Obituary: Daniel Johnston, singer-songwriter, 58

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Daniel Johnston at home in Waller in 2015 (Photo by Todd V. Wolfson)

11 September 2019 | Braudie Blais-Billie | Pitchfork

Daniel Johnston Dead at 58

Daniel Johnston, the lo-fi singer-songwriter and visual artist who rose to underground fame in the ’80s, has died after suffering a heart attack, his former manager manager Jeff Tartakov confirmed to The Austin Chronicle.

He was 58 years old. Johnston was a prolific musician, recording numerous albums primarily on homemade cassette tapes. His simple, sincere, and childlike music was revered and highly influential.

Born in Sacramento, California, Daniel Johnston grew up in New Cumberland, West Virginia. He began creating music in high school, recording piano, vocals, and chord organ on a boombox. Johnston dropped out of Abilene Christian University in West Texas after being enrolled only a few weeks, but later attended Kent State University’s art program. During this time, he recorded his first LP, 1980-1981’s Songs of Pain.

After about two years, Johnston dropped out again and eventually moved to Austin, Texas where he began cultivating a following by constantly passing out his cassette tapes to passerby. His local success landed him an appearance on MTV’s The Cutting Edge series in 1985.

Johnston traveled to New York City in 1988 to record his eleventh album, 1990, with producer Mark Kramer. Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley contributed to the Shimmy Disc records release. That same year, Johnston was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Over the course of recording of 1990, his mental health deteriorated drastically. He was involuntarily committed to a mental hospital after playing at a music festival in Austin, Texas in 1990.

During that time, a label bidding war began after Kurt Cobain brought attention to his music by sporting his Hi, How Are You artwork on a T-shirt. Elektra Records and Atlantic Records were among the bidders, but Johnston ultimately signed with Atlantic because he believed Elektra signees Metallica to be Satanic.

Though Atlantic dropped Johnston from the label in 1996—two years after his Paul Leary-produced album Fun—he continued to record and collaborate with high profile musicians. In 2004, he released the two-disc compilation The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered with renditions of his work by TV on the Radio, Jad Fair, Bright Eyes, Tom Waits, Death Cab for Cutie, Beck, Sparklehorse, and more.

In 2005, Jeff Feuerzieg directed the award-winning documentary about his life called The Devil and Daniel Johnston. Around this time, he formed his own label, Eternal Yip Eye Music. He released his last album through Yip Eye, Space Ducks: Soundtrack, in 2012. He embarked on his final tour in July 2017. In 2018, the city of Austin honored Johnston by naming January 22 “Hi, How Are You?” Day.

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11 September 2019 |KEVIN CURTIN| Austin Chronicle

Daniel Johnston, the influential singer-songwriter and visual artist who painted Austin’s famous “Hi How Are You” frog mural on the Drag, died last night following a heart attack at age 58. The news was confirmed by his former manager Jeff Tartakov.

Johnston’s physical health worsened significantly in recent years. Last year, his sister Margy Johnston told the Chronicle that Daniel had recently endured a rough go that included falling, hospitalization, and frequent adjustments to his medication.

In January, while famous fans like the Flaming Lips and Yo La Tengo were covering his songs at ACL Live at the Moody Theater for the second annual Hi, How Are You Day, Daniel landed in the hospital again.

Johnston, who was raised in West Virginia and moved to Austin in the early Eighties, counts 17 full-length albums of original music, including an incredible trio of home-recorded tapes from 1983: More Songs of PainYip/Jump Music, and Hi, How Are You. He has at least one more LP of original music that’s yet to be released.

“I’ve been working on a new album with [Austin’s] Brian Beattie for years, and I hope it comes out real soon,” Johnston told the Chronicle in 2018.

Johnston’s songs have been covered by Tom Waits and Yo La Tengo and championed by Kurt Cobain. His ongoing trials with schizophrenia and manic-depression were explored in the 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston.

More will be added to this story as it develops.

From the Chronicle archives:

Music profile 1, 1999

Music profile 2, 1999

Rejected/Unknown album review, 1999

Songs of Pain feature, 2005

SXSW interview preview, 2005

Documentary feature and more, 2006

The Devil & Daniel Johnston film review, 2006

Okkervil River’s Will Sheff on the documentary, 2006

Putting together Johnston rock opera Speeding Motorcycle

Space Ducks soundtrack review

Fun Fun Fun Fest Live Shot, 2013

Here book release photo gallery, 2013

Music news interview, 2018

Wayne Coyne on Daniel Johnston

Hi, How Are You Day live shot

 

Original Link: Austin Songwriting Genius Daniel Johnston Dead at 58

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