Play Misty for us
Josh Tillman, indie-folk superstar and former Fleet Fox, is moving on once again – and it’s a lot more than just a name change. “The J Tillman thing had kind of gotten away from me,” he tells LAUREN MURPHY
I’VE JUST given Josh Tillman a friendly warning about his upcoming Irish gig: his most recent musical pseudonym may draw a crowd that he’s not used to entertaining. We have actual singing priests in Ireland, I inform him; adapting the moniker Father John Misty could prove a risky move.
“Really?” he says, unperturbed by the possibility of the front row consisting of Bible-wielding devotees. “Oh, I hope and pray that a small horde of people come, hoping for a wholesome evening of liturgical music!”
Although he was raised in a Christian household, there’s no religious reasoning behind his newest stage name; after recording seven albums under the J. Tillman alias, the Baltimore-born folk singer simply thought it was time for a change. The fact that it marked a shift in Tillman’s sound – from solemn, sparse folk to a joyful, often celebratory and undeniably optimistic full-band sound – is no coincidence, however.
As he puts it on the opening track of his new album Fear Fun, “I never liked the name Joshua / I grew tired of J”.
“I guess I came to some realisation that I had been making these albums under my own name, and for a while, they were very representative of ‘Josh Tillman’,” he says. “But at some point, I think I realised that they were no longer so. The ‘J. Tillman’ thing had kind of gotten away from me, and I think writing was kind of lagging behind where I was as a human being. I thought it was interesting that you could make these albums under your own name, but just because they’re under your own name, it doesn’t mean that you’re really saying much about yourself. The name itself – the Father John Misty thing – that’s just for kicks. It makes me laugh. And I liked the juxtaposition of this patently ridiculous name with this explicitly honest music.”
Having abandoned his four-year post as drummer with Fleet Foxes, Tillman cut (most of) his long hair, shaved (most of) his beard and . . . well, lightened up a bit. Much of Fear Fun’s lyrics are laced with wry, acerbic wit, yet countered by thought-provoking and often-melancholic elements.
“It’s the first time that I’ve ever written in my conversational voice, and it’s the first album that has any remnant of my sense of humour,” he says. “I was afraid – and I think rightfully so, for a while – to include my sense of humour in my music, because it’s a very difficult thing to pull off. I mean, obviously I don’’t want to make novelty music or joke songs or anything, but I thought I could make it work. Humour is a very volatile ingredient in music; you can run the risk of marginalising yourself to your audience if they assume that you’re just yuckin’ it up, or whatever. But I do have a very unique sense of humour, and I think that I just realised that in order for the music to be honest, I had to include that part of my personality, because it is such a dominant part of my worldview. And if I continued to omit that from my writing, my writing would never be truly honest.”
One of the factors in creating a shift in Tillman’s songwriting mindset was the completion of a novel, published alongside the album in poster form, which he wrote after taking a trip a magic mushroom-inspired (the clue is in the album artwork) trip down the Californian coast. Taking a break from music and adopting a literature-oriented mindset, he says, helped him to see things more clearly.
“It was really during the process of writing the novel that I accessed my own conversational voice,” he explains. “With songwriting, it’s very easy – without even noticing that you’re doing it – to write how you think a ‘writer’ should write, as opposed to writing like yourself. And I think getting away from the songwriting thing, and conveying myself in another medium where I didn’t have all these aesthetic parameters preset, helped.
“When I would sit down to write a J. Tillman song, there were a lot of things that I would say that J. Tillman wouldn’t say: it was so serious. And not to discredit it, because that music was very cathartic for me – but when I was writing the book, I wasn’t beholden to that J. Tillman voice or method, and I noticed that my humour was really emerging. I was like, laughing my ass off the whole time I was writing that book,” he chuckles.
“I just thought it was hilarious, and the whole exercise was so absurd. Once I accessed that, I thought, ‘Well, here I am. All I have to do is apply this to the songwriting’. And what was interesting to me was that the content of the lyrics really dictates how you sing them, and these lyrics were just so plain-spoken. I noticed that I was even singing much more differently than I had previously.”
The music is certainly more upbeat, with songs such as the off-kilter This is Sally Hatchet and the warm, catchy I’m Writing a Novel recalling The Beatles. Elsewhere, the tremulous harmonies of Only Son of the Ladiesman isnt too far removed from his last nine-to-five, Fleet Foxes, while Tee Pees 1-12 can best be described as a “country hoedown”. Recorded in fellow folkie Jonathan Wilson’s Laurel Canyon studio, Tillman agrees that the west coast sunshine helped to imbue the album with a lighter touch.
“Absolutely,” he says. “All my experiences get boiled down into the songs, and I do think that the California thing played in to the sound of the album. More than anything, the songs themselves dictated the arrangement and the approach and all that – but I will just say that it was just really fun making an album there. The idea of making this kind of sunny album really appealed to me; it was like an installation piece, in a way.”
Considering that he’d been releasing albums both up to and during his stint in Fleet Foxes, it was somewhat inevitable that he’d return to his solo guise sooner or later.
“When I joined that band, it was another phase where I needed some distance from my own creative thing,” he says. “Unfortunately, I think I really overestimated my interest in being a drummer in a band [rather than] just being a musician. Ultimately, I’m really only interested in writing. I was making albums all through my stint with them, but . . . yeah, I guess I always did have a foot out the door. But it took a little while for me to realise that.”
Nowadays, there’s a freedom to being unshackled from a drum kit at the back of the stage and being able to set the tone of a show – or, as Tillman puts it: “I like being able to banter as much as I want.” With plans for another novel, a screenplay and plenty more ideas in the songwriting canon, too, it sounds like the 31-year-old of no-fixed-moniker is quite content with the direction his career is headed these days.
“Well, I think there’s been an important distinction,” he says, after a pause to consider his lot. “The thing that I hear most from people I’ve known a long time when they hear the album is, ‘this music actually sounds like you’. This is the singing voice that I’ve had my whole life, but the goal is finding a way to incorporate your real voice into your music. That means you have to bring down a lot of vanity, and you have to bring down a lot of fear, because no one – myself included – should assume that their everyday conversational voice is artistically valid. I kind of took the long way around realising that for myself. But, hey: I got there in the end.”
Father John Misty plays The Workmans Club in Dublin on November 24th. Fear Fun is out now on Bella Union.