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Is Father John Misty playing a character?

FJM-2Photos by Justin Yee // Written by Mike Frash //

Father John Misty strolled onto stage for his first performance in over a year on January 16th among the redwoods of Felton, Calif., in a venue that looked like a barn mixed with a classy old train depot. As the memorable show progressed, I found myself wondering where the line between Josh Tillman the man and Father John Misty the artist begins and ends.

Father John Misty aka Josh Tillman played every song from I Love You, Honeybear (due out February 10th, just in time for Valentine’s Day) for the first time live, not counting the astounding Letterman performance of “Bored in the USA”.

Launching into the schmaltzy earworm “I Love You, Honeybear”, FJM snatched up a stuffed green teddy bear held high in the air by a young fan near the front and waltzed with it to the romantic refrain, only to punt it back into the audience at the peak of the first dystopian verse. A talented new supporting band has his back, yet FJM still drops to his knees and manhandles the mic stand as he did on prior tours.

Early on he called out the audience as being “up to no good” for singing along to the new songs, referencing the awkward new live music reality when an audience shows they have overplayed a leaked record before it’s even available to purchase.

The house lights briefly came up during “True Affection” and the audience blinked and looked around at each other, giving me the sense that some kind of mockery was being played on us – and we the audience weren’t in on the joke. This is the guy, after all, who performed on the other side of a giant iPhone the last time we saw him. So how much of this is an act?

Is Father John Misty following in Steven Colbert’s footsteps, subjugating authenticity for the sake of satire, essentially holding up a mirror to this self-entitled generation, reflecting a sea of endless selfies? Is Josh Tillman playing a character, or is Father John Misty an evolving artist being true to himself?

FJM-15

Father John Misty has kept much of his second album under wraps, except for this press release via Sub Pop, which of course is hilarious and revealing.

It’s penned by the artist himself, and begins “Father John Misty aka Josh Tillman, says of the album I Love You, Honeybear …” An important distinction between Josh Tillman and Father John Misty is quickly established as he embraces the FJM label and degrades his real name to “also known as” status. So these details are told through the lens of FJM (bold emphasis his):

I Love You, Honeybear is a concept album about a guy named Josh Tillman who spends quite a bit of time banging his head against walls, cultivating weak ties with strangers and generally avoiding intimacy at all costs. This all serves to fuel a version of himself that his self-loathing narcissism can deal with. We see him engaging in all manner of regrettable behavior.

In a parking lot somewhere he meets Emma, who inspires in him a vision of a life wherein being truly seen is not synonymous with shame, but possibly true liberation and sublime, unfettered creativity. These ambitions are initially thwarted as jealousy, self-destruction and other charming human character traits emerge. Josh Tillman confesses as much all throughout.

First of all, taking Father John Misty, his music or this press release too seriously might be my first mistake. But I Love You, Honeybear is Father John Misty telling the tale of his former self, Josh Tillman, and how he transformed into the bewildering, intriguing character he is today.

We learned in Fear Fun that his “reality is realer than yours” and that he “never liked the name Joshua.” The question still remains, is FJM showing his authentic self, or will he end up looking like the next Ima Robot?


[interview starts at 16:14]

Father John Misty’s hour and a half therapy session on WTF with Marc Maron in late 2013 (as he recorded I Love You, Honeybear) is a primary source in looking behind the curtain. Tillman recollects that he wasn’t allowed to listen to “secular music” growing up, something he referred to as “a death sentence.” His first 10 records, all released as under the moniker J. Tillman, played it safe with literal dark and moody lyricism, never gaining him much traction in the Seattle music scene.

He realized during the J. Tillman years that he might be better at between-song joking and commentary than songwriting based on the crowd’s reaction during shows where he opened for other acts. He worked as a dishwasher, at a bakery and most notably as the drummer for Fleet Foxes — but Tillman expresses he’s always been drawn to things with immediate cause and effect, and that his experience with Robin Pecknold’s outfit made him realize he was an “unhappy narcissist.” He actually did drop it all to wander the Western U.S. and write a novel, something Tillman credits for helping to find his narrative voice.

