He’s been a solo folkster, a drummer with Fleet Foxes, and a drug-addled heavy drinker. Now, as Father John Misty, he levels with Acoustic about the eternal truths on the beguiling I Love You, Honeybear – the transformative epic where Joshua Tillman ends and Father John Misty begins…
I’ll admit it, I’m feeling slightly anxious contemplating my interview with the exceedingly talented and equally bright Father John Misty – the artist formerly known as J Tillman, a.k.a. Joshua Tillman. I confess my apprehension to his publicist who tells me, ‘Don’t worry. He’s too clever for everyone. He’s too clever… full stop.’
Fortunately, Tillman proves to be as charming as ever. Tellingly, he admits that doing interviews can make him feel uptight (which could explain the frustration I’ve noticed in some interviews he’s done in the past). His artistic eclecticism is evidenced not only in his changing nomenclatures but also varying musical styles. Tillman was an indie folk-rock solo artist in the early 2000s who was mentored by none other than Damien Jurado. Then Tillman abruptly switched gears to play drums with Fleet Foxes in 2008 – a stint which lasted until 2012.
Now his alt etherealism via Father John Misty is his singular focus. His latest release I Love You, Honeybear delves deep into marital bliss and is proving to be another well-received endeavour. It’s a natural step forward from 2012’s hallucinogen fuelled Fear Fun. The new album features generous orchestrations with horns and strings. Yet beyond the instrumental lushness, I Love You, Honeybear retains an acoustic guitar nucleus, replete with Tillman’s propensity for open tunings. The Father takes artistic risks once again and succeeds splendidly. Now, Misty’s vulnerabilities have no hiding place as he’s exposed himself lyrically like never before. Whatever the pseudonym or incarnation, Tillman’s music seems utterly reactive (to societal conventions, his fundamentalist Christian upbringing, what’s expected of a rock star, and commitment). It appears that his reinventions are clearly part of his evolution both artistically and personally.
Tillman certainly seems to be at the height of his powers. His voice is more confident and visceral now – and his live shows these days are celebratory. In conversation, he proves to be eminently quotable, funny, self-deprecating and a lovable rogue indeed. But first things first, how should I address him? ‘I’m just Josh,’ he retorts with a smile.
Singer-songwriter Jonathan Wilson – who produced Fear Fun – produced I Love You, Honeybear. This project was a departure in that I Love You, Honeybear is layered in orchestration, yet you chose Jonathan to produce again. It worked out again, so I guess it was a no-brainer?
Pretty much, because it wasn’t something I thought too much about. As much as I can minimise my own technical participation in a project the better because I’m not an engineer by any stretch of the imagination. With Jonathan, there’s a great rapport and he brings so much humanity to the projects, which is very important to me, and he understands all the technical aspects that I don’t. He’s an amazing guy who happens to be my friend so there was no deliberation involved.
Was the lush instrumentation on this album something you envisioned before entering the studio or did it happen in the sessions?
All these songs started to manifest themselves early on – the songs grew to how they are organically. I’m not technically skilled enough to shoehorn my songs into a particular aesthetic. They are devotional songs and the way they’re produced seemed to be the only way to go with them.
You’ve indicated that your lyrics are paramount in your music – and that is something that many of your fans would agree with. You certainly utilise word play well.
I do, and a certain type of lyric gives you the ability to sing with a certain melody. Take ‘Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)’ for example – a sweet, lilting romantic melody while the lyrics bring some levity to offset that sweetness. Meanwhile, the gritty lyrics on ‘The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment’ is an example where the acidic, abrasive lyrics are offset by the bouncy soulless melody. Sometimes both the lyrics and music emerge simultaneously to form vitality. That’s what I aim for: vitality. Sometimes there will be a chord sequence and a melody I’ve been absent-mindedly batting around in my head for months. But by the time I come up with the lyrics, the melody will be completely different. That’s why songwriting isn’t just singing poetry. It’s why so much music is boring – and you have to be conscious that words really have a melodic content. Or a story has a parallel in the melodic universe. I think the best songwriters know how to tease out just the right melody from a sequence of words.
You describe songwriting as a skill rather than strictly an art. Have you become better at this process?
I think so. I’ve definitely expanded the things I’m interested in writing about and have been shedding some personal layers. I’ve also changed a lot as a singer drastically since I was 21 because singing is such a profoundly psychological act. You don’t have just this one voice that you come out of the womb with. If you’re going to sing well, you need to have access to the most truthful aspects of yourself. If you turn on a TV singing show it’s people doing karaoke. But to sing something truthfully and to sing something real, it has to come from a deep place. It’s not about technical aspects. I found that getting past a lot of layers of self-loathing has helped me as a singer tremendously. And the singing between this record and the last one shows a lot of growth. A lyric like “fuck the world…” is fairly visceral so it demands a certain vocal approach. The reason I sang the way I did when I was younger makes sense: there was very little personal truth in it so there was little at stake. It was so weighed down with affectation. My goal as a singer is to be just a male voice. It sounds pedantic, but it makes sense to me.
