Fan Letters: John Darnielle


Dear John1,

I first got into your music when I was given a cassette tape for my birthday in high school. I listened to it over and over again while I stayed with my grandparents, in Kentucky, for three weeks in the summer of 1999. The tape sounded like something that had been made in a room, like the one I was trapped in at my grandparent’s in rural Kentucky. The first song on the tape was about falling in love near a turkey pen at night. Some girls impersonated turkey sounds. Your voice sounded like you were in love with the world, but also angry at it for something indefinable. After that summer my unwavering answer to the question “what’s your favorite band” has been “The Mountain Goats” for over a decade.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen you in concert: Austin (most often), Dallas, Norman (I made you a pie & presents, you ran out to your car to give my friends and I handmade buttons), Upstate New York at a farm sanctuary, NYC, Glasgow (while we were talking the guy who wrote “Trainspotting” came over and chatted you up), Edinburgh, London, DC. This year I tried to see you in Houston but my son arrived a week early and we were in the hospital when you played down the street from my house. You can’t feel like you’ve missed anything with a newborn in your arms, but I’m still anxious to catch the next concert. Your shows are my favorite kind of performance art. Confession; the first time I saw you in concert I thought you might have epilepsy or autism for the first half hour of the performance. You where so singularly focused. In each song you were attempting to destroy the guitar  your vocal chords, or perhaps the invisible rope the universe uses to tie us up when we’re young and afraid that nothing benevolent is out there. You also crossed your eyes a lot.

Over time though, you transfigured into an unparalleled showman, seemingly marshaling the band behind you in a type of revolt. 2 It feels like the earth just got plucked out of god’s womb. So even though tickets used to be like five bucks, I’ll still pay up to twenty five now.

Even more than I want to be like Joe Bill, TJ Jagodowski, or Tami Nelson as an improviser on stage I want to be like John Darnielle as a performer. I want to be The Mountain Goats of Improv. That’s an end goal that keeps me trying things on days when my insecurities have dulled the passion.

You’ve been an inspiring creative example to me in so many ways and continue to teach the masterclass on how to do it right. You are absurdly prolific and go with what is fresh to you now without making idols out of the past or getting hung up on a calculation of what is popular. You’ve spoken many times about your choice to do your art where you are, with the labels and folks you want to work with, despite the fact that industry folks said the only way to “make it” was to change everything about your life and do it their way. Your die-hard fans have put you where you want to be, but it took a while. And there is a great nobility and grace in the way that unfolded: that you didn’t try to be all things to all people at 26 and then burn out by 35. You built a community around your art and you keep your other passions alive by writing about music for years at Last Plane to Jakarta, repping feminist causes hard, and doing all the fun things. Your example speaks a lot to creative people trying to make something outside of the cultural mainstream: you are a hero to people trying to express themselves, instead of trying to express what they think the public wants to buy.

Then in the last couple of years all the comedy people took notice of the unheralded fact at the heart of my adoration of the Darnielle style, how damn funny you are. I’m not sure my sense of comedy owes a greater debt3 than to your way of telling stories against the grain: of finding glee where there shouldn’t be any and glimmering hope among the detritus of human desperation. These days on Twitter you are clearly the favorite musician of the comedians I care about: John Hodgman, Sarah Silverman, Carrie Brownstein, & Patton Oswalt are perpetually singing your praises & re-tweeting you. And why shouldn’t they, you are the funniest person I follow on Twitter 4 and I teach comedy for a living. You’ve played the Daily Show after-party  and this year you appeared on Conan and The Colbert Report. The big dogs of comedy count you as their friends and if one thing makes me sightly melancholy about not being famous it is that. However, everybody has their fantasies and I have mine. I hope that on the day someone gets you to do an Armando show or you try out improv in someone’s late night jam I hope I’m there. Hell, I hope I’m on that stage.

In the meantime, I’ll go buy Transcendental Youth from my local indie record store and I hope the whole rest of the world does too.

Love from the Gut,




*Photo by Lalitree Darnielle*


Show 4 footnotes

  1. It seems like everybody I’ve been reading lately has been encouraging me to write fanmail. Austin Kleon’s fantastic creativity manual, “Steal Like an Artist”, exhorts the reader to resort to hero-praise on the internet (where the indeterminacy of it ever being seen by the intended reader cuts down on the weirdness of attempting to pester those you admire from afar) and last night I came across an article by Sara Benincasa wherein she also makes the case for fan letters. I give in. 
  2. It is as if Robespierre had a midnight conversion and decided that he was hungry for blood, but not the blood of the Monarchy but the blood already pulsing within  his veins – the blood so tenuously keeping his heart beating from moment to moment- and then he went into the mob and started telling them to forsake political agenda and it’s inevitable disappointment, and fight instead with all their strength for justice and freedom within their own mind. That’s what it’s like for you to sing a few songs and do some stage banter.
  3. And I am not just talking about my TMG improv show “Alpha Bloodbath”.
  4. @mountain_goats