A Halloween Interview with Daniel Johnston
Daniel Johnston is a legend, a cult hero, and a mysterious musical entity. A prolific songwriter struggling with bi-polar disorder that has fed his incomparably soul-baring music, he has gathered a dedicated fan base right from when he started selling his homemade tapes in Austin in the ’80s.
From Kurt Cobain wearing his t-shirt around town, to Tom Waits, Jeff Tweedy, and others covering his music, Johnston has proven himself a favorite for songwriters and song listeners alike. Despite these obvious indicators of success, he has denied that he’s a star. In fact, he lives in a house next to his father in a small Texas town, and spends most of his time in his studio where he makes his incisive, sometimes puzzling, but always perfectly beguiling music and art.
When I dialed the number to reach Johnston’s father, who was going to pass the phone off for our conversation, I was unsure of what to expect. Talking to a musical visionary, someone who has been announced as “the greatest songwriter in the world,” was a little intimidating. But when his familiar, almost melodic whisper started answering my questions, he wasn’t an “other” anymore, and his poignant, funny, and so often odd words talked of his new projects, his old friends, and his plans to play at Houston’s Ghoulsfest on Halloweekend.
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So what prompted the return to releasing new music these past couple years?
See, we’ve been making music. All the time. I practice guitar and piano at my house every day, but we just haven’t released all of it. And we’ve had a lot of releases and compilations before…like that one a while ago… Is and Always Was. Now we have another record coming out soon, around early November. It’s called Death of Satan.
Oh! That’s with Danny and the Nightmares, right? That’ll be a different sound. You’ve always been known for that raw, stripped guitar and piano sound. Was it different recording with your band?
Yeah, right, it’s more like a rock and roll band this time, instead of that sound people are used to. It’s fun playing with people that I’ve known for a while, and we’ve been playing about eight years together. It’s fun! It’s fun with them.
What did you think of what other artists did with your music on Discovered/Covered?
People have been doing that for a while, there have been a few covers albums…I just wish someone could make one of the songs into a hit. Then I’d be rich. (laughs)
Did you have a favorite cover off that album that someone did?
I really liked Tom Waits singing my stuff. ‘Impossible Love’ (Jad Fair) was cool, sounded great.
So you’re playing Ghoulsfest this weekend. Are you going to play anything special for Halloween?
No (laughs). I’ll play my stuff, just my normal stuff. Probably some songs with monsters, though. I guess-if you look at me sometimes- I can look like a monster on stage, too. Just the normal songs, though.
You also do drawings in the same room that you make music. Do you think those creative processes have gone hand in hand, your visual art and your music?
Yeah, and it’s been a surprise to see what people think of the stuff I draw. People seem to like them. You know, a few times a year my sister went to this art festival and they’ve been selling really well. (Laughs) She calls me from there and tells me all about it. I guess people like them.
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I think people will continue to like Daniel Johnston for a long time yet. If you’re in the Houston area, hopefully you made sure to see Johnston’s set or another one soon, and maybe (if he isn’t sick of it yet) say ‘hi, how are you’ afterwards. He’d be happy to see you, you’d be happy to hear him.