work with Johnston to create a rock opera based on his music, titled Speeding Motorcycle.

A 2005, Dutch documentary about Johnston for the TV series R.A.M. was followed in 2006 by The Devil and Daniel Johnston. Jeff Feuerzeig's documentary, four years in the making, collated some of the vast amount of recorded material Johnston (and in some case, others) had produced over the years to portray his life and music, the film won high praise, receiving the Director's Award at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. The film also inspired more interest in Johnston's work, and increased his pull as a touring artist.

In 2006, Johnston's own Eternal Yip Eye Music label released his first greatest hits compilation, Welcome to My World,[19] he also appeared as musical guest on The Henry Rollins Show on which he performed "Mask" and "Care Less" (the latter was exclusive to the internet).

Through the next few years Johnston toured extensively across the world, and continued to attract press attention; in 2008, Dick Johnston, Daniel's brother and manager, revealed that "a movie deal based on the artist's life and music had been finalized with a tentative 2011 release."[20] He also said that a deal had been struck with the Converse company for a "signature series" Daniel Johnston shoe.[20] Later, it was revealed by Dick Johnston that Converse had dropped the plan;[21] in late 2008, Adjustable Productions released Johnston's first concert DVD, The Angel and Daniel Johnston – Live at the Union Chapel, featuring a 2007 appearance in Islington, London.[22]

Is and Always Was was released on October 6, 2009 on his Eternal Yip Eye Music record label. In 2009, it was announced that Matt Groening had chosen Johnston to perform at the edition of the All Tomorrow's Parties festival that he curated in May 2010 in Minehead, England. Later that year, he was invited by rock band Cage the Elephant to appear at Starry Nights Fest, an upstart music festival in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Johnston performed a brief solo set before being joined on stage by Cage, who backed performances of several songs, including "Speeding Motorcycle" and "True Love Will Find You in the End".

In November 2015, the short film Hi, How Are You Daniel Johnston, a biopic about Johnston's life was released featuring Johnston as his 2015 self and Gabriel Sunday of My Suicide as Johnston's 1983 self. The executive producers for the film included Lana Del Rey.[23][24]

In July 2017, Johnston announced that he would be retiring from live performance and would embark on a final five-date tour that fall,[25] each stop on the tour would feature Johnston backed by a different group that had been influenced by his music: The Preservation All-Stars in New Orleans, The Districts and Modern Baseball in Philadelphia, Jeff Tweedy in Chicago, and Built to Spill for the final two dates in Portland and Vancouver.[25]

Art career[edit]

Johnston's "Hi, How Are You" mural in Austin, Texas

His artwork has been shown in galleries such as in London's Aquarium Gallery and New York's Clementine Gallery as well as at the Liverpool Biennial both in 2006, and in 2008; in 2009 his work was exhibited at "The Museum of Love" at Verge Gallery in Sacramento, California.[26]

In 1993, the Sound Exchange record store in Austin, Texas commissioned Johnston to paint a mural of the Hi, How Are You? frog (also known as "Jeremiah the Innocent") from his 1983 album cover.[27] At the time, the frog image had recently become nationally recognized from media images of Kurt Cobain wearing a "Hi, How Are You?" T-shirt during Nirvana's promotion of their 1991 album Nevermind.[28] After the record store closed, the building remained unoccupied until 2004 when a Mexican grill franchise called Baja Fresh took ownership and decided to remove the wall that held the mural. A group of people who lived in the neighborhood convinced the managers and contractors to keep the mural intact,[29] the building now houses a Thai restaurant called "Thai, How Are You." In Spring 2008, a Jeremiah the Innocent collectible figurine was released in limited runs of four different colors.[30]

March 1, 2012, Brooklyn-based photographer Jung Kim announced her photo book and traveling exhibition project with Johnston titled DANIEL JOHNSTON: here, a collaboration that began in 2008 when Kim first met Johnston and began photographing him on the road and at his home in Waller, TX. On March 13, 2013, the first-ever photography book on Johnston was published which features 5 years of documentation on the artist. Along with the book launched a traveling exhibition starting at SXSW 2013 in Austin, Texas, hosted by Johnston's long-time friend and early supporter Louis Black, Co-founder of The Austin Chronicle and SXSW Festival. The opening featured a special performance by Johnston along with tribute performances led by Jason Sebastian Russo formerly of Mercury Rev,[31][32] the second exhibition and book release opened in London, England, in May and June 2013 which also featured a special performance by Johnston along with tribute performances by the UK band Charlie Boyer and the Voyeurs with Steffan Halperin of the Klaxons.[3][33] On October 10, 2013, Jason Pierce of Spiritualized hosted Jung Kim's New York City opening of DANIEL JOHNSTON: here which included special tribute performances led by Pierce and Glen Hansard of The Swell Season and The Frames.[34][35]

On March 13, 2012, Johnston released his first comic book, Space Ducks – An Infinite Comic Book of Musical Greatness [36] at SXSW in Austin, Texas, published by BOOM! Studios. The comic book is complemented by the Space Ducks album and an iOS app.[37]

Johnston has collaborated with skateboarding and clothing company Supreme on numerous collections (consisting of clothing and various accessories) showcasing his artwork.

