THE MUSIC ISSUE
The week of March 15, 2015
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The gospel of Father John Misty, the Internet’s anti-rock star

By Austin Powell

Two weeks before the arrival of his highly anticipated second album, Father John Misty trolled the Internet.

He released I Love You, Honeybear in full—except squandered in MIDI, an archaic file format that makes everything sound basically like a ’90s ringtone. The marketing stunt coincided with the beta launch of SAP, a “new signal-to-audio process by which albums are ‘sapped’ of their performances, original vocal, atmosphere and other distracting affectations so the consumer can decide quickly and efficiently whether they like a musical composition, based strictly on its formal attributes, enough to spend money on it.”

SAP’s rollout was a pitch-perfect parody of Silicon Valley startup culture and a less-than-subtle swipe at streaming services like Spotify. It’s full of meaningless buzzwords like “discoverness, freedoming, and sharehood” and stock photos of millennial models, made all the more complete with a scrolling Squarespace Web design and inspirational quotes from the founders.

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“We’re not quite out of the private investment phase, but we’re getting there,” jokes Josh Tillman, the 33-year-old songwriter behind Father John Misty, a week later from his home in New Orleans. “We’ve gotten to the point where we only talk about the value of music monetarily. It’s made everything a cliché: The artists have turned into these cranky, luddite, money-grubbing elitists, and the consumers are the dim-witted, mouth-breathing opportunists.

“The whole thing is just ripe for satire.”

Tillman is something of a prophet for our times, a rare combination of artist and generation. In his music, online, and onstage, he captures the minutiae of modern life—the #content nausea, the cupcake bubble, the entitlement of the on-demand economy that’s turned our neighbors into TaskRabbits—with wry profundity and an irresolute bullshit filter. He’s the Internet’s anti-rock star, one who’s managed to hit the mainstream while openly mocking it. He’s toured with Lana Del Rey, backed Beck on Saturday Night Live, and made the late-night rounds.

“It took me so long to make this record because I was horrified at the prospect of A) being sentimental and B) being exposed.”

But with I Love You, Honeybear, he shatters his own funhouse mirror. It’s a phenomenal concept album about love and marriage that chronicles his relationship with his wife, filmmaker Emma Elizabeth Tillman, in agonizing detail. It breaks the fourth wall that separates the meta-character of Father John Misty and the man behind his prurient adventures.

Funtimes in Babylon

To understand the cult appeal of Father John Misty, it helps if you first know Josh Tillman.

He was born an outsider. The eldest son in a family of devout evangelical Christians, Tillman was raised in suburban Maryland, indoctrinated in part at a Pentecostal Messianic Jewish day school where heaven and hell “were real” and speaking in tongues was the norm. The experience left him feeling as if he’d failed at Christianity.

Tillman picked up the drums at 12 and finally discovered Bob Dylan in high school, albeit through his born-again Christian album, Slow Train Coming, one of the few records Tillman’s parents actually approved of. He briefly attended New York’s Nyack College but soon found himself gravitating more toward songwriting. In 2007, he moved to Seattle, where he worked odd jobs to support a solo career that was going nowhere fast.

As J. Tillman, he recorded seven solo albums, works of stern contemplation—some released as mere CD-Rs—that often hinged on little more than his voice and an acoustic guitar, the kind of music that gets an artist labeled “wise beyond their years.” Listening back to those records now is jarring. They’re broken hymns of trials and tribulations, the sacred to Father John Misty’s profane. You can tell he’s searching for something—some meaning or purpose, anything really—but unsure where to find it or the direction home.

In 2008, he happened into what most would assume to be the gig of a lifetime as the drummer for Fleet Foxes. He spent the next few years touring the world, accomplishing just about everything that an indie band could ever hope for: massive paychecks, festival appearances, a hundred imitators. But the experience did little to validate his own career. With each new album, he seemed to be retreating further into himself.

His last J. Tillman LP, 2010’s Singing Ax, ends with a final act of desperation. In the opening lines of “A Seat at the Table,” he sings:

I wanted to build a monument here
With my face in the dirt and my hands in the air.
But no one came and no one cared,So I gathered my bricks and I disappeared.

What ultimately happened next has been well-documented: Tillman quit the Fleet Foxes, drove his van down to Big Sur, and had a personal awakening while tripping on shrooms, naked in a tree.

“For a long time I thought honesty or truth was permanently embedded in the plaintive, mournful aesthetic that I was employing,” Tillman told me in 2012. “I was putting my impulses at odds with what I created to make those J. Tillman records. I reached an impasse where I was just fucking sick of that. I just thought, I’m not second-guessing my instincts anymore to fit into what people expect from a white male singer-songwriter.

