Daniel Johnston is a cult singer-songwriter whose seventeen albums have taken him from working at Astro World in Houston and handing out his homemade tapes after his shows to international acclaim and a queue of artists, including TV on the Radio, The Flaming Lips and Tom Waits, lining up to cover his songs. He was first thrust into the public consciousness when Kurt Cobain was pictured wearing one of his t-shirts and a bidding war between record labels ensued, despite the fact that he was in the middle of a five year stint in a mental hospital. In 2005, ‘The Devil and Daniel Johnston’, a documentary about his life, his music and his struggles with bipolar disorder, won the Documentary Directing Award at Sundance. He was back in the spotlight last year when Karen O covered his song ‘Worried Shoes’ for the ‘Where The Wild Things Are’ soundtrack, and he is currently touring Europe with BEAM, an 11-piece orchestra from the Netherlands. Dazed Digital caught up with him before their show at London’s Troxy.
Dazed Digital: How did this tour with BEAM come about?
Daniel Johnston: The orchestra? My brother arranged it and got some really good players together. There’s like three guitars, bass, drums, trumpets, trombones, saxophones, violins, everything you can imagine. It’s a lot of music. We got off to a kind of rough start yesterday at the show, but I think our shows will be more and more improved, you know?
DD: Have you written new songs specifically to play with them?
Daniel Johnston: They’re all a lot of my older songs, some are the newer songs. Well, there are some ‘new’ songs about that are already ten years old. It’s a lot of fun playing with the orchestra. They’ve got it all arranged well. It’s easy to singing along with.
DD: How do you set about writing songs?
Daniel Johnston: Well, for a long time, if something happened to me, with different girls and stuff, then I would write about certain days and include just about everything that happened. But this year I’m trying to write fiction, fictional songs, you know, made-up songs that aren’t fake or false. I’m trying to do that at the moment, that’s what I keep telling everybody but I haven’t really done it that much.
DD: Are you still drawing as well?
Daniel Johnston: Yeah, I draw all the time. My drawings really are more of a fantasy. It’s not really my own life anymore.
DD: Do you find it difficult to always be honest and open in your writing?
Daniel Johnston: I just keep writing autobiographically and when I think that way the songs almost write themselves, just thinking about everything that’s happened.
DD: You seem to be becoming even more popular and you’re playing bigger venues each time you come to London. Are you enjoying this tour?
Daniel Johnston: It should be easy now. If I keep selling records, I should be able to make it through life without going too crazy. It’s fun to go around the world. We just got back from Australia after a month. We went to Australia and Japan.
DD: If your music’s taking you all over the world, is there anything left that you still want to achieve?
Daniel Johnston: I want to make better sounding recordings. When I started out I was just recording on my dad’s little tape player. I thought that when I made tapes for my friends, I’d just pretend like I’m making an album, so all my friends got plenty of tapes.
DD: But now you’d like to make records that sound more produced?
Daniel Johnston: I try to make it different just to keep an interest in it. The thing about a song is that I might have it done in like a half hour. Then I’ll play it over and over again, if I like it. In the big time, they spend forever on recordings. That’s what I’d like to do. All those kinds of overdubs and everything, that’s what I’d like to do someday. I’ll get rich enough, I’m sure I will.