Words and photos by James Joiner
I got followed by coyotes whilst on the phone interviewing Father John Misty.
It’s true that, no matter what you’re doing, being tailed through the woods by three large predators is a memorable occurrence, if only for the adrenaline explosion and potential fight-or-flight situation. But if you’re familiar with Father John Misty, neé Josh Tillman’s, psychedelic-infused shamanistic vibes, you’ll get why such an event lends itself to deeper meaning than just consideration of the regional food chain. What’re the odds of this seemingly chance encounter happening at the very moment I finally, after weeks of chasing, waiting, and wrangling, get Tillman on the phone for an hour? Why not some other evening, considering I walk through these trails twice a day, every day, without ever seeing anything bigger than a squirrel? What does it mean?
I should have asked him. Unfortunately, I didn’t notice my yellow-eyed entourage until right after we hung up, and by then I had bigger things on my mind.
For the uninitiated, Father John Misty is the ironic hipster jester demi god alter ego of former Fleet Foxes drummer and once overly-earnest singer-songwriter Joshua Tillman. Legend, or at least oft-repeated backstory, has it that back in 2012, unfulfilled with life and in search of both himself and a deeper meaning, Tillman scarfed down a giant bag of magic mushrooms and hit the road, eventually landing naked in a tree cavorting amongst the ghosts of the Beat Generation and Summer of Love hippies in Big Sur, California. Cradled within those branches Tillman had the epiphany to eschew his former life, choosing to be reborn as an unfiltered, unfettered version of his true self. Soon after coming down from that tree and venturing to Los Angeles’ artsy Echo Park enclave, he laid down the tracks to Fear Fun, his first record under the FJM moniker, and began touring the world in a flurry of sassy dance moves, subversively folky, groove-y songs, and sardonic anti-corporate, anti-pop-culture, anti-establishment monologues, establishing himself as a snarky sub cultural messiah whether he intended to or not.
“Well, Josh Tillman was the persona,” Tillman tells me when I ask him if, as a critic’s darling with sold out shows full of dreamy-eyed fans and now three well-received records under his/FJM’s belt, his pop cultural successes were painting his seemingly anti-pop-culture persona into a corner. Tillman claims I have it all wrong—the FJM character isn’t a creative construct, it’s really who he is. He’s being wholly himself for the first time, no matter what the stage name. “That was part of the realisation, and why so much of Fear Fun was about identity—I ended the record with, ‘I never liked the name Josh, and I got tired of J.’”
At the root of it, Tillman feels it’s his realness that draws people to his music and to himself. His unflinching honesty, ability to be totally blunt, never shirking from things that fly in the face of cultural or social norms. Naturally, this level of self-indulgence doesn’t garner just good will. There are those who perceive his introspective songs and wild antics to be a symptom of unbridled narcissism, calling to mind another famously outspoken and unfiltered American, Donald Trump.
Surprisingly, especially for a guy who once cut a concert short when overcome with sadness when the now-president won the GOP nomination, Tillman doesn’t flinch much at the comparison.
“I’ll say this, I’m a lot more suspicious of someone who looks to Trump and says, ‘I’m nothing like that guy’ than someone who looks at him and goes ‘Yeah, that’s the deal for me,’” Tillman admitted, adding that the characteristics we find so abhorrent in Trump exist to some degree in everyone. “Anyone who’s paid attention to the human spirit can see he’s not doing anything new.”
It’s Tillman’s belief we’re better off confronting inner darkness, rather than leaving it buried and festering deep inside. This is a predominant theme on his latest album, Pure Comedy. Rather than condemning people for being awful or evil, no matter what their belief system, he wants us to recognise everyone has their issues—nobody is 100% right or perfect.
“What if we just bring these parts of us that are less than savoury out into the open and look at them and laugh at them, and recognise them in ourselves? In doing that they have less power.”
Tillman’s songs often act as parables. Clever, funny, cynical, biting parables, full of ‘things I wouldn’t want your daughter to do,’ crooned in his honey and smoke lounge singer’s baritone. At their best, his lyrics are insightful, catchy in a way that makes a casual listener wonder if they heard them right, such as Pure Comedy’s ‘Total Entertainment Forever,’ which begins:
Bedding Taylor Swift/
Every night inside the Oculus Rift/
After mister and the missus finish dinner and the dishes/
And now the future’s definition is so much higher than it was last year/
It’s like the images have all become real/
And someone’s living my life for me out in the mirror/.
But what of the dichotomy presented by a pop star who exists in part to take the piss out of other pop stars? Can Father John Misty continue to function as both psychedelia-fueled, truth-revealing underdog while simultaneously ascending celebrity’s pyramid?
Tillman says he can.
“The price of admission for enjoying my music, whether you agree with everything I say or not, is that you can hold these two ideas in your head at the same time,” he explained calmly. “It’s like, ‘Oh he keeps having fun with the enterprise of being an entertainer, and he sees the innate bizarreness of that.’ Sometimes the most authentic thing you can do is be honest about how bogus you know something is. And sometimes it’s not. And sometimes it’s to intentionally be obtuse, to be willfully ignorant of the context that you find yourself in to achieve something bigger.”
