Daniel Johns: “I had anxiety about the future for so long, but realised I was scared of a place that may never exist”

There are no artistic limits for Daniel Johns – not anymore. He talks to NME about ‘FutureNever’, his new solo album and the “purest record” he’s ever made, his days in Silverchair and where he goes from here

In 2019, Daniel Johns was on the brink of despair. After years of intrusive tabloid coverage and paparazzi photos, the Sunday Telegraph published a front-page story falsely alleging that he was a regular at a notorious Sydney brothel. Johns sued News Corp for defamation, winning both monetary damages and a moral victory. But after a months-long legal battle, damage was done and decades of accumulated trauma from being under the spotlight unearthed.

“That was a shit time, I won’t lie – it nearly broke me. I was done,” Johns tells NME.

In 2019, he says, “I’d shifted my mindset away from music as a medium of expression because I felt I couldn’t make music without the by-product of fame. I felt demotivated to even start writing a song without it triggering all the industry bullshit I’d spent years trying to avoid.”

Johns nearly resolved to quit music forever, “but I realised that I was thinking of all the wrong experiences. Many people reached out to me about how the music had helped them through some very challenging things in their life, and I was so humbled and appreciative.” In private, he began the long process of picking himself back up.

NME Australia Cover 2022 Daniel Johns
Credit: Press

After a lengthy period of public silence, last year’s hit Spotify podcast Who Is Daniel Johns? brought him back into our collective consciousness. For Johns, it was an act of confession: he was able to articulate his ongoing battles with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder that were consequences of the fame, bullying, and health struggles he experienced in his youth.

But it was also an act of correction. “The podcast was a direct response to many incorrect stories about me in the media,” he tells NME. “It felt necessary to correct the record, but at the same time, it brought up a lot of dark stuff that I maybe hadn’t properly processed.

“I was genuinely overwhelmed by the reception, to be honest. I didn’t know whether the stories would resonate with people.”

For the audience – both the general public, and the artists and close friends interviewed, from Billy Corgan to ex-wife Natalie Imbruglia – the podcast was a chance to celebrate Johns’ life and art and reconnect with the human behind the songs. But just as significantly, it helped clear the slate. The final episode teased new Daniel Johns music on the horizon, setting the scene for his long-awaited solo return.

NME Australia Cover 2022 Daniel Johns
Credit: Luke Eblen

NME is interviewing Daniel Johns in an unlikely set of circumstances. He’s just turned 43, which he celebrated by releasing ‘FutureNever’, his second solo album and ninth overall. It’s an unqualified success: NME calls it “unmistakably Johns”, with a sense of “vulnerability, curiosity, and adventure”, and in May, ‘FutureNever’ becomes Johns’ first solo album to top the ARIA albums chart.

But behind the music, the triumphant comeback narrative we’d longed for had become more complicated than it seemed.

A month before the album’s release, Johns was involved in a car accident with another vehicle on NSW’s Pacific Highway. No one was seriously injured – but blowing three times above the legal limit, Johns was charged with high-range drink driving, and pled guilty. In an Instagram post the day after the incident, Johns said that he’d been experiencing panic attacks and “self-medicating with alcohol”, and that he was voluntarily checking himself into rehab.

“I’m so beyond caring about genre boundaries. Great art is great art”

Which leads to NME conducting this interview, Johns’ first after returning home from rehab in late April, entirely via email, as he continues to work on his recovery. Johns apologises for the “non-traditional way of answering these questions”. He can’t discuss the specifics of the accident until his sentencing date of June 22, as he told his Instagram followers in April.

Emailing with Daniel Johns, you would imagine, adds to his offbeat mystique. It’s easy to picture him typing out elaborate answers somewhere in his guitar-strewn Newcastle home. But he still proves himself the Daniel Johns we know, who writes with the same wit and warmth he speaks with. When asked how he feels about the popular music cliche that rock is dead, he jokes, semi-seriously, “I think many people blame me for killing it! Seriously though, I’m so beyond caring about genre boundaries. Great art is great art. Sometimes rock is the vehicle to deliver it, sometimes it’s not.”

