Father John Misty: A Comedic Quest For Clarity

Music Features Father John Misty
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“I’ve been having a total comedy of errors since we last spoke. I’m now like driving around in my van, in my underwear, blind as a bat looking for cell phone reception.”

Josh Tillman frequently toes the line between the absurd and the irrational. Since recording and performing under the nom de plume Father John Misty earlier this year, he’s become fascinated by the power of comedy. There’s countless instances where he wields his sense of humor, including comical trucker radio spots on KCRW, his self-appointed role as the Paste/Pitchfork ombudsman, his asinine interview with CHARTattack.com or his apologetic introduction to our interview for this Best of What’s Next cover story. Given his Sahara-dry satire, it’s often hard to distinguish the sane and the insane moments. For Tillman, he’s simply sharing his full self for the first time in his career, “Dionysian tomfoolery” included.

There’s a shallow narrative that’s readily available when discussing Father John Misty. The 31-year-old songwriter quit his role as the Fleet Foxes’ drummer at the height of their popularity last year. He also retired his solemn songwriting under the name J. Tillman after releasing seven modestly successful albums throughout the 2000s. Once an obstinate 20-something-year-old songwriter, Tillman has learned how to kill parts of his own identity in order to find his true creative calling as Father John Misty.

“It’s a tough narrative to sell,” Tillman admits. “’Dude quits popular band,’ and then the language around that is like ‘side project, whatever.’”

Father John Misty’s intentions will undoubtedly be lost upon those who focus on the past. Because of these factual tidbits, the ominous side-project label often looms close to almost any description about his current work. This creative endeavor, however, is anything but an auxiliary effort. Joshua Tillman’s current tale emerges as a far more compelling account about a man who, after a lifetime of searching, finally discovers his voice.

Over the course of our two-hour conversation, Tillman transforms from a weary interviewee—exhausted from a psychedelic experience with “demonic mushroom chocolates gone bad” the previous night—into a dynamic storyteller, one who’s entirely consumed by his quest for artistic honesty and clarity.

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“I’ve always been interested in making honest music. That’s always been my prime directive.”

For years, Tillman longed for his music to be taken seriously as J. Tillman—crafting pensive and somber compositions that painted a stoic, self-idealized portrait of the then-Seattle-based songwriter. His seven albums released over the course of a decade marked attempts at making “serious” and “deep” music. During this songwriting period, Tillman essentially equated himself to an ostrich with his head buried under the sand. As he continued playing J. Tillman songs, he became increasingly disillusioned with his work’s direction.

“That J. Tillman thing had kind of become an alter ego, and it was this very isolated fragment of who I am,” he recalls. “It was just so curated, you know, this very romanticized version of myself. As I got older, I was like, “What is this?” It just starts to look silly at some point… this isn’t me.”

As Tillman became privy to this artistic dissonance, he couldn’t come to terms with the flaws he saw in his musical aesthetic. Tillman—whose dry, humorous wit reveals itself within a couple minutes of seemingly any interaction—left that part of himself offstage for years in an attempt to display a serious sentimentality. Over time, he slowly observed that J. Tillman had become an idealistic image that remained full of pretense and devoid of honesty. It didn’t embody his creative spirit. It left him unfulfilled so much that he knew something had to change.

“You don’t get to choose the ways that you’re best in expressing yourself,” Tillman admits. “I think I just stopped wanting to be taken seriously so goddamn much.”

Tillman slowly began to reinvent his musical identity, learning to embrace his longstanding penchant for satirical and absurdist humor. As he underwent this sea change, Tillman realized that his J. Tillman catalog hardly resembled who he was as an individual. It’s ironic that Tillman’s candor emerges when he adopted an alias, but the songwriter has slowly embraced the comedic complexities that comprise Father John Misty.

“With my sense of humor,” Tillman explains, “I was really afraid of letting that be a part of what I do creatively because I understand the risk in that and I understand the way that people marginalize humor. It’s a very tricky thing to do, it’s like a triple axel or something—if you don’t do it right you’re going to seriously fuck yourself up.”

By tapping into what he’s deemed his “conversational” wit, Tillman freed himself from the self-internalized constructs he struggled with in his early years as an artist. The dissonance between his satirical self and his ambitions as a serious songwriter came to a head a couple years ago, prompting Tillman set aside everything—his modest solo career, his role with the Fleet Foxes, Seattle residence and life he as knew it—to pursue his true creative voice.

“I made no other plans other than finding my creative voice at any cost,” he recalls. “I made a large gamble and when I blew up everything, I appreciated that fact maybe more than anyone else.”

