'Fear Yourself' Finds Daniel Johnston Feeling Blessed

Excerpted from the magazine for Billboard.com.

On his 20th album, lo-fi veteran Daniel Johnston has teamed with a new collaborator for a new sound: Sparklehorse principal Mark Linkous, who produced the set and brought a new fidelity to Johnston's songs. The result, "Fear Yourself," will be released March 25 on Gammon and distributed by Shelter-Caroline.

"He's one of the godfathers of lo-fi," Gammon co-owner Jordan Trachtenberg explains. "He started with a piano plus a $59 boom box and $1 cassette tape."

Johnston's career began two decades ago with a series of cassettes he recorded at home, beginning with the 1981 set "Songs of Pain." Initially distributing his tapes to appreciative friends in his native Texas, he developed a cult following that has included such notables as Kurt Cobain, Sonic Youth, and David Bowie, who contributed a quote to the liner notes.

The album finds Johnston, a longtime sufferer of manic depression, in unusually good form, thanks to new medication. "I'm feeling better than ever," he says. "It's a blessing."

His improved condition manifested itself in the set's 12 songs. For "Fear Yourself," Johnston wrote lyrics of vulnerable honesty. On "Syrup of Tears," he pleads, "God, I'll make you a deal/Just let me smile awhile, for real."

"You have to grasp that he's in pain," Trachtenberg says. "He's a loving, gentle soul. With all the pain he suffers, this is what comes out."

While Johnston is pleased with the resulting production, Linkous was apprehensive about the challenge. "I didn't want to overshadow the songs," he says. "I had to resist the temptation to add noises that sound cool but are distracting."

Several cuts feature Johnston's vocals with a live band, brought together by Linkous, who says, "People were standing in line to play on the album."

Considering Johnston's fellow musicians' admiration, Trachtenberg plans to produce a tribute album with acts covering their Johnston favorites later this year. Given Johnston's health, Trachtenberg hopes to help strengthen the artist's financial security with this set. While no acts have been confirmed yet, Linkous promises that there will be a cut from Sparklehorse.

A headlining tour began Feb. 18 with a series of Japanese dates and continues in the U.S. with three-week spans alternately on and off the road. Touring places extra demands on Johnston's health: His friend/tour manager Don Goede explains that if he missed doses of his medication, the results could be disastrous.

Johnston's strong audience comes as no surprise to Linkous, himself a longtime Johnston fan.

"The following started among musicians who appreciated his songwriting -- it's so simple and pure. It can be the funniest or the saddest you've ever heard," Linkous observes. "He strikes me as the purest soul, like a 12-year-old, uncorrupted child. Imagine someone like that writing pop music -- it's quite a gift, a beautiful outlook."

Excerpted from the March 22, 2003, issue of Billboard. The full original text of the article is available in the Billboard.com Premium Services section.

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