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Father John Misty delivers bruising piss-taking, knowing manipulation of celebrity, and surprisingly sincere love songs. By Kate Holden.

The irony of Father John Misty

Father John Misty, aka Joshua Tillman
Credit: Emma Elizabeth Tillman

It’s really stupidly difficult to be a holy fool these days. If he whispers in riddles he will be taken piously; if he screams truths, everyone loves the joke. In a post-post, ultra-ironic neoliberal cosmos of saturation marketing and predatory banality, the jester will strike a pose; but the more he struggles free, the more tightly the binds draw.

It’s a paradox not lost on Joshua Tillman, who performs as Father John Misty. He is an expert in spiral irony. Last year the American indie musician heard that Ryan Adams had done an album of covers of Taylor Swift’s songs, in the style of The Smiths and Springsteen. Tickled, Tillman promptly recorded his own cover of Adams’s cover, this time in the mode of The Velvet Underground. He uploaded it, figured it would make a nicely postmodern comment on music production, and went to bed. The next morning it was, “the biggest thing I have ever done in my life”.

Sitting across a hotel bar table in South Yarra during a visit to Melbourne, his calm southern drawl grows disbelieving. “It was the top trend on Facebook. On all of Facebook. USA Today was writing about it. I started getting TV offers pouring in. It turned into this humungous thing and it just made me sick.” He took down the tracks, and next day faced a blizzard of media demanding to know if Swift had called cease and desist. He issued a facetious statement claiming the late Lou Reed had visited him in a dream to request the withdrawal. International press covered the revelation. “I could say anything I wanted, and I wanted to test that. So I did, and they printed everything.” Incredulous, he gave the scoop some weeks later to a journalist. Again things exploded: Reed dream was a hoax! Father John Misty reveals!

“It was just madness. The first couple of hours were exciting because the covers themselves were funny and I have an amazing Lou Reed impression, so that was funny. But the media took it as licence to dogpile on Ryan Adams, and, ironically, on their own culture, like –” and he puts on a sententious tone – “‘We’ve taken this too far!’ I’m like, Who do you think is doing this?” He sits back from his beer. “For someone who has a pretty sizeable threshold for that sort of thing, it just disturbed me.”

If it astonished Tillman, then the infinite regress of media narcissistic delusion really has gone too far. Because the articulate, charismatic and immensely tall artist has made half his art from taking the piss. It all started reasonably enough, on a modest trajectory into the sunny uplands of indie rock with support slots in Seattle, limited-edition self-printed CD-R albums, a first official folk rock solo album called Minor Works in 2006 followed by several more, totalling seven records within four years. Meanwhile, there were four years as drummer with much-loved band Fleet Foxes. Time with Saxon Shore. Time with another 10 or so bands. Living variously in New York, Seattle, New Orleans and Los Angeles. So far, so indie-respectable. But three months after his final gig with Fleet Foxes in 2012, he released Fear Fun, under a new performing name, and the jester suddenly leapt over a cliff.

Tillman had hit the skids, taken off with a van and the obligatory shitload of magic mushrooms, climbed a tree naked, melted his mind, and descended a new man. The album was acclaimed for its kaleidoscopic narratives, mordant humour and galumphing musical energy. Away with ye, familiar Josh Tillman, pleasing droll troubadour of independent poetry. Enter Father John Misty, prophet of a new bruised sleaze.  

Long-haired, bearded, Nazarene, as one critic put it, with a gaunt handsome Amish face and pale chest, Tillman habitually wears scruffy black suits and thin white shirts as in Patti Smith’s Mapplethorpe portrait. It’s a look that simultaneously evokes mandolin-playing new-folkistas, sunsetty Malick films, cold-drip coffee disciples, 1960s bedsit minstrels, and the pissy, marvellous, eternal divines of self-scorn, Baudelaire and Rimbaud. As with everything Tillman, the look is simultaneously a knowing nod to forebears and a saturnine fuck-you.

Reading any review of his work, especially one that either extravagantly lauds or reviles his earlier albums, you can’t be sure he hasn’t secretly authored it himself. In fact, one of his most glittering creations is the essay penned in his ecstatically cranky artist biography, titled “Biographical Copy – Draft #12”, on the website of legendary record label Sub Pop. It is a study in smartarse hyper-knowingness. The original conceit of his latest and greatest album, I Love You, Honeybear, he writes, “was one of lots of depressing, gory play-by-plays of prurient misadventure and sexual humiliation… This was comfortable territory for me.” Then he turns to staging art-grad musings on the semiotics of love songs, ranting about degradation of popular culture, and quotes from European theorists… “Did you see what I was doing there?” he interrupts himself. “I do it a lot. I avoid talking about myself honestly by making grand, incoherent, reductionist commentary rooted in my pretty dim and generally uniformed view of humanity.”

And then he tells how after Fear Fun Father John Misty fell in love and the whole thing flipped. Tillman met a photographer named Emma in a Laurel Canyon parking lot, had a drink with her at the Chateau Marmont, and married her in 2013. “What the fuck was I supposed to write about then? Kissing in the rain? Looking deeply into each other’s eyes?” he writes. “CLICHÉS! DRIVEL! CHEAP SENTIMENTALITY!”

Like a kid who pulls the pigtails of the girl he secretly likes, Father John Misty couldn’t just write a love song. An analogy might be his mischief about encores. Inviting a question from his audience at the end of each gig, Tillman was asked: Why so cynical about coming back out? “I said, to me the truly cynical thing is to walk out onto the stage and act like it is this spontaneous thing.” Everyone knows he’ll come back out. It’s more cynical not to acknowledge that.

