Cult US indie singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston has died, aged 58

(Image credit: Gary Miller/FilmMagic)

The American singer-songwriter, visual artist and much-revered figure of the US indie music scene Daniel Johnston has died following a heart attack, aged 58.

Johnston was a prolific writer of lo-fi folk who approached his lyrics with a sense of childlike innocence and observational fearlessness. That his influence became so pronounced was all the more remarkable given that his recordings were typically made at home and tracked to cassette, his voice accompanied by piano, organ or guitar. 

Born in California and raised in West Virginia, Johnston first came to prominence as an artist when he arrived in Austin, Texas.

His first shot at distribution was 100 per cent DIY and saw him handing out cassettes to customers at the McDonald's he worked in, or to passing students on the Drag by the University of Texas campus, or to anyone who attended his gigs in the area. He would tell people that he would be famous, and he would be right.  

Johnston's legend soon grew in the underground. Johnston's most famous release, Hi, How Are You: The Unfinished Album, was recorded in September 1983 and become a totem of the independent scene a decade later when Kurt Cobain cited Johnston as an influence and wore a t-shirt with Johnston's frog cartoon cover-art on it. 

Championed by the indie rock artists at the time, Johnstone would eventually sign with Atlantic Records and make his major label debut with the 1994 album Fun. Produced by Paul Leary of the Butthole Surfers, it failed commercially. But Johnston's sound was too eccentric for the majors. Johnston certainly was – his deal with Atlantic was nearly scuppered when he refused to sign onto to the same label as Metallica, a band he believed were satanic.

Johnston had a number of mental health issues throughout his life. He said Hi, How Are You? was written during a nervous breakdown, and he would also be diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia.

In 2005, he was the subject of Jeff Feuerzeig's award-winning documentary The Devil And Daniel Johnston which took an intimate look at Johnston's life, from childhood through to his troubles with mental health, with his art and music as the through line. 

In a statement released via the Hi, How Are You Project, a non-profit that looks to encourage open conversation around mental health, Johnston's family said: "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."

Tributes were paid to Johnston across social media.

See more
See more
See more

some things last a long time. @hihowareyouofficial Beck

A photo posted by @beck on Sep 11, 2019 at 11:24pm PDT

See more
Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars and guitar culture since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitar World. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.