Father John Misty on stand-up comedy and his Halloween costume
Photo by Emma Garr
Will the real Josh Tillman please stand up? Artists are constantly evolving with new albums, but some give up their personas altogether. Josh Tillman, formerly of Fleet Foxes and J. Tillman, and currently performing under Father John Misty, is of the latter. Father John Misty manifested from Josh getting into his van "with enough mushrooms to choke a horse and started driving down the coast with nowhere to go." After a few weeks on this journey, Tillman started writing a novel, and it was also where he finally found his narrative voice.
The singer sat down with Gimme Noise, after he helped sell out a show as an opener at the Varsity Theater, and spoke about his transition into the next part of his musical career.
Gimme Noise: When you started writing for Father John Misty, did you have a goal, or did your musical voice become clearer as you were writing?
Josh Tillman: Well, I guess I reached some impasse where I realized I couldn't do what I'd been doing anymore. My initial impulse was to think I couldn't play music anymore or that songwriting couldn't meet what I needed. I had been stuck in a specific aesthetic or set parameters creatively.
GN: Did you feel you were creatively exhausted?
JT: Well, no. Essentially I had these artistic parameters that I had set when I was twenty, and I had tried writing music within those parameters for so long that I eventually thought those were the breadth and depth of my world -- my creative world. That's a dangerous place to get to: when you think you know everything that you're capable of. I got very sick of that world, of that creative perspective, so when I decided to leave the atmosphere, I started writing that book in the album. It was in the process of doing this certain writing that I realized I had quarantined myself to a small portion of my mind or my inspiration or anything. It was a while before I started writing songs again, but when I started writing again, I realized they didn't resemble the J. Tillman music or anything I had done before. It was like pissing on my own grave or something, and that was very exciting. It felt wrong. It just felt totally bizarre. I don't know. That excitement was what propelled all the rest of the songwriting along.
GN: Did it feel liberating to try something new?
JT: Yeah, you know, trying something new is always one of two things: it's either liberating or feels like a complete failure. For me, the prospect that it could be a complete failure was sort of exciting in itself.
GN: That lack of fear makes you not afraid to try new things.
JT: Yeah, there's a lot of new things that would not be exciting for me to try, but this music was a natural by-product of a larger moment of realization about myself.
GN: You released your album Fear Fun a few days before your 31st birthday. Was it a rebirth for you? Musically and in real life?
JT: It wasn't really a rebirth. It's more like when you decide to become a songwriter at whatever age, for me it was when I was around 19, when I decided I was going to play music instead of going to school or getting a real job or anything like that. You start to develop a persona. At that age -- at least for me -- I assumed that none of the things that came to me naturally had any innate creative value, and so you curate the parts of yourself you think you can get away with showing people while still maintaining your dignity. I did that for ten years. The longer I played the music, the more I realized this growing disparity between J. Tillman and his music of despair and Josh Tillman the human being, who was maybe a lot more interesting. At some point, I wanted to put the Josh Tillman that I know into my music as opposed to the self-loathing that makes you create some alter-ego. It's not so much a new person. It's an ability to musically have access to the real person. By doing that you have to reveal a lot. For me, really expressing myself musically means that I have to include my desires, my self-destruction, and all of these things that are very tricky. Yet, to do it with dignity, that's really more of what it is. It's more the old person that's in the music.
GN: I was at your last Minneapolis show when you opened for Youth Lagoon at the Varsity, and what I found particularly entertaining was you spoke almost between every song and you involved your humor into the show. I think people might be surprised at how funny you are. Did you involve that into your shows before Father John Misty?
JT: I have the same sensibilities I had then that I have now. A big moment of realization for me as an artist was playing these J. Tillman shows, in between songs, I would banter and tell stories and joke around. People would be laughing and really engaged, and when I went back to playing my "doom" music, I would notice their eyes glaze back over. That was a very sobering realization that I was far better at engaging people and communicating my truth through that mode. I don't want to be a stand-up comedian, so how do I reconcile these two very polarized elements about myself? I think that you do hear that in this new music. A lot of the album is about reconciling these things that don't seem to be related. Even the album title, that's a very uneasy juxtaposition of words. It's a
Photo by Emma Garr
GN: Are people often surprised of this other side of your personality when they meet you for the first time?
JT: They certainly were when I was doing the J. Tillman thing, because I think they expected a much different person than they would end up meeting. A lot of people would explicitly say, "I didn't expect you to be so funny." For me I think it was, if you have this ability, you're obligated creatively. If this music was really about honesty and truth, then I was obligated to include that, but I was really afraid of doing that, because I know how people marginalize humor. Generally people assume that if you're funny -- and this is something that all comedians struggle with -- is that everybody expects them to be funny all of the time. I don't want to be obliged to that -- at all. That's a new obstacle that I have to traverse now. I'm not just some clown, but I don't care as much now anymore. When I was younger and really wanted to be taken more seriously and respected, I just knew if I'm telling jokes and stuff, people are going to assume I'm a joke. Or people are going to assume I don't care about what I do and that I don't take it seriously.
