Father John Misty

Play Father John Misty for Me:
Jeff Clark Talks to Josh Tillman About Altered States, Artificial Honesty and the Damned Kids That Don’t Know Shit About Shit

Here’s a handful of facts and observations about Josh Tillman before diving into this little conversation:

He is currently recording and performing under the name Father John Misty, but he has seven prior albums as J. Tillman.

Fear Fun, his debut record as Father John Misty, was released by Sub Pop one year ago. It’s a beautiful, funny, twangy, organic album that sorta sounds like a lost classic from the golden heyday of longhaired, fringe-jacketed Laurel Canyon folk-rock. It’s his most successful recording to date.

He has a heavenly singing voice that can lift his songs into a positively exquisite realm. A little reverb doesn’t hurt.

For a brief time, he played drums in Fleet Foxes. Who cares?

He’s a thoughtful, intelligent man with a clear gift for writing. You can imagine him putting words together in his head faster than he can scribble the thoughts down on paper. Most of the songs on Fear Fun have multiple alternate titles, as if their intentions couldn’t be contained in a mere phrase or set of lyrics. Or maybe he’s just having a laugh.

He has this mystical hippie aura about him, but I get the impression he’s really more of a snarky smartass.

Prior to recording Fear Fun, he said that he “lost all interest in writing music… I got into my van with enough mushrooms to choke a horse and started driving down the coast with nowhere to go.” Eventually he wrote a novel of sorts (included in Fear Fun’s packaging), before rediscovering his passion for songwriting.

So…shall we begin?

Do you ever listen to your own music on shrooms? And if so, do you hear things that you hadn’t noticed before?

“No, I have not. I don’t like to listen to music on mushrooms. I kind of hallucinate in a very auditory way, and I very much like the sounds, the music in my head when I’m in that state. I don’t really like to focus on anything so narrow as like pre-recorded music in that state. But I did, when I was in the desert last, and I was utilizing mushrooms, I definitely heard the sound of the next album.”

So you’ve begun writing and recording the next one?

“I started last week, recording… It’s a bit of a departure, with the subject matter. That’s what you’re supposed to say, right? ‘It’s a bit of a departure…’ You know, all that. The subject matter is definitely more intense. And it doesn’t really have any, like, honky-tonk moments, like on Fear Fun… It’s about love, which is pretty fucking intense. It’s like a love album that’s devoid of the kind of finality that’s usually found… you know, it’s interesting… I’m now going into ‘culture warrior’ mode, but if you listen to any music where love or relationships are kind of at the core, it’s pretty bullshit. I think it’s kind of bizarre that that topic is kind of relegated to an intellectual ghetto of stupidity. A lot of the time, the people singing about love in our culture are like 19-year-olds or 15-year-olds – people that just don’t know shit about shit. Just given what my life has been like over the last year or so, it’s just this thing that I kind of had to write about. I think the album is definitely funnier, in some way, but it’s less glib.”

Has your songwriting style changed for the Father John Misty material?

“Well, not to split hairs, but the approach has always been the same. I didn’t start standing on my head or something while I was trying to write songs. It really is like there’s a change in how one lives, or how one regards oneself. The songwriting is just broth. That’s the ground zero for this kind of enterprise. But yeah, the nuts and bolts of it, I guess, is that I kind of just started writing in a way that actually resembled the way that I think and talk and act, and I kind of dropped the meta veil of being a ‘songwriter.’ Or considering oneself a songwriter, and wanting to sing and behave and appear like the songwriter archetype appears in your head.”

You started writing in a more natural voice?

“Yeah, I think that’s just something that comes from age, you know. At some point, I just was like kind of laughing to myself, just like, ‘Who the fuck do you think you are? Some sort of wizard or something?’ You know, this 22-year-old person writing like a hundred-year-old murderous ghost or something. As you get older, or at least me, I just stopped taking myself so seriously. And I think when you’re younger, that makes sense. Like, you’re on the warpath. You take it seriously, to confront all the ways that you were either marginalized or controlled or whatever as a kid. And I think for me that was a very natural stage, and something that was very instructive as far as what I would go on to write or create later. But it’s just not the case anymore.”

Well, when you’re 22 you think you know everything, and you think older people are ridiculous assholes.

