The Daniel Johnston tape: ‘It’s an album that deserved a larger audience than 99 people’
Adrian Crowley and James Yorkston’s lo-fi tribute to the cult singer was never meant to be a chart-topper, but now they want to spread the word
Adrian Crowley and James Yorkston at Homegame Festival in Anstruther Town Hall in Fife, Scotland. Photograph: James Lewis
Daniel Johnston: his music has been praised for its childlike simplicity
To say that it’s been a busy year for Adrian Crowley is an understatement – and as we enter the dregs of 2013, it’s about to get busier.
Since the release of his sixth album, I See Three Birds Flying, in September last year, Crowley has spent much of the last 12 months on the road. This year has seen him pack more live dates into his schedule than ever before – particularly in Europe, where he has a growing fan base.
“That was the first time that my tours were planned so far ahead,” he says over a warming cup of coffee on a brisk winter morning in Dublin. “Before the album came out, I joined up with this booking agent, and they have really changed things for me. They’ve kind of linked things together between the label and the mechanical side of releasing a record: people to license it, distributors all around Europe who are sparked into action once there’s a tour linking the whole thing.
“It helped the release so, so much. It was the first time that my diary was so full in advance. I’ve never played that amount of gigs in one year. It’s growing all the time, especially in the Netherlands – I’ve been back there four or five times this year.”
As preoccupied as he might be with his own material – he is in the process of recording the follow-up to I See Three Birds Flying, which is tentatively scheduled for release next spring – there’s still time for one more release, albeit one that was recorded seven years ago.
Crowley’s association with Scottish musician James Yorkston stretches back to 2004, when he supported Yorkston and his Fence Collective cohort King Creosote on an Irish tour. A friendship subsequently blossomed between the kindred spirits, and when Yorkston was invited to play a tribute concert for American singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston in London two years later, he called on the Galway man to accompany him.
“It was to launch the documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” Crowley recalls. “The Barbican put on this special show, and they asked a lot of people to play; Vic Chesnutt, Jason Pierce, Howe Gelb, Teenage Fanclub. James chose four or five songs, sent them to me and asked if I could join him. That’s how it began.”
“Adrian is a fan of Daniel Johnston’s music, way more so than I, and I just thought he’d appreciate being asked,” says Yorkston. “No one really knew of Adrian over here at that point – although he’s a star name now – so I probably thought it’d help him out in some way, too.”
Recognition for Johnston
Johnston, a cult musician and artist who was born and currently lives in Texas, has gained a wider audience in recent years too. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and manic depression as a young man. His music has been praised for its childlike simplicity – or, as Yorkston puts it, “his songs are simple and correct, like 1950s doo-wop songs, Sun-era Johnny Cash, or early Beatles — just great wee pop songs.”
His songs have been described by others as “a mixture of melancholy and merriment”.
“Neither of us slot into either of those particular roles, but I think we might have a bit of both merriment and melancholy,” Crowley says, smiling. “Some of the songs that we chose, on the face of it, are upbeat – like Like a Monkey in the Zoo, or Walking the Cow – but they’ve all got that undertone of melancholy. Sometimes it’s even more striking when there’s an upbeat quality to it on first listen, and the words come through later; I think it can be even more affecting that way. I’m really moved by his songs, and that was one of the things I first noticed [about them].”
It was two years after the London gig that the idea for an album release of Johnston covers was mooted. Yorkston had sent Crowley four songs, crudely recorded on cassette, to get a feel for their impending set – so when the idea came to expand the collection into an eight-track album, continuing to record in a lo-fi manner seemed appropriate.
“Imagine if all recorded music was perfect? Auto-tuned to buggery?” laughs Yorkston. “The magic is in the fluffs, the slight delay in striking a chord, the bending of a note. I think the most important thing when recording is having the right material, being comfortable in your surroundings and having the confidence to make those mistakes that give records character. There’s no way I would have re-recorded them. I’m not interested in polishing them up at all. Even if I had been, Daniel Johnston’s art and music is almost the definition of lo-fi, so it would have been wrong – we had to keep the grit and sand in the Vaseline.”
The basic approach meant recording separately – Crowley in Dublin, Yorkston in Fife – and piecing together the album by swapping tapes via post.
“I think at some stage we tried to outdo each other with wacky, unconventional ideas, in terms of production,” says Crowley. “I’ve a little studio in my attic where I write and there’s a lot of gadgets around – even non-music related things. A lot of them ended up in the recording, and it was the same with him – there’s the sound of baby monitors and kids’ toys mixed into some of the songs.”
The collection, dubbed My Yoke is Heavy after one of the included songs, was initially sold on a very limited run of 99 CDR copies at Fence Collective’s Home- game Festival in 2006. They sold out immediately – before either musician could grab a copy for themselves, in fact – so when Crowley’s current label, Chemikal Underground, offered to re-release it, there was a slight snag: neither of them had the original recording.
“I had to ask on the Fence Records Internet messageboard and someone sent one in,” laughs Yorkston. “Most appreciated. It was good to hear it again. I don’t really hoard my recordings, I’m happy for them to go their own places.”
There are provisional plans to play some live dates in Ireland and Scotland to promote it next year, but neither musician sees this release as anything more than a tribute to an artist for whom they both have a keen appreciation.
“I don’t know if Daniel Johnston has even heard it, and I’m not going to bother him with it,” says Yorkston. “I’m not using it as a calling card to be his new number one buddy, or anything; it was just a bonny wee album we made that deserved a larger audience than 99 people.
“I guess some people will like it. I think it’s lo-fi and interesting enough not to annoy any Daniel Johnston purists, but the songs are accessible enough to ease any Daniel Johnston virgins into his songbook. I guess if it meant a few more people bought his records, that’d be a good thing. He’s written some great wee songs and deserves to be heard.”
My Yoke is Heavy: The Songs of Daniel Johnston is out on Chemikal Underground