NME Australia Cover 2022 Daniel Johns
Daniel Johns on the cover of NME Australia #30

The creation of ‘FutureNever’ revolved around one word: reclamation. First, Johns had to reclaim the act of writing and playing music for its own sake. On Instagram in 2021, he wrote, “I have been learning that the longer I’m away from people’s opinions the stronger I become. Art is not a way to receive validation… I’m not sure what I’m doing? I am sure how I want to do it though.”

Next, Johns would reclaim his sense of self, devising the concept of ‘FutureNever’ as a means of embracing uncertainty. “‘FutureNever’ is a place we never reach,” he explains. “We can quantify and describe the past and the present, but the future is speculative.

“I have had anxiety about the future for so long, but realised that I was scared of a place that may likely never exist, so I invented my own destination of contentment called ‘FutureNever’. If the future never exists then why are we scared? We built a world around it, a ‘Diorama’ of sorts, where your past becomes your superpower.”

“For years, I felt I had to ‘prove myself’ outside of Silverchair. To me, that is completely absurd in retrospect”

Recording ‘FutureNever’ helped to free him from the burden of his musical past: being Daniel Johns, ex-Silverchair frontman. “For years, I felt I had to ‘prove myself’ outside of Silverchair. To me, that is completely absurd in retrospect,” Johns says. “If you read the credits to the Silverchair albums, it’s all there – I already proved myself in that band.”

At the time, Johns’ post-Silverchair work – his 2015 alt-R&B solo debut ‘Talk’, and 2018’s album ‘No One Defeats Us’, a collaboration with longtime friend Luke Steele in the duo DREAMS – felt more tentative than triumphant. They had strong moments, but gave the overall sense that an artist capable of greatness was still re-emerging from his shell.

“I love ‘Talk’ and I love DREAMS,” Johns attests. “I’m proud of both of those albums but they only represent one part of me. ‘FutureNever’ represents all parts of me – that’s why I think it’s the purest record I’ve ever made.”

NME Australia Cover 2022 Daniel Johns
Credit: Press

‘Reclaim Your Heart’ opens ‘FutureNever’ with a slow-burning orchestral ballad – an echo of ‘Emotion Sickness’ from ‘Neon Ballroom’. The song is a motivational paean, as much for Johns as the listener: “Reclaim your soul, it was never theirs to chain / Reclaim your courage, come alive through this pain.”

It’s followed by ‘Mansions’, an electro-soul confessional that paints a vivid portrait of Johns’ life in Newcastle, staring at the outside world while grappling with his mental health: “I’ve been searching for the answer, taking all the pills / Treat it like candy, whatever it fills.”

That song was pivotal to the creation of ‘FutureNever’, Johns says: “I had a lot of unfinished demos, song ideas, sketches. The song that sparked me to get things to a level where I felt comfortable releasing them was probably ‘Mansions’… there was something about that ‘Can’t stop breathing, won’t stop trying’ lyric that reflected the perseverance it took for me to push through and make this album.”

A pair of guitar-centric tracks – the swaggering ‘Where Do We Go?’ and the ferocious ‘Stand ’Em Up’ – rekindle the rock ’n’ roll fire unheard since ‘One Way Mule’ on ‘Diorama’. It’s a joy to hear Johns reunite with his most familiar instrument, his loud, colourful rhythm guitars intertwining with his passionate vocals.

Says Johns: “I’ve stopped running away from the ‘Silverchair-type sounds’ that I actively avoided on ‘Talk’. Of course I sound a bit like Silverchair, I played a reasonably significant role in that band’s success!”