It’s fine to give the wink to fatuous social mores, but it must be exhausting to extend this hyper-awareness, this touchy shrugging-off, to everything, including a whole album and a personal eternity with his wife. He began working on Honeybear before he met Emma. The desire to be sincere was detonating in him, but the Faustian habit of drollery is not so easily flinched off. “We’re all these postmodern creatures who have been inundated with history and criticism and art,” he says of the challenge of sincerity. “We’ve all seen and heard more than any other generation of people. You hear a lot of that in my music. On the new album there’s a song, ‘I Went to the Store One Day’ with a line, ‘Insert here a sentiment re: our golden years.’ So when that seventh lift in that song comes there I was like, Okay, this is the place for the denouement, the big finale. I had this placeholder, you know: ‘Insert here a comment re: our golden years.’ And that lyric ended up having the most oxygen in it. It was the most authentic. Even if on the paper it seems the most inauthentic, or a copout.” He sighs. “We have to go around fucking apologising all the time for being what you are. It’s exhausting and it’s really demoralising. It’s something I have to stop doing. It’s nothing but neurotic.”

For Tillman, authenticity and sincerity come from enacting inauthenticity, hypocrisy. And yet he wanted to write of love. Is it possible to avoid the schmaltz? “Yeah.” Big thoughtful pause. “All the best aspects of the human experience get commodified and exploited for a reason. Because they’re so essential. Any time you can sell people something that’s free: that’s just a basic tenet of radical capitalism. But I think that conflict is pretty central to the album. There’s this competing voice, as you listen to the whole album: Am I really writing about this? Am I really doing this?”

Was he embarrassed by the love songs? “I think I was. Because I think I knew what love was, so I thought that I knew that it was… You know that song ‘Holy Shit’?” I trawl for its most insistent lyric: “Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity/ What I fail to see is what that’s got to do with you and me.” Check. “I wrote that the day before I got married,” he says. “I guess I’m pretty old-fashioned. I mean, I’m married. And I’m in love with someone and I’m monogamous to them.” That can be a revelation to someone his age. “Yeah. Yeah. There’s a Walt Whitman poem I really like where he says, intimacy will ‘solve the problems of freedom yet; Those who love each other shall become invincible.’ I think that I feel in some ways invincible and liberated from the problems of freedom. And in American culture the freedom of choice is everything. The choice that we’re offered is a counterfeit of real choice. Choice is a really powerful thing that you only implement meaningfully a few times in one’s life, I think. It’s not something that you do a million times a day.”

In the end the Honeybear he chose to release came out both ardent and scowling. There are songs full of savagery, others sweetened with romance and hope. It embodies Tillman’s understanding of the paradox of committed love: “As a single person you live in this duality: the good me and the bad. The me I like and the me I don’t like. Intimacy flips the whole thing, so it’s the person you don’t like who’s the most loveable to the other. Not all of it, but your imperfections. And that’s why love is so revolutionary, in a personal way, in a meaningful way.”

The album’s revelatory vulnerability is, characteristic of our times, often expressed – armoured – in satire. Its adolescent gambit is most explicit in a tale of mentally disturbed young women – a self-portrait – and the bitter portrait of hypocrisy “The Night Josh Tillman Came to our Apartment”. “That’s like impotent rage. There’s all this self-righteous posturing in it. I’m dressing down this girl but what am I doing in her bed? What am I looking for, if I’m so much better than her? What am I even doing there? I think that with this record I’m expecting so much empathy out of the listener to justify some of the disturbing material. That song to me is as disturbing as it gets.”

Tillman doesn’t use much social media but keeps a desultory Instagram account. It’s full of videos of sunsets on tropical beaches – generic rubbish uploaded from YouTube – and moody filtered photographs of himself standing in stunning landscapes… entranced by his mobile. “This one has a caption saying, ‘My mind tells me this is a cliché but my heart tells me I’m fundamentally unique.’ ” It has more than 4000 likes. “The irony is that people love it. But irony in that sense can be a wake-up call or it can be really anaesthetising and it can serve to justify the thing it claims to be critiquing. That’s something you have to be really, really careful of, because it can sneak up on you really fast.”

Is art, then, for the audience or for the artist? Father John Misty is a superstar now, writhing with torn shirt and shades on stages before clamouring fans around the world. Appearing on The Late Show and Master of None. Is it all still mainly a private joke?

“There’s something about white, middle-class, guilt-ridden, educated men that produces a very uniform style of art,” Tillman admits. “I’m a proud member of that dubious lineage. I can’t unmake myself. I can’t be anything else.” But beyond all the jokes and cleverness, there is art, too. He’s a musician, not a concept artist. He insists plausibly that he’s never called anyone “honeybear” in his life but at home perhaps he can relax the meta-irony. “For me, the irony and the sentimentality and whatever else, they’re all inextricable from one another. I’m not employing them in separate measures to achieve a desired effect. It all feels normal to me. I think what people perceive as irony is for me just levity. And mischief.”

But, he says, “I’m the one laughing the hardest. This whole thing was birthed out of a psychedelic encounter with the cosmic joke. I had a moment of clarity. Nothing ironic about it.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 16, 2016 as "Play Misty". Subscribe here.

Kate Holden
is the author of the memoirs In My Skin and The Romantic: Italian Nights and Days.