Put the name ‘Daniel Johnston’ into any Internet search engine and you will find hundreds of pages about America’s most unlikely pop phenomenon. Dating back to the earliest compilation of Songs of Pain in 1981, Johnston has spent nearly three decades exposing his heartrending tales of unrequited love, cosmic mishaps and existential torment to an ever-growing international cult audience. As a result, he has been hailed as an American original akin to blues-man Robert Johnson and country legend Hank Williams.
Johnston is the musician’s cult hero, whose music is appreciated for its utter lack of artifice and undeniable simple brilliance. A wide range of notable artists have covered Johnston’s songs, including Beck, Wilco, Sonic Youth, TV On The Radio, M. Ward, Flaming Lips, Death Cab For Cutie, Bright Eyes, Tom Waits, and Pearl Jam.
With the October 6, 2009 release of his latest – and possibly greatest – work, Is And Always Was, Daniel adds another chapter to his artistic legend.
Is And Always Was is a decided step away from the lo-fi homemade recordings for which Johnston is famous. “Everyone needs to take their demos and go back to the studio,” says Daniel.
On this album, Daniel allied with the musician and producer Jason Falkner, who is known for his own stellar solo career as well as his work with Beck, Air, and Paul McCartney. With Jason manning the boards, “Is And Always Was” was a project that aimed to take the rock and roll symphonies in Daniel’s prolific musical brain and deliver fully-realized and professionally-produced recorded songs. “He possesses that rare individuality that makes the listener wonder where this music comes from,” Falkner says of Daniel Johnston. “It was challenging to make our minds work together but I really found myself immersed in his musical world. It’s a unique place to live, that’s for sure!”
While the Beatles may be an obvious touch point – Johnston has often exclaimed his passion for the Fab Four while Falkner has released two acclaimed Bedtime with the Beatles instrumental lullaby albums – the Is And Always Was sessions were frequented by discussions on the shared appreciation for 70’s pop-rock icons such as Queen, Elton John, Wings, and ELO.
The high-level production is matched by top-notch musicianship. Daniel’s guitar/piano and vocal melodies are backed by Falkner on guitar, bass, and keyboards with help from Joey Waronker (REM, Beck, Smashing Pumpkins) on drums. As with all Johnston recordings however, it’s the only-Daniel-Johnston-could-write-those-lyrics that shines throughout.
On the high-tempo rave-up “Freedom,” Daniel sings:
I want to win
Freedom talks of Freedom
I’m just a whim
I’m so trapped in boredom
I touched the shore
How did I get there?
To go away
Just to be nowhere
The album finishes with an epic six minute and thirty-four second masterpiece titled “Light Of Day” where love triumphs and “life’s alright.”
Took a ride in my car
Traveling far just to see you
I knew nothing about it
Destiny’s star guided me to you
Got me thinking life’s alright
In the middle of the night
I can see the light of day
Daniel Johnston is 48 now. Within his oversized adolescent frame and underneath that incongruously mopped grey hair lies a history of crash-and-burn volatility which co-exists with prolific creativity in music and the visual arts.
Daniel has said that his goal in life was to become a great artist, and the music was kind of ‘accidental’. While he’s always received attention for his music, his accomplishments in the art world have come to fruition as well. With exhibits worldwide since the late 80’s, Daniel could finally feel he had “arrived” when his art was included in the Whitney Museum Of American art Biennial in 2006. In addition, his first formal table-top art book was release in March of this year by Rizzoli Publication.
Little surprises Daniel any more. On the heels of the successful 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Daniel has now signed with Regenerate (independent filmmakers whose most recent release was My Suicide) for the production of a feature length movie about his life.
Now, for the technically savvy, you can even buy an iPhone game that features his art characters and music.
His output has been erratic and his career trajectory unpredictable, but Johnston continues to exert a powerful creative presence despite the demons with which he is beset. Johnston’s personal troubles have sometimes overshadowed his music legacy, but they didn’t derail his prodigious talents. Listening to the amazing 11-song journey that Is and Always Was, you get the feeling that Johnston is feeling a lot better and that everything is going to be alright.
Daniel Johnston is currently on a North American and European tour that will go through the end of the year.
Is And Always Was is scheduled for an October 6, 2009 release on Daniel’s own Eternal Yip Eye Music label with distribution in the US, Canada, Europe, Japan, and Australia.
09/03/09 – Portland, OR @ Wonder Ballroom
09/04/09 – Seattle, WA @ Neumos
09/05/09 – Vancouver, BC @ The Venue
09/07/09 – Calgary, AB @ Knox United Church
09/08/09 – Edmonton, AB @ Meyer Horowitz Theatre
10/02/09 – Austin, TX @ Austin City Limits Festival
10/13/09 – Washington, DC @ 9:30 Club
10/14/09 – New York, NY @ Highline Ballroom
10/15/09 – Boston, MA @ Paradise Rock Club
10/16/09 – Montreal, PQ @ UK Fed
10/17/09 – Toronto, ON @ Mod Club
10/22/09 – San Francisco, CA @ Regency Ballroom
10/23/09 – San Diego, CA @ Caines
10/24/09 – Los Angeles, CA @ Henry Fonda Theatre
Is And Always Was
(Eternal Yip Eye Music / High Wire Music)
Street date: Oct. 6, 2009
Fake Records Of Rock And Roll
Queenie The Doggie
I Had Lost My Mind
Is And Always Was
Lost In My Infinite Memory
Light Of Day
DANIEL JOHNSTON LINKS:
Official site – hihowareyou.com
Press Materials – hihowareyou.com/press