“Yeah. You know, when you talk about these changes in songwriting…it is difficult to kind of shoehorn your experience… the albums are kind of like this faint echo of this seismic thing that happens in your life. It’s hard to even cram it into the vernacular of, ‘Yeah, so I decided to change my writing style. The previous one just wasn’t working.’ I have great affection for every phase of my songwriting. And it definitely wasn’t a career move. If anything, quitting Fleet Foxes and making this crazy honky-tonk album was definitely more of like a career destroying move.”

Seems to me like you’re more popular than ever, as far as your own songs and music.

“Yeah. Go figure. In terms of how it looks on paper. That’s not how it looked at the time. I absolutely did not anticipate that. But sometimes creative risks like that pay off. I mean, people are so cynical. One of the biggest questions I get asked that is very reflective of the kind of cultural hegemony is like, ‘Why would you ever quit a band like [Fleet Foxes]?’ And then usually it’s followed up with, ‘You must’ve been making pretty good money, so why would you do that?’ I just think it’s funny that in the realm of creativity or art or something, we still, whether we’re aware of it or not, expect people to kind of adhere to these kind of middle class security values. Whereas, I think taking risks, or whatever… I think even I had forgotten, and I think that was part of why I was so depressed – I had forgotten that there is nothing worth doing creatively that isn’t a risk.”

I am convinced that dropping your real name worked in your favor. Father John Misty just sounds infinitely cooler than J. Tillman or Josh Tillman.

“Ha! Yeah.”

It’s a cool sounding name. Kinda sounds a little mysterious and weird, and you’re like, “Who is this Father John Misty fellow?” It wouldn’t surprise me if some of the people who got turned onto your music in the last year think your name is John Misty

“It’s more common than people realize. Captain Beefheart, Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Over time, it just becomes more of a symbol of something. Of course, to me, the whole thing was far more high processed that that. To me, the whole phase of making this album was this thing where I was really exploring these identity issues, and thinking about, epistemologically, what does honesty actually look like? Does it look like the artifice of honesty? And the artifice of honesty is I think what I was doing before, which was like this thing that looked a lot like honesty, and sounded a lot like honesty, and it was confessional and bruised and sad and cathartic and whatever, but honesty, for me, very much looks like giving yourself a really stupid name and kind of laughing about it, because that’s just something that you would do. You’re taking a risk, but that’s what makes it scintillating.”

Speaking of bold moves, you wrote a novel-length story and included it – in microscopic font size – in the fold-out inserts with the Fear Fun album and compact disc. I haven’t read the whole thing and I know no one that has, so how long does all that come to when it’s printed out page-by-page?

“I think in 14 [font size], it’s about 180 pages long. If you actually start reading it line-by-line, you get a sense of how long it was. Somebody at the label had the bright idea that I should do an audio book version of it, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I can knock that out in an afternoon.’ And I started reading it out loud, and I was like, ‘Jesus Christ! This thing is gigantic!’ I couldn’t do it. I got like one chapter in, and I was like, ‘This is gonna take me the rest of my life.’ Writing that novel is something I did because I was having this kind of minor crisis where I felt like I’d really lost myself, or this persona. I was thinking of myself like nothing but a songwriter. The book was kind of this like explosion of liberation where I was like, ‘I can do whatever the fuck I wanna do!’ I can write a novel, or I don’t ever have to write another song again, or I can do whatever. I can eat pomegranates and roll around on the ground if I want.”

Good luck making a living doing that.

(Laughs) I’m a fucking artist! It’s not about making a living! There are other lines of work better suited for that.”

Sure, but at the end of every show, you still pick up your pay!

“Yeah, of course I do! That’s the fucking world we live in. If I could get paid in wishes, I would. But anyway, the fact that we live in a culture where there’s a monetary causality for everything doesn’t mean that’s why I do things or don’t do things, obviously. But the novel, I did that and realized what I really want to do is write songs. There’s this thing that I can do with songs that I love doing. It was kind of a moment of clarity that was afforded to me by the process of doing that, in a way that maybe I wasn’t expecting. The process of exploring not writing songs, and the joy of not writing songs, brought me back to a place where I could re-gift that experience to myself without vanity or hand-wringing or angst.”

Photo by Maximilla Lukacs.