Despite lifelong struggles with mental illness, Daniel Johnston remained fearless. His songs shine a bright light on the darkest corners of our minds. Simultaneously adorned for his visual art, the late cult songwriter's output is a reminder of the raw power of honest, direct and imaginative storytelling. After his passing in September, fans left candles, cassette tapes and personal notes at his iconic 'Hi, How Are You?' mural in Austin. His last public performance was on Jan. 22, 2018 (his 57th birthday), a date that is now officially recognized as 'Hi, How Are You Day' in the state of Texas.
Organized by Johnson's manager of 26 years Tom Gimbel and his partner Courtney Blanton, the event now boasts performances from indie favorites like Yo La Tengo, Built To Spill and The Black Angels, all of whom hold Johnson in the highest regard. Inspired by Johnson's emotional sincerity, they have since formed the Hi, How Are You Project, a non-profit seeking to ignite new and different conversations around mental health issues by funding and creating thoughtful media content, projects and events.
Created with the support of Johnston's family, the foundation provides a platform for the exchange of ideas and education surrounding mental well-being. All donations go towards funding mental health research, awareness and programming. Ahead of the 2020 'Hi, How Are You?' celebrations, we spoke with Gimbel and Blanton about the lasting impact of Johnston's music, their current work on college campuses and the importance of deep listening.
When and where were you when you first heard Daniel's music?
Tom Gimbel: Wow, I may have first been introduced to Daniel through MTV's I.R.S. show "The Cutting Edge" with Peter Zaremba. Daniel had just come to Austin and somehow worked his way onto the show. I was a high school student, trying to decide where I was headed for college. I saw that episode about the music scene in Austin and saw Daniel Johnston and decided that’s where I wanted to study.
Courtney Blanton: I'm a huge fan of M. Ward. I had no idea until I met Tom, how many songs I've loved by artists like Beck and M. Ward and many others that were all written by Daniel. That was incredible to me, songs I really connected with. That's what Daniel does, he connects people.
Were you aware of Daniel's struggles with depression and schizophrenia early on?
Gimbel: I was certainly aware. I first met Daniel when I was working at Amazing Records in Austin. It was a Jazz and Blues independent label. Daniel was not living in Austin at the time but visiting. This is 1992. He found out that there was a record label and came in to drop off a cassette. I had been a fan now for several years and was aware of his music and story.
Our receptionist dismissed him and took the tape. I got up from my desk, hearing that unmistakable voice, and ran downstairs and caught up with him about a block down the street. I introduced myself and gave him a business card. I said I’m a big fan and shook his hand. Two weeks later he called me and said I'd like you to be my manager. That was the start of what ended up being a 26-year managerial relationship. Not the most auspicious start.
It was several weeks of me trying to figure out the situation. He was with his previous manager Jeff Tartakov but didn’t want to be any longer. I was trying to reconcile the two of them as well as navigate what was going on with Elektra and other labels who were at that time interested in Daniel. After several weeks it was clear that he was very adamant that he wanted to work with me and didn't want to be in his current situation. I told him a five-minute meeting on a street corner is probably not the best way to determine a manager, but I was going to do the best job I could for him to be honest and hardworking and diligent in promoting his career.
I was certainly aware of his mental situation. There were a lot of people in Austin who were counseling me not to get involved with someone who dealt with mental health issues. There were legends of Daniel Johnston at the time...him hitting a previous manager, Randy Kemper, over the head with a lead pipe. These stories had taken on mythological proportions at the time. People were saying, you shouldn't do this, but I was such a fan of the music and the art. I was committed to it. Never in 26 years was there an episode that was uncomfortable or frightening. It was a wonderful experience with Daniel from day one to the present.
What initially struck you about his music?
Gimbel: It's really his honesty and the fact that there are no walls that Daniel puts up when he is telling a story through a song. I think that's why he’s been such a musician's musician and a songwriter's songwriter. Other players envy his ability to be so honest, to take a phrase or lyric and communicate what he's feeling in such a heartfelt way.
Some people have described Daniel's lyrics as childlike, but children are also very honest and open. They don't have all of the walls that we put up. The HHAYP is about being open with the conversations surrounding mental health issues. To take those walls down. When we have dialogue around those issues, there's healing both for ourselves and we inspire others to open up and there's healing in them. Daniel's music had amazing melodies, and he was gifted in song structure and composition, but it was really his honesty that stood out to me and so many others.
In addition to his music, your non-profit also stemmed from the success of your 'Hi, How Are You? Day' in January of 2018. Describe that event and how that impacted the decision to launch this project.
Blanton: When I first met Tom, I was very open about talking about my own mental health issues. I'm 43 now. In my 20s, I dealt with severe mental issues in college. I had put myself in a corner of not telling anyone, not family, not friends, because of the stigma of what I was dealing with. I didn't want people to think something's wrong with me, the same way I [thought something was wrong with me].