Tillman is something of a prophet for our times, a rare combination of artist and generation.

“It was really about pure identity: Who are you right now and what do you want to say?”

Tillman’s epiphany resulted in 2012’s critically acclaimed Fear Fun (Sub Pop), a bohemian rhapsody that essentially offers Father John Misty’s origin story in album form. It’s full of lucid, hyper-self-aware narratives about his move to California (“Funtimes in Babylon”) his experimental autobiographical novella Mostly Hypothetical Mountains (“I’m Writing a Novel”), and various benders with women and psychedelic drugs (pretty much everything else)—told with visceral wit and wrapped in wildly divergent arrangements. In the closing number, “Everyman Needs a Companion,” he offers a CliffsNotes summary of the story thus far:

Joseph Campbell and the Rolling Stones
Couldn’t give me a myth
So I had to write my own
I got hung up on religion
Though I know it’s a waste
I never liked the name “Joshua”
And I got tired of “J.”

It’s difficult to understate magnitude of his transformation. Imagine if Bob Dylan didn’t just go electric at the Newport Folk Festival but plugged in with his full Rolling Thunder Revue. Put another way: J. Tillman had a lumberjack beard and recorded earnest covers of Townes Van Zandt; Father John Misty hawks his own perfume and karaokes to R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” on cruise ships. Fear Fun’s a triumphant rejection of Whole Foods checkout-counter indie rock, the sort of paint-by-numbers folk reverse-engineered to land on Pandora stations next to Mumford & Sons and his own “imaginary folk tales,” as he now refers to his back catalog.

“I didn’t have anything to prove to myself,” he says today. “It was very liberating. I just recognized myself in it.”

Onstage, his transformation is even more apparent. He moves like a too-drunk-to-fuck Jagger with the blunt observational humor of Larry David. It’s as if Tillman’s stepping into character as Father John Misty, wearing tight blazers and posing with his mic stand in mock-grandeur. 

To understand the cult appeal of Father John Misty, it helps if you first know Josh Tillman.

“I forgot that what I was supposed to do was stand up forlornly and do my best to portray the bruised angel that I am inside,” he told me after his first appearance on the Late Night With David Letterman in support of Fear Fun. “The only things worth doing are polarizing, and the only audience I’m interested in is the one that’s polarized way on one side. I can only get that kind of audience by alienating a certain amount of people.

“Really, for me the ideal fan that I’m trying to appeal to is myself, in the same way that all great boxers only fight themselves.”

True Affection

Tillman was never looking for love—at least not the kind that lasts longer than a drug’s effects. He stumbled upon it at the Laurel Canyon Country Store on Love Street, aiming to pick up little more than coffee and cigarettes.

Father John Misty’s new album actually ends at the beginning, retelling his first chance encounter there with Emma. “Seen you around. What’s your name?” he asks in the closing lines of “I Went to the Store One Day.” 

It’s a fitting postscript to I Love You, Honeybear, a grounding moment of simplicity after a whirlwind of an album that pulls equally from Lee Hazelwood’s oddball Westerns, Stax’s Memphis soul, and the skewed American songbook of Randy Newman. Tillman works through the relationship the way others might stages of grief. There’s jealousy (“Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow”) and vanity (“The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt.”), longing (the digital “True Affection”) and much-needed comedic relief. Lead single “Bored in the USA” is a dark comedy of a ballad that employs a laugh track to undercut lines about debt and predatory loans (an effect that made for another memorable Letterman performance).

“I’m less afraid of my own life now,” Tillman reflects on the album. “With Fear Fun, a lot of that for me—the drugs and the women and whatever—was about creating this numbness around my experiences. Part of the reason why this album is more brutal and has more vitality to it is because it has that intimacy. If you really want to explore the dark heart of man, then reveal yourself to another human being. … 

“These repressed aspects of my psyche—my jealousy, my neediness, my pettiness, and this impotent rage, all of these aspects of myself—emerged in the context of intimacy,” he continues. “And that was a really fucked up thing for me to confront. And it turned me into a fucked-up person.”

J. Tillman had a lumberjack beard and recorded earnest covers of Townes Van Zandt; Father John Misty hawks his own perfume and karaokes to R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” on cruise ships.

I Love You, Honeybear  is a complicated record about relationships that skillfully avoids any sentimentality; no one is going to ever dance to these songs at their wedding, at least not if they’re listening closely. There are just too many jarring details, painfully specific. Even in the climactic “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me”—a late-night R&B burner that sounds like Dark Side-era Pink Floyd produced by Phil Spector—Tillman oddly confesses to kissing his brother in a dream. Whether it’s “mascara, blood, ash, and cum” spurring a round of laundry in the title track or the near overdose in “Strange Encounter,” Tillman writes with the sort of confessional honesty usually reserved for hospital beds. 

