Josh Tillman is a songwriter, guitarist, drummer, author, artist, and all encompassing renaissance man who, by boldly embracing his impulses, and bravely following his artistic visions, has crafted one of my favorite records of 2012. He has left his role as drummer for the Fleet Foxes, shed his singer-songwriter solo-moniker, J Tillman, and is now calling himself Father John Misty.
This week, Sub Pop delivers Mr. Tillman's first album as Father John Misty, called Fear Fun. The record is a rewarding culmination of the strengths found in his previous work, along with a heavy dose of surprises. The tunes on Fear Funfamiliarly touch upon his contributions to Fleet Foxes that listeners of that band will surely recognize, but more significantly, the record illustrates an incredibly bold leap from his own lengthy, and carefully crafted singer-songwriter discography.
Fear Funis sonically, stylistically, and artistically diverse, brave, unapologetic, and above all, honest. Listening to the record, it quickly becomes evident that the tunes are directed by an extraordinary songwriter with a restless and prolific soul.
With his new record, Josh Tillman as Father John Misty, offers us an exciting opportunity to re-acquaint ourselves with an artist that we may have thought we knew under a different name, but who is unquestionably re-emerging anew. Fear Funis both a powerful declaration artistically for Tillman himself, as well as a richly-rewarding collection of songs that is wildly appealing, and compulsively listenable for us.
I had the opportunity to speak to Josh Tillman in a phone interview earlier this year regarding his trajectory up to becoming Father John Misty, as well as his experiences writing and recording Fear Fun.
Hi Josh, thanks for making the time to chat with me about your new Father John Misty record. I'd like to start with providing readers with some background on your previous recordings as J. Tillman before we dig into Father John Misty.
Could you discuss your transition from your J. Tillman records to working as Father John Misty?
Josh Tillman: Well, to be totally honest, I would say that the "J. Tillman" records came out of my own sense of alienation and my impulse to alienate. I can say that I did that with music for a long time, and I kind of got my rocks off that way. I remember specifically finishing Year In The Kingdom and then beginning to work on what would become Singing Ax, and I clearly knew Singing Axwas going to be the last "J. Tillman" record ever because I just didn't want to do it anymore.
The impetus to make Singing Ax was "If you hated that one, wait until you hear this fucking shit". To be honest, that was just the kind of thing it was then for me, and I don't think that was being very creative. I know now that that kind of thinking is a really, really dangerous and narcissistic place to stay creatively. And I was stuck in that place for a long time.
Wow. I was not aware of that. How did you steer out of that way of thinking?
Josh:The realization I had was that "If you're going to do it, just fucking do it. Say something and quit this bullshit and say something that matters." Obviously I didn't think of that then, but that is what the truth boils down to. I learned that people can get hung up on staying in one place, and I just see that as creative arsenic.
I now believe that if you stay one one place for too long, it will just kill your ability to make anything useful to anyone. And I think that was the place where I kind of found myself by the end of the "J. Tillman thing". I just felt useless, but I knew that I had something in me to create seven records. The breaking point for me was when I asked myself "Why do you do this so compulsively?"
In comparison to your albums as J. Tillman, with Father John Misty you seem like you're digging so much deeper. Your J. Tillman albums were intimate, minimal, and sparse, while Fear Fun, presents a much more diverse collection of tunes stylistically, overall.
How do see your J. Tillman records connecting to new Father John Misty one? How did your previous records bring you to this place creatively?
Josh: This album could have just been called "Josh Tillman". In some ways, Fear Fun is the fulfillment of making all of these other records where I was really trying to find my voice. Singing Axis probably the closest I have come to that before, and I am very proud of that record. That record was a concession to myself, a little gift to myself.
When I was making Singing AxI said to myself " Look, fuck it. What have you always wanted to do? What this thing has always been about is a guy with a guitar and lyrics, so just make that record! Stop beating your head against the wall about how to make this thing more interesting. It's nothing more than the original idea, which was confrontationally quiet music about severe topics".
So I just made "that" kind of record, and it was Singing Ax. I worked with Steve Albini, who is the guy I had always wanted to make those records with, and I approached it as making a tribute to this idea that I had all along, and as a means to be completely done with it once and for all.
So you knew at that point, without a doubt, that you were walking away from the "J. Tillman" kind of records for good?
Josh: Totally. I didn't tour for Singing Axor even promote it in a single way. I didn't do a single interview, or anything. All I can say is that it was up on the Western Vinyl webpage, and that really was about all of the promotion it got, if you even want to call that promotion. I didn't put it out in the UK because I didn't want to have to go over there and tour it. It really was like throwing my hands up in the air on that project. The last song on there, "A Seat at the Table", that is what that was about. It was like "I'm done."
Can you describe the shift of your perspective after Singing Ax, and how that changed your direction artistically?
Josh:I mean, as an artist, you must blow yourself up to move on. Anybody who makes anything knows that you have to destroy something to make anything that is real and that speaks to the human experience in a meaningful way. I decided that if I am going to do anything from now on, it has to be what I would like to do most.
But don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to talk shit on those J. Tillman records. I know why I made them, and they were honest. They were not made for a lust for success. I never had any illusions about it. I never thought they would be huge, they were too bleak. In some ways, they just don't have a place in the world. I mean, there's a reason why you couldn't buy those records in a Starbucks. I just had to have that experience.
