I first discovered the music of Daniel Johnston when I saw a box of his cassettes at the counter of a record store in Sydney back in the early 90s. There was something instantly intriguing and endearing about the artwork that had been photocopied and glued onto the cases. I asked the person behind the counter about them and they said “It’s hard to describe” and left it at that. I grabbed a cassette that day titled Retired Boxer and played it constantly in the years to follow (it contains 2 of my favourite recordings of Daniel’s, “I’ll Do Anything But Breakdance For You Darling” and an early version of “True Love Will Find You In The End”). From there I sought out every recording I could find and, with this being before the internet being the over abundance of information it has become, I would track down what little information I could find about Daniel at every chance I had.
Over time Daniel’s art started to receive more attention. His own creations standing tall alongside his unique versions of the characters that he often incorporated into his work (Captain America, Casper, and many more).
There’s an honesty to Daniel’s creativity that can sometimes be confronting, especially upon first experiencing it, but that is also very refreshing and inspiring. The music and art are soaked in sincerity, the influence of Daniel’s own history with mental illness being painfully obvious and upfront, but there’s also a humour and self awareness that can sometimes be overlooked. Daniel created a body of work that offered great comfort to his fans, and inspired many other artists to do their own thing and be honest in the process.
A few years ago Daniel’s manager Tom Gimbel started the Hi How Are You Project, which aims to raise awareness about mental health and create a positive platform for an open and ongoing discussion. I recently spoke with David from the Hi How Are You Project to discuss the project, its history, Daniel’s work and what their plans are for the future. You can find that interview below.
Sadly Daniel passed away in September 2019. It’s always a strange experience when you lose someone that you didn’t know, but who, via their art, has had a big impact on your life. The world feels different with Daniel no longer being a part of it, but thankfully he left us with a huge collection of music and art to remember him by.
Ps. The day before this blog was set to go live it was announced that Daniel’s last album would be released at the end of January, titled Chicago 2017. I’ve just finished looking over the track listing and this promises to be a really special release.
Artist Community Advocate
Interview With David Lobel
1. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us David. I was wondering if we could kick things off by you sharing a bit of history behind the origin/evolution of the Hi How Are You Project? And also how you came to be involved with the project yourself?
It’s my pleasure Matt and I am grateful for the opportunity to talk with you about this wonderful project. As far as the history, without going into TOO much detail, it’s almost a reflection of the core values of the organization – to reduce the stigma around mental health, and taking action to assist family, friends, loved ones, or really just anyone who needs some help in that sphere. Four words can have a positive effect on a person’s life…”HI, HOW ARE YOU?” can spark the important conversation that leads to an improved mental well being, without any embarrassment or shame attached.
Tom Gimbel, Daniel’s longtime manager, along with his partner Courtney Blanton, hosted a gathering at the Mohawk in Austin, TX to celebrate Daniel’s birthday on January 22nd, 2018. AKA the First Annual HI HOW ARE YOU DAY. The experience was so positive that they decided to jump right in and start the project, becoming an official 501c3 non-profit later that year.
The January 22nd, 2019 iteration of Hi How Are You Day was held at Austin City Limits Live at The Moody Theater to a sold out crowd of about 2200 people, headlined by the Flaming Lips, along with Built to Spill, Yo La Tengo, Bob Mould, and a ton more. I mean, holy shit! This year we have Cage The Elephant headlining, an annual hero program sponsor (American Campus Communities), partnering on a Daniel Johnston exhibition at the Austin Central Library, and more, and will have a few more events this year. So you can see how the profile has grown in a quick amount of time.
As for my involvement, I used to work for Tom about 15 years ago when he had an indie label and label services company in town called High Wire Music. I was also a touring musician in a pretty darn good band who played 100 shows that year, maybe more. During my tenure with High Wire is when I decided to come off the road and focus on my better half – music and arts management, and a huge part of that decision was for better mental health. I was getting close (or at) breakdown for sure and there was A LOT of cloudiness. I went and sought help, got better pretty relatively quickly, and onwards.
One of my first management clients was the band I had played in, Grupo Fantasma, and of course Tom loved it and I convinced him to put it out on his label. It got tons of great national press, and was nominated for a Grammy, amongst other major accomplishments. So you can see that Gimbel and I had some flow going, even back in the day. And of course my main man Tim Juengst was no slouch either (he worked at High Wire too) and is now the Director of Operations and Austin City Limits.
Fast forward to summer 2019, we were having lunch and I said something like “Gimbel, I feel like I’m in a little rut and trying to figure out the next move.” His response was along the lines of “Well, we need someone to help with Hi How Are You Project.” and within a few weeks I started. Daniel passed in September. I’m now in my seventh month with HHAY, am helping to lead the charge in producing the big show, and have fully drunk the kool-aid.
2. Sadly Daniel passed away a few months ago, and with his passing there was a huge reaction by his fans covering his music and creating artwork in tribute to him. People also shared their own stories of speaking with Daniel and seeing him perform. I was wondering if you have a Daniel story of your own that you could share?
Gimbel: Can you have Grupo Fantasma back Daniel up at Emo’s for SXSW and do a rendition of “Live and Let Die” ?
Me: Duh, of course we’re gonna do that
(minor band convincing, not too much)
Daniel Johnston with Grupo Fantasma - "Live and Let Die"
3. I’ve always appreciated that, while having an annual awareness day, the Hi How Are You Project has always had a focus on the importance of an ongoing conversation regarding mental health. This isn’t always an easy conversation to start for some people. What are some ways that you could recommend in getting this conversation started for people?
HI, HOW ARE YOU? For real – those four words can work. Just be nicer. Just be willing to listen. People will open up. And if they’re blue (or worse), let them know it’s OK to get help.
4. With so many people joining in on the conversation, I was wondering if there have been any particularly memorable moments, or words of advice, that you’ve seen being shared?
I can tell you that the morning of January 23rd! I’m expecting that will make for a much more exciting answer to this question.
5. What are your plans/hopes for the project going forward?
In a personal sense, I hope to act as a global ambassador and to produce concerts and events that share our message with as many people as possible. In a more general sense, I want it to become a leader when it comes to the conversations about mental-health issues and awareness. I know we can do it all!
6. What’s your personal favourite Daniel Johnston song?
Story of An Artist. Thanks so much Matt – this was a lot of fun!
This third annual celebration of the life and legacy of the late great Daniel Johnston is both a tribute and a call to action to remove the stigma around mental health, and to encourage conversations about well-being.
The concert will stream on Stingray: http://stingray.com/hhay.
The website with premium ticket info and such is: www.hihowareyou.org
The concert event page is: https://acl-live.com/calendar/hi-how-are-you-day-2020
Pre-Show Reception on Jan 21: https://hihowareyou.org/hhay2020preshow