The Life of Daniel Johnston

The Life of Daniel Johnston

Story by Katie Lennon, Arts and Culture Editor

Troubled by depression and schizophrenia, singer/songwriter Daniel Johnston crafted some of the most beautifully heartbreaking albums in his 58 years of life. By the age of nine, Johnston had found his passion for art and music and no one doubted his talents. He made mini-movies, wrote albums, and drew cartoons that he would often use as his album covers. It was a constant struggle between his mind and his art, but Johnston was able to make music that will last for centuries. 

His fame stemmed from homemade cassettes that he would put into people’s McDonalds to-go bags, the place he worked most of his teenage to young adult years. Johnston always had an interest in the arts. At the age of nine, he would write songs and sing them around the house, and as a teenager, he started putting his music onto tapes. It was not until he was 20 that he professionally recorded his first album, Songs of Pain. Three years after this release, Johnston made it onto MTV, which had been a lifelong goal of his. A leap into his fame was when Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana, wore Johnston’s “Hi, How Are You” t-shirt. Prominent artists such as Cobain, Yo La Tengo, the Velvet Underground, and Sonic Youth all praised Johnston’s work and appreciated the brilliance behind his untrained and sometimes even harsh vocals. 

Johnston is frequently praised for being a key component in popularizing the genres lo-fi, indie, and alternate rock. With over 20 albums composed, it was clear Johnston used his music and artwork as a means of dealing with his mental illnesses. Johnston was diagnosed with manic depression and schizophrenia, which proved to be a continued struggle into his adulthood. In 1990, Johnston suffered a psychotic episode on a plane ride to a music festival. He pulled the keys out of the ignition, leading the pilot, Johnston’s dad, to crash-land the plane. Johnston was soon after involuntarily committed to a mental hospital while there was a bidding war going on over who got to sign him to their album deal.

Frequently credited as Johnston’s first album, Songs Of Pain was released in 1980 and recorded entirely from his parent’s basement. It was released on cassette and hand-distributed by Johnston to all of his friends. The album was re-released on CD in 2003. According to, Johnston has since then released 28 albums, including The Early Recordings Volume 1;  he has a total of 30 albums released from 1980 to 2017. 

Johnston’s dedication to music and mind-blowing story makes his passing in September 2019 all the more heartbreaking. He died at the age of 58 from natural causes, most likely a heart attack. A week before his death Johnston was hospitalized due to kidney failure but seemed to be in good spirits once he was home. The brilliance of Johnston’s music is unmatched and will continue to inspire musicians for years to come. 

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