Daniel Johnston, the lo-fi avant songwriter and visual artist, has died at the age of 58.
According to The Austin Chronicle, Johnston suffered a heart attack on Tuesday (September 10th). The news was confirmed by the musician’s former manager, Jeff Tartakov.
Johnston was a prolific, but troubled songwriter who battled mental health issues throughout his life. Much of his early musical output came in the form of home-made cassette recordings. After moving to Austin, Texas in the mid-1980s, Johnston attracted a small, dedicated local following. In 1988, he traveled to New York City for his first professional recording session resulting in the release of 1990. He also collaborated with Half Japanese singer Jad Fair on a collaborative album called It’s Spooky.
Interest in Johnston’s music grew immensely after Kurt Cobain wore a t-shirt donning the image of his 1983 cassette album Hi, How Are You. Cobain also cited Johnston’s 1986 release, Yip/Jump Music, as one of his favorite albums. The Cobain cosign led to a major label bidding war to sign Johnston, who at the time was receiving treatment at a mental hospital. He ended up signing with Atlantic Records, after passing on a deal with Elektra due to a belief that Metallica was Satanic. His time with Atlantic was short-lived, however, as his major label debut, 1994’s Fun, was a commercial failure. He was dropped from the label soon after that album’s release.
Johnston continued to release music independently in the ensuing years. He contributed a pair of songs to Harmony Korine’s 1995 coming-of-age film Kids and, in 2004, he released a double album featuring covers of his songs by artists including Tom Waits, Beck, Bright Eyes, Death Cab For Cutie, and others. His final release of original material came in 2010 with Beam Me Up!
Johnston was also a talented visual artist. He designed his own album covers, and his work was shown in galleries across the world. In 2012, he released a comic book, Space Ducks – An Infinite Comic Book of Musical Greatness.
He was also the subject of two films: the 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston by Jeff Feuerzieg, and the 2015 short bipic Hi, How Are You Daniel Johnston?, which was executive produced by Mac Miller and Lana Del Rey.
Johnston announced his retirement from touring in 2017, citing health issues. His final shows featured Jeff Tweedy, Built to Spill, Mike Watt, Beirut, and others serving as his backing band.
In a statement confirming his death, Johnston’s family wrote, “Daniel was a singer, songwriter, an artist, and a friend to all. Although he struggled with mental health issues for much of his adult life, Daniel triumphed over his illness through his prolific output of art and songs. He inspired countless fans, artists, and songwriters with his message that no matter how dark the day, ‘the sun shines down on me’ and ‘true love will find you in the end.'” The family encourages fans to support Hi, How Are You Project, which provides a platform for the exchange of ideas and education on mental health issues.