What is an outsider artist after all? When you delve into the murky depths of outsider music, the first thing you’ll dredge up is the fierce debate regarding what exactly it is. The key is in the name itself. It is the feeling that you are listening to something so far outside the mainstay that it seems to exist in a realm of its own, without knowingly being duped by a novelty act.
Perhaps outsider music’s most well-known name, Daniel Johnston, embodies this best of all. When you listen to Johnston’s bedroom-bound ballads, you get a real sense that his music would exist even in a world without a mainstream, and even with an audience of one. His song ‘The Story of an Artist’ could almost serve as a mantra for the Outsider Music world: “Listen up, and I’ll tell a story/ About an artist growing old/ Some would try for fame and glory/ Others aren’t so bold/ Everyone and friends and family/ Saying, ‘Hey, get a job/ Why do you only do that only?/ Why are you so odd?’”
This proves his appeal—beyond the whimsy, the beauty and the bizarre, is an unfettered sincerity that looks life down the barrel with a wry smile. As David Bowie once opined: “Daniel Johnston reminds me of aspects that made me love art in the first place.” Thus, to answer the opening question, if an outsider artist is someone who creates for the sheer satisfaction of it, then every artist around could do with taking a step towards that golden periphery.
Below we have curated a list of those who have done that in the most perfunctory sense: by celebrating the late hero with a cover from his colourful back catalogue. From Lana Del Rey to Wilco, these are five of the finest covers of Johnston’s charming work.
The 5 best Daniel Johnston covers:
5. ‘Blue Clouds’ by Mercury Rev
Love was Daniel Johnston’s favourite subject. As frequently touched upon in the stunning documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, undoubtedly one of the finest music documentaries of all time, the source of a lot of this was a muse, Laurie Allen, whose hold far outsized any actual frisson.
This time his take on love is an uplifting one, in fact, he offered up the sort of ditty that could shift clouds. Mercury Rev gladly harness this and offer up a Spiritualized sound that scores the original with their own unique sweetly psychedelic sound.
4. ‘Story of an Artist’ by M. Ward
‘Story of an Artist’ is perhaps one of the greatest songs about making music ever written. The glossy-eyed look at life is tear-churner when croaked by the youthful sounding Johnston, and when it meets with the husky tones of M. Ward that watery cheeked refrain remains perfectly intact.
With a more drifting feeling than the visceral original, this is the daybreak version of the stirring anthem. Beautifully performed and befittingly fateful, the track is a gorgeous alternative to one of Johnston’s best songs.
3. ‘Go’ by Sparklehorse and The Flaming Lips
Sometimes you see a cover laid out on paper and all the constituent parts tesselate so perfectly in your imagination that you barely ever have to hear it. There was simply no way that this alchemical mix of music and musicians wasn’t going to be an emotive triumph.
The covers compilation album, The Late Great Daniel Johnston, seems less like a mere celebration of the work of the “sorry entertainer” and more like an appraisal of the poignant message that he left behind. Through his cathartic work, he delivered a boon to life that tempered tragedy with an exuberance of experiential bliss. This notion pours out like spiritual honey from ‘Go’.
2. ‘Some Things Last a Long Time’ by Lana Del Rey
“It moved me. It was sad. It touched me,” Lana Del Rey said after watching the short film she helped to produce, Hi, How Are you Daniel Johnston?. “There were so many dimensions in one room, the past, the present at the time and then here he is right there watching himself, I mean I guess the one thing I hoped is that he understood that while he’s home alone doing his art still — he says he writes every day — that he knows that he really did make a difference in people’s lives. He made a difference in mine.”
That life is wrought out on a sonic canvas in ‘Some Things Last a Long Time’ like no other. The poignant piece of music contains so much life that it can sometimes be too bracing to listen to.
It is often said of covers that the artist ‘makes the song their own’, Del Rey doesn’t do that exactly, in fact, she does quite the opposite and somehow makes it Johnston’s. It is his wall that you picture as she croons and his life you witness, now, in a voyeuristic sense. That is a feat that deserves a lot of credit.
1. ‘True Love Will Find You in the End’ by Wilco
Johnston’s opus is one of the finest affirmations of love ever written. The sweetness of the song is tempered away from being saccharine by the sincerity behind his positive message. What’s more, with a bit of luck, every word is ideally touched by truth for all those searching or nestling in.
Wilco harness the purity of the song and leave the rest untouched. Jeff Tweedy’s typical pillow-propped vocals suit the song like a sonic glass slipper and the arrangement is sparse enough to let the words lead the way. The only criticism is the best one in the book: it’s always over a little too quickly.