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Art Basel: Daniel Johnston Interview

December 7th, 2012 -



“To tell you the truth…I don’t know what’s going on, I don’t know where I am,” chuckled Daniel Johnston, sitting at our table sipping on a tall glass of orange juice through a skinny red straw. What we thought would be individual interviews ended up turning into a round table two person conversation with the musical legend, conducted by myself, and freelance journalist Arielle Castillo. Here, he is responding to my inquiries of the Meet and Greet held at Sweat Records the previous night. Plunked down at the head of the table, his eyes seemed to flutter as if searching for an answer to my questions, ultimately what I’d receive would be something refreshingly honest and pure, whether it was what I’d aimed for or not. With Daniel Johnston you never know what you’re going to get. Only he knows what is truly going on in that crowded and fascinatingly layered mind of his, and that’s just how I like it.

When I first heard the news that I would be interviewing Johnston, my reaction went through multiple stages of response. On one hand I was excited; this is one of my musical idols and it would be an incredible opportunity to speak with the man that has written countless songs that have affected me (and many others) on such deep, personal levels. On the other hand, I was intimidated; this is a man who has documentaries dedicated to his life, who’s been making music for ages, who is so highly respected by so many people. This is a man who’s music is, simply put, beyond compare. What the hell was I going to say to him? What questions HASN’T he been asked before? I decided to bring this up and see if there was anything he wish he’d been asked but never go the chance to speak about. “Well….just about all of it has been said. I have a problem that- well a lot of the interviews ask a certain question, I’ll- I’ll keep telling the same stories. It’s always been that way…for the longest time…It’s hopeless. It seems that way yeah…. I’ll have jokes ready, but usually I’ll forget the jokes (laughs).”

Though he may have been distant when answering some of our questions, it was never in an intentional or mean way. It’s not like he was ever trying to be elusive or hide anything. It was quite the opposite actually, especially when addressing his current situation of being in Miami. Johnston would often fluctuate in and out of saying things like, “People are pretty kind so.. It’s a lot of fun. But uh, I’m having a lot of fun on this trip…It’s going a lot better than I imagined,” to comments like, “I’m just kind of going from room to room you know,” and “Oh, I want to go home right away…I’m scared of all this.”

It seemed as if all of his answers reflected exactly what he felt at that precise time he was questioned, and even though the general situation never changed, whatever was going on in his head might have, and thus that was the answer we’d get. It also felt like at times only parts and fragmented sections of our questions would make it through to him, so often the responses wouldn’t completely answer what had been asked.

But to me, it didn’t matter. The way he communicated and all those idiosyncrasies showed us more about who he is than any answer to any question. The way he’d slightly divert questions or use examples rather than fulfilling the questions with his own mind. One thing I did want to talk about though, was the crossovers between his visual art and his music, and all those little characters that have developed in both mediums. “Well, I used to cut out little pictures and uh, and put them on the page, right. And I’d just go through the notebooks and write a song about the picture. You know like, uh…what is it…Blue Bell ice cream? It has that girl walking a cow? I get that picture on there and then I wrote that song called Walking the Cow”. It is with that childlike simplicity that Daniel Johnston carries himself and it is the reason his music remains so close to the surface, so unapologetically raw and real. As much as I’d love (and as many have attempted) to break down Daniel Johnston, analyze everything about him and come to a conclusion and answer to the big question of “WHO IS DANIEL JOHNSTON?”, hey, I’m not going to kid myself, it’s a pretty huge task.

If it were anyone else, maybe an interview with some in depth questions would help us get closer to an answer, which is what I initially aimed to do with our time together. But as our three way conversation went on, it became more and more apparent to me that his answers to these questions weren’t the place to look. It’s in his behavior, the innocuous and almost juvenile way he’d answer us. The fact that little anecdotes or literal examples of things prevailed over answers from deep within. Daniel didn’t look so deep inside himself for his responses, and whether he’s aware or not, he doesn’t really have to. If we want to know who Daniel Johnston truly is, we can look to his art, his music. There we can find it all. His moments of heartbreak, his moments of internal conflicts, of mental debacles. The times of joy and the times of reflection, pure and vivid recollection. Through his art-which ever form- we live Daniel’s life with him. His identity will oscillate as much as his mind will provoke, but lucky enough for us it will always be on record, on paper.

Catch Daniel Johnston at  Grand Central tonight

2 Responses to “Art Basel: Daniel Johnston Interview”

Carmen says:

Wow. I really got a sense of being there. Thank you for this portrayal.

Mark says:

Great article – hopefully next time you’ll get a more intimate one-on-one with him. But this is fascinating! Thanks Rebecca Bulnes!

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