One of the magical things about music is the characters and personalities that it throws up. Often we are sucked in my marketing and media created myth so when true eccentrics and unique individuals emerge it is important that their art is nurtured and their creativity encouraged.
The story of Daniel Johnston is one that was laid out in the documentary film The Devil & Daniel Johnston which traced his life via his music and the many home videos and audio recordings he obsessively made as he descended into a bipolar disorder that would take years to control with medication. From his teenage years he began to write and record his own songs, primitively played and recorded on a chord organ in his parent’s basement. With a high-pitched voice that wavered and jumped in and out of tune he began to write about cartoon characters and unrequited love both with innocence and insight.
Over the years people began to notice Johnston, initially with his MTV appearance in 1985. In the early 90s his profile grew tenfold when Kurt Cobain proclaimed himself as a fan and wore a Johnston t-shirt on MTV. The patronage of other musicians was a key to Johnston’s wider popularity and in 2004 a compilation of his work was released with cover versions by the likes of Beck, Tom Waits, Sparklehorse and The Flaming Lips.
A parallel career in art has slowly become as important a part of his creativity with originals and copies of his cartoons for sale on online and many exhibited in galleries and fetching great prices at auction.
Johnston is in Australia for the first time as part of the Laneway Festival and speaking with him highlights how impressive his songwriting is in the way it can nail an emotion or feeling so succinctly. In person he is extremely polite and amiable but his answers are brief and unfocused. You sense he is outside his comfort zone when he is away from his music and his beloved comic books.
So what does Johnston make of his first visit to Australia and the prospect of playing outdoor festivals here? “Well we haven’t seen any kangaroos yet and it is hot,” he laughs. “I’ve done a couple, one I think for MTV and there were just so many people there was no way they could have heard me but I tried. Usually my show is down to 200 or 300.”
One reason why Johnston is able to tour and earn a living from his art is the support of his father and brother. “Oh they do so much for me. My dad always pays me to do drawings and keeps them on file and last year we did a book of my drawings. My brother is my tour manager and we call him Sgt. Pepper when we are out on the road. Now we are here in Australia so its a lot of fun. I sympathise with them because when I had my first records out it was the organ days and they were horrified and thought ‘what are we going to do about our brother and son” but after a while they got used to it and didn’t mind it as much,” says Johnston.
Since those early days Johnston has written a huge number of songs, many that have never seen the light of day. “Man Obsessed is about the only song I’ve written that I’ve played more than a few times. I used to write songs, record them and put them on tape for my friends and never play them again. I must have millions of songs that never got recorded too,” he says.
One of Johnston’s most well known songs is Casper The Friendly Ghost. Built on a chugging organ riff it was a song that seemed to write itself on the spot. “Well, Casper has always been one of my favourite cartoons and my sister-in-law was yelling at me one time and I was drinking out of a Casper glass. I identified with Casper and her yelling at me so that night while I was watching Twilight Zone I wrote it in record speed in about a minute with all of the lyrics. Sometimes that happens, you have to write it down real fast. I would like to do a comic book with Casper one day if its possible,” says Johnston.
Get onto the topic of comics and Johnston becomes more animated, admitting he probably draws more than he plays music. “My sister is going through my comic books and putting them in alphabetical order and she’s got a buyer’s guide and tracking them so when we send out for comics we know exactly what we’ve got. I seem to be losing my eyesight so now I can’t really read them anymore but I still have books to look at. I take my favourite comic books out and I draw pictures from them. I try and learn how to draw better. I’ve got a big collection now,” he enthuses.
Looking back at his career, Johnston is glad that his mental health, though an integral part of his art, has become more manageable. “I’ve got real good drugs now. I used to get in trouble and they kept working on my meds. I ended up in a mental hospital for over 5 years right when my career was starting and I couldn’t get out of the system which meant I could not have new albums or do anything. The first record we did when I got out was Fun with Atlantic with Paul Leary [Butthole Surfers] producing,” he recalls.
Looking ahead, Johnston is keen to keep drawing and take some time off from touring to record new albums. That he has been well managed and his art encouraged is something to be applauded. Many outsiders have had their creativity hampered by exploitative businessmen or damaging treatment of their perceived illnesses. As we wind up our conversation Johnston is keen to give me a ticket to his show and it shows, as in his music, what a genuine and generous person Daniel Johnston is.