DANIEL JOHNSTON and MARK LINKOUS
Mark Linkous still remembers the first time he heard Daniel Johnston.
"Some buddies of mine were playing his cassettes at McCabe's Guitar Shop," he says. "I was really discouraged about music at the time. Daniel and Tom Waits were the artists who resurrected my interest. Daniel's just amazing - he writes the saddest songs in the world and the funniest songs in the world. He instantly became precious to me."
Fifteen years later, the Sparklehorse frontman has a dream-come-true
"It's so cool -- when he sent me tracks at different times in the mail I was just amazed," Johnston says. FEAR YOURSELF is the first fruit of what promises to be Daniel's most musically productive period since his homemade cassette days - welcome news for fans who have waited seven years for 2001's Rejected Unknown. Not coincidentally, this creative flowering has been accompanied by newfound peace and stability in Daniel's daily life.
Born and raised in West Virginia but a product of the Austin, Texas
It's impossible to separate Johnston's talent from the context of his troubles. His music has an exposed, painfully direct quality - emotionally and aesthetically - that has earned him comparisons to Hank Williams and Robert Johnson (and just as Johnson met the devil at the Crossroads, Johnston has walked the fiery landscape of Revelations in his mind). Linkous likens the early cassettes, which were recorded on a $59 boombox and are as lo-fi as they come, to "field recordings…a cappella balladeers from Virginia, things like that. They feel like priceless documents."
But Daniel is every bit the careful craftsman who is actually a stunning songwriter on a purely formal level. His verbal surprises and insinuating melodies are inspired mostly by his passion for the Beatles, but also Queen, the Beach Boys, Elton John and Elvis Presley. As a lover of pop music he is also an incurable romantic, his songs still fueled by an unrequited crush, love and obsession for a woman named Laurie that goes back more than 20 years.
Over the course of his career, Johnston has been covered and just generally adored by Matt Groening, Eddie Vedder, Yo La Tengo, Built to Spill, fIREHOSE, Mo Tucker and of course, Sparklehorse, who did "Hey Joe" on Good Morning Spider and "My Yoke Is Heavy" on the Distorted Ghost EP. The late Kurt Cobain famously wore a Hi How Are You T-shirt on the 1992 MTV Awards. Mary Lou Lord's version of Daniel's song "Speeding Motorcycle" was featured in a Target commercial, while K. McCarty's album of Johnston compositions, Dead Dog's Eyeball, was heralded by some as one of the best records of the '90s.
His music was also featured on the soundtrack to the movie Kids,
For the past decade and then some, Daniel has continued to make music, but various arrests and accidents ultimately confined him to the care of his parents Bill and Mabel, with whom he still lives today in Waller, Texas, a tiny town outside of Houston. In the early '90s, he signed to Atlantic Records, an unlikely - and inevitably brief - partnership that resulted in 1994's excellent Fun, produced by the Butthole Surfers' Paul Leary. Rejected Unknown was made with Brian Beattie, McCarty's collaborator on Dead Dog's Eyeball as well as the Austin band Glass Eye.
Along the way, thanks to the wonders of modern medicine, Daniel started feeling better. "It's been almost five years that I've been stable," Johnston says. "It used to hit me like a ton of bricks - manic depression, a terrible feeling, the pain in my brain. But with medication, I've been active and busy and writing and working."
Just don't think a happy Daniel means a less creative Daniel. "I'm still crazy enough, believe me," he says, always willing to joke about it.
The best part of being healthy is he's been able to tour, in the past a risky proposition. Accompanied by his 70-something father, Daniel has been to South Africa, Germany and most recently the U.K., where David Bowie personally booked him for the Royal Festival Hall's annual Meltdown festival. A Japanese visit is in the works. "Me and Dad have a lot of fun. He's the best manager I've ever had."
Johnston's artwork has also been shown around the world. An acclaimed artist in folk and outsider circles, he is even more prolific with his pen and marker drawings - of Captain America, Casper the Friendly Ghost, his tormented self and various busty ladies - than he is the songs. There's a reason why - cold hard cash. "I draw all the time because of that," he says. You can't just write a song and turn around and get some money for it. I have a hunger to go shopping at least once a week. I have to have new comic books! I have to have new records!"
FEAR YOURSELF opens with a tribute to Daniel's old records, with a lo-fi snippet of "Now" that segues into a more fully realized version. For Linkous, the main thing was to stay out of Daniel's way. "I don't even want to say I produced, I'm just ecstatic to have anything to do with getting more of him on tape," he says. "We kind of did our thing and tried not to be obtrusive. Daniel doesn't play or think like a normal person, so the last thing I wanted to do was straighten him out. We needed to get into his world."
Most of the songs were written by Daniel back in Texas, except for "Living It For the Moment," which was, appropriately enough recorded off the cuff, with most of the musicians playing live. "That turned out really good," Daniel says. "We played with the band and some girls showed up to play the saw and violin - it was really cool." In fact, the saw player is Jess Hoffa, Linkous' sister-in-law. A woman named Melissa Moore played violin on several songs).
Johnston's piano playing, which has always been more accomplished and intricate than his guitar strums, is a highlight throughout. "Power of Love" has the starkness of a Joni Mitchell song. "I was trying to say that love is the secret of show business," Daniel offers. "It's the secret in the sauce in the spaghetti at the restaurant, it could stop war from happening, it's the motivation to live instead of die."
"That's one of those songs where the lyrics...I'm just dumbfounded by their simple insight," Linkous says.
"Daniel was everything I thought he would be," Linkous continues. "He's probably the sweetest person I have ever met - an uncorrupted child in a way, a completely pure soul. It's really beautiful." Linkous is certain he will work with Johnston again, in between the records he's making as Sparklehorse and with A Camp (his collaboration with the Cardigans' Nina Persson).
Meanwhile, Daniel continues to record with Brian Beattie, and has formed a band of Waller-based musicians, Danny and the Nightmares (he hopes to bring them on the road soon), and a Paul Leary-produced record is in the works.
"Things have turned out all right," Johnston says. "I was in an insane asylum, now I'm traveling. I'm spending cash, girls are around, I have a lot of good friends and I have good old time. I'm really happy these days, more so than ever. I'm looking forward to a brighter future, and I hope that everything will be all right for all of the listeners out there."