THE SECOND COMING
Born again as Father John Misty, singer-songwriter Josh Tillman is raising just the right amount of hell
At a time when so much of popular music seems to literally be made for children, it’s refreshing to encounter an artist audacious enough to take on the messy business of adult-sized relationships. For singer-songwriter Josh Tillman — better known these days by his musical nom de plume, Father John Misty — the desire to explore the intricacies of human connection has proven revelatory.
In 2011, after years of toiling in relative obscurity and touring in the shadows of more established artists, Tillman found himself at a creative impasse. Bored to tears with the sensitive-man-with-acoustic-guitar trope he had come to lean on, Tillman abandoned his previous approach and rechristened himself, taking on the alter ego that has been his creative salvation. Along the way, the thirty-four-year-old has become a kind of sex symbol for a certain sort of girl, playing the part of the erudite bohemian who sometimes says bad things but ultimately means well; a jerky romantic who isn’t afraid to be frank about fucking. He makes folk-inflected, highly literate pop that’s both sprawling and, at times, incredibly intimate. More importantly, he’s making the admirable effort to actually speak the language of grown-ups.
“I’m making music for adults,” says Tillman, taking a break from a tour stop in Lawrence, Kansas. “I know it sounds pedantic to say, but at the same time, it’s shocking to me how many young kids are at these shows. I’m like, Wow, you’re not even going to know what these songs are about for another ten years or something.”
Adult-sized attention might be a relatively new thing for Tillman, but he is hardly new to the music business. He spent his twenties trying, in various guises, to make a name for himself as a songwriter. Having fled the conservative confines of his evangelical childhood in Rockville, Maryland, Tillman eventually landed in Seattle, where he spent the better part of a decade quietly releasing eight full-length records of earnest singer-songwriter fare under the name J. Tillman — to very little notice.
It wasn’t until he took on the job of drummer in the Seattle indie-folk outfit Fleet Foxes in 2008 that his musical life began to change. Though he was essentially a hired gun with little creative input (he eventually jumped ship in 2012), the experience of touring the world emboldened Tillman to rethink his own creative ambitions. His first album under the Father John Misty moniker, 2012’s Fear Fun, was a sleeper hit, eventually charming its way onto critical best-of lists and turning Tillman into the indie-world equivalent of a rock star.
“It was sort of surreal to plunge a knife into that ten-year body of work and just be like, This is over.”
“To be honest, it was sort of surreal to plunge a knife into that ten-year body of work and just be like, This is over, and something else has to grow where all of this is gonna die,” he says. “I’m ambivalent because I have some empathy for twenty-one-year-old me. I was just addicted to a fucking archetype. I was trying to embody something that just wasn’t me. I think that for that period of time I was looking for a painless existence. I was trying to anesthetize myself, and I think that in my mind being a working singer-song-writer was going to cure my life. I was a kid, you know?”
Tillman’s latest album, 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear, is decidedly not for kids. Both beautiful and occasionally exasperating, it’s a record that balances a very tenderhearted narrative about romantic love — documenting Tillman’s courtship and eventual marriage to his wife and frequent collaborator, Emma Tillman, whose pictures accompany this story — and an arch indictment of the things it’s supposed to be celebrating. It is, as one Pitchfork critic described it, a record “so cynical it’s repulsive and so openhearted it hurts.”
One of the album’s many pleasures is trying to decode where the joke ends and the sincerity begins. Honeybear is packed with over-the-top lines delivered with a smirk (“Mascara, blood, ash and cum / On the Rorschach sheets where we make love”), but Tillman isn’t kidding. At its core Honeybear is about the ridiculous and amazing process of falling in love — that moment when you allow yourself to really be seen by another person. (“Everything is doomed / And nothing will be spared / But I love you, Honeybear.”) In a cultural climate increasingly uncomfortable with ambiguity, the fascinating slipperiness of Father John Misty is arguably his greatest strength.
Tillman’s Misty persona — equal parts modern-day lothario and intellectual rogue — treads an almost invisible line between irony and sincerity. He is a showman, an artist prone to grand gestures and occasionally ham-fist-ed stage antics, but his songs are layered with an emotional sophistication that controverts his impulse to play the clown (albeit a dashing one). There are very few artists writing as honestly or ruthlessly about sex and love — it’s hard to imagine any of Tillman’s indie-rock peers pulling off the song “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me,” which is as raunchy as it is deeply romantic.
“Songs about love are typically advertising some fantasy, some faith-based reality that doesn’t exist,” Tillman says. “Love and companionship in this day and age are viewed almost strictly in terms of compatibility. Is this other person going to be this source of constant amusement for me for the next fifty years? Will we get bored? Will this person help facilitate a painless existence? I think on some level we all know that’s all garbage.”
Tillman set out to deliver some real talk: “I think an album that includes all of the boredom and pain and jealousy and angst and insecurity while still maintaining that love can be this transformative thing,” he says. “Hopefully it’s cathartic for people who harbor the same suspicions I do, which aren’t really being articulated in the culture.”
“The last time around, the shows could be borderline antagonistic because I was so skeptical of the whole enterprise.”
Given the deeply personal nature of Honeybear, it’s understandable that Tillman initially had reservations about performing the record live. (“The last time around, the shows could be sort of borderline antagonistic because I was so skeptical of myself and the whole enterprise,” he says. “Thankfully, that ran its course.”) Now deep into the middle of what looks to be another full year of nonstop touring, Tillman has come to terms with not only sharing his music, but also the often conflicted lens through which people view him. He’s quick to point out that there is a difference between himself and Father John Misty, but he’s also aware that riding that line is central to his appeal. And the irony that Father John Misty might actually be the most deeply authentic thing he’s ever done is not lost on Tillman.
“People need me to be one thing or the other,” he says. “I’ve been called a blowhard by some, and then by others I’m regarded as a total clown. I do think it’s difficult to reconcile the two sides sometimes, but I don’t see any other way forward in terms of portraying life as I see it. It’s something that happens in my own relationships, too. I guess on a personal level, I want to play chicken with the audience.”