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The Loner

Daniel Johnston ventures into the wicked world with a batch of new music and a blank slate.

Johnston doesn't put out CDs the other way people do -- by, say, letting go of one carefully polished collection every year or two. Rather, he sheds them, in imperfect and uneven batches, like the final products of an almost physical purging process. Over the past twelve months, that process has intensified significantly. In late 2001, Johnston released Rejected Unknown, his first studio album in eight years, as the inaugural offering from the New York indie label Gammon Records. Two months later, he unveiled Daniel Johnston & Jad Fairand Lucky Sperm -- a variously successful and virtually unlistenable pair of recordings, respectively -- that he made with the former Half Japanese founder. In late spring, Johnston plans to unleash Lost and Found, a collection of songs originally intended as a companion to Rejected Unknown. And if producer Paul Leary (of the Butthole Surfers) is available to produce later in the year, Johnston will commit two original offerings from his new band, Danny and the Nightmares, to CD. Oh, yes: He also recently entered the studio with Sparklehorse frontman Mark Linkous for a collaborative album that is due to hit sometime this year.

"The record with Sparklehorse is freaking great," Johnston enthuses. "It was a four-day recording session, and when Gammon asked me to do it, I thought, 'Wow, man, that sounds like a lot of fun.' I had all these albums I'd been working on with Danny and the Nightmares, so I just packed it up and went on down.

"Everything I've been doing lately is good," he adds. "Lost and Found, that's even better than Rejected Unknown. I just feel like everything I do right now is gold."

The artist walks alone: Daniel Johnston is currently in the midst of a solo tour across America.
The artist walks alone: Daniel Johnston is currently in the midst of a solo tour across America.

All of this newfound energy isn't entirely organic. Though Johnston still struggles to diminish internal demons and occasionally "acts out," as he puts it, he has found a chemical combination to help him better manage his mental illness.

"Now that I'm on medication, I haven't had severe depression for five years," he says. "Many years ago I was on so many pills, I was a Frankenstein monster, a guinea pig. It always just got worse and worse. When Paul Leary came in to produce Fun, I was so drugged up I couldn't even play. I just gave him my parts and he did it."

Those who view behavior-modifying drugs as poison arrows pointed at the right side of a creative brain may find some comfort in the knowledge that Johnston's artistic output is at an all-time high. If Johnston's career can be likened to that of his mop-topped idols, it may be safe to say that he's entering his Sgt. Pepper's period. The recent Rejected Unknown finds him collaborating with other artists more openly than ever before, experimenting with recording techniques and adding color to the once-gray areas of his notoriously Spartan songs.

With a folk-art cover done by Johnston -- a compulsive sketcher whose original works are now considered collectibles and grab as much as $150 a pop -- Rejected Unknown still gives loyal listeners a rare, quizzical glimpse inside the songwriter's cracked mindscape. But it is polished and melodic enough to appeal to those who might not find his upper-register voice and non sequiturs so easy to digest. Many of Johnston's usual topics remain: "Funeral Girl" is an ode to a woman named Laurie, whom Johnston met in high school and has pined for in song ever since, even though "she married an undertaker and disappeared"; and "Some Time Spent in Heaven" recalls Johnston's early days of splicing sentiment from his parents' Christian hymns into fundamentally sad songs about hope and loneliness.

As always, Johnston's work on Rejected Unknown is unmarred by intention or pretense. But it is a more normal-sounding effort, a fully instrumented departure from the days when Johnston recorded into a Radio Shack-style recorder armed only with a piano, an organ and some Playskool toy or other. The album was completed over a three-year period and produced by Brian Beattie, who sometimes camped out in the Johnston family's Waller basement, sharing a roof with Daniel and his conservative Christian parents: Bill, a retired WWII veteran who now serves as Daniel's manager, and Mabel, who once forbade Daniel to play the piano upstairs, relegating him to the basement where his recording projects began.

"Brian would come and then leave, and it was a lot of fun," Johnston says. "Brian was bringing over session musicians, a lot of different musicians, and we had a lot of bands that would rock. My friends always love to say hello and goodbye to my parents, and my parents would just treat my friends like gods. My dad has made me rich. He has made things happen like never before. I'm just traveling the world, and I sit here and make drawings, and people send me money for them. I remember the first time I could ever hand my mom a hundred-dollar bill. That was the greatest. I'd love to be a millionaire someday. I wish that all my musician friends didn't have to work so that we could go on a world tour and just make music and have fun all day."

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