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Emma Elizabeth and Josh Tillman, September 2014 | Photo via Emma Elizabeth Tillman/Tumblr

“‘Jealous, rail-thin, prone to paranoia when I’m stoned,’” he notes, quoting one of more memorable lines on the album. “Is this what love is? And in some ways it is. ‘You see me as I am—aimless fake drifter and a horny man-child mama’s boy.’ These are realizations that are not for the faint of heart.

“But just like with a psychedelic, there’s this component of euphoria to it that’s hard to explain that guides you through the whole thing.”

Everyman needs a companion

Nothing about I Love You, Honeybear came easy.

“It took me so long to make this record because I was horrified at the prospect of A) being sentimental and B) being exposed,” Tillman concedes. “In all candor, I was really into the sardonic, wry voice that I had cultivated the last time around, and I was pretty reticent to let go of that. And there was just this doubt in my mind: Do people really want to hear this shit? Is anyone really interested in this kind of confessional thing? It really came back to Emma. She said, ‘Look, you can’t be afraid to let these songs be beautiful.’ And at some point, I came to the realization that it was either going to succeed or fail, based solely on it being beautiful. And that’s kind of why I was thinking it would either be great or the stupidest shit ever.”

To succeed, Tillman needed to kill the last sacred cow left standing: himself.

“What’s so great to these songs to me is that they really serve the purpose of demystifying me and all of the pomp and circumstance,” he says.

Take “The Ideal Husband,” a track that makes Tillman almost wince today. As ambulance sirens circle in the background, he checks off a laundry list of sins, bearing himself in all his flaws not only to his partner but also to the listener: 

Telling people jokes to shut them up
Resenting people that I love
Sleep in ’til two then doin’ shit
Just stay in bed and later lie ’bout it
Obsessing over gray hair
Knowing just what people wanna hear
Binging on unearned attention
I’ve said awful things, such awful things.

The intensity thickens, his blood pressure rises with staccato stabs of the piano, until he reaches his breaking point in the final verse—finally surrendering to the cliché:

I came by at seven in the morning
I said, “Baby, I’m finally succumbing”
Said something dumb like “I’m tired of running
Tired of running, tired of running”
Let’s put a baby in the oven
Wouldn’t I make the ideal husband?

If you’ve ever fallen hard for someone or bent down on one knee, you can feel Tillman’s pain in that song—right in the chest, tightening, constricting, making it difficult to breathe or think straight. For love is not always kind or fair, as you’ve heard repeated at every wedding. It can challenge and break you; it makes you question everything about yourself, and it deserves more than you’re at times able to give. 

“Marriage or religion or whatever it is, these things that are viewed as being adopted as opposed to being made,” Tillman says, paraphrasing Alejandro Jodorowsky’s theory of the created soul, the idea that the only meaning in life is what we create for ourselves. “People think about marriage as this magical thing. You stand up, sit down, put a ring on, and something has changed. It doesn’t work that way. Nothing is going to magically change. You have to create your own meaning, and ironically, part of creating a union with another person or your own union with god or whatever is to invent that thing for yourself. It’s a creative act.

“The only things worth doing are polarizing.”

“I don’t believe in anyone else’s marriage. It’s this thing that she and I are making for ourselves, and we claimed the right to do it as if it had never been done before. Both of us can talk about the patriarchal genesis of marriage until the cows come home, but that’s not how I want to spend my life. I want to spend my life in throes of love and agony and whatever else is wrapped up in it.”

These days, Tillman says he feels “invincible,” and understandably so: He’s even more in love with Emma than the day they were wed in Big Sur. He’s at the start of what will be at least a year of solid touring, but he’s already writing new material “with a new sort of clarity that lacks self-pity or credulousness.”

”To be seen as what you are by another person—and to be still be able to live with yourself—that is liberation,” he concludes. “That is true freedom.”

As for SAP, Tillman’s still holding out for the inevitable Facebook acquisition or IPO. Maybe then he’ll be able to get that Southern plantation home, with the weeds overgrown, that he envisions in “I Went to the Store One Day.” Until then, you can still stream I Love You, Honeybear in its entirety on Spotify.

“I’m just too much of an anarchist,” he says, when pressed on the matter. “I’m not very interested in making any kind of statement, and I’m not really interested in changing the music industry. For me, it’s all just for the sake of the joke.

“If the music isn’t any good,” he continues later in the conversation, “then I’m just an asshole running around doing stupid shit on the Internet.”

Illustration by J. Longo