Daniel Johnston is a man who has spent the last 30 years or so creating his own unique world of weirdness and beauty. He’s recorded countless albums and written an amazing number of songs. I have 271 on my ipod alone.
He started recording in 1980 when he was 19 or 20 years old. All his early albums were solo projects with Daniel singing and accompanying himself on keyboards or guitar. They were recorded in his bedroom on cassette tape which he then copied and released (or sometimes gave away) as cassette-only albums, in very limited numbers. The songs were very often works of exquisite beauty and the performances at least charming and usually intensely emotional. But the sound quality was poor – the tapes often seemed to be warped or stretched – and at best sounded like very poorly recorded demo tapes.
Which sort of makes the next part of his story make sense, because his career began to really ’take off’ when other artists started taking his songs literally as demos and recording their own versions. During the last 15 years or so he has become as likely to be known through the songs he’s written as through the albums he’s released. For someone still so relatively obscure, he is amazingly well cover-versioned. So far I’ve tracked down over 50 of these covers by artists as varied as Tom Waits, Beck, The Cardigans, Flaming Lips, Sparklehorse and Spiritualised. They pop up in the most unlikely places – there’s one by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on the soundtrack of the recent film ‘Where The Wild Beasts Are’ for example. These covers are always better produced and recorded than Daniel’s originals (that would not be difficult!). More importantly they are often so breathtakingly beautiful that not only do they make you want to cry or leap for joy, they also force a complete reappraisal of the originals. He is one of the great songwriters of the last 30 years – often only drawing the roughest of sketches for others to work from. But what sketches.