Daniel Johnston

The artist of the week this week is a legendary artist with a bit of a tragic story. Like many great artists, his mental illness has plagued his life and caused him and those around him a great deal of suffering, but at the same time, may be part of the source of his musical genius. To some he may seem amateurish and weird, while to others his intimacy and strange, expressive honesty strikes a jarring chord. The artist of the week is…

When Daniel Johnston was younger, he made a name for himself as a kind of local curiosity in Austin, Texas. He’d write and record albums himself, usually accompanied only by guitar, piano, or organ, and distribute the tapes around to whoever he could. The songs were often pretty juvenile, goofy, sometimes awkwardly honest, emotional or religious.
In 1985, MTV filmed a bit about the Austin music scene and Johnston’s appearance in this launched him to modest national prominence. He really exploded though, after Kurt Cobain began wearing a shirt of one of his album covers on TV and in photos. Soon there was a major label bidding war between Atlantic and Elektra over signing him. At the time of this though, Johnston was in a mental institution after refusing to take medication for his bipolar disorder and being responsible for a small plane crash.
In 2005, a documentary about Johnston’s life called The Devil and Daniel Johnston won the directors award at Sundance. It actually is a great documentary and further helped raise Johnston’s profile.
The reason why so many are attracted to Johnston’s music is because every so often he writes a song of such childlike simplicity but with such timeless wisdom or sentiment that it’s astounding. Admittedly, covers of his songs by such great artists as Karen O, M. Ward, Beck and many others, often help flesh them out and better illustrate just how brilliant they are at their source. Listening to them, it’s at once incredible that such acute statements about life could come from someone so seemingly distant from reality, while at the same time, it is because Johnston’s mind is in the strange place it is that he’s able to write what he does.
To this day Johnston is touring and releasing albums, the most recent of which was the surprisingly good Is And Always Was, which just came out the other week. In addition to music, Johnston’s drawings have gained a lot of attention and often sell for large amounts. They often feature recurring characters like Casper the friendly ghost, the devil, Captain America and his own weird characters like Jeremiah, a strange looking frog. There is also an iPhone game based on Johnston’s art and music that was released recently.

Click here to buy Is And Always Was.


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