The “self-important” thing is understandable, just because of how Tillman has been portrayed in the press. He’s partly responsible; he can come across as morose, difficult, and maybe even a little arrogant. He told the Guardian in the U.K. that he doesn’t really like it when lots of people like him, and statements like that have led to accusations that he’s ungrateful for his success.
Maybe Tillman has wild mood swings. Maybe he can be terrible to talk to, and has been to other interviewers. But that wasn’t my experience. Tillman was witty and charming and extremely humble. Tillman isn’t ungrateful to the many people who have helped raise his profile, particularly over the last few years and climaxing this year with the third Pure Comedy album. Quite the opposite. He’s just honest about the depth of his feelings and the fact that success doesn’t equal happiness. That last point can be tough to grasp in this country.
Between 2003 and 2010, the singer-songwriter released eight albums under the name J. Tillman. In 2008, he also had a stint playing drums for Fleet Foxes. But it was the introduction of the pseudonym Father John Misty in 2012 that changed the game for him.
“I think the thing that really characterized the shift for me was a friend of mine said that it really sounds like me,” he said. “I’m not sure that was really the case with the J. Tillman music. I think that it was definitely coming from a part of me that people were less likely to interact with. Like, more fragmented parts of me that didn’t really see the light of day in such obvious ways as my conversational voice. I really started writing in the same voice that I used to talk at the bar or joke around. Discuss my worldview or whatever else.”
The Father John Misty profile went up a few more notches when Tillman appeared on Saturday Night Live. Introduced by that night’s host, Octavia Spencer, Tillman and his band killed it. Emotional, genuine and dripping in poignancy, the songs “Total Entertainment Forever” and “Pure Comedy” earned Tillman some new admirers. He’s not sure how many, though.
“That’s a really abstract thing; it’s hard to gauge,” he says. “It’s not like I have 30,000 extra dollars in my checking account or anything. My experience doing that was that I came away really wondering whether or not the mainstream on that level is a place that I belong. I enjoyed the performance, and I think I looked great. But sometimes when you sing in character in the way that I do on a lot of the songs on the new record, people tend to get pretty confused. If you look at the relationship between me and the lyric in a really literal, traditional sense and ascribe those attitudes to me and think that I want to beat people over the head in some way, I think that’s a tough sell.”
Talking of tough sells, let’s get back to that Guardian quote. According to Tillman, he did say that he doesn’t like to be liked by lots of people, but it was something he said under his breath, as an aside. The newspaper made it the headline, and added the stern pic of Tillman rubbing his temples.
“I didn’t call up The Guardian to announce to the world that I have some sort of auto-erotic fixation with self-hatred,” he says. “But, of course, as much as you can imagine, it’s bizarre. I think one of the most widely held, clichéd beliefs in our culture, and cliché because it is in large part true, is that success does not make you happy. I think that’s something that a child can tell you. And yet it bamboozles us every time. Every time we see a famous person who’s unhappy on some level, it is still somehow counterintuitive for somebody. It’s a lot easier to be successful than it is to be happy. The highs are really high and the lows are really low, and that relationship to highs and lows is crucial to artists. You need to be open to it and not look for ways to mitigate the pain or the frustration, or whatever it is. You already have a way to do that, and it’s called your art. You at least have an arena in which you can work these things out.”
That idea — that success doesn’t buy happiness — has been a hot topic this year following the tragic deaths of Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington. Tillman has been open with his issues with depression in the past, and these are things that we really need to be talking about right now.
“It really signifies our deep-seated faith in the fact that it should work,” Tillman says. “It’s this Calvinist meritocracy that we live in, where everyone thinks on some subconscious level, some people less than others, that if someone is successful, they have worked really hard for that success, and that makes them better-suited to deal with the bizarreness of it. Look at Trump – someone who is the most extreme articulation I can think of. A day doesn’t go by when he doesn’t do something stupid or vulgar, and yet his success means, ‘Well he’s a good person who works hard, and that’s why he’s rich, that’s why he’s the president.’ It's the most extreme, when in fact, he is so clearly lazy and stupid, and morally inept.”
It’s a tough concept to comprehend, but Tillman articulates it beautifully. He’s not self-important or arrogant. He’s just intelligent and articulate. Those aren’t qualities that should inspire insults.
Father John Misty with Jenny Lewis, 7:30 p.m. Friday, August 25, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, 18300 West Alameda Parkway, Morrison, 720-865-2494.