Tunde Adebimpe, lead singer of the popular indie rock outfit TV on the Radio, first discovered the work of Austin lo-fi legend Daniel Johnston at Phantom of the Attic, a comic store he frequented in his native Pittsburgh.
"I think one of the most striking things was picking up a cassette and just hearing the homemade quality of it," he said after a Poetry on the Plaza event celebrating Johnston’s work at the Harry Ransom Center on Wednesday.
It was clearly not a professional recording, but it had it more "feeling and texture to it" than music he encountered over the airwaves.
"It’s like seeing a sketch instead of a finished painting," he said. "Where the sensitivity and the ideas are just really fresh even if they’re not super refined. That’s always more interesting to me. To hear and just look at things that haven’t been too polished. Because life is messy, and it feels more like life to me."
Adebimpe described Johnston as one of a handful of artists who inspired him to start creating his own music. As a young artist, he said, he was looking for the go-ahead to find a way to express the music in his heart even if it didn’t fit a standard commercial format, even if it didn’t have a clear audience.
"Me picking up a tape that was sent mail-order to a comic store in Pittsburgh, it was like, I’m the audience," he said. "This weird message in a bottle got to me and made me feel like it was OK to do whatever."
The afternoon gathering at the Ransom Center, which featured Adebimpe alongside Austin artist Ethan Azarian and Kendra Sells from San Marcos, was one of a series of events celebrating Johnston’s legacy that took place on a day that would have been the 59th birthday of the influential singer-songwriter who died in September.
For the last three years, the Hi How Are You Project, a nonprofit led by Johnston’s longtime manager, Tom Gimbel, has dubbed Johnston’s birthday Hi How Are You Day and used the event to raise awareness about mental health issues. The organization’s signature event, the annual Hi How Are You Day concert at ACL Live, was scheduled for Wednesday evening. This year’s event includes performances from Adebimpe, Cage the Elephant and White Denim.
"Daniel dealt with mental illness, but yet there was always hope and joy in his work," Gimbel said at the Ransom Center event, before reading the lyrics to his darkly upbeat 1982 song "The Sun Shines Down on Me."
Johnston’s mural of a cartoon bullfrog, Jeremiah the Innocent, with the words "Hi How Are You" is one of Austin’s most widely recognizable pieces of street art, and Gimbel’s organization encourages people to use the phrase to check in on others around them who might be hurting. At the Ransom Center, he said his organization has partnered with American Campus Communities to create a video training series that will help resident advisors to recognize students who might be dealing with isolation or mental health crises in an effort to combat rising suicide rates among young people.
On Wednesday, a new mural inspired by Johnston’s work was unveiled at the Austin Central Library. The piece, called "Jeremiah the Innocent & Friends in Zilker Park," was commissioned by the Austin Library Foundation and created by the artist Jason Archer. According to a post on the library’s website, the mural "mimics Johnston’s playful, surreal style and invokes themes Johnston explored throughout his life and work, including his struggles with mental illness." The mural is part of the Library’s permanent collection on the fourth floor. The Library also has a collection of Johnston’s original sketches on display at the Living Room gallery on the sixth floor through March 31.
American Campus Communities also announced plans to recreate the Hi How Are You mural in Seattle in collaboration with the Hi How Are You Day Project and Seattle’s Urban Artworks.
At the Ransom Center, Adebimpe said he welcomed the opportunity to pay tribute to Johnston at the afternoon event and the concert.
He said that Johnston’s songs and the drawings "were so intimate and personal" that his sudden death felt like losing someone he knew well.
"You want to pay your respects," he said. "He’s really one of those people where I’m not sure I’d be making music if I hadn’t come across what he was doing."