Father John Misty: TAS In Session
Josh Tillman has been on a mission to discover his "real" voice as a musician, singer and songwriter for a while, trying on the guise of J. Tillman for a solo career and drumming with Fleet Foxes (he left that band earlier this year) and Saxon Shore.
But he's finally found his muse as Father John Misty, releasing the quirky Fear Fun in May on Sub Pop and Bella Union to critical plaudits. The success of the record also has him on the road for the balance of 2012 — he plays Australia this week, returns to the States for Outside Lands on August 10, heads to Europe in November and he's even booked on board the S.S. Coachella cruises in December.
Tillman has plenty of opinions on being a working musician — he admits to some "contempt" for his audience as stoner cowboy Father John Misty — but he saves the worst critcism for himself, refusing to even play his older solo material in shows.
Watch Father John Misty perform in Studio A below and listen to the intriguing TAS/WFUV session with the loquacious Tillman this Friday, July 27 on TAS on WNYE at 11 a.m. EDT, also streaming on TAS and in the WFUV archives:
Alisa Ali: I understand that you never liked the name Joshua. Should I call you Father?
Josh Tillman: No. The great thing about lyrics and art in general is that you can paint with obtuse sentiments in order to convey something that is a little less sensationalized than the material itself. I’m not particularly literal about that whole thing. Essentially, one of the pillars of the record is the idea of, or the exploration of, the very arbitrary nature of identity. Hence the goofy name which, to me, is a bit of a red herring to add a vital layer of confusion around the topic of the self.
Alisa: Well, if nothing else, you are obtuse. What is the idea behind Fear Fun? You don’t seem to be the type of guy who fears fun.
Josh: Quite to contrary. At least in the creative sense, I was afraid of fun. In my mind, for a long time, the fun really didn’t have any place in the creative perception. I’d not quite bridged that gap. I was doing a lot of compartmentalization of my own experiences and what I chose to create. I think when you’re younger your experiences aren’t particularly valid in some way, at least where the creative pursuit is concerned. When you’re on the shoulders of giants, it’s not a fun place to be. It’s scary and intimidating. The whole Fear Fun thing to me is basically the DNA of the album lyrically. The decoder ring. The lyrics make a lot more sense through that. It’s a distillation of the album lyrically. I’m basically making fun of myself with the album title.
Alisa: Clearly you are now embracing the creative process.
Josh: That’s not to say that I didn’t before, not entirely. I think for a lot of people there’s an idea, whether you’re conscious of it or not, that the only things that are creatively valuable are the things that are the byproduct of fear and trembling. I think that is just an idea that fell by the wayside the older I got.
Alisa: Your lyrics are dense and intense and there’s so much good stuff in there. I will quickly ask about the lyric-writing process and how involved are you with editing that down.
Josh: I’m the only person involved with editing them. There wasn’t a whole lot of self-editing. I came to this realization that I was more interesting and had more access to truth in two minutes of conversation than I did in five minutes of song. The stage banter thing was something that I really wrestled with for a long time because I can’t resist getting a microphone in front of me and not trying to be funny or subversive. I noticed while doing banter, people were engaged and the minute I went back to playing my Dungeons and Dragons songs, they’d glaze back over. There was a very sober realization that I was way better [with my] narrative and conversational voice than my songwriting voice. As a younger person, you think, how does a songwriter write? It was important for me to dispel that attitude to songwriting. So these songs were written very quickly, at the same pace that my cognitive connections happen in real time. I didn’t belabor over them too much. There was definitely tweaking — what’s a better word here or there — but for the most part, the song I’m about to play, ["I’m Writing A Novel"], I wrote in ten minutes and just laughed my ass off the whole time. That’s my new metric for what’s good and what’s not.
Alisa: Never trust a Canadian shaman.
Josh: Yeah, I think you may be taking these songs a little too literally instructive.
Alisa: I like specific lines and imagery that you conjure.
Josh: Oh thanks! It’s way better as an idea in a song than it was in real life. Humor, in this context, is best when it’s too specific to not be true in some way but it simultaneously so outlandish that it leaves some kind of doubt in your mind. I like to explain all of my jokes. It makes them way funny ….
Alisa: [And you wrote a novel?]
