By Rob Kaiser
Daniel Johnston is not remotely close to being listed as a household name, but as [the editors of] The Stranger points out, Dan is surely an artist that is “considered to be important by music nerds.” And for good reason! Daniel Johnston’s music has been covered at least 477 times, including covers by high profile artists like Chris Robinson (The Black Crowes), David Bowie, Beck, and Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam). Daniel eventually won the admiration of Kurt Cobain, who would often wear swag with illustrations from Johnston’s “Hi, How Are You” album, and was ultimately signed to Atlantic Records. Daniel Johnston is a truly amazing and inspiring person. That’s not what this article is about. This is about the adventure all starting with a home recording of the album “Songs of Pain” released in 1981.
Not being familiar with Daniel Johnston’s music before I began my research for this article, I listened to a small collection of his work before I started typing. Please believe me . . . the recordings were not great. It honestly sounded like a young (Disney character) Piglet singing to a dampened piano in an empty corner. The lyrical content was hysterically honest. The dead space in between tracks was louder than songs themselves, and the interruptions by his mother were a little unnecessary to include in the final recording. Something about the music though, is quite catchy. I am already looking forward to listening to Like a Monkey In a Zoo.
Daniel spent his days as a young 24-year-old dreamer in the basement of his mother’s house banging away on a piano and singing directly into a Sanyo boom box. With lines like: “You’re a lovely lady, but you don’t wanna be no girl of mine. And the only thing you ever did for me was help me waste my time.” in his opening track, Grievances, Daniel was sure to leave his emotions trapped in his recordings. When he was finished recording his 20-song LP, he would hand copies of his cassettes to his friends and home-grown fans. After a few years of giving his work away (and some re-mastering done by independent labels), he became one of the best selling local artists in Austin, Texas.
Though having Kurt Cobain as an admitted fan is what distinctly launched Daniel to a major record label contract, it was his propensity for giving his cassettes away that ultimately led to his success. Daniel spent nine years gifting ten separate albums to his growing fan-base. The reality is, nine years is a long time to gift your music. Ten albums take a lot of work to complete. But your focus shouldn’t be on the amount of time that you’re giving away. Instead, pay attention to the fans that you grow as more and more people have access to your music. Daniel’s formula, if you can call it that, was really quite simple: Hit record button . . . give recording to as many people as possible. Let us all soak up that spirit. Get your music out there! Give it away if you have to.
Rejected Unknown – Daniel Johnston fan site
Hi How Are You – Home page
Daniel Johnston Wikipedia
Songs of Pain Wikipedia