“On one level I’m being a miserable wretch but on the other hand I enjoy breaking up this monotonous, narcoleptic drone of positivity that I think people are used to hearing.” Josh Tillman isn’t the kind to rhapsodise in interviews. His disposition, he explains, “isn’t really, ‘gushing enthusiasm’”. It’s an attitude that’s reflected in his lyrics, a conglomeration of hardcore honesty and trademark black humour rattled with tenderness and pegged in avoidance of sentimentality, because, as he once wrote in a press release for his Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins) music video, “sentimentality brutalises emotion”.
For Tillman, expression and existence are inextricably interlinked, and a single plane existence has no part in his truth. After a four-year stint as drummer for Fleet Foxes (alongside a longer, less-recognised solo career as J. Tillman), he famously quit, with the explanation that just playing music, no matter how successfully, wasn’t enough to grant him fulfilment. A lone mushroom trip inside a tree trunk in Big Sur spurred the epiphany that led to his current musical incarnation as Father John Misty: gregarious, self-aware; centrestage and rightfully so.
“I know that this seems contradictory but I actually respect people enough to be real with them and not just tell them a bunch of bullshit.”
“I think that in order to find the sublime and to find the pure and to find the real you have to be willing to detach at least occasionally so you can see the forest for the trees.”
If I were to call Tillman a cynic I wouldn’t be the first. But, he says, there’s a difference between cynicism and detachment. “Detachment is an often underrated element of spiritual life and there’s a lot more emphasis on it in eastern cultures … But I think that (in) this culture, the emphasis is on constant engagement, constant community; to withdraw or to be cynical in any way is viewed as this sort of antisocial behaviour ... Sometimes that can be messy when you have interviews and you have to go out in front of people and really engage ... You become the centre of this fucking world. You can’t engage in that all the time or you become delusional.”
While psychedelics and self-discovery are permeating variables in Fear Fun – Tillman’s first album as Father John Misty – in second album I Love You, Honeybear we bear witness to a new era of introspection, in the context of true love. Tillman’s ode to his wife, photographer and filmmaker Emma Elizabeth Tillman, is voyeuristically candid, created in a nest of uninterrupted intimacy. He calls it ‘the unmasking’: an exposure of faults that takes place in any close long-term relationship, romantic or otherwise – only for him, it’s literally on the record.
“When you are intimate with someone it can be so hard not to lose track. These things, they feel so exclusive to you and they feel so retched and absurd that when they inspire people … I can’t imagine ever getting used to that.”