Remembering Daniel Johnston: The Prolific Pillar of Lo-fi Folk Who Inspired Everyone From Kurt Cobain to Sonic Youth 

Wednesday 11th, September 2019 / 15:58
By Melissa Vincent

Daniel Johnston, the prolific and renowned multi-disciplinary musician and visual artist has died following a heart attack at 58. His passing was confirmed by his manager Jeff Tartakov to The Austin Chronicle. Revered for his distinct style of lo-fi folk, he became an influential figure in alternative rock and outsider music circles for his blend of simple and precise lyrics that took care to distill universal themes down to their core elements. 

Born in Sacramento, California in 1961, Johnston later moved to Austin, Texas and developed a dedicated cult following that led to him being featured on the MTV program The Cutting Edge in 1985. In 1988 Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley and Lee Ranaldo contributed to the Shimmy Disc record release. The same year he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. 

Johnston later rose to prominence when Kurt Cobain was photographed wearing a shirt with the artwork for his 1983 album, Hi, How Are You, and later named Yip/Jump Music as one of his favourite albums in a 1993 journal entry. Johnston’s impact persisted into the 2000s with the documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which also shined a light on his debilitating mental state. 

In 2004, he released the compilation album, The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered with renditions of his discography by Death Cab for Cutie, Beck, Sparklehorse, the Flaming Lips, Beat Happening’s Calvin Johnson, and Tom Waits. In 2018, the city of Austin declared January 22 “Hi, How Are You Day.”

In 2019, a year where we’ve lost a list of visionary storytellers, Johnston’s passing cuts especially hard. I remember coming across his work in high school and being delighted by his easy ability to find the sweet spot of dark humour and grand intimate proclamations; almost like a great deliverer of the most soothing elements of nursery rhymes made specifically for those that have aged out of the genre. 

Later in his career, even when he got louder, and noisier, swapping sparse finger picking for bold and punchy riffs; or transitioning his ever-growing list of fans into esteemed collaborators, his devotion and unique approach to songwriting remained clear-headed. Because whether he was figuring out how to approach loss, or negotiating the complicated business of gratitude, his work made an honest argument for the way simplicity could be used as a tool to help swallow the most indigestible parts of our shared human experience.