That’s when the breakdown happened. He says it happened over “Josh Tillman the songwriter and failing to recognize how my value or self worth was tethered to success or lack thereof. I was afraid to face what I was.”

Maron brings up the concept of authenticity early in the interview, and Tillman replied, “That’s a sticky one, God knows what that means. Aesthetic authenticity is like hunting for shadows with a flashlight…”

“This conversation of authenticity played a big role in the shift to this writing style, which I arbitrarily deemed Father John Misty.” Tillman had taken a trip to the mountains of Big Sur for some soul searching just down the road from Felton, and he describes a moment of realization he had naked in a tree dosed on psilocybin:

“I spent my whole life developing this vernacular, this sense of humor, this way of speaking, this way of thinking, this worldview, and I had never really implemented it into my music.”

Something clicked that day, and he took this new thought process into the studio for Fear Fun. To recognize this musical right turn, he changed his stage name from J. Tillman to Father John Misty in a random convo with a roommate on a “why not?” whim. “The whole purpose of this name is that it’s just some dumb shit I would call myself, and it looks hilarious on a marquee, it looks like some Christian Science Puppet Show.” His name could just as well be Father John Sassypants.

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Father John Misty expressed his interest in Norman Mailer, one of the founders of creative nonfiction, when he appeared on the WTF podcast. He also condemned hippies and Mumford & Sons while giving props to the Grateful Dead. But the nod to new journalism, attributing a fictional literary style & form onto fact-based journalism, helps to explain the question of character versus authenticity.

“With the music, the fact that I’m interested in including all of my humanity, putting everything into the songs, that means I want drugs to be in there, I want whatever sex there is to be in there, I want religion to be in there. I want everything to be in there, but unfortunately drugs take a lot of real estate in people’s minds…I’m just interested in including real details.”

With this knowledge, the fog begins to clear. Father John Misty’s lyricism draws from his experiences and personal reality, his thoughts and memories. He might enhance his narrative prose as any great storyteller does, but most importantly he leaves a sense of mystery in tact.

He may have grown into the head tossing, “horny manchild mad mommas boy” that owns the stage like a boss today. But Father John Misty is clearly the vehicle that Tillman is most creative and comfortable in as an artist, channeling his wondrous, insane inner monologue for us to enjoy. Seems real to me.

FJM’s suspicious thoughts on the search for authenticity make sense after this exploration: “Where people look for authenticity, I think it’s a little misguided. I think authenticity is really intangible. It’s easier to see than describe.” This idea is explored throughout I Love You, Honeybear, particularly in “Holy Shit”, where he says, “That’s now myth, that’s now real” in the same breath. Father John Misty seems to strive for ambiguity, avoiding spoon-fed messaging, which at least partially explains his appeal.

Father John Misty has struck a sweet spot in the collective minds of indieheads by Trojan-horsing the singer-songwriter genre with subversive storytelling, and the strength of his new material ensures his rise in stature.

Now his PR campaign is rightfully taking a parallel tone with his music leading up to the album release, helping us to dive deeper into the rabbit hole of duality, that we love him and hate him at the same time. He’s launched Streamline Audio Protocol (SAP), his new website that allows you to listen the new album stripped down to the most basic stems in karaoke-like, instrumental form. This satirical take on the current stream-a-week-before-album-release model and the ubiquitous nature of start ups is as bitingly effective as the lyrics in his LP2.

Anyone that can pull off the line “kissing my brother in my dreams or finding God knows in my jeans” from the ballad “When You’re Smiling And Astride Me” deserves the world’s attention. Perhaps this is the part where Father John Misty gets all he ever wanted?

Father John Misty at Bret Harte Hall in Felton, CA // Photo by Carrie Frash

Father John Misty at Bret Harte Hall in Felton, CA // Photo by Carrie Frash

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