Winnipeg loves Daniel Johnston: 13 artists play tribute show

Tribute shows are usually reserved for prolific musicians after their deaths, but on Sunday, more than a dozen Winnipeg artists will gather at The Good Will Social Club on Portage Avenue to pay tribute to one who is very much alive and one whose last album came out more than seven years ago. 

"Daniel Johnston is a songwriter who a lot of people have taken influence from, whether it be Kurt Cobain from Nirvana or even Lana Del Rey recently did a cover of one of his songs," said Matt Moskal, who is organizing the show. "He's had influence in pop music, in alternative music and folk music through generations. He's a very prolific songwriter as well,"

Johnston's reach spans decades. Local artists point to everything from a Johnston track being featured in the 90s movie Kids, to Cobain wearing the now famous "Hi, how are you" Johnston T-shirt, to the 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston as entry-points to his work.

Paige Drobot taught herself piano listening to Johnston, and is doing acoustic covers of three of his works on Sunday.

"I didn't realize that so many people were influenced by him. All different kinds of artists are playing — a really diverse line-up," said Drobot.

Johnston lives with schizophrenia and depression and is known for decades of creating deeply personal, DIY "outsider art."

"I think, a lot of people, when they look at musicians and artists who suffer from mental illness, they see a lot of their own inner turmoil in the struggles of that artist," said Moskal. "When I put the call out for people to do this show … a lot of people said they had a very personal connection to his work."

In fact, in the days leading up to the show, artists were still asking if they could come play something, despite an already jam-packed bill.

It's the second show in the city in a matter of months dedicated to the work of the influential musician and artist.

Winnipeg home to his first solo Canadian art show

First, Lisa Kehler brought Johnston's first ever solo show to Canada with Love Makes Me Sad.

Moskal said Kehler's show helped give him the extra push to do the musical tribute show — with sets punctuated by conversations about mental health.

"The cause for this is really to just get the conversation going with people around you about mental illness," said Moskal. "Daniel is the prime example of an artist who suffered from a lot of illness and had some very violent, unfortunate incidents happen in his life but has, through all of it, connected with people and enriched the lives of people who enjoyed his art."

Moskal, Kehler and Drobot had difficulty putting their finger on why exactly so many in the city's artistic community are drawn to his work, but Kehler said it's not new.

"I know, specifically within my gallery, many of the artists were influenced by his work … I have this interest in 'outsider art'," said Kehler.  "When I opened up my gallery, I decided this was really something I wanted to do. Whether or not he could come out for the show, I still wanted to have his work in Winnipeg."

It took more than two years to get Johnston's first solo show to Canada, and Kehler had to go through a massive collection of work to put together her show.

"I was always really drawn to the idea that he had this massive unrequited love for this woman named Lori, so I started to focus more on work that was dealing with love, both in a sad, melancholy way, but also in a positive sense," said Kehler.

About 15 marker on paper pieces were ultimately selected for Love Makes Me Sad, showing work from the late 90s up until 2007.

"For me, anyway, the artists that I'm more drawn to are people who deal with mental health issues or developmental difficulties. I didn't really present that angle of the show. I did a screening of the documentary about him, which is The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which really looks into how his mental health has really informed all of his work. We talked about it as I would give tours of the show … but I didn't really push it. I wanted to present the work on its own," said Kehler, who added she would love to do shows featuring his work in the future.

Moskal's show, Don't Be Scared: A Tribute to Daniel Johnston, starts at 8 p.m. on March 26 at The Good Will Social Club. All the proceeds from the show will go to the Canadian Mental Health Association.