DANIEL JOHNSTON, a singer-songwriter and outsider artist who battled mental-health issues while recording hundreds of humorous, bittersweet songs that made him a near-mythical figure in indie rock, died Sept. 10 at his home in Waller, Texas. He was 58.
As a recording artist, Johnston was most well-known for his sparse, self-produced albums and singles, often consisting of little but his voice and a guitar or a chord organ, with no professional audio buffering. His no-frills production was matched with similarly straightforward songwriting and Johnston’s pinched, excitable and immediately recognizable voice.
Though he was never commercially successful as a recording artist, Johnston managed to build a significant cult fanbase over the course of his 30-plus-year career — beginning in the early ’80s and taking off after he moved to Austin, where he amassed a local following. He also found renown as a visual artist, eventually being commissioned to recreate his cover artwork from 1983’s Hi, How Are You as a mural outside an Austin record store on the Drag.
Despite his own lack of crossover success, Johnston did end up intersecting with and influencing the music mainstream throughout his career. His music has been covered by such well-known artists as Beck, Bright Eyes, Death Cab for Cutie and even Lana Del Rey, who, along with rapper Mac Miller, co-executive produced a documentary short about the singer-songwriter, 2015’s Hi, How Are You Daniel Johnston? Most famously, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain wore a T-shirt with the Hi, How Are You cover on it at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards, and then name-checked the record in a SPIN cover story the next year. The validation from the generation-defining rock star led to a bidding war to sign Johnston — ultimately won by Atlantic, who released his 1994 album Fun and then dropped him after the set failed to chart.
As well known as Johnston was for his music, however, his mental health struggles became just as big a part of his story. His struggles with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia were addressed in the 2005 documentary on his life, The Devil and Daniel Johnston.
He faced increasing health problems in recent years, notably diabetes and hydrocephalus, a buildup of fluid in the brain. In fact, he was released from the hospital with kidney problems a day before his death “feeling good and everything,” when he apparently suffered a heart attack overnight.
“Few people have approached the arts with as much rawness and pure emotion as Daniel Johnston,” Mac Miller said in 2013. “Few people deserve to have a legendary legacy. Dan is one of them.”
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