Artist Spotlight: Daniel Johnston is the greatest songwriter you’ve never heard of

What do Pearl Jam, Tom Waits and Beck all have in common? Besides being iconic figures in their respective musical genres, they have all covered a Daniel Johnston song. Kurt Cobain himself touted the profound impact Johnston’s style had on his own career in multiple interviews. He even cited Johnston’s “Yip/Jump Music” as one of his favorite albums of all-time. Larry Clark used some of Johnston’s music to create the soundtrack to his controversial 1995 film “Kids.” Lana Del Rey produced a short biopic chronicling Johnston’s enigmatic and peculiar life story. The list goes on, but who is the man behind the muse for so many artists?

Born in 1961, Daniel Johnston grew up in the rural hills of West Virginia, the youngest of five children. After failing out of Kent State University’s art program, he made the move to Austin, Texas to pursue his musical career. He quickly gathered a small but dedicated local following by passing out cassette tapes at the McDonald’s where he worked. Fans in the big city anticipated his untraditional live performances with fervor, packing into underground venues. Gradually, Johnston expanded his reach as he was featured in an MTV segment promoting the “New Sincerity” scene in Austin, a label that would be key in understanding Johnston’s appeal. However, it wasn’t until Cobain appeared at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards wearing a t-shirt with the cover of Johnston’s album “Hi How Are You” on it that he really saw his popularity take off.

Despite Johnston being a resident in a mental hospital at the time, suffering from schizophrenia and intense manic episodes, record labels scrambled to sign Johnston after discovering his music. After refusing to sign a multi-album deal with Elektra Records because he thought they were associated with Satan and would hurt him, he ultimately struck a deal with Atlantic. One commercial failure of an album later, Johnston was released from the label and back to recording his music his way: alone and on his own accord.

For Johnston, songwriting is a compulsion. Over the course of 32 years, his discography currently totals 29 albums, the most recent of which was released in 2013. In short, Johnston’s writing style is, if nothing else, truly honest. He does not try to obscure meaning through irony or cynicism. Because of this, as mentioned before, people identify Johnston as a leading voice in the “New Sincerity” movement visible in both literature and music. All he knows is what he has experienced, both physically and mentally. How closely tethered to reality his experiences are is another story.

When you listen to Johnston, you get the impression that his mind, plagued by the internal voices characteristic of schizophrenia, is simply overflowing with words and stories that he is trying desperately to voice. There’s a discernable sense of urgency in his voice and rhythm as his chaotic thought patterns take center stage in his music. The rudimentary and simplistic instrumentation that defines his style, often categorized by critics as experimental-pop or outsider, only seem fitting for the raw expression of emotion Johnston expresses with childlike energy. In live performances, he seems fragile, delicately placed on a stage in front of a crowd that seems too big for the kind of niche following he appeals to.

In his older age, left with a permanent and debilitating tremor as a result of his antipsychotic medication, Johnston has retired from the road, announcing his final tour in 2017. Currently, he is most comfortable at home where he can draw and write in relative peace. In a recent New York Times article Johnston said, “I can’t stop writing. If I did stop, there could be nothing. Maybe everything would stop. So I won’t stop. I’ve got to keep it going.”


Mitchell Clark is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at mitchell.clark@uconn.edu.