AUSTIN, Texas — Hi, how are you?
It’s a statement we utter to strangers and acquaintances every day without a second thought. But one Austin organization hopes to change that. In fact, it’s in their name.
The Hi, How Are You Project was founded by Tom Gimbel and Courtney Blanton in hopes of inspiring people to put meaning behind the phrase and to ignite discussions about mental health.
Both of them are Austinites with their own day jobs – Gimbel is the general manager of the Austin City Limits TV show and Blanton runs her own interior design company – so they operate the project purely on passion.
Gimbel told us he was inspired to create the organization all because of one man – Daniel Johnston – who was a local singer/songwriter and graphic artist who rose to fame in the ’80s and ’90s. He also became a household name in Austin because of his famous “Hi, How Are You” mural off of The University of Texas campus.
It’s safe to say Gimbel knew Johnston pretty well. After all, he worked as his manager for 26 years.
Sadly, Johnston passed away on Sept. 11, 2019. And that’s what makes the project’s presence at this year’s Austin City Limits Music Festival so special.
"C3 Presents graciously invited us after Daniel’s death," said Gimbel. "They thought this would be a way to tribute him, so we’re really honored to be here."
So, with the help of a few volunteers, they've created the Hi, How Are You Lounge at this year's festival. Apart from a giant fan, shade and plenty of room to rest their legs, fest-goers were invited to take selfies in front of a recreation of Johnston's famous mural.
But that's not all.
To really help accomplish the project's message, Gimbel and his team brought whiteboards and markers so festival fans could write notes of support to all their friends when sharing their photos at the mural.
"We’ve had some really amazing people coming through and sharing their personal stories and writing amazing messages, and they’re using the hashtag #HiHowAreYou or #HiHowAreYouProject," said Gimbel. "Hopefully, people come and get a fun picture, but at the same time they can have a conversation and share a message of positivity."
Gimbel said Johnston inspired the project because, despite his struggles with depression and schizophrenia, he stayed honest with himself and opened up through his art.
"What’s so special about Dan and why I think he’s so inspiring is that he was so open about what he was dealing with, and this really came through in his song lyrics and also in his art, where he would draw a picture but also write a caption that would be very revealing about how he was feeling," said Gimbel. "And I think that is why so many other songwriters gravitate to him is that he’s got this really unique and amazing honesty. Daniel had no walls. And that’s why people are so attracted to him. It’s just so raw, such emotion."
Gimbel said Johnston also inspired artists like Beck, Pearl Jam and The Flaming Lips. Even Jack White of The Raconteurs was seen sporting a Hi, How Are You shirt on stage Monday during the band's ACL set.
With all that inspiration in mind, Gimbel says the Hi, How Are You Project really tries to share two messages through their work as an organization.
"The first message is just to encourage people to talk openly about mental health," said Gimbel. "'Hi, how are you?' is the perfect conversation starter. We encourage people to go up to a friend, a loved one, a co-worker and when you say, 'Hi, how are you?' you mean it. It’s really about sincerity, it’s about being open about mental health conversations."
The second part is peer-to-peer training.
"We teach people how to have those conversations," added Gimbel. "So, how to identify a friend in need, how to initiate a conversation, how to connect with somebody and overcome certain differences. And then we also talk about self-care. We really just want to promote happiness and health and mental wellness."
Even though Johnston's health was declining in the organization's first couple of years as a group, Gimbel said he still got to see some of the fruits of their labor. Johnston was well enough to perform at their first Hi, How Are You Day on Jan. 22, 2018. There, Austin Mayor Adler proclaimed the date "Hi, How Are You Day," which also so happens to be Johnston's birthday.
"To be with Daniel on the stage at the Mohawk was pretty cool," said Gimbel. "And it turns out that was his last public performance."
Gimbel also recalled one of his other favorite Johnston performances back at ACL Live the show.
"Daniel performed one time on Austin City Limits as a guest of The Swell Season, and he did a song called 'Life in Vain' and they brought the Austin Children's Choir on the stage to sing with them," he remembered. "And in all my years at ACL and all the shows I’ve seen, that might be one of my favorite performances across 45 years of its history."
After it all, we asked Gimbel how he'd like the world to remember his friend, Daniel Johnston.
"He was really smart," said Gimbel. "Daniel wasn’t always the most vocal, but he was extremely observant and a great judgment of character and very aware of what was going on. He was also really funny. I don’t think he gets enough credit for how funny he was. If he didn’t to be a singer/songwriter and artist, he could have been a stand-up comedian."
If you'd like to learn more about the Hi, How Are You project or perhaps get involved, you can learn more at hihowareyou.org.
And if you're not able to pay your respects at the Hi, How Are You Lounge at ACL Fest, the Mohawk is hosting a celebration of life event on Oct. 10, where friends and some surprise guests are expected to perform in Johnston's memory.
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