Culture  The life of Johnston

Zoë Robertson chats with Daniel Johnston about art, life, and his new album

Graying, dishevelled, and notoriously timid, Daniel Johnston doesn’t seem like the most likely character to become a musical icon. But if you have never heard of the 48-year-old artist or his music before, now is a good time to get to know him. Johnston is a familiar name within numerous prominent and influential musical circles. He was discovered in the eighties in Austin, Texas after handing out homemade tape recordings of his music. The West Virginia native quickly rose to prominence in the lo-fi/indie genre after being profiled on an episode of the MTV reality show The Cutting Edge in 1985, featuring the Austin music scene’s local talent. Johnston’s cult-like following continued to grow after better-known acts such as Nirvana, Sonic Youth, and Yo La Tengo publicly praised him.

Although he has remained fairly active as a musician since then, Johnston struggled with manic-depressive disorder in the late nineties, even spending time interned in a psychiatric care centre. Nevertheless, with the release of his album Rejected Unknown in 2001, Johnston picked up where he’d left off, thrilling listeners with the steady evolution of his musical style while staying true to the uncomplicated melodies and touchingly sincere lyrics that won fans over in the first place. Though his career has often been troubled by the events in his life, Johnston comments, “I haven’t given up, you know. And I still write.” He has recorded more than 40 albums over the past 28 years, some of which were released by various record companies while others were simply handed out to passersby on the street. Johnston’s career aroused enough interest that in 2006, filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig made the documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, profiling the rise of Johnston’s popularity, as well as the turbulent times surrounding the diagnosis of his mental disorder.

I spoke to Johnston from his Waller, Texas, home to talk about his influences, his intentions, and his newly-released album, Is and Always Was. During the interview, he divulged his desire to pursue a career in visual art later in life. His drawings, at least as important as his music, have graced album covers, T-shirts, and gallery walls. “I’ve got some offers from different comic book people, you know, so I intend to do that eventually. I’d be really happy doing it,” he commented. So, if you ever see an imaginatively drawn version of a “Captain America in World War Two comic book or something” – an idea he’s been toying with – complete with felt-tip marker outlines, you’ll know it’s another of Johnston’s iconic pieces. “I think about my characters and stories all the time, and how cool it would be to do [that].”

In regard to the two art forms, singing and drawing, Johnston states, “it’s the same thing really. You know, it’s just art.” It’s clear that for Johnston, these two modes of expression are intertwined. When describing his method for composing songs, Johnston says “Well, I just uh, I like to try a little bit differently every time, you know. Like I’ll paste little pictures on my notebooks, on the top of the paper, you know? And I’ll do like the, half of the notebook that way, and then when I’m writing, I look at the picture and try to get the song from the drawing somehow, you know, like it’s about the drawing. I’ve done that a lot,” he laughs.

Lately, Johnston’s been working more on his drawings than his songwriting. “I’ve gotten away from writing songs for a while because I’ve been drawing so much, but I hope to get back into writing songs again,” he said.

Johnston appears to be keeping busy with his music, however, especially with the October 6 release of Is and Always Was. The album was produced by Jason Falkner, who has worked with the likes of Beck and Paul McCartney. Asked about the album’s resulting studio-finished sound, Johnston chuckled, “Well there you go, I’m glad you noticed! We tried, because after all those years of those bad-sounding tapes… Yeah, it’s totally different with this producer.”

With the album’s recent release, Johnston has also been on the road for some time. “We went to L.A., and I guess we went to some other places, we were on tour here in the United States…. I just did a show at South by Southwest a few nights ago and we’re planning to go on tour again, and, uh it’s a lot of fun. You know, different things going on.”

His current tour will bring him to Montreal’s Ukranian Federation this Friday. It’s worth going just to hear his slightly timid but whole-hearted chuckle, a mannerism that makes obvious how the singer so easily composes the songs that have earned him his reputation. His lyrics are simple, subtle, and persistently haunting.

On the album, you can look forward to hearing “Fake Music,” a song Johnston describes as “one of my favourites.” Also “‘Queenie the Dog,’ and ‘Is and Always Was.’ Those are my favourites.” If you go to his show, you may have the chance to hear these songs live. “We’ll probably do some of the new songs on the album, so, you know, so it will be a different kind of show.”

Johnston cites his influences as “the Monkees record, Elvis’ Christmas album, and the Beach Boys’ ‘Fun Fun Fun.’” He explains, “Well, when I was young, there were a lot of records that we had that we would just play all day, when we were about four or five years old, you know?…. We would just play those records over and over again and that was really how it started for me,” he concludes with a laugh.

Although he cites a wide array of influences, Johnston is, at heart, a Beatles fan, and a well-known one at that. Speaking of his new album, Johnston comments that “[Falkner] made it sound like the Beatles themselves were playing. I really enjoy it a lot.” Johnston’s take on the Beatles themselves? “Well, it’s gonna be great forever. You know, like Van Gogh. It’s like a hundred years since Van Gogh, or something, and it’s still admired, and still published, still have books and stuff like that, you know. There will always be the Beatles. I believe it.” Again, he lets out a bright chuckle, and it’s hard not to believe it, too.