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Daniel Johnston
Courtesy of Sony Classic

Cult singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston has died aged 58

The beloved American artist was an inspiration to Kurt Cobain, Tom Waits, and Matt Groening, among others

Outsider musician Daniel Johnston has died aged 58 following a heart attack. The news was confirmed by his manager Jeff Tartakov yesterday (September 11).

“The Johnston family is deeply saddened to announce the death of their brother, Daniel Johnston,” his family said in a statement. “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.'”

Recognised for his warbling, delicate voice, and child-like ruminations of love and life on tracks like “True Love Will Find You In The End”, “The Story of an Artist”, and “Casper the Friendly Ghost”, Johnston’s genius lay in his stripped-back compositions and earnest lyrics. He released 17 albums over the period of 30 years.

Born in California in 1961 and brought up in West Virginia, Johnston – who attracted a number of high-profile fans, including Kurt Cobain, who referred to the artist as one of the “greatest” songwriters – gained notoriety as a singer-songwriter after moving to Auston, Texas, when he started handing out tapes of his lo-fi songs to people on the streets. Support from Cobain resulted in Johnston being signed by Atlantic records in 1994, though mainstream success was never his intention. 

In the early 1990s, Johnston suffered a manic psychotic episode on an airplane, where – believing he was the cartoon character Casper the Friendly Ghost – threw the plane’s ignition keys out of the window. Fortunately, both him and his dad escaped with minor injuries. This resulted in Johnston being diagnosed with bipolar and schizophrenia, and what became the first of many spells in psychiatric institutions. In recent years, he also suffered physical health problems, including diabetes, kidney infections, and hydrocephalus.

His 2006 documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, won the Director’s Award at the Sundance film festival – it details the musician’s struggles with bipolar, using a series of home movies, audiotapes, and camera footage. A biopic titled, Hi, How Are You Daniel Johnston, starring Johnston as himself was released in 2015. 

As well as a prodigious singer-songwriter, Jonston was also an artist and comic book-writer, with his drawing of a happy frog from the cover of his 1983 album, Hi, How Are You, the subject of countless T-shirts and murals. In 2006, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York featured Johnston’s work in a major exhibition.

His most recent album was Space Ducks, released in 2012. According to Johnston’s brother, ever since the death of their dad Bill, a massive box of unreleased recordings and documents have been found. “There are as many unpublished songs as there are published,” he said. “We’ll be spending a long time sorting out what he’s left behind. We have lots more to share.”

Johnston was and will remain a beloved figure in music, with the impact of his naive and honest depictions of life the source of inspiration for generations of artists to come. Our thoughts are with Daniel’s family and friends. 

Watch a self-recorded home video of the “ghost of Daniel L. Johnston”, below.