It’s interesting to read the two accounts of how My Yoke Is Heavy: The Songs Of Daniel Johnston came to be. There are just slight differences in the accounts and the sense that some of the fine detail is lost in the mists. I suppose it just shows how minds and memories work and different people will save different facts, order things in a different way according to their own personalities, priorities and lives. There’s even a moment in James Yorkston’s account where he recalls sharing an on stage conversation with Adrian Crowley, which revealed that each thought the other to be the big Daniel Johnston fan. Minor variations in the stories of course aren’t necessarily important, just the fact that this excellent record was made is surely the main story here, but there is something relevant that nags away in the background.
Neither Adrian Crowley nor James Yorkston should be new names to regulars at Folk Radio UK, but it is worth a little back tracking and scene setting, sifting the story of this collaboration to set the context. The two singer songwriters have toured together and have also clearly formed something of a bond, but this collaborative recording is their first joint venture.
Curiously Adrian and James share a comparatively late start to their musical careers, both having tipped into their 30’s when their debut albums were released, but neither is any the worst for that. Adrian is Dublin based and came to music in his mid 20s, having already studied architecture and begun a career as a photographer before being inspired to take the stage as a singer. His recorded debut, A Strange Kind was released in 99, but it wasn’t until 2004 that he gave up on the photography to concentrate on music full time.
The Fife based James Yorkston’s debut meanwhile was released in 2002. It came off the back of a support slot with John Martyn, when Domino Record’s head Laurence Bell was in the audience to catch James’ set and immediately set about signing him. James had already recorded a single, pressed on vinyl. Taking the chance to send one to Martyn with a hopeful enquiry after a support slot for his forthcoming Edinburgh date, he found the recipient suitably impressed to invite him to support for the whole tour. James has recently released his seventh album for Domino and his 10th overall.
A couple of those other releases from James were released under the the Fence Collective banner, the label formed by Kenny Anderson a.k.a. King Creosote, as a way of selling records by his friends after the record shop that he was working in closed down. It was also under that banner that these recordings were first made and James seems to think it might have been intended to be one of the ‘picket fence’ releases, where artists where encouraged to take risks and try something a little different.
[pullquote]Daniel turned down a multi-album mega-deal with Elektra, fearing the Satanic influence of Metallica who were also on the label[/pullquote] Probably less familiar to some is the author of these songs, Daniel Johnston, although many might instantly recognise the frog like creature with its eyes on stalks. Apparently known as Jeremiah The Innocent (!?), the image was put onto a T-shirt and also famously painted as a mural on the wall of a record shop in Austin Texas. When the shop unfortunately closed and the building was taken over by a restaurant, the locals launched a successful campaign to save the mural in-situ. It was the appearance of said T-shirt on the torso of one Kurt Cobain, donated to the singer by the journalist Everett True, that led to Johnston’s one brush with the mainstream music industry. With Kurt as a champion the major labels came, cheque books at the ready. Daniel turned down a multi-album mega-deal with Elektra, fearing the Satanic influence of Metallica who were also on the label. Atlantic eventually won out. Suffice to say, it did not end well.
By then Johnston had already cut a maverick line through the American music business. He first came to notice around Austin, largely because of his habit of handing out homemade cassettes of his recordings to pretty much anyone who would take them. This eccentricity led to Johnston being lumped in with a wave of bands and other artists around the Austin scene who were branded with the tag of ‘new sincerity.’ It sounds a little cheesy and the term was actually a put down turned on its head, but when MTV made a programme about it in ’85 Johnston featured, also playing Woodshock Festival in Austin that year.
This is where that aforementioned nag comes in, as Johnston’s apparent eccentricity was actually fuelled by mental illness. It might be strange how the mind and memory work, but for Daniel things have been very strange indeed. Suffering a psychotic episode in a two-seater plane piloted by his father when flying home for a gig in 1990, Daniel apparently grabbed the keys from the ignition and threw them out of the window. His father somehow managed to crash land the plane and despite the wreckage, both walked away with minor injuries. Daniel was nonetheless immediately and involuntarily confined to a mental institution.
Diagnosed with manic depression and schizophrenia, conditions made worse by years of drug consumption, Daniel Johnston has none the less been a prolific songwriter. He’s also an acclaimed artist and comic book writer. You can find out more in the documentary film The Devil And Daniel Johnston, which has been praised for trying to see the world through Daniel’s eyes. You may well find that My Yoke Is Heavy: The Songs Of Daniel Johnston is the necessary catalyst for further exploration.
This isn’t the first time Daniel Johnston’s songs have been recorded by others. There have been other tributes and some of those were certainly intended to help Johnston, who has crumbled into periods of absolute destitution. Adrian recalls the genesis of this project coming from the Barbican concert, a tribute under the same title as the film, that featured both he and James in 2006. But there was also the two disc CD release, wryly titled, The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered with contributions from the likes of Tom Waits, Beck, Eels, Bright Eyes, Death Cab For Cutie, Sparklehorse (perhaps ironically), Mercury Rev and The Flaming Lips.
The Angel and Daniel Johnston (Excerpt from DVD feat: Danile supported by James & Adem)
Although Adrian and James recorded their parts for this release separately and took a determinedly lo-fi approach, in keeping with Johnston’s DIY ethic, this feels very complete and satisfying, perhaps benefitting from the comradeship that has developed through touring together. Adrian recalls that both had already started making scratchy recordings of Daniels songs by way of homework for the Barbican show. But in building on those, both also describe having fun with this and using techniques that they wouldn’t normally, thus grabbing odds and sods readily at hand to add sound effects and so forth. The results were sent to and fro until deemed complete.
Whether you already have interest in Daniel or have it sparked by this release, the record itself (and yes it does come on vinyl) is a lovely thing in its own right. The songs meander a course through sad, funny, mysterious and profound. It’s short sweet and perfectly formed. As you would expect from Adrian and James the vocals are exquisite, but the sonic tinkering is absorbing and intriguing without distracting. It sounds otherworldly and unique in its own right, yet paradoxically simpatico with Daniel himself.
You can’t help but wonder after the man who can write something as beautiful as the opener True Love Will Find You In The End, or the strangely titled Walking The Cow. A sense of the mental torture pops up in Monkey In The Zoo, making the difficulty of the limelight Daniel obviously experienced all the more poignant.
Credit then to Adrian’s label Chemikal Underground for giving this a proper release and possibly giving James, who has a guilty confession on his website, (tsk!), a little absolution. Further credit goes to them for sending out a vinyl copy for review, making the process all the more enjoyable. Further explorations of Daniels oeuvre may very well confound and/or delight in equal measure, so the run out groove of side two may well be the perfect place to let it rest, but that’s your choice. Of course the other prospect that this raises is whether future collaborations between Adrian and James might be forthcoming. Now there’s a thought worth hanging onto.
Review by: Simon Holland
My Yoke Is Heavy is out now on Chemikal Underground
Order it here