From the heart: Father John Misty explores the messed-up, warts-and-all side of love
For his second album, inspired by his wife Emma Garr, Josh Tillman, aka Father John Misty, had to surrender to love – and a little bit of schmaltz
Josh Tillman: “This whole intellectual dream that I’ve been living in, I’m ready to wake up and address this new reality”
For a man who doesn’t take himself too seriously in his music – in fact, many of his lyrics are downright hilarious – Josh Tillman is a deep thinker.
“I’m talking about the album being a continuum between these two kind of polarities of perceived enlightenment,” he says down the phone from a dimly lit parking garage in Los Angeles. “This whole intellectual dream that I’ve been living in, I’m ready to wake up and address this new reality that has nothing to do with all of these truisms and justifications and whatever else.” Right you are.
Don’t let that put you off. Tillman’s most recent album, under his adopted guise of Father John Misty, is exceptional. He may be prone to intense self-scrutiny at times, but I Love You, Honeybear is a beautiful profession of love, and all of its confusing, messed-up, transformative defects.
The album comes off the back of 2012’s Fear Fun, which saw Tillman leave behind his past as “former Fleet Foxes drummer” and his folk-based solo output as J Tillman for a more musically rambunctious adventure. The album established the Baltimore-born, New Orleans-based musician as a songwriter with a sharp wit and a strong melodic voice of his own.
I Love You, Honeybear, on the other hand, has been described as “a concept album about Josh Tillman”, with his marriage to photographer and screenwriter Emma Garr playing a strong role in the album’s lyrical content. Finding his own voice as Father John Misty, and feeling confident enough to progress with that dourly humorous tone – in the same way as people from Morrissey to Stephin Merrit and John Grant have in the past – was key.
“I had a lot more trust, and a lot more confidence in my own voice,” he admits. “It’s never occurred to me to write in my own voice before; I don’t know why, but I’m glad that that intersected with the start of Father John Misty. And I’m grateful in a million ways that have nothing to do with my songwriting enterprise that I met Emma, and that I’ve had the experiences that I’ve had with her – and what I perceive to be some level of transformation.”
That sense of confidence bled into the album’s musical arrangements. Once again produced by his fellow songsmith Jonathan Wilson, there’s a gorgeous 1970s folk sheen over most songs, with sweeping strings, brass, mournful piano ballads and more making up the album’s musical DNA; he will tour it with a seven-piece band, which gives you some indication of its ambitious sound.
I remind him that he recently described the sound as “putting Kiss make-up on the cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends”, a description he maintains with an uproarious laugh. Other musicians that informed the record’s sound include some of the classics – from Dory Previn to Randy Newman and John Lennon.
“It’s only within the last few years that those people have really come into my life,” he says.
“It’s weird for a songwriter; you have to be careful what you listen to, and it’s very difficult to extricate your songwriting from your ability to listen to music. You sort of want to listen to your ‘others’, in some respect – like, ‘these people understand my perspective’. It’s just inspiring that you’re not alone . . . For some reason, I’m really at home with neurotic, over-thinking songwriters like Dory Previn or Randy Newman.”
It wasn’t easy hitting upon that sound.
“I had this big moment of inspiration when I was in the desert in Joshua Tree with Emma; I heard this big deranged, schmaltzy sound in my head, and I was really inspired to cultivate this whole new thing and break with whatever I’d done the last time. Then I got into the studio and just completely forgot about all of that and spent four months in fear, trying to recreate what I’d done the last time,” he chuckles. “It was a little while before I could face the fact that whatever it is I did last time, it just wasn’t gonna work.”
Demonic twin album
He recorded sessions for the album, and then promptly scrapped them. “There’s a whole demonic twin version of this album that could have come out, yeah,” he says. “I had this fear of sentimentality. It was new territory for me [falling in love], and I was really afraid of trivialising these experiences with sentimentality. Emma was the only person with the inside track, who would tell me, ‘These are different songs, and you can’t be afraid to let them be beautiful’, which was highly informative. But there was a lot of ironic late-night fights where I was bringing home songs basically about my devotion to her, and then just getting really angry that she didn’t like them.”
He is adamant that despite the subject matter and his propensity for “miraculous thinking” there is nothing spiritual or divine about this album. It’s a love album, yes; but it’s the messed-up, warts-and-all, mistake-and-redemption ridden side of love.
“I think that my loftiest ideal for my music is that by writing so intimately about myself that in some kind of counter-intuitive way, it kind of becomes universal. That’s what I love about something like John Lennon; in his later output, he was writing about being a frustrated stay-at-home dad.
“When I played this album for my friends for the first time, I just wanted to melt into the floor – I couldn’t believe what I was putting out on the table. But they said ‘This actually sounds like you.’ That’s what I’ve been gunning for all along.”
I Love You, Honeybear is out now. Father John Misty plays Whelan’s, Dublin, on February 22nd