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Daniel Johnston (1961–2019), influential quirky singer-songwriter

by Kirk Fox

Kurt Cobain and Sonic Youth were fans of his music.

Daniel Johnston was a quirky singer-songwriter based in Austin, Texas, who influenced many alternative music artists including Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, and Tom Waits. His songs have been covered by the Flaming Lips, Beck, and Death Cab for Cutie. Johnston, who struggled with mental illness, created lo-fi simple songs with whimsical lyrics on love and life. His breakout album was 1983’s “Hi, How Are You,” which led to him being signed by Atlantic Records, which released 1994’s “Fun.” Johnston’s last tour was in 2017 where he was backed by members of Wilco, including Jeff Tweedy, and members of Fugazi and Built to Spill.

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Died: Tuesday, September 10, 2019 (Who else died on September 10?)

Details of death: Died at the age of 58 from a heart attack.

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On gaining some notoriety after “Hi, How Are You”: “Some people really liked me, and other people were making fun of me they thought I was a freak show. I was just all wrapped up in the middle of it like a total psychopath. Not like a killer or anything. More like a way-out teddy bear. … And if people were making fun of me, if they have a good time making fun of me, then that’s just as good, really. I’m entertaining them. Maybe I’m more of a comedian than they know.” —Rolling Stone interview in 1994

What they said about him: “Daniel Johnston wrote beautiful songs and inspired countless musicians and songwriters. The heart and its truths are captured in his music. I feel lucky to have been introduced to his artistry. I never know what to say in these times, but I will miss you” —Actor Jason Ritter

“Those early DJ tunes meant a lot to so many of us. ‘Walking the Cow’ was also a favorite of mine, along with ‘Keep Punching Joe,’ whose lyrics reference ‘Walking the Cow.’ Rest well Daniel Johnston, you sure earned it.” —The Mountain Goats

“Daniel Johnston…God rest his soul…one of the greatest natural talents we’ve ever heard” —Musician Glen Hansard

Full obituary: Los Angeles Times

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