In September 2019, Austin lost its very own Daniel Johnston, a singer-songwriter and visual artist behind the iconic “Hi, How Are You” mural. At the age of 58, Johnston passed away in his sleep while dealing with health issues, close family said.
Story by Sarah Ponder
Photos by Maya Dandashi
Johnston, known for his melancholy filled lyrics and lo-fi sound, had over 17 albums of recorded music. Some of his most popular albums include “Hi, How Are You,” “Yip/Jump Music” and “1990”.
“He was one of the most talented artists to come out of Austin,” said Tom Gimbel, current president of Austin City Limits Enterprises and Johnston’s most recent manager. “His honesty in songs and art was so raw and so open. Most artists strive for that kind of openness, (but) little actually achieve it.”
Johnston first moved to Austin in 1983 in hopes of furthering his music career. While working at a McDonald’s, Johnston was discovered by Kathy McCarty, a member of Austin’s rock band Glass Eye. Johnston was invited to perform with Glass Eye for a 1995 episode of MTV’s “Cutting Edge.” He gained even more attention when Kurt Cobain was photographed at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards wearing a “Hi, How Are You” shirt.
“Austin was given a huge dose of artistic gravity from its association with Daniel,” said Brian Beattie, Glass Eye member and Johnston’s manager at the time. “It (had) always been a music town, but he showed us all that even the most apparently uncool and awkward dude among us could turn out to be the true master.”
In 1993, Sound Exchange, a record store on the corner of 21st and Guadalupe, commissioned Johnston to paint a mural on the wall outside of their store. Here, Johnston unveiled the iconic “Hi, How Are You” mural.
Over the years, the mural has become a landmark for Austinites and tourists alike. In 2004, locals even fought to keep the wall when a restaurant wanted to remove it. Currently, the space is filled by a Thai restaurant conveniently named “Thai, How Are You.”
The mural was also part of the inspiration for the Hi, How Are You Project, a nonprofit organization founded by Tom Gimbel and Courtney Blanton who sought to initiate discussion of mental health through organized events and media.
Gimbel recalled how Blanton was inspired by the mural’s simple phrase.
“We wanted to do something to give back to the community,” he said. “Courtney looked at the mural and thought it was just the perfect conversation starter.”
The organization created Hi, How Are You Day on Jan 22. 2018, as a day for checking up and listening to loved ones. The holiday also serves as a tribute to Daniel who struggled with his own mental issues of depression and schizophrenia.
“After working with someone for a long time, you slowly start to see change,” Gimbel said. “The demons in Daniel came out.”
This year, the day was celebrated with a benefit concert with performances from The Flaming Lips, Gavin DeGraw, Bob Schneider and The Black Angels. Daniel ended the concert with his last performance of his song “True Love Will Find You In The End.”
Since his passing, there have been many tributes to Johnston. One of which includes a “True Love Will Find You In The End” billboard put up near Slaughter Lane and Onion Creek. The sign features the eyes of the iconic “Hi, How Are You” frog. Despite the awareness it has brought, there has yet to be any responsibility claimed for the billboard.
“I like the billboard,” Beattie said. “It’s a sweet sentiment, but it mostly feels like an homage to Daniel from a place he loved and affected. I (also) find a little irony in the message of the billboard because true romantic love never found him. He was smart enough to know that his situation would never allow it, and that was probably his greatest sadness. But he’s with Marylin Monroe now.”
On Oct. 10, promotion company Margin Walker will host an event in celebration of Daniel Johnston’s life at the local bar Mohawk Austin. With performances from bands covering Johnston’s music, the event is also a benefit for the Hi, How Are You Project.
“The event will help encourage conversation and support in Daniel’s legacy of mental awareness advocacy,” said Haley Gimbel, Margin Walker’s marketing manager. “Even after his passing, Daniel continues to be the primary influence for musicians in Austin and all over the world. The amount of people he was able to reach- he somehow (made his music) relatable to everyone.”
Despite facing mental obstacles, those who knew Daniel Johnston knew that his honesty, authenticity and unique ability to resonate with others is what made him memorable.
Referring to Johnston’s song “Keep Punching Joe,” Tom gave a suggestion of what he thought Johnston’s last message would be: “To persevere. To keep punching. To keep being positive and love will find you in the end.”