Josh: A lot of my songwriting in the past has been informed by this cumbersome membrane between and songwriting which was, “What is the songwriter voice?” When I started writing that mess, there was no lust for success and I didn’t have any personal value wrapped in how good of a novelist I was. At that time I had no idea of showing [my novel] to anyone; it was just an exercise. I think the liberties that I was giving myself in terms of a novel — doesn’t have to make sense, it doesn’t have to say much about me, it can be funny, it can be tragic, I’m not using it as a calling card for my own artistic merit — that became a very useful frame of mind once I was trying to write songs again. That novel writing really set a precedent; I was accountable to that, from that point on. The novel really informed the songs on the album; that was party of why I wanted to include it. It’s a novelty gag, a footnote to a lyric, which makes me impervious to a certain amount of literary critique which adds an another layer of hilarity to me ….
When I was 29 I realized that part of why I was so unhappy was because I’d completely perverted songwriting and singing. It has become perverse and had no function other than to bolster my ability to live in the world with dignity which is … well, dignity really has no place in creativity. Self-preservation of one’s dignity is toxic to the creative pursuit. So setting about to write something that I was probably pretty terrible at, but was having fun doing, was a good way to bring down those distortions.
Alisa: So when you look back at your previous work, what do you think?
Josh: I understand it. I understand why I did it. It’s honest music, but it was made in this, “I hope this works” kind of way. But the moment these songs were done it was purely a creative success for me which was a new experience. I just hear a lot of fear and vanity in my old … and alot of contrarianism. Somebody who had been told regularly that they were funny. Now I just don’t care which is very liberating.
Alisa: Do you not play the older songs?
Josh: No, I can’t. I don’t … that was an alter-ego. The J. Tillman thing was an alter-ego. That’s been one of the interesting things to address with this stuff, the fact that you can make records under your own name for ten years and not say much of anything about yourself. You can say a lot about what you’d like for your pain to look like … but I don’t know.
Alisa: And now you’re putting out music as Father John Misty.
Josh: There’s more accessible truth in it which is an important distinction. There’s truth in the other records I made but I wasn’t interested in people being able to access it. I was creating firewalls between me and my listener. This is now my conversational voice set to music.
Alisa: So you moved from California to Seattle.
Josh: I left Seattle in duress at 4:30 in the morning one day. I didn’t plan on moving. I didn’t move from Seattle to Los Angeles; I just left Seattle. I was in Big Sur and a friend of mine said, “Are you going to live somewhere or just keep sleeping in your van?” And I was like, I like California a lot. He had a buddy with an open shack for rent in Laurel Canyon which I immediately confused as Topanga Canyon, thinking I’d be living out in the boonies. Lo and behold, the GPS took me to Hollywood which was hilarious. The hilarious realization that I’d bumbled my way into living in Hollywood. I was very adaptive. I just wanted to live somewhere weird. Urban centers in America are so whitewashed and banal. That’s really depressing for me and why living in Seattle was depressing. I accidentally engineered this hilariously grotesque set of circumstances for myself which worked really well with the novel and as a backdrop for these songs I was writing. It’s a mythological locale in the American psyche and it was fun to telegraph my deeply personal experiences against this cartoonishly glamorous backdrop. I think some of that tension is where some of the humor comes from.
Alisa: Do you see yourself staying there?
Josh: Yeah! I like it there. I’ll definitely stay. There’s a lot of opportunities there. It’s a very innocent place and I like that about it … you have an idea [like video] and before you know it there are three or four people around you who are like, “That’s great! I know three or four people ….” I like that pace. I don’t like having to defend the validity of my creative ideas to every jaded jerkoff around me. I like that about Los Angeles.
“Only Son of the Ladies Man”
Alisa: Are you constantly writing?
Josh: I am constantly writing and I have a whole other record written and ready to go. This is the first album I’ve ever made where there’s any kind of demand so it’s new territory. I’m used to cranking out albums, but this one is requiring a little more promotion. But I’m actually really enjoying that aspect of it; the shows feel creative, real and fun. Like an actual moment of something.
Alisa: Were you not enjoying live performances before?
Josh: Not at all. Mostly because I was kidding myself that the music was even intended to be played for other people in bars. I wasn’t really doing my job as a performer, while expecting people to react as if I were. So there’s a lot of dissonance in there. Now I get up on stage and I know what I’m doing. I know how to do it. I have all along, but I was very resistant to be that person because I don’t really like people and the idea of entertaining them in a lot of ways is completely odious to me. So striking that balance, that I really am entertaining myself … that was a big realization.
I should say that my idea about entertaining people is continuing to refine, grow and change, but there’s contempt. What a lot of people don’t realize is that there is a lot of contempt in performance. Most people who are inspired to create, they’re inspired to do that to address their own issues and experience. And then you kind of give it to these people who might care or might not care and you’re the one left holding the check. So there’s some level of contempt, but that’s really vital to an engaging performance.