New media[edit]

Dr. Fun Fun and Smashing Studios developed an iPhone platform game called Hi, How Are You, the game is similar to Frogger, but features Johnston's art and music. It is said Daniel Johnston played it during its development and liked it, although he was not familiar with the iPhone.[38]



  1. ^ a b c Dougan, John. "Daniel Johnston". Allmusic. Retrieved October 18, 2015. 
  2. ^ Spin Staff (June 12, 2012). "Daniel Johnston and Supreme Join Forces for T-Shirt Line". Spin. 
  3. ^ a b c "Daniel Johnston's Lo-Fi Life". DAZED Digital. May 24, 2013. 
  4. ^ a b c D'Angelo, Mike (December 5, 2013). "Is Daniel Johnston a great musician or a victim of hipster exploitation?". The A.V. Club. 
  5. ^ Burr, Ty (April 7, 2006). "His life is troubling, his fame disturbing". The Boston Globe. 
  6. ^ Seitz, Matt. "The Devil Goes Down to Texas". New York Press. Archived from the original on May 11, 2008. 
  8. ^ McNamee, David (August 10, 2009). "The myth of Daniel Johnston's genius". The Guardian. 
  9. ^ Hall, Michael (February 2005). "He’s Daniel Johnston, And He Was Gonna Be Famous". Texas Monthly. 
  10. ^ http://www.hihowareyou.com/web/bio.htm
  11. ^ Black, Louis. "Genius and Jive: My roller-coaster relationship with Daniel Johnston Austin Screens". AustinChronicle.com. Retrieved 2010-09-18. 
  12. ^ Barry Shank, Dissonant Identities: The Rock'N'Roll Scene in Austin, Texas (Wesleyan University Press, 1994), ISBN 978-0-8195-6276-0, p. 157-58 (excerpt available at Google Books).
  13. ^ "kramershimmy home". Kramershimmy.com. Retrieved 2010-09-18. 
  14. ^ O'Hagan, Sean (April 2, 2006). "Sean O'Hagan on Daniel Johnston". The Guardian. London. Retrieved March 15, 2011. 
  15. ^ "Top 50 by Nirvana [MIXTAPE]". Archived from the original on October 18, 2014. Retrieved May 8, 2013. 
  16. ^ Senft, Michael (August 11, 2006). "The Devil and Daniel Johnston". The Arizona Republic. United States. Retrieved March 15, 2011. 
  17. ^ Robinson, John (August 20, 2005). "Personal demons". The Guardian. London. Retrieved April 30, 2010. 
  18. ^ "Infernal Bridegroom Productions". MAP Fund. Retrieved 2012-07-09. 
  19. ^ "Filter-Mag.com". Filter-Mag.com. December 23, 2006. Archived from the original on December 23, 2006. Retrieved 2012-07-09. 
  20. ^ a b The Austin Chronicle article: "Off the Record: Music News".
  21. ^ "Unreleased Daniel Johnston Converse All-Stars". MonsterFresh.com. Retrieved 2010-09-18. 
  22. ^ "The Angel And Daniel Johnston – Live at the Union Chapel". Prlog.org. October 30, 2008. Retrieved 2010-09-18. 
  23. ^ "Hi How Are You Daniel Johnston". IMDB.com. Retrieved 12 January 2017. 
  24. ^ "Daniel Johnston Biopic, My Suicide Soundtrack, & More". TwentyFourBit. March 18, 2010. Retrieved 2010-09-18. 
  25. ^ a b Kim, Michelle. "Daniel Johnston Announces Final Tour | Pitchfork". pitchfork.com. Retrieved 26 July 2017. 
  26. ^ "Daniel Johnston, Museum of Love". yelp.com. Retrieved 12 January 2017. 
  27. ^ "Baja Fresh Hi How Are You frog mural". Rejectedunknown.com. January 6, 2004. Retrieved 2012-07-09. 
  28. ^ "Curt.jpg". Retrieved 2012-07-09. 
  29. ^ "The People's Frog – The Texas Observer". TexasObserver.org. Archived from the original on June 29, 2011. Retrieved 2012-07-09. 
  30. ^ Daniel Johnston's Frog Jeremiah: Now a Collector's Item
  31. ^ "Daniel Johnston "here" Book Release & Opening". The Austin Chronicle. March 13, 2013. 
  32. ^ "Photographer Shows a Different Side of Daniel". WIRED Magazine. March 28, 2012. 
  33. ^ "Daniel Johnston Secret Show". Protein UK. June 3, 2013. 
  34. ^ "Daniel Johnston Book Event". Brooklyn Vegan. October 10, 2013. 
  35. ^ "Daniel Johnston NYC Pop Up". Getty. October 10, 2013. 
  36. ^ https://www.lambiek.net/artists/j/johnston_daniel.htm
  37. ^ "Official Press Release for SPACE DUCKS". HiHowAreYou.com. 
  38. ^ Work of Daniel Johnston, Texas Artist, Inspires Video Game. Retrieved 2009-10-01.

External links[edit]