Daniel Johnston

Photography Dick Johnston

The last thing I expected was to have Daniel Johnston on the other end of the phone.

It’s early in the afternoon, and his voice sounds assured, yet shaky, as if he was accidentally rolling his t’s while trying to dot his i’s. Yet for some reason, all I can think about is how James McNew of Yo La Tengo once said, “We’ve done gigs with Daniel and it’s like performing with Santa or the Easter Bunny. [He’s like] this mythical creature that’s only existed in your imagination.”

The fact that Johnston is still making music, playing sold-out shows around the world and working on his illustrations, is nothing short of miraculous, given what he has endured over the years. By now, fans are familiar with his story: his battles with manic depression, the five years he spent in the Austin State Hospital (where he was medicated with doz-ens of psychotropic drugs), how he survived a plane crash with his father (which he caused), and his brushes with psy-chological demons and unrequited love. Given Johnston’s history, it’s surprising that this interview is even happening in the first place.

Within minutes of listening to his first studio recording in seven years, Is And Always Was, I found myself speaking with Bill Johnston (Daniel’s father and manager) about setting up a “chat” over the phone from Waller, Texas, where the 48-year-old singer/songwriter lives.

The conversation went something like this…

Hi, this is Bill.
Oh, hi Bill. My name is Patrick. I’m the editor at SOMA and we would love to have your son’s voice in our pages.

Well, that sounds like a good thing. When do you want to talk to him?
Whenever is good for you and him. You just give me a time, any time at all, and consider it done.

Well, he’ll be back from the store in about five minutes if you want to call then.
[Long pause] Five?

OK. Five minutes it is.

Well, you better be punctual, because he is sometimes difficult to get in one place at one time.
The dial tone rang soon thereafter, followed by a giddy rush of feelings not unlike the first time one finds the cookies put out on Christmas Eve were eaten, or a plastic egg stuffed in the cushions of the living room couch on Easter morning.

So what is it about this Johnston guy? Over the past few days I asked music critics and fans about their first encounter with him. People talk about Kurt Cobain and how he introduced Johnston to a younger generation when he wore his, “Hi, How are You?” T-shirt at the MTV Music Awards in 1992 and said that he was, “the greatest songwriter of our time.” Others say they first swooned when his “outsider” art was featured at the Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial in 2006. And then there are those who take note of the hundreds of musicians like TV On The Radio, Tom Waits, and Beck, who have covered his songs.

But essentially, any assumption regarding the nature of his fame will suffice, because while Johnston’s popularity has waxed and waned over the years, there remains a simplistic and almost universal appeal with his work. The bulk of his early studio recordings (produced on a simple tape recorder and littered with spontaneous progressions and melodies) sounds stripped down to the bone. Yet, these very cassettes convey complex human emotions with the kind of clarity that makes poets out of men.

When asked if he believes that it is important to stay attentive to the “happy little accidents” that have defined his work, Johnston laughs and says, “I guess… Do you mean it’s kinda accidental? OK. I’ll put it that way. Yeah, I will just find stuff. Rearrange chords and stuff. You can never tell where the rhythm will come from. You can hear it in the distance, or as cars go by. I’m just dreaming and everything kinda affects me and all.”

Is And Always Was is yet another departure for Johnston. While his presence on the album is felt in every song, the majority of the material was written and produced by Jason Falkner. Over the phone Falkner remembers the sessions and says, “I spent weeks in the studio after I sent Daniel the demos, and when he came to lay the tracks down he thought we were going to do all new songs. He takes a moment, pauses and adds, “You know, he kind of understands his place in the rock world as this sloppy DIY guy, and he said that’s cool and all, but it’s not all he wants to do. I told him there’s no reason to be so strict and have all these parameters. I think what we did with this album was to keep that in mind. It’s a bit unnerving at times, but I just admire how prolific Daniel is and how he will say a lyric that we all have heard before and follow it up with something really unique.”

When I ask Johnston what informs his lyrics he says, “Classic literature, from the Beatles to Metallica and Edgar Allen Poe. It’s just writing to me, and just trying to make up good poetry. I usually write songs when I am sitting down at the piano.”

It should be noted that having a “normal” non-non sequitur conversation with Johnston is like trying to steer a glacier with wooden paddles to shore. Any hope of navigating a Q & A is immediately thrown out the window…and it could not be more pleasant. Besides, who would want to miss out talking to this dear sweet manatee of indie?

In the first song on Is And Always Was, “Mind Movies,” he sings, “You/make a lot of movies in your mind/you sure are impossibly unkind/and you got me by the skull/this time I’m scared/and I sure can’t simply disappear.” When asked what kind of movie would be playing in his mind this afternoon, Johnston says, “They are going to make the movie of my life…for real. We went out to eat and they were telling me about the project. They are supposed to put it together, so I don’t know what it is going to be like. Someone interviewed a lot of my friends, but I have no idea what that movie is going to be. I didn’t have too much input into it. Maybe they’ll be making fun of me, I don’t know…maybe it’s going to be a comedy. At least there will a sense of humor in it.”

Over the next 20 minutes we discuss this biopic in development, his love of comic books (he proudly says that he just returned home from tour with at least $500 or $600 worth), and the importance of teenage imagination. As the interview winds down, I realize that it does not really matter what direction this conversation takes. What is important, however, is that he is here on the other end of the phone.

The first time Johnston was introduced to a national audience was when he was on MTV in 1985. The 24-year-old looked into the camera and said, “My name is Daniel Johnston and this is the name of my tape, “Hi, How are you?” Twenty-four years later, I ask if there is anything he would like to add before the interview is over and he says, “I’d just like to say that the new album is coming out very soon, and I hope everybody likes it. I think you will like it a whole lot.”

– Patrick Knowles