Daniel Johnston

The Developing Arts And Music Foundation
Minneapolis, MN
November 2001

For more than two decades, Daniel Johnston has been innocently and candidly exposing us to the child-like wonders of his fluid imagination. The cherub-faced Austin, TX transplant is one of the true inspirational figures among American underground songwriters, and has been celebrated as such by bands as diverse as Yo La Tengo and the Butthole Surfers. Since 1980, Johnston has released over a dozen albums, and his songs have appeared on nearly twice as many recordings by other artists, including Built To Spill and the Dead Milkmen.

Not only did Johnston’s homemade boombox-recorded albums (originally released on his own Stress label) precede the whole “lo-fi” era of independently released music – to a certain extent, they may have actually influenced it. Tribute albums have been released, a modern ballet was commissioned using several of his songs, and he was featured on a segment of MTV’s Cutting Edge program. His lyrical subjects range from “Casper the Friendly Ghost” to “King Kong”, and his whimsical and surreal illustrations are filled with tentacle-eyed frogs and Hydra-headed duck-billed dogs. Although much of Johnson’s career has been shadowed by an ongoing battle with manic depression, it is his unflinching purity, rather than irony, that most defines his pursuits in art and music.

Johnston has come a long way since he released his first cassette album, Songs of Pain, on which he was often accompanied by other tapes of his own vocal, guitar and piano harmonies. Subsequent cassette albums featured him crooning at the top of his lungs, accompanied by the backdrop of big band records playing on a nearby stereo. Earlier this year, he released Rejected Unknown, on Gammon Records, which finds him sounding more confident than ever, in a smart pop setting that should satisfy old and new fans alike.

© J.Free / D.A.M.F.; 2001; 2022