COLUMN: Check into this musician to get your fix
Daniel Johnston’s music has an undeniable quality. He’s the reason I write music, so if you ever hear me wailing one of my songs, it’s his fault. He’s influenced musicians such as Conor Orberst, Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips, and Kurt Cobain, so I’m not the only one that finds his music to be extraordinary.
His most powerful music was not recorded in a studio, he simply sang his songs by himself, where he lived, with whatever was available, whether it was a boom-box or a tape recorder.
Listening to this music you can tell. You can hear pop and hiss and sometimes the vocals are hard to hear.
Yet this is what makes his music special. By recording his music this way, he leaves no space between the emotions of his songs and the recording. The intimate portrait that emerges has a power like no other.
You feel with these recordings the emotion of the moment, of the song. In the comfort of his home, Johnston lets the song take him away. There is no hesitation.
He is singing his heart, and his soul. He’s revealing his artistic vision with directness and honesty which only he has been able to accomplish.
Not just any musician can make singing into a boom box this powerful. Johnston has a connection to music that he simply has. It’s something you can’t teach.
This connection goes deep into the spirit of music, deep into the part of music that transforms, that changes lives. People talk of a muse in a distant way.
To Johnston this musical muse isn’t a far away concept.
He lives inside it and expresses himself in a way that shows he knows that mysterious place.
It goes beyond technical skill or talent. His voice cracks and his playing is simple. He expresses himself quietly over start and stop piano, while singing in a natural, easy way that reminds of the innocence of children. His voice is brimming with emotion yet he never screams or yells, it gives songs that could be quiet and boring a monumental emotional punch.
A part of that punch is how deep he goes into the highs and lows of life. His first album is called “Songs of Pain” and that title is a good summary of his work.
He sings of lost love and his lifelong struggle with mental illness in a way that lets you know he has felt the pain of both deeply. He makes much of the music that covers the same territory cliche and soulless. Even the musicians that do it very well, like the music of Alice in Chains, don’t hold a candle to the power of Johnston.
Yet it’s not all darkness and depression from Johnston. The flip side to all that pain is an undying belief in the beauty of the world. He sings of the beauty of nature, of women, of love, of the quiet moments of struggle and introspection that is life’s journey. The joy of these songs is pure. These songs are brilliantly alive. They reach a spiritual level that is the most inspirational music I have ever heard.
Not many of the people that I play Johnston’s music for hear what I hear. But that doesn’t matter. As long as there’s people like me, musician and non-musician alike, that can feel his music, his music will inspire and live on for anyone to hear, feel and know the extraordinary gift he has given the world.