The late, great Daniel Johnston was born in Sacramento, CA and raised in New Cumberland, West Virginia, by fundamentalist Christian parents alongside four siblings, before making his way after some college studies to Austin, TX.
Young Daniel’s foray into the arts began with drawing, but later he started singing and playing piano and organ, and by the late 70s, began recording his own music on a $59 Sanyo boombox. During his stint in the art program at the East Liverpool campus of Kent State, he recorded, “Songs of Pain,” and “More Songs of Pain.” He was diagnosed bi-polar, and had endured his share of psychiatric institutions, and naturally, his struggles greatly informed his work.
When he landed in Austin, he began working at McDonald’s and passing out cassettes of his music to to people he met. The most notable of these early recordings was his, “Hi, How Are You: The Unfinished Album,” in 1983, with cover art of the now-famous “Jeremiah the Innocent” frog.
From this, his cult following was born. His live performances were packed and his local fame led to him being cast on an MTV program featuring Austin’s “New Sincerity” music scene. In 1988, he recorded in his first professional capacity, his album “1990,” with producer Mark Kramer in NYC. His mental health took a turn for the worse during this experience.
In 1989, Johnston released both one of his homemade albums, “Yip/Jump Music,” and the studio-recorded album It’s Spooky in collaboration with singer Jad Fair of the band, “Half Japanese.”
Shortly following this, Kurt Cobain was seen wearing the “Hi, How Are You” t-shirt on occasion, most notably at the 1992 MTV VMA awards, and Daniel’s international recognition was now cemented. That year, Sound Exchange on “the drag” in Austin commissioned Daniel to put that artwork on the side of their building. When the business closed, it took an uprising of concerned folks to keep the art in tact. The last business in the spot, a Thai restaurant, aptly named itself, “Thai, How Are You” – but that’s now closed and the building vacant.
In 1993/94, the big record labels were falling over each other to sign him, and he went with Atlantic, recording, “Fun” with producer Paul Leary of Butthole Surfers. It fared poorly commercially and Atlanta dropped him in 1996. However, the first decade of the new millennium proved fruitful with his release of, “The Late Great Daniel Johnson: Discovered Covered,” with his songs covered by other well-known artists; and a grant-funded rock opera based on his musical, “Speeding Motorcycle.” His visual art was being shown worldwide. In 2006, a documentary was released, “The Devil and Daniel Johnson.” Then in 2008, Jeremiah became a collectable figurine and his first concert DVD was released from his 2007 show in London.
Next came an iPhone platform game, “Hi, How Are You,” featuring his music and visual art; his first comic book venture; collaboration with skateboarding and clothing company Supreme for several lines of clothing featuring his artwork; and a photo book and traveling exhibit with Daniel by photographer Jung Kim.
In 2017, he announced his last live tour – for five stops featuring back up bands who list Daniel as an influence: The Preservation All-Stars in New Orleans, The Districts and Modern Baseball in Philadelphia, Jeff Tweedy in Chicago, and Built to Spill in Portland and Vancouver.
Daniel achieved a “legendary, near-mythical status as an artist…[amassing] a catalog possessing his uninhibited vulnerability, underscored by a persistent sense of humor, anxiety, and loss.” On Sept. 11, 2019, he was found dead in his home from a suspected heart attack.
Visit his website’s store for art, posters, music, t-shirts & books.