GN: Do you feel that you don't need that validation now that you're older?
JT: Yeah, that's every much the case. You learn to let things go. It's less fear.
GN: Does the album title have anything to do with that?
JT: Oh, yeah, absolutely. In some ways, I am poking fun at myself.
GN: How did you come to working with Jonathon Wilson on this project?
JT: He and I met through mutual friends a couple of weeks after I moved to Los Angeles. We became friends, and he had this studio where I was hanging out anyways, so we started working together. I had all of these demos that were the songs on Fear Fun, and one night I was over there, and I played them all for him, and he really loved them. We decided to make an album, but even at that point, I just thought it would be another J. Tillman album. I didn't really have any big expectations for it or anything. I really like recording, but once we really started to get in there, I realized this is a completely different animal than anything I've done recently.
GN: Was it an epiphany?
JT: There was not as great as the creative epiphany that led to the novel or anything, but there was an epiphany that was, "Ok, you're on a completely different trip now."
GN: Are there any songs that you connect with more than others?
JT: No, I wrote about thirty songs in that period, and I'd say that the twelve that are on the album are songs that I really -- even the question of "Do I connect with them?" is problematic. They were all things I wanted to express in one big group.
GN: Let me me rephrase the question then, are there songs that you like performing more than others?
JT: Let's see. I really like performing "Writing a Novel," and I really like performing "Every Man Needs a Companion." Those are songs that I can inhabit every night. There are songs that maybe since I've written them that are a little more inhospitable. Those two are ones that will always welcome me with open arms.
GN: Do you usually perform without an instrument?
JT: This is the first time I've ever gotten onstage without something in my hands.
GN: How does that feel?
JT: I love it. I love just engaging, and I like moving around. When I talk, I gesture. I have very frenetic hands. When I'm onstage and kind of dancing and shimmying and all that shit, it's sort of a natural extension of my tendency to gesture wildly when I talk.
GN: Was it a conscious decision to not play an instrument onstage?
JT: Yeah, the decision not to play anything was an explicit, conscious decision. I just said, "I'm just gonna sing and dance." I didn't realize the dancing would be such a "thing" until Letterman. (laughs) We hadn't really played many live shows before we got there. We were doing the rehearsals; I'm just dancing and moving around, and I think it was halfway through the second run-through of the song where I realized, "Oh, ok, this is going to be a 'thing.' This is the way I'm going to do this. What have I got myself into?" It's very honest, and it really is my way of communicating.
GN: I enjoyed it. With singer/songwriters, you don't usually see that. They have their guitar, or they're behind some other instrument. It's interesting to see that type of expression.
JT: A big part of this album was about me killing, or murdering, the song. I don't totally relate to that archetype of being sensitive/confessional/precious songwriter thing. Like we were saying before, I have too much of a sense of humor for that. I have too much self-awareness. The big part of not doing J. Tillman anymore was having that moment of radical honesty with myself where I said, "You're just not that dude." I write a lot of these songs on an acoustic guitar, but I'm not a guitarist. I'm something else. I'm more of a circus barker.
GN: Where do you see your project headed in the future?
JT: Headed to a point where I know exactly what I'm doing, and I get totally depressed by that and blow up and start all over again.
GN: It's always good to recreate yourself.
JT: Humans are very malleable. I think we're meant for more of that than I think the culture would necessarily imply.
GN: For sure. I remember how in senior year of high school, teachers and guidance counselors would make students pick out what they want to be for the rest of their lives. It's scary that we stay within those means.
JT: We get it drilled into our heads that life is some kind of marathon race that you have run, that success is maintaining some level of work stability your whole life. I also remember those teachers and guidance counselors. I was like, "Why don't you just fucking put me in prison?" That doesn't make sense to me.
GN: Very true; we are constantly changing. You talk about success. How do you define success?
JT: Success to me is survival -- and not survival in the material sense -- but survival in a creative sense where you can set the precedent to keep creating.
GN: I'm always interested to hear what people say to that question, because it could mean different things to different people. To some, it may mean having a family, to others it may mean doing what they want to do.
JT: Yeah, it's funny. Especially with music, it's getting a bunch of money, and ultimately, not having to do the music anymore or not having to put anything in your music anymore. Knowing that whatever you make, people are just going to buy it, and it's going to be fine, and you're going to be able to keep your house. What I really mean is, it's not in the material sense, it's whatever it takes to stay in that place where you can live with yourself and examine yourself and continue to create from that place.
GN: Your next show in Minneapolis is on Halloween. Do you have anything crazy planned? Any crazy costumes?
JT: I'm just gonna buy a Jesus costume and go as J. Tillman -- or maybe I'll go as J. Tillman of Fleet Foxes.
Father John Misty will perform at the Fine Line Music Cafe on Wednesday, October 31, 2012 with LA Sera and JEFFERTITTI's NILE. 18+, $15, 7:30 p.m. Purchase tickets here.
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