Remembering Daniel Johnston

Shamir pays tribute to the godfather of bedroom pop.

I’m not sure music made much sense to me before Daniel Johnston. 

I don’t really remember when I first discovered him; if I had to guess, it was sometime around middle school. I like to call this point of my life my musical renaissance. Sixth grade was the year I convinced my mom to subscribe to this new thing called Rhapsody, aka basically the only streaming site at the time (this is pre-Spotify, can you believe?). I’d go down musical rabbit holes and listen to every recommended artist on the pages of the artists who I was already obsessed with. I assume this is how I came across Daniel Johnston, which is weird to think about, because I’m not sure an artist like Daniel would have been successful had he debuted in the digital streaming age. 

I think I was exhausted by overproduced music early on. I think in a subconscious, too-young-to-explain-my-taste kind of way, I realized production can muddy lyrical and emotional intention. This was made even more apparent to me once I started to visit local studios and saw how it was nearly impossible to translate the bedroom sincerity of my songs at the time — something I still struggle with, as only two of my five “studio” albums were recorded in an actual studio. I’m sure the first time I heard Daniel Johnston, I felt seen. The lofi bedroom recording, the high pitched androgynus yelp, dissonant chords: He was doing all the things that I wanted to do, but mainstream music was telling me I shouldn’t. He was a revelation and a beacon of hope, and continues to be that for me to this day. 

Johnston’s death feels symbolic to me. Bedroom pop is seen as an aesthetic now-a-days, when its beginnings were bred from necessity. More so now than ever, the legacy of Daniel Johnston must live on. I don’t want to live in a world where potentially one of the best artists of our generation could feel discouraged because of a lack of resources or mental health issues. Where can introverted and mentally ill artists have their art taken seriously without the need to compromise their own comfort in a studio because of the technical recording skills they lack? When will we ever stan another artist that only needed a field recorder, an organ, and a guitar to pull at your heart strings? What Spotify playlist would that even fit into?

Shamir is Shamir and remains Shamir through and through, no matter what the universe puts him through. You may know the singularly named artist (think—Madonna or Cher) from his 2015 debut hit record Rachet, beloved by NPR listeners and club kids alike. After quickly rising to underground fame with his Northtown EP in 2014, the DIY pop star made a sonic splash with Rachet’s lead single “On The Regular,” a poppy banger that had extensive commercial usage. But how to follow all that up? Shamir, who came from the dusty dunes of Las Vegas, to Brooklyn’s Silent Barn, to the Philly indie scene (and all over the world in between), wanted to go back to what had inspired him from the beginning. Outsider music, country & punk. Raw and vulnerable tunes, stripped down to their emotional core. 2017’s Revelations explored a new avenue of guitar driven hooky indie rock and was widely critically praised in the US and overseas.

Shamir’s most recent releases, the brilliant Room 7” on Father/Daughter, and his self-released limited edition album, Resolution, are pinnacles in the catalog of the increasingly fascinating artist’s career. Room and its b-side Caballero celebrate Shamir’s love of country music, while Resolution is a deeply introspective look into the fabric of society and the artists’ own mind.  With these two releases he has refined his craft exponentially and done so in less than six months from the release of Revelations.