Local musicians gather to pay tribute to underground folk hero Daniel Johnston

Benefit gig honoring underground folk singer encourages conversation, music as therapy

Graphic by Sarah Tonin.

Local musicians and DJs are getting together for a collaborative benefit gig – Don’t Be Scared: A Tribute to Daniel Johnston – at the Good Will on Sunday, March 26 at 8 p.m.

CKUW 95.9FM host Kent Davies (Peg City Groove, Amateur Hour) and 101.5 UMFM host Matt Moskal (Bonus Hour) will be hosting the show, which will feature performances by locals Trampoline, Okay Mann, Tansy, Cole Zachary (Tent Rentals), Mike Fox and Marshall Birch (Odanah and Marshall & The Buddy System), Paige Drobot (the Psychics), Joshua Letkeman (June Killing Stones), Kara Elizabeth Parkinson Wight, Shea Johnson, and Matt Moskal.

Performers will cover their favourite tracks by American folk singer Daniel Johnston. Tickets are $10 at the door, and all proceeds will be donated to the Canadian Mental Health Association of Manitoba and Winnipeg.

Daniel Johnston is known for his musical authenticity and his eccentricity. He got started in music by producing his own music in his basement and handing out free cassettes on the street.

“[Daniel] just made an unbelievable amount of music, and wasn’t that concerned with the specific mix of the keyboards versus the vocals, or the pitch of his singing,” Katlin Mathison – the artist behind the moniker Okay Mann – told the Manitoban.

“It was more like, ‘this is art, this is real, and I just have to pump it out as fast as possible.’”

Johnston was the feature subject of the 2005 award-winning documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, a frank examination of his journey through psychosis and mental health issues that helped bring to light the severity of mental illness, especially in the music community.

Many musicians have found solace and a sort of kindred spirit in Johnston’s story.

“There were so many parallels between his childhood, his neurosis, and my own that it spawned the realization that if this tormented kid with a pitchy voice could write compelling songs, there was a chance that maybe I could too,” said Michelle Lecnik of Trampoline.

Matt Moskal, the chief organizer of the show – as well as host and performer – did an interview with Daniel Johnston about music and mental health years ago.

“There’s something he said about how when he was first making music and he was not medicated, he felt like he had a lot of friends, but he felt like he was not close to everyone, and then as soon as he was taken care of, everyone sort of cheered him on and encouraged him more and more he felt happier and happier,” said Moskal.

“Something about the story of getting help, and being taken care of, was very inspiring, because it’s difficult to ask for help, even during those manic episodes.”

Artist involved with this project said that mental health issues are extremely prevalent throughout artists and the music industry.

“It’s almost as if sometimes, for some mediums of art – not just music – the public almost prefers that their artists suffer… There’s almost an expectation that the art will suffer if the artists is in tip-top shape, mentally, which is totally backwards,” said Mathison.

Musicians – especially those who operate independently – are seldom only guitarists, vocalists, songwriters, etc. but also often act as their own booking agent, manager, promoter, and online content creator.

“Everything else can be ten times as hard, depending on the mental illness,” said Mathison.

“A self-starter entrepreneur dealing with mental health issues, you would say ‘that looks hard.’ But musicians are basically that, but almost expected to be dealing with mental health issues.”

While some excellent art comes from times of pain and hardship, there is a distinction between channeling negative emotions into something beautiful and being in a perpetual state of ill mental health while trying to create.

“I don’t think it’s anything that should be glamourized. It’s very scary, and very real, and I just know that it’s best to remember that. There is a thin line between someone who is truly genius, and someone who is truly hurting and truly ill,” Moskal commented.

Furthermore, the lifestyle associated with working musicians could be harmful in and of itself – it can be conducive to a lack of routine, through both touring and irregular work hours.

“It’s starting to be talked about more. Before, I don’t think it really was a topic – if you’re a struggling musician and you’re partying all the time, or you’re mentally troubled, that was kind of the aesthetic,” said Kathryn Kerr, who performs under the name Tansy.

“In the past ten years, people have finally started to ask, ‘what does being an artist do to your mental health? What does being on the road do to your mental health?’ [Mental illness] is not a new thing, we’re just finally starting to talk about it.”

Music enables people to connect with each other when they are feeling isolated. Daniel Johnston, in particular, has experienced intense periods of loneliness, especially existing as a solo artist and with people misunderstanding his mental health issues, but through music, he has been able to connect with people.

“Music becomes this safe place to express all of the undercurrent of human emotion,” said Rachel Letkeman of Trampoline.

“With mental health now being more openly discussed, I feel as though it has been unifying within the artistic community, because it becomes very much, ‘oh, you too? I’m safe to discuss these struggles I’m having?’”

The goal of the show is to lessen that loneliness while raising funds, and paying tribute to Daniel Johnston.

“A show like this is special because a lot of mental health initiatives taken on in the public are met with criticisms because they feel like there is another agenda underneath them,” said Mathison.

“I think this event is special because everything is presented at face value… It’s just a bunch of people who care about [Johnston’s] music, and raising some awareness about mental health.”

Moskal expressed his desire to see a greater portion of funding granted to artistic industries everywhere to “go back to the community.”

“If there’s anything I’d like to see more of, it’s more conversation.”


Don’t Be Scared: A Tribute to Daniel Johnston is presented by 101.5 UMFM, and takes place at the Good Will on March 26 at 8 p.m. Admission is $10 at the door.