Coming into my 30s I had a very significant conversation with someone that said, if you had heart disease would you take medication if a doctor told you to? I said yes. What about insulin for diabetes, he asked. He told me your body is just doing something chemically and whatever it is, if you take medication to help it then you are just doing something good for your body. For the first time, I felt I had broken out of this prison I had put myself in. I started crawling, then walking and eventually running with telling my story.
People would really break apart, typically in tears. People would tell me, I've dealt with that or my mother dealt with that or my father committed suicide. It opened an amazing conversation. I got power from having these conversations and by the time I got to Tom, he was committed to what I was committed to, which is changing to the stigma of talking openly about mental health issues. If we started looking at it from a holistic standpoint, we can make some change.
We decided that Hi, How Are You? is the perfect start to a conversation. Tom being general manager of Austin City Limits, it felt natural to go with music and art. It was remarkable. So many people showed up. The day of the event people were in love with each other. People were asking each other "Hi, how are you?" and meaning it. It was romantic. It brought us all to tears. Then we got letters from all over the world. We decided this is something that has to keep happening. The city committed to naming it Hi, How Are You? Day in Texas.
Gimbel: Just to add on—after we saw the response, not just in Austin and Texas but globally, to what we thought might be a one day celebration on Daniel’s birthday (Jan. 22) with some local musicians together, just a small event in town...when we saw the global response and noticed how this simple phrase and this cause has resonated with people, we knew ourselves how important it was and we doubled down on committing ourselves to the Hi, How Are You Project.
We've grown from a show at the Mohawk in 2018 with local artists to a show at ACL Live in 2019 with artists like The Flaming Lips, Built to Spill, The Black Angels and Yo La Tengo, live streaming it globally on multiple networks. Now we’re working towards our lineup and announcement for next week, where we'll be back at ACL Live on Jan. 22, 2020 with an even bigger show. It's been remarkable to see the community and global response.
Your project has two missions—the first being to encourage people to talk openly about mental health, the second is peer-to-peer training. What’s your approach/strategy to both?
Gimbel: The first is encouraging people to talk openly about it. That's about using the media and our relationships with music and art to change the conversation within the collective consciousness. That's where Hi, How Are You Day comes in and social media and the events that we'll do throughout the year. We just did a wonderful activation with C3 Presents at the ACL Festival where we recreated the mural and had people take selfies and write a message of support or a tribute to Daniel. Those types of events are to encourage people to remove the stigma and talk openly and to do it in an entertaining way.
Then there is the bigger work of teaching people how to have those conversations. We have a couple of advisors who are mental health professionals. People who have been doing this for years and who are experts in the peer to peer training space. They’ve helped us draft a curriculum that identifies a number of different steps in having a mental health conversation or what we might call, a Hi, How Are You conversation. It starts with identifying someone in need, initiating the conversation, how to break down barriers and find commonalities, what to do if someone is in crisis, and then ultimately self-care.
We are working with some great partners, including American Campus Communities who are the largest provider of independent housing for students on college campuses nationwide. They have over 140,000 students who live in their residences. We are training their community advisors on how to have these conversations. How to recognize a student in need and to reach out. The ratio of counselors to students on college campuses is something like 3,000 to 1. We've also learned that young people prefer to talk to peers before talking to a counselor or a teacher or a parent. We feel like we are on the front lines of helping young people have the conversation and hopefully living healthier, happier lives.
What are common roadblocks when having dialogue around mental health concerns?
Gimbel: The biggest one we've heard is that people feel that they need to be an expert. Feeling like, well I'm not an expert, I don't know what to say. But by simply just listening and being present with someone, that's half of it, if not more. It's listening and being with somebody and letting someone know it’s okay to have these feelings and that you are there as a friend or a co-worker or family member or loved one. People have this reservation that they don't know enough or don’t know what to say. Sometimes you don't have to say anything, you just have to listen. That's a big obstacle.
What other programs and/or partnerships do you have planned for 2020?
Blanton: One thing we really want to focus on this year is getting and keeping young people involved. They are on the front lines of having the conversations. Our idea is to get some big names to create PSAs and instructional videos to teach middle and high school students what to say when someone comes to talk to them about information they don't know what to do with. That's our next big project.
As insurers continually make it challenging for patients to have access to mental health services, organizations such as your own become increasingly important. What are some other organizations you draw inspiration from?
Gimbel: There are a number of organizations that promote the dialogue around mental health. NAMI is the largest here in the U.S. We are big fans of what the Royal Family is doing in the U.K. to also encourage people to speak openly. I know Lady Gaga has gotten on board. I’m a big fan of what the NBA is doing in having a mental health professional required for each team. When you see someone like Kevin Love or an NFL player, or a musician or an actor...when these people come out and speak openly about what they are dealing with or have dealt with in the past, it gives a lot of courage and inspiration to others. We are big fans of what we are seeing in the sports and entertainment world. For a young person, an NBA start might have a lot more impact than a counselor or someone who approaches it from a clinical level. These are their heroes. If they're dealing with the same thing they are, then maybe it's okay to talk about it. That’s a big part of what we're trying to do with our relationships with the entertainment community.