Tillman, as FJM, wants to use his art and soap box to draw attention to bigger issues, to pull back the cultural veil and reveal the hypocrisy underneath. He’s cognizant of playing to our penchant for celebrity worship, aware of the falseness of his station, even as he tries to use that station to open people’s eyes. It admittedly becomes almost too ironic, but there’s also a poetry to it. And even if he can’t elevate the form, he’s also happy to simply make music that people love. It’s about keeping things in perspective.
“We imbue entertainment, because we’re so deranged by it, with these really lofty ambitions,” Tillman said with a laugh that’s at once sardonic and whole hearted. “Everyone is under some kind of delusion that what they’re doing is bigger than entertainment. That pop music is about empowerment or something. What it really comes down to, and this is something I’ve been saying a lot because it’s the best way I can think to say it, is that entertainment is about forgetting your life, and art is about remembering your life. And that’s what I aspire to, is to make things of beauty and of ugliness that remind people of their humanity.”
There’s no denying his talent. Whether he’s acting the role of newly unbridled hipster mystic, as in his 2012 debut, Fear Fun, love-drenched ne’er-do-well, in 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear, or cynical cultural philosopher, in 2017’s Pure Comedy, Tillman’s charisma and sharp wit are backed by a jaw-dropping set of pipes and underscored with innate comedic timing. His live shows are a mix of laconic, mic-stand leaning diatribe and twitchy-sexy Jim Morrison dance moves, songs are delivered in conspiratorial whispers that explode into dramatic physical contortions and howled notes, his lanky frame bending impossibly backwards or thrown prone to the ground. For an alleged narcissist, who can admittedly get caught up in “The Father John Misty fishbowl,” he’s also intensely engaged.
Off stage, he deftly navigates the cultural pantheon, penning a hilarious Twitter feed, pulling stunts like covering Ryan Adams’ own “grotesque,” much-ballyhooed cover of Taylor Swift songs, or releasing a film of himself getting wasted on whiskey while sitting at a desk. His willfully ironic character gives him an astonishing level of freedom, allowing him to get away with things like launching a signature perfume—“Innocence by Father John Misty”—or writing songs for bona-fide pop stars like Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, moves that would cost other “underground” artists street cred.
Truly, Tillman’s tenure as Father John Misty has been an impressive rebirth for the 36-year-old. Raised in a suburban evangelical Christian family, Tillman said he was “naïve” to most popular culture, even at 17 listening only to “spiritually-themed” music. After a year at New York’s Christian Nyack College, he struck west for Seattle, where he worked as a baker and chased his dream of being a musician. His sombre ballads, much different from Father John Misty’s bravado, caught the attention of singer-songwriter Damien Jurado, who let Tillman open for him. Over the next couple years Tillman would release several albums as J. Tillman, bearing dour titles like Long May You Run, Cancer and Delirium, or I Will Return. Then, in 2008, he found himself drumming for folk rock outfit Fleet Foxes, signing on just as the band’s popularity exploded. He staying with them for the next four years, touring the world and learning the ropes of being a popular artist, until leaving for his fateful mushroom trip in 2012.
Tillman’s religious past is something he wears on his sleeve—in fact, he told me he’d done an interview with a Christian magazine moments before our call. Like many raised under strict religious observance, his relationship with the subject is complicated. It’s also something that surfaces often in his music, such as Pure Comedy’s title track:
Oh, their religions are the best/
They worship themselves yet they’re totally obsessed/
With risen zombies, celestial virgins, magic tricks, these unbelievable outfits/
And they get terribly upset/
When you question their sacred texts/
Written by woman-hating epileptics/.
I asked if he still considered himself a Christian, and Tillman answered cautiously, “well, it really depends on who I’m talking to.” Pressed, he said it was hard to explain his views to people who weren’t raised the way he was.
“I think for a lot of people, for the uninitiated, there’s this checklist of, ‘Well, I believe in the inherency of the Bible. I believe that it was literally written by a perfect God. I believe in the historical accuracy of the person of Jesus Christ, and he literally rose…’ None of that is important to me. None of that,” he said firmly. “What I relate to in terms of Jesus, and in terms of this new album, is that Jesus was somebody who went around saying, ‘Don’t be like these people who claim to know everything and who claim to know God. Be like these little children who don’t know anything, and it doesn’t matter to them. They don’t know and they don’t care, because they love.’”
Love, he explained, is real magic.
As we become more and more focused solely on ourselves—literally, as Tillman pointed out, with all our selfies—and are beset by culturally perpetuated hatred, fear of anyone different from ourselves, systemic classism, institutional hypocrisy, and a looming, avoidable environmental apocalypse, we need a little magic. Something greater than ourselves, unifying, a silver lining to the tragicomedy that plays out in headlines, yet is non-commodified, not designed to act as a subversive form of control like organised sects.
“My only goal is to write beautiful songs and say what’s on my mind,” Tillman concluded, explaining he can only keep being who he is, no matter how that appears to anyone else. “I can be really tone deaf in terms of a sentiment or a song that, to me, feels very normal yet comes off as completely, ballistically insane to people. But if I sat down to actually write something weird, intentionally, it would probably be dogshit.”
I still don’t know what the heck was up with those coyotes. Haven’t seen ‘em since. But according to the Encyclopaedia of American Folklore, Native Americans view coyotes as tricksters, messengers from the spirit world who “rebel against social conventions through deception and humour” and deceive people by impersonating a god. It’s almost too ironic, and almost too perfect. I’m not a very superstitious person, but Josh, if you’re reading this, please call off your dogs.