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On his album Fear Fun’s opening track, “Funtimes in Babylon,” Father John Misty wistfully proclaims, “Look out Hollywood, here I come.” He arrived in the Los Angeles area after living out of his van and aimlessly exploring the Pacific Northwest and California for eight months. Tillman’s first track under his new moniker revisits his hell-or-high-water mindset, and how his eventual decision to move to the Laurel Canyon area arose out of his strange attraction towards the area.

“There’s something about Los Angeles and Hollywood that is so grotesque that it’s at least interesting,” Tillman surmises. “When I moved here and ended up here, I didn’t have any plan whatsoever—the album wasn’t made yet, I hadn’t really quit Fleet Foxes yet. I just wanted to live somewhere weird. I just wanted to have some experiences—I had this really morbid fascination with the idea of me living here because it made so little sense.

“I wasn’t looking for a comfortable place,” he adds, “I was looking for something strange.”

Before finding his semi-permanent residence, Tillman embarked on an odyssey in order to come to terms with the longstanding conflicts between his past creative struggles, increasing self-awareness and inevitable maturation. He didn’t like the course of his musical evolution and how he represented himself in his songs. Three weeks into his walkabout, he had a revelatory experience that spurred his transition from J. Tillman to Father John Misty.

“I was in Big Sur—cue eyeball rolling—and I was sitting naked in a tree on this big height,” he recalls. “Without spoiling it…I’ll say that a large part in me understanding where I needed to go creatively was in an ‘Aha’ moment sitting naked in a tree. You can’t sit naked in a tree for very long without understanding one’s own absurdity.”

Throughout much of his travels, Tillman consumed mushrooms and other psychedelics as a way to gain clarity about his vision for Father John Misty. Tillman acknowledges the fallacies with mainstream culture’s perception about mind-altering drugs, but he adamantly contends that his outspoken advocacy for this drug class has a deeper purpose—to further his own self-understanding. As he delved into the details about different kinds of trips, he notes that these experiences allowed him to eradicate some of his own inner-distortions as well as expand his once-narrow worldviews.

“I think that for me, in the ways that I was using them, they were really instructive in helping me observe and localize a lot of dissonance in me that I wasn’t able to make sense of without [mushrooms],” Tillman explains. “I think most people walk around with a pretty distorted sense of self and a lot of that is informed by fear and desire. Mushrooms are really good for jettisoning all of that for a moment and seeing what’s really there.

“I don’t necessarily trust the sober mind,” he continues. “Sometimes the way in which we imprison ourselves just have to get broken to see things with any clarity.”

One of the defining moments that informed the perspectives heard through Fear Fun came during an Ayahuascan ceremony in upstate Washington, where a French-Canadian shaman administered the Peruvian hallucinogenic to a small retreat group. Tillman, who still remains a cynic despite his positive psychedelic experiences, hoped to find a “real” moment that further molded his newfound identity. Rather than having the serious experience he had hoped for, Tillman found his satirical and humorous worldviews reaffirmed. In hindsight, this realization was a defining spiritual moment, albeit in an unexpected fashion.

“It’s just funny when I try to go and have this classical psychedelic spiritual experience, it ends up looking like something really funny and absurd, and it looks like me,” he says. “I think a big realization by virtue of psychedelics is that I’m not so spiritual or something, and that ultimately is my spirituality—coming to grips or accepting myself as I am.”

Beyond these profoundly informative experiences, he found as he discovered his “narrative voice” while churning out his debut novella—which can be read in Fear Fun’s comprehensive liner notes as a slightly unabridged footnote to the song, “I’m Writing a Novel.” The process of penning his absurdist fictional work opened the floodgates for this creative resurgence. The song describes, as well as pokes fun at, that experience, exuding a heightened energy that unquestionably mirrors his artistic flourish.

“The process of writing the book was where I really had my ‘A-ha’ moment,” Tillman remembers. “Not to be dramatic, but at that stage, I was so sick of thinking of myself as a songwriter. It left me so unfulfilled, and when I was writing that book, I just felt like—here is my voice, here it is. This is actually Josh Tillman devoid of any romance, devoid of any self-mythologizing, devoid of any lust for success, lust to be respected. This is my creative voice.

“When that clicked,” he adds, “the songs just started pouring out of me. It just became so much easier.”

During this prolific writing period, Father John Misty wrote in detail about the Hollywood area. While the initial strangeness and inherent paradoxes allured him during his first few months living there, he became drawn to certain aspects of the city, particularly the lack of pretense surrounding theatrics.