“‘FutureNever’ represents all parts of me – that’s why I think it’s the purest record I’ve ever made”

But it’s on the more electronic songs where Johns’ eternal curiosity shines through, from the cutting EDM of ‘Cocaine Killa’ to the flirtatious synth-funk of ‘I Feel Electric’. He’s at home on these electronic expeditions, sounding neither like an elder statesman, nor like he’s trying to compete on playlists.

Johns says he’s not concerned with the multifarious state of music listening today: “I’m focused on making the best possible art I can make; I don’t concern myself with the medium it is consumed via.” A vinyl lover who enjoys discovering new music via streaming, Johns says his “only criticism” is “when artists write for the algorithm or to appeal to a ‘playlist’. That’s where as a fan I check out because it’s so gross and obvious.”

So who are the artists exciting Daniel Johns these days? He shouts out Tyler, The Creator (“he’s always pushing boundaries and making interesting timeless records that will stand the test of time”); Tkay Maidza (“her energy inspires me”); MXXWLL, who worked on ‘FutureNever’ track ‘I Feel Electric’; and The Kid LAROI.

“I heard his song ‘Blessings’ years ago and just knew he’d blow the fuck up,” says Johns of the Kamilaroi hip-hop star. “It makes me so happy to see him doing what he’s doing. I really hope people are looking out for him, because it’s a lot for a young person to be experiencing.”

NME Australia Cover 2022 Daniel Johns
Credit: Nic Walker

‘FutureNever’ doesn’t settle on the same style for more than two songs in a row. With each listen, the album’s jagged sequencing makes more and more sense: It forces the listener to take in all of who Daniel Johns is in 2022.

Even with over a dozen co-writers and producers in the mix – many of them Aussie mainstays like What So Not, Louis Schoorl, Peking Duk and This Week In The Universe – there’s an ineffable Daniel Johns-ness to every song that wasn’t always present on his last two albums. In this, it’s succeeded in its mission: “‘FutureNever’ was deliberately written to be a melting pot of all the genres of music that have inspired me… but it was never meant to be a greatest hits,” Johns says.

But if there is a ‘classic’ Daniel Johns sound, it’s captured in the baroque, Brian Wilson-esque ballad ‘Emergency Calls Only’. Johns delayed the album’s release by weeks to perfect the song with Van Dyke Parks, the legendary orchestrator who gave ‘Diorama’ and ‘Young Modern’ that ‘Fantasia’ feel.

“My friendship with Van Dyke Parks is like a platonic love story that should never have happened,” Johns declares. “I’m so grateful our lifetimes overlapped, and as corny as it sounds, I feel spiritually connected to him… whenever he sends me anything to listen to, I get completely lost in it.

“‘Emergency Calls Only’ is such an important song to me, as it’s about that need to turn yourself off to the world… not forever, but just for a little bit while you get your shit together. Which is kind of where I’m at now.”

It’s been said that fame doesn’t change one’s character; it only reveals one’s true self. Fame gave Johns a platform to develop his muse and unleash it upon the world. But in his personal life, it amplified feelings of social anxiety that he never knew he had. On Instagram, he’s spoken of how his “‘grunge’ peers, Kurt, Chris, Layne, Scott became casualties of the scene that Silverchair entered as 15-year-olds”; he’s also made a wry remark about feeling like “the Macaulay Culkin of rock”.

“‘Emergency Calls Only’ is about that need to turn yourself off to the world… not forever, but just for a little bit while you get your shit together. Which is kind of where I’m at now”

Back on ‘Freak Show’ and ‘Neon Ballroom’, Daniel reflected on his topsy-turvy adolescence in real-time. But on the most striking track on ‘FutureNever’, he flips that story on its head – again.

‘FreakNever’ takes one of Silverchair’s most iconic songs, the defensive, sarcastic ‘Freak’, and recasts it as a circus-like nightmare. Daniel sings just one line, distorted through a vocoder: “And if the future never happened”. But the real star of the song is Purplegirl, the 11-year-old daughter of a close family friend. (She named herself Purplegirl because of the “massive photo of Prince above my piano”, he tells NME.) It’s equally captivating and chilling to hear his words refracted through her brave little voice: “The world stole a baby / Took his soul on tour / And made a deal with the devil.”