Since you are not beholden to a singular persona or style – or even instrument – I presume that for you boredom equals death?
You could say that. It’s just fun for me to reinvent myself.
Do you have any misgivings or reluctance about laying out some of the intimate aspects of your marriage on this album?
Yes. At first I was terrified of putting it all out there. A lot of it was pure vanity about not wanting to be unmasked. Ironically, I guess it’s the same in a relationship in that intimacy unmasks you. It’s humbling too. I think with this album there are borderline character assassinations of myself. Intimacy is totally revealing and I tried to articulate that with the album cover art too. When I put out the press release, I said it was a concept album. These are devotional songs. The whole point of the album is the process of transformation where Josh Tillman doesn’t exist anymore. I have to play a painful, embarrassing role at this point in my life. A song like ‘Strange Encounter’ is a role I’m playing at this point in my life, but there were definitely misgivings going into this. But it’s just part of the job; being in a public forum. Interpretation is okay with me. I think they should be dissected and taken apart upon repeated listening. ‘The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment’ demands to be interpreted and dissected. On first listening, the song sounds like the girl is awful but it’s really my character who is the judgemental, self-righteous one who looks for validation from strangers.
Did your wife mind that you focused so much on your relationship?
No, Emma was really keen in helping me get over that and she said, “Look, you can’t be afraid to let these songs be beautiful”.
Your music during the J Tillman period is still beloved by many of your followers but you seem to want to distance yourself from it.
No, I’m okay talking about it. I’ve had to throw that material under the bus to do what I do now. But I’m proud of quite a bit of that stuff and I appreciate what it was. Although I put out a whole bunch of albums that no one really paid attention to for years. I’ve been called “extremely self-motivated” by people close to me for sticking with it over the lean years. That music was far more impressionistic and was intended to be a cathartic listen, whereas now it’s more of an intellectual listen. I wasn’t a different person then but my music was very different and I felt a personal mandate to bring my music with an alignment to who I am today.
How do you capture your musical ideas?
Most of the time, it starts with me turning off all the lights – I get a knife and start stabbing myself until an idea comes… No, but I do start with a guitar. This time, I used a notebook to write my lyrics down for the first time. A melody comes pretty quickly with the words. I go through writer’s block sometimes, but I always have a hyper-mythologised way of remembering it as some kind of artistic ecstasy. It’s more like I pick up a guitar because I’m supposed to and then something comes out that doesn’t want to make you vomit. So you work on it for months until it’s done. I do work in concentrated fits where I’ll stay up for three days at a stretch. So sleeplessness is part of my process. My muse has always dragged me kicking and screaming.
You toiled under the radar somewhat until your “breakthrough” in 2012 with Fear Fun…
I like making a fool out of myself whether it’s being the drummer or lead singer…
You paint, make music, and pursue creativity as you desire, yet you came from such a strict religious upbringing where your parents raised you devoid of any secular or cultural pursuits. I suppose you became an artist despite that childhood – or maybe because of it?
Evangelical Christianity has this really intense emphasis on what you’re thinking as opposed to what you are doing. As far as my household was concerned, my parents were involved in the church heavily, although not professionally. It just wasn’t a good experience. It was oppressive and I was really frustrated and angry trying to address the reaction to my youth. In my 20s, I re-engaged my pre-adolescent state where I painted just because I wanted to – and the same with music. I did it just for fun. But my music from my 20s was quite cathartic and it was a rejection of my upbringing. I’m aware that I was a person in conflict – and that’s where all of it comes from.
Despite marital bliss, you still seem to retain some cynicism. ‘Bored In the USA’ (a caustic barb at middle class life) among other songs on Honeybear hint toward this…
I don’t equate love and intimacy with optimism. In fact, my next album will put that worry aside. I will be glad to move on to the next project and I’m looking forward to the way this album sits in the whole body of work. I’m not sure this is a precedent for what’s to come.
You were a solo artist then a drummer and now a frontman. Do you like having the focus solely on you?
Let’s put it this way: I find it easy to make a fool out of myself in different ways. I find a lot of the stuff involved in being a musician absurd. I often feel stupid, but I try to just follow my instincts for the most part and sometimes when I follow my instincts people may find it entertaining.
Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear is out now via Bella Union.