“I find that Los Angeles,” Tillman explains, “kind of counterintuitively is a very innocent place and a lot less jaded than other places that I’ve lived—or it’s less cynical, where you can have grand ideas and then there are people around you who have this childlike excitement to actually execute them. I really relate to that mentality.”

This creative enthusiasm enabled Tillman to make a series of compelling videos—including provocative videos for the dominatrix-filled “Nancy From Now On,” the Aubrey Plaza-featured “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” and pizza-parlor horrors of “This is Sally Hatchet”—an accompanying art that he’s grown to appreciate during his time spent in Los Angeles.

“If you want to make a some bizarre fucked up music video with you cutting your finger off in a pizza place” Tillman says, “there are people around you who are like, ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea. Let’s do it—I know these people and we can make this happen.’ In other places that I’ve lived, if I had brought one of my patently absurd ideas to the table, the response would have been like, ‘Well, music videos are stupid.’”

After years of worrying about his vanity, he began developing a powerful and magnetic stage presence, sparked by the absence of the pretense that long plagued his early performances. In doing this, Tillman tapped into his charismatic and disarming personality, incorporating his most endearing characteristics into an honest, no-holds-barred display onstage.

“For a long time,” he says of his pre-FJM performances, “I was up onstage—you’re up onstage, singing songs, but it’s not about entertaining people, it’s not about wowing people. It’s about this weird other thing like eliciting their sympathy or fascination with you. You’re not outright entertaining them.”

Compared his older, now-retired J. Tillman songs, he now commands attention from his listeners. True to his album title, there’s less fear and more fun in seeing him engage with listeners these days. Tillman no longer sees himself first as a musician, a songwriter or performer. Above all, Father John Misty is an entertainer.

“That’s the most pure, simple, elegant role that I’ve found in this very long process of trying to be honest with myself creatively,” he says. “Just fuckin’ get up onstage in a suit and dance and sing your fuckin’ heart out and give people a fuckin’ show. That’s so simple. That’s a simple pursuit that I can do. What I can’t do is sit around and try to curate a version of myself that I think has dignity.”

All one has to do is watch a 2010 J. Tillman session and compare it to a Father John Misty in-studio set this year to see this transformation. These days, Tillman rarely holds his own guitar, focusing on the singing and showmanship behind his live performances. He may rattle a shaker or tambourine, but he mostly keeps his hands free in order to devote his entire body towards his outward expressions. As a result, it’s quite common to see Tillman glamorously waving his hands, clenching his fists, spicily pointing his fingers or cheekily giving an approving thumbs up. In many ways, his hands became a second voice—a complimenting harmony that’s just as important to his performances as any of the instruments backing him onstage.

“If you see one of the Father John Misty shows, it’s like an evening of entertainment,” he explains. “The idea of being an entertainer is so pure, so real. … Put on a fuckin’ show. Engage them, be an entertainer.”

It’s hard not to react to Father John Misty’s infectious energy and focused engagement. In many ways, Tillman’s conviction behind his reinvented persona remains undeniable. He’s having a blast making music, sharing it with a receptive audience and finding fulfillment along the way. For someone whose main directive has always been to make honest music, it’s hard to argue with the end result, even if its origins arose from Tillman’s strange, comedic and seemingly unpredictable journey.

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“I never liked the name Joshua / I got tired of J.”

During the finals moments of Fear Fun’s final song, “Everyman Needs a Companion,” Josh Tillman reveals his motivations with those 11 words. Father John Misty is hardly about directness. Burying a thesis statement in the conclusion doesn’t really make sense, but for Tillman, that’s exactly the point.

That is the gag!” Tillman says. “That is the master stroke gag of whole record. You’ve listened to this whole record, which is maybe a confusing listen if you have any biographical info about me at your disposal. [Fear Fun is] kind of this confusing, disorienting listen that’s lyrically kind of dense and convoluted. Then the last line is like this, “now I’m just going to put it all out there in this plainspoken way.

“I will tell you,” he continues. “I will answer the hundred-dollar question of, ‘Why the fuck did you do this? Why did you quit Fleet Foxes? Why did you quit your longstanding fruitless solo career? Why did this all happen? What’s this all about?’ Then it’s this really plainspoken answer. That’s the gag, I think it’s like the most elegant gag of the whole record is that last lyric.”

What’s most revealing in his description of the song’s plainspoken lyrics is his reference to these two poignant lines—the most candid lyrics he’s written in his entire career—as a “gag.” J. Tillman might have referred to these lines years ago as a heartfelt sentiment, but Father John Misty fully embraces his inner-satirist—finding humor and absurdity in serious matters, like, you know, the actual identity of Joshua Tillman.

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