Daniel Johnston has weathered dramatic peaks and valleys in his 30 years of writing, recording, and warbling songs. He had early brushes with fame, including a major-label deal and the patronage of Kurt Cobain, and a series of downturns in his ongoing battle with bipolar disorder — all of which was skillfully documented in the 2006 film The Devil and Daniel Johnston. Now 48 and living next door to his parents in Waller, Tex., Johnston is touring behind the new album Is and Always Was, which he made with power-pop maestro Jason Falkner. The result is one of the most controlled and accessible albums of Johnston's erratic, prolific career.
“It sounded like a bit of an unnatural marriage,” admits Falkner, an L.A.–based solo artist and producer best known for playing sideman to Brendan Benson, Air, and Beck. Johnston “is such his own thing — as I am, but in totally different ways.” The partnership was suggested by Johnston's manager, and although Falkner balked at first, he acquiesced after hearing a few of Johnston's latest demos.
On Is and Always Was, Falkner achieves the miraculous feat of preserving Johnston's wobbly vocals and surreal, childlike lyrics while upping the production values and musicianship. Johnston has always been an outspoken Beatles fan; Falkner has recorded two instrumental albums of Beatles songs for children, making for a common ground between the two.
The presence of thoughtful piano, pillowy drums, and fuzzy guitars casts a warm fog of rock nostalgia across an album that keeps Johnston's legacy in mind. “Queenie the Doggie” plays like a sequel to his classic “Casper the Friendly Ghost.” “Lost in My Infinite Memory” opens with a reference to his beloved '80s album Hi, How Are You?; “I Had Lost My Mind” is a disarmingly funny nod to past difficulties; and the title track points to Johnston's decades-spanning appeal.
Falkner recorded Johnston singing and playing in his L.A. studio, then filled out and even finished some of the songs with his multi-instrumental prowess and production know-how before inviting Johnston to lay down vocals on the final product. “It was one of the most professional sounds I've had,” Johnston beams of the result. “He sounded like the Beatles, with all those instruments goin'.”
Falkner also discussed with Johnston the limitations of the latter's indie-rock aesthetic. “He's aware of his place in music as this D.I.Y. guy,” Falkner says. In reality, Johnston has been chasing a dense, even orchestral pop sound from his earliest, incredibly lo-fi home recordings: “He feels like some of his records are fully realized, and if you really examine it, they're not. This was an opportunity to give him a bigger sound.”
Despite the success of their collaboration, Falkner isn't on the tour. Johnston will instead be backed by his regular touring band, Danny and the Nightmares, with whom he recorded another album, due out soon. Johnston is in demand as a performer and artist: His cartoonish drawings have been exhibited in London and New York.
He has also benefited from renewed exposure since The Devil and Daniel Johnston, although the documentary was something of a mixed blessing. “Personally, it was pretty much a nightmare,” he says. “So many things have gone wrong [in my life], and they just about covered anything that was remotely wrong. But I think it had a sense of humor.” That statement doubles as a perfect description for Johnston's own crooked, cracked, and chillingly beautiful songwriting.