Daniel Johnston, cult singer-songwriter beloved by alternative-rock icons, dies at 58

Daniel Jonston
Daniel Johnston performs in Barcelona, Spain, on April 19, 2012. The singer-songwriter died on Sept. 10 at age 58.
(Jordi Vidal / Redferns via Getty Images)

Daniel Johnston, the Austin, Texas-based singer-songwriter whose childlike lyrics and homemade cassettes inspired many artists of the ’90s alternative rock boom, died Sept. 10 of a heart attack, former manager Jeff Tartakov confirmed to the Austin Chronicle. He was 58.

In the ’80s and ’90s, Johnston was perhaps the most influential performer of “outsider music,” a genre tag given to self-taught, self-distributed, and, occasionally, mentally ill artists whose music eschews familiar songwriting methods or recording standards. Johnston was a Beatles fan later diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The naive quality of his lyrics and crackly voice, matched with an undeniable ear for pop song craft, made him an icon of alternative rock musicians. Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain famously wore a Daniel Johnston T-shirt for the band’s performance at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards. Other musicians that have covered Johnston’s songs include Pearl Jam, Tom Waits, Wilco, Beck, Death Cab for Cutie, TV on the Radio, Sufjan Stevens, Yo La Tengo and Beach House.

While attending Ohio’s Kent State University in the early ’80s, Johnston began recording melancholy, lo-fidelity folk-rock songs, dubbed to cassette and adorned with Johnston’s hand-drawn cartoon art. Upon relocating to Texas, he started circulating these tapes to friends and strangers, gaining local renown, earning an appearance on the MTV series “The Cutting Edge” and, ultimately, becoming an icon of Austin music.

The attention from artists such as Cobain ultimately led to major label Atlantic Records signing Johnston and releasing one album, 1994’s “Fun,” perhaps the most unlikely byproduct of the alternative-rock gold rush. A harrowing documentary on Johnston, “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” was released in 2005 and won the Documentary Directing Award at Sundance. In later years, Johnston’s art began to get more attention, and the songwriter partnered with Supreme for a comic book and shirt collaboration. He retired from touring in 2017.


Early last year, the city of Austin honored Johnston by making his Jan. 22 birthday “Hi, How Are You?” Day, which also supports the Hi, How Are You? project, which raises awareness for mental health issues.

Johnston is survived by his brother Dick Johnston and sisters Margy Johnston, Sally Reid and Cindy Brewer.