Father John Misty brings humor and hard topics into balance
Until this past January, Josh Tillman was the drummer for Fleet Foxes. When I meet him at Good Luck Bar in Los Angeles, it's two weeks after the announcement of his departure from the band. Slumped over the bar, beer in hand, the bearded, 6' 4" singer-songwriter stands out; through a somewhat awkward grin, he navigates our conversation eloquently.
No longer a member of one of the most successful folk ensembles of the past decade, Tillman recently completed his ninth solo project, recorded upon his relocation to Los Angeles from Seattle. It's his first under the new moniker Father John Misty, and the record's title, Fear Fun, speaks to the opposing dualities of his personality. Comedian and actress Aubrey Plaza (from Parks and Recreation) gets crazy in the video for his single "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings." The album was recorded in Los Angeles last spring with producer Jonathan Rich Wilson, who also produced local band Dawes's previous two albums.
Tillman soon tells me he'd prefer to leave the bar and smoke weed in his van during our interview. This only serves to further the mystique I've already derived from his Tumblr page, which features photos of the singer on stage at a strip club sandwiched between heady quotes from existential philosophers. Before leaving the bar, Tillman has a brief conversation with fellow singer-songwriter Will Oldham, who's called to praise the last song on Fear Fun, titled "Everyman Needs a Companion."
As we arrive at Tillman's Econoline van parked a few blocks away, he explains his decision to release Fear Fun under the name Father John Misty, as opposed to J. Tillman, the moniker under which he's released his previous solo albums. "In my mind, this J. Tillman person is a far more romanticized, fictionalized person to the world than this ridiculous name, Father John Misty," he explains. "I wanted to bring my conversational voice and my musical voice into alignment. The ridiculous name is about satisfying this morbid sense of humor I have that says, 'Maybe the most honest thing you can do is to just call yourself something stupid and say something real.'"
The name Father John Misty is partly a reference to cocaine, as in "Misty Mountain Hop," and partly a reference to Tillman's lifelong exploration of religion and spirituality, which started with his evangelical upbringing in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Out of despair, Tillman considered becoming a pastor for a brief time during his youth. "I wasn't good at sports. I wasn't good at school. I didn't see anything outside of Christian jobs," he says. After becoming unglued from religion in his teens, "I was so angry and terrified that I'd been raised that way that, at some point, my number-one mission became to make as big of a joke out of it as I could."
From a lyrical standpoint, Tillman's antagonistic sense of humor is readily apparent on Fear Fun, albeit balanced with a stark sense of realism and existential anxiety. It's something he's embraced since moving to Los Angeles, and after befriending several comedians, he's become something of a regular at the Upright Citizens Brigade in L.A., both as an audience member and a performer. A few weeks after we meet, he sings "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings" in front of a panel of guests that includes Zach Galifianakis at comedian Nick Thune's variety show.
Now that he's settled happily into his new home in Laurel Canyon, it's somewhat surprising to hear Tillman talk about how anxious and overwhelmed he felt while living in Seattle. Nearly two years ago, he packed up and left the city without a destination at 3:30 in the morning. "I just felt like, 'There's nowhere to go from here.' You have to blow everything up," he says. Taking off in his van for eight months on something of a spiritual journey, he decided to write a novel a few weeks in and stopped in Big Sur to put pen to paper. The novel is printed on the liner notes for Fear Fun, and Tillman says the writing process helped him entirely rediscover his songwriting voice.
Tillman moved to Seattle in 2004, after dropping out of Nyack College, a private Christian school in New York he attended for one semester. Inspired by Bob Dylan and Neil Young, he saw himself fitting in with a blossoming singer-songwriter scene alongside artists like David Bazan and Damien Jurado. The decision to become a songwriter and move to Seattle did not sit well with his parents, but it paid off after Jurado took Tillman on tour as his opener and the latter was able to build a name for himself through selling his recordings on burned CDs.
After releasing five albums and becoming a familiar figure within the Seattle music scene, he was asked to join Fleet Foxes as the band's drummer. Though he doesn't have any regrets about his time with the group, Tillman hints that the constant touring was starting to weigh on his aspirations as a solo artist. His decision to finally leave originated in a simple moment of self-reflection. "It was like that part in The NeverEnding Story where he looks into the mirror that shows him what he really is," Tillman says. He makes it clear his departure wasn't out of any ill will toward other members of the band. "I like those guys, and I really like the music. I wish it could've been a shitty band full of dumb dudes, because that would be way easier."
Fear Fun suggests Tillman's intent to appeal to a wider audience. "What I perceive to be an effective song is something that straddles that line between a sentiment that's universal and also deeply personal," he goes on. In effect, "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings" strikes a perfect balance between the two. The idea for the song came from a romantic encounter at the famous graveyard, which took place just after Tillman returned to L.A. from his grandfather's funeral in Baltimore.
The actual sentiment of the song, however, is much more universal. "What I was doing with this girl was more of a dignified memorial to his life than anything that had happened at this funeral — something that everyone has to go through. It's weird to mention your grandpa and a girl coming in the same song, because people are conditioned to separate those experiences."
Tillman is constantly seeking to balance his sense of humor with weighty topics, both in his music and in conversation. With his first release as Father John Misty, we see him finally bringing the two into harmony. After learning the literal meaning behind "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings," it's difficult not to laugh when I hear it on public radio weeks later. All I can hear in the back of my head is Tillman laughing wickedly and exclaiming, "I'll bet the thing my grandfather loved most about life was fucking my grandmother. At least I would hope so."
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