Daniel Johnston

From Academic Kids

Daniel Johnston (born 1961) is a prolific American singer, songwriter and artist. He has been classified as an outsider musician.

His songs are typically painfully direct, and often display a disturbing blend of childlike naivety with darker, "spooky" themes. Johnson's singing voice is rather high-pitched, and his performances often seem faltering or uncertain; one critic writes that Johnston's recordings range from "spotty to brilliant".[1] (http://www.pitchforkmedia.com/interviews/j/johnston_daniel-02/) He also draws and paints; his illustrations have been featured with most of his albums.

Johnston was born in Sacramento, California and grew up in West Virginia, but has lived in Waller, Texas for much of his life. Johnston suffers from bipolar disorder, and has had varying luck with different treatments. He has been institutionalized for periods.

In the late 1970s, Johnston began recording his songs on inexpensive cassette tape recorders, singing and playing either guitar or piano. He gave tapes of his music to anyone who would take them. Johnston created the comic book inspired art that usually accompanied his own recordings.

His early songs established a number of themes that would persist through Johnston's career: Unrequited love, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and comic book superheroes, especially Captain America and Jack Kirby's other works. "Joe"—a partly autobiographical character—has been featured in a number of songs. Johnston has cited The Beatles as a prime influence.

A sizable proportion of Johnston's songs throughout the years have dealt with his unrequited love for "Laurie," a girl he became friends with in college, who was the first to encourage him to record his music. The Laurie character quickly assumed the role of the idealized female muse. The real life Laurie married an undertaker, prompting Johnston to write lyrics in which the Laurie figure becomes strongly associated with the imagery of death in addition to her original role as a muse. For example, the song "Funeral Home" in which Johnston sings that he's "going to a funeral home" represents both the foreknowledge of death and Johnston's desire to be reunited with Laurie, who at the time worked at a funeral home.

Johnston gained a cult following in Austin, Texas. Some regarded Johnston as little more than a quaint curiosity, but others recognized a genuine talent: Johnston has a knack for creating great, catchy melodies, while his lyrics are evocative and often use clever wordplay. His songs have been covered by a number of admirers.

A 1985 MTV special on Austin brought Johnston wider attention, and a number of record stores outside Texas began selling his cassettes.

His music has been acclaimed by David Bowie, Sonic Youth, and Matt Groening. Kurt Cobain praised Johnston's work, and often wore a t shirt with a Johnston illustration and a caption reading, "Hi How Are You?"

In 1994 saw the release of Fun on Atlantic Records. The record was produced by Paul Leary of Butthole Surfers, a group who had long supported Johnston, even inviting him to open a number of concerts for them.

The famous "Hi, How Are You?" mural of Austin, Texas
The famous "Hi, How Are You?" mural of Austin, Texas

In 1993, Johnston painted a mural of the "Hi, How Are You?" frog, (also known as Jeremiah after the Three Dog Night song), on the side of the Austin Sound Exchange music store. The site was converted into a Baja Fresh franchise in 2004. Although the initial plans called for the mural to be torn down, public outcry caused restaurant owner John Oudt to change his plans, at a price of $50,000 in additional costs and lost revenue to let the mural stay.

Fun was Johnston's only major-label release, but he has continued writing and recording songs, as well as drawing pictures.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005) a documentary by Jeff Feuerzeig is about Johnston's life and music, and won the Director's Award at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival.


  • Songs of Pain (Stress Records, 1980) cassette
  • The What of Whom (Stress Records, 1982) cassette
  • Don't Be Scared (Stress Records, 1982) cassette
  • More Songs of Pain (Stress Records, 1983) cassette
  • Yip Jump Music (Stress Records, 1983) cassette
  • Hi, How Are You (Stress Records, 1983) cassette
  • The Lost Recordings (Stress Records, 1983) cassette
  • The Lost Recordings II (Stress Records, 1983) cassette
  • Retired Boxer (Stress Records, 1984) cassette
  • Respect (Stress Records, 1985) cassette, 10"
  • with Texas Instruments: Continued Story (Stress Records, 1985) cassette
  • Merry Christmas (Stress Records, 1988) cassette
  • with Jad Fair: It's Spooky (50 Skidillion Watts, 1989)
  • Continued Story/Hi, how are you? (Homestead, 1989)
  • Yip/Jump Music (Homestead, 1989)
  • Live at South by Southwest (Stress Records, 1990) cassette
  • 1990 (Shimmy Disc, 1990)
  • Artistic Vice (Shimmy Disc, 1991)
  • Please Don't Feed The Ego (Eternal Yip Eye Music, 1994)
  • Fun (Atlantic, 1994)
  • with Ron English and Jack Medicine: Hyperjinx Tricycle (Important Records, 2000)
  • Rejected Unknown (Gammon Records, 2001)
  • Fear Yourself (Gammon Records, 2003)
  • The Early Recordings of Daniel Johnston Volume 1 (Dualtone, 2003)
  • The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered (Gammon Records, 2004)

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