“One of the greatest songwriting geniuses of our time” – tributes pour in to cult lo-fi hero Daniel Johnston

The influential indie pioneer was revered across the music industry

The influential lo-fi singer, songwriter and visual artist Daniel Johnston has died, aged 58.

Speaking to The Austin Chronicle, Johnston’s former manager Jeff Tartakov confirmed that the musician, who rose to cult fame in the 80’s alternative and underground music scene, died after suffering a heart attack on Tuesday (September 10).

An outsider figure revered by musicians including Kurt Cobain and Tom Waits, his style combined childlike innocence, the avant grade and the eccentric – a style which earned him cult status amongst his many fans.

His work was covered by a wide range of artists including BeckFlaming Lips, Death Cab for Cutie and Bright Eyes. Kurt Cobain famously wore a Daniel Johnston T-shirt for Nirvana’s performance at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards.

Johnston announced his retirement from live music back in 2017, blaming health issues. His final shows in 2017 featured Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Built to Spill, Mike Watts and Beirut.

Daniel Johnston
Daniel Johnston

This evening, Johnston’s family have released a statement via the Hi, How Are You Project – a project Daniel’s life and music inspired to encourage open conversation around mental health. Johnston was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

The statement read: “The Johnston family is deeply saddened to announce the death of their brother, Daniel Johnston. He passed away from natural causes this morning at his home outside of Houston, Texas.

“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.”

Daniel’s older brother Dick Johnston said: “I always wanted Danny to feel like his own person, and in control of his own life.  Since beginning to work and travel with him in about 2003, we gratefully were able to travel the entire globe for over a decade to get out before the fans. He was always, everywhere, warmly received and he at least knew he was well loved. Health issues have plagued us for years, I’m glad for the time we had.”

Tom Gimbel, Daniel’s manager for over 25 years, added: “I am so saddened by the news of Daniel’s passing.  It has been the greatest honor and privilege of my professional life to work with Daniel Johnston – someone who I consider to be one of the greatest songwriting geniuses of our time. In our time together Daniel was more than an artist; he was a friend, he was family. I will miss him greatly but will smile every time I hear his songs.”

Johnston was born on January 22, 1961 – the youngest of five children – in Sacramento, California. He was raised in West Virginia and later moved to Austin in the early eighties. His first album, ‘Songs of Pain’ was released in 1980 with his commercial breakthrough coming three years later through the release of ‘Hi, How Are You.’

Writing 17 full-length albums of original music across his career, The Austin Chronicle reports that Johnston had at least one more album of original music still to release.

“I’ve been working on a new album with Brian Beattie for years and I hope it comes out real soon,” Johnston told the Chronicle in 2018.

Meanwhile, musicians have been responding to the news on social media this evening.

Judd Apatow wrote: “So sad to hear the death of the great Daniel Johnston.” Zola Jesus added: “there are not enough words i can say about the important and vitality of daniel johnston’s musical spirit. he was a huge inspiration to me, to follow my creative impulses no matter how messy or simple. RIP.” 

You can read some of the many tributes – including from Beck and The 1975’s Matty Healy – below.

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Bye Daniel? @hihowareyouofficial

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