Singer, song-writer, artist

Born: January 22, 1961;

Died: September 10, 2019

DANIEL Johnston, who has died aged 58, was regarded by many as the ultimate outsider artist. In truth, while the Texas-based singer-songwriter’s lyrical candour and lo-fi DIY aesthetic over some 17 studio albums, released across more than 30 years, were as far removed from the mainstream music business as they could be, Johnston’s way with a melody was rooted in pop music’s greats. Delivered in his raw and at times anguished voice, his songs looked to show-tunes, Burt Bacharach and his beloved Beatles for inspiration.

Throughout a fertile but erratic and at times self-destructive career that saw him championed and revered by a left-field indie-rock community, Johnston became a cult figure, his prolific output running in tandem with long-term mental health issues. His instinctive and restless genius carved out a niche that was guilelessly honest and terminally obsessive in its depiction of his private struggles and quest for true love. The songs revealed a vulnerability as well as a wilful and unwavering faith in the power of his art as a healing force. This was the case both through his music and his comic-book-inspired felt-tip drawings that he created with the same obsessiveness with which he wrote his songs.

In Scotland, his work was recognised by artists who ploughed their own furrow, and his songs were covered by Teenage Fanclub, BMX Bandits, The Pastels and Dot Allison. There was a sense of Johnston and his heart-on-sleeve outpourings as a kindred spirit, and these interpretations, along with many others, introduced his work to a wider world, just as Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain did in 1993 when he wore a Johnston t-shirt.

Daniel Dale Johnston was born in Sacramento, California, the youngest of five children to Bill and Mabel, and grew up in what he described as a Christian fundamentalist household, whose church only allowed a capella singing. He spent his days drawing comic-book heroes and listening to pop music. An epiphany came when he heard his elder brother Dick’s Beatles records, and started to write and record his own songs on a primitive tape recorder.

It was during his final years at Oak Glen High School in New Cumberland, West Virginia that he started showing signs of being bi-polar. He briefly enrolled at Abilene Christian University, Texas, before studying art at the East Liverpool campus of of Kent State University. It was here he met Laurie Allen, who became another obsession, inspiring many of his songs.While his adoration of Allen remained unrequited, many of his missives ended up on Songs of Pain, a cassette he recorded several times over, and handed to friends. More cassettes followed. While living with Dick in Texas, he recorded Yip/Jump Music and Hi, How Are You, and in 1985 was featured on The Cutting Edge, an MTV show about the local music scene.

While on the one hand Johnston was courted by the musical underground, on the other his illness became increasingly apparent. In 1988 he attacked Sonic Youth’s drummer Steve Shelley. Two years later, his father was forced to crash-land a private plane he and Johnston were travelling in after Johnston removed the keys. Briefly courted by major record labels, he refused to sign to Elektra on the grounds that Metallica, who were on the label’s roster, were, as he saw it, devil worshippers.

Johnston was institutionalised numerous times, but latterly lived in a house built next to his parents in Waller, a small Texan town. In 2004, The Late, Great Daniel Johnston was a two-album set that featured covers of Johnston’s songs by Tom Waits, Wilco and Sparklehorse on one, with Johnston’s own takes on them on the other. In 2005, Jeff Feuerzeig’s film, The Devil and Daniel Johnston charted Johnston’s life with a poignancy that matched his songs.

Fascination with him continued. A musical play, Speeding Motorcycle, was based on his songs. James Yorkston and Adrian Crowley released My Yoke is Heavy: The Songs of Daniel Johnston. A short film, Hi, How Are You, Daniel Johnston?, saw director Gabriel Sunday play ‘1983 Daniel Johnston’, while Johnston himself played ‘2015 Daniel Johnston’ in a work that attempted to get into the singer’s head.

Film: The Devil and Daniel Johnston

His last album, Space Ducks (2012), was a soundtrack to his comic book of the same name, about a group of humanoid astronaut ducks who go to war with demons. While his mental and physical health ebbed and flowed in the years since, in 2017, prompted by Dick, he set out on the five dates of what he declared was his final tour. In 2018, Austin declared January 22 as Hi, How Are You Day.

In a New York Times interview prior to the tour, Dick estimated there was around 1,500 tapes of unreleased material by his younger sibling. With Johnston’s output undimmed, he was still holding out for the big hit that would turn him into a bona fide pop star, as big, perhaps, as The Beatles. With a back catalogue much larger than those of his idols, his work may yet make it to the top. He is survived by his brother, and his sisters, Margy, Sally and Cindy.