“There’s something so powerful about a child singing about the uncertainty of the future,” Johns tells NME. “I honestly didn’t think we’d use the song because it was so raw, but once I’d heard Purplegirl sing it, my version just didn’t sound right. I sat down with her parents, and we discussed using the song, but we were all only comfortable if it was done with anonymity.

“I think she’s starting to understand the ‘child fame’ thing as she gets closer to my age when it all blew up. ‘FreakNever’ was her first proper insight into the madness of it all, I think. I was cautious [not] to reveal too much, but I wish someone had warned me about how fame can change everything.”

NME Australia Cover 2022 Daniel Johns
Credit: Luke Eblen

Before his current social media hiatus, Johns was happily revisiting old Silverchair memories for his Instagram following, often reflecting on notable live performances. He’s answered countless questions about how he will never reform the band, and how he has no desire to perform live again. “I have some incredible memories of playing live,” he tells NME, “but like an athlete that no longer feels their body can handle the rigours of game day, my mind can no longer handle the live touring world.

“Sometimes the YouTube algorithm feeds me a Silverchair gig from back in the day and I’ll find myself quietly impressed… until I fuck up a note and then I turn it off, haha.”

What strikes Johns now, when he thinks about Silverchair, is how “fucking young” he and his bandmates were for most of that roller coaster ride. “Even in the ‘Young Modern’ era I was 28/29, which is pretty damn young for an ‘industry veteran’.” Johns now sympathises with his parents: “It must have been scary for them to see the train leaving the station knowing that when it returned, their son would probably never be the same person. I never truly thought about that back then.”

“I really hope people are looking out for The Kid LAROI, because it’s a lot for a young person to be experiencing”

Johns confesses that he dreams “all the fucking time” about the alternate paths he could have taken – but ultimately, he’s made peace with his past. “I often see guys my age, surfing at the beach with their tradie vans, playing with their kids at the park, and I’d be lying if I didn’t occasionally wonder what my life would be if the band didn’t take off, but it’s not like I’m jealous or anything.

“I understand that the path I took was probably determined by some sort of fate and I’m grateful for the experiences good and bad. It’s certainly been an interesting life so far.”

NME Australia Cover 2022 Daniel Johns
Credit: Nic Walker

So what’s next for Daniel Johns, now that ‘FutureNever’ is out in the world? For one, Johns is focusing on the FutureNeverFund, a “philanthropic vehicle” he launched in March.

It has many aims: “Supporting mental health initiatives, particularly around young people dealing with trauma, addressing systemic inequality for First Nations Australians, raising the global standard of animal welfare, and increasing diversity in the Australian arts sector are all areas that I’d like to contribute towards in any way I can… I find that sense of broader purpose to be my biggest goal for the future.”

“Like an athlete that no longer feels their body can handle the rigours of game day, my mind can no longer handle the live touring world”

And of course, the future remains an open question for Daniel Johns, the human being – and artist who even after multiple musical lifetimes is still a work in progress and a mystery to himself. “I know I’m a good person, I know I care for and love people (and dogs). I know I’m an artist who always tries to push boundaries,” he says.

“But I also know that I’m wired a bit differently, and that makes me interesting to some. Yeah, I confuse myself sometimes too.”

‘FutureNever’ gives us 12 different portraits of Daniel Johns, yet there’s no indication he’s exhausted all versions of himself. At the end of the podcast, five clips of new songs are played – but only one, ‘Mansions’, made it onto the album.

The mythical Daniel Johns vault is as vast as his imagination, but its creator is as humble as ever. He makes no promises, except that we’ll see him around. “I might also make some new music too, and I’ll do my best to make it great.”

Daniel Johns’ ‘FutureNever’ is out now