Lana Del Rey And Daniel Johnston

Lana Del Rey And Daniel Johnston



Photography: SARAH CLARKEN

Text: Maxwell Williams

In the annals of strange bedfellows, Lana Del Rey and Daniel Johnston might be the strangest. One is a manicured pop queen—“the gangster Nancy Sinatra” with a number one album under her boots—while the other is a slouchy Texan who battles schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder with guilelessly warbled tunes and childlike drawings. They came together last weekend at the launch of Gabriel Sunday’s experimental Hi, How Are You Daniel Johnston at MAMA Gallery in Los Angeles.

Del Rey covered Johnston’s 1990 song “Some Things Last A Long Time” in the film, in addition to helping fund the film (rapper Mac Miller is also credited as an executive producer). She became enamored with the outsider musician after seeing the 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston with her then-boyfriend, folk singer Barrie-James O’Neill.

“I related,” Del Rey tells me at the opening. “I spent some time in a different universe myself.”

Sunday’s project—in which he plays a younger Johnston having a conversation with the real Johnston—caught Del Rey’s eye.

“We launched the Kickstarter, and two days later, I got an email saying, ‘Hi, this is Lana. Call me,’” said Sunday. “And I was like, ‘No.’ I text the number and she calls me and I pick up the phone. Her and her then-boyfriend—who is also an executive producer—Barrie, they say [in a creepy voice], ‘We’ve been watching you Gabe. You’re doing cool things Gabe.’ And they threw $10,000 at it and then maybe a week later, she made the song and sent it to me. It was bizarro.”

As for how Johnston has influenced her over time, Del Rey told me that she recognizes in him her own struggles with failure as a younger artist.

“What he meant to me when I saw The Devil and Daniel Johnston was that he reminded me of the power of dreams,” she says. “He really wanted to make it. He went all out. When he was working at McDonald’s and he would give out cassettes, I just loved that, because I felt like if Daniel can do that even when he was battling the borders of reality in his mind, I could do it, because I loved doing what I was doing as much. That basement tape culture—I was recording onto CDs, but I was giving them to everybody and hoping they would touch the right person. What I like about Daniel is that what he was doing was so meaningful to him. He likened himself to the Beatles. He believed in that, and it kind of became real.”

Del Rey also sees her lyrical style as being part of history of honest, conversational music that includes Johnston. For her cover of Johnston's "Some Things Last A Long Time," she collaborated with longtime friend and producer Justin Parker.

“I remember me and Justin Parker, when we had a couple of months together and we did ‘Video Games’ and ‘Born to Die’ and ‘National Anthem,’ we didn’t know...because some of them were ballads—but they felt right," recounts Del Rey, on reconnecting with Parker for the cover. "The feeling was right. The chords were bigger [than Johnston’s], but the narrative was conversational. Some of the songs had names and places that I didn’t know would translate on a more universal level.”

Johnston has made lo-fi indie rock ear candy beloved by college radio DJs since the eighties. His 1986 cassette Yip!/Jump Music lives on as one of the records Kurt Cobain identified as an influence in his journals. Famously, Johnston once pulled the key from an small aircraft his father was flying, forcing his dad to make a crash landing (they both survived). For Del Rey, that adds up to a big presence despite his usually quiet exterior.

“A lot of people talk a lot of shit, and I don’t want to hear any of it,” she said. “Daniel doesn’t say anything, but I’m aware of the depth of his presence, just being around him.”

Parked in front of a curated selection of his drawings on the wall, Johnston closes out the evening by reading two new songs, and performing a few hits to a small audience inside the gallery, including his enduring classic, “True Love Will Find You in the End.” He was typically taciturn when I approached him and asked him if he was going to watch the film.

“Probably not,” Johnston responds, barely looking up. “I’m just going to stay here and eat my candy.”

Isn’t he interested to hear Del Rey’s cover? “I’ve never heard of her,” he says. “I haven’t heard it. Have you got the song on tape?”


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