It's funny, when I was in high school I wanted to be an obscure singer-songwriter. I really wanted to be one of those guys that nobody knew about, and in some weird way, I fulfilled that. It all makes perfect sense to me. I wanted to be like Townes Van Zandt, Nick Drake, or Gram Parsons. Somebody who was respected but unknown. That was the most romantic thing to me. Guys like Richard Buckner. And as I was doing those records, I felt like I was part of the club, and I got to meet some of those guys. It was like I got invited into the inner sanctum. I was really into it for a long time, but I just ran out of things to do in it.
Where do you see yourself now? Who's club are you in now?
Josh: That's an important point, and one that I address in "I'm Writing a Novel" and "Everyman Needs a Companion" on Fear Fun.At some point, I realized that in order to go where I needed to go, and where I wanted to creatively, I had to kill that mythology and I had to kill that idea. I said to myself "You are not "that", you are a man."
You have to not want to be anyone else, or want to be "anything" else. You have to just be what you are. I realized that I am a smart-ass, and that I have always been a kind of smart-ass. So when I realized that, I realized that I had an obligation to start including my sense of humor and my actual, true, conversational voice in my music in order for it to be exclusive to me, and not to be just my best stab at trying to be a preexisting idea.
Did your experiences in Fleet foxes influence your writing of Fear Fun?
Josh:Fleet Foxes, as an entity, didn't play into the conception or creation of this record at all. In retrospect, outside of the touring, Fleet Foxes didn't really play that large of a role in my life. The whole narrative of my solo work is pretty singular.
I don't really see Fleet Foxes as has having too much causality to what I'm doing now. When I was on tour with Fleet Foxes, I was "on tour" with Fleet Foxes. But I would also spend time writing my own things, and that was kind of how I passed the time generally. Then, when I would get home and have free time, I would work on this record.
The Father John Misty record is sonically, so different from your previous solo records and your work with Fleet Foxes, especially songs like "I'm Writing A Novel" to "Tee Pees 1-12" and especially "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings".
Can you talk a little bit about the direction you were going in as you were building these songs up and tying them together as an album?
Josh:All of the songs just started in the demo process. Each one really had a singular identity in mind. There are aspects that are gaudy, glamorous, and even a garishness to the record. The songs are pretty sarcastic at times too. They are biting, and they really reveal uncomfortable things about me, ideas that I harbor, and the juxtaposition between this kind of grotesquely-orchestrated thing and these uncomfortable sentiments I have. I'd say it's at this cross-section where my sense of humor is.
I realize I am speaking a little abstractly here, so I would say that the pragmatic answer would be that when I was demoing the songs, I was working all of those parts out and thinking how I wanted it all to sound together. There were more broad, thematic, and conceptual decisions that went into arranging the songs, which is all really interesting to me.
Are there any tunes that illustrate the culmination of these ideas?
Josh:"Nancy From Now On" was a breakthrough, as far as a really good signifier of the seismic shift that happened in my style of writing.
"I'm Writing a Novel" is also really special to me too. It was one of the very first tunes that I wrote for the record. I had spent 8 months writing a book and I was driving down from Seattle, and I just decided to live out of my van. So I put everything in my van because I had to get out of living in an apartment, and I wanted to get myself out of these paradigms that I had built for myself to live in.
I was feeling trapped. I started writing this book and as I was doing it, I had this realization that my "conversational voice", which expresses my sense of humor, and my "critical mind", came together in a new way that seemed to define me and how I relate to people. It had just never came out in my music like that before, ever.
It's interesting to me that I could spend ten years making records under my name and realize that I haven't really said a goddamn thing about that person. It's also interesting to me that people will surely bring up the idea that I'm using a persona or something for Father John Misty, and I actually really like that because it's like a really explicit gag.
Did that liberate you and allow you to take more risks creatively?
Josh:I can tell you that on this album, I am not mincing words. There's an alignment between my inner voice and my outside voice, as opposed to the music I have made in the past. For example, the vocal of "Writing A Novel" was written in like 10 minutes, and it came out of nowhere.
I also believe that the lyrics on this album hold me accountable to the way that I am singing. Throughout all of the tunes on Fear Fun, I wasn't concerned about not sounding good enough, or cooler than I may actually sound. All of those petty, kind of self-loathing things that you consider when you're younger were gone. I should say, that is exclusive to me. I am not speaking for other people. I'm just a natural singer that just didn't want to be a natural singer for a long time because I thought "naturally singing" was disingenuous, but then I realized "No, what is disingenuous is this other thing".
So I really have embraced the way that I think, the way that I play, the way that I talk, and the images that I categorize and use to explain the world. So as a writer, I made a big effort to delve way deeper than what can be some pretty sounding lyrics in places. I was really striving to go way deeper down.
As a result, I can say that it just made for far more interesting things. I found that when I'm writing lyrics, it is the same thing as when I am drunk, and telling jokes, and shooting the shit, and even when I am just talking to my friends. I am always considering myself and considering my experiences, and it made me ask myself why was I have been always leaving that out of the writing up to now. I've decided that I'm just going to put it all out there and not over think anything.
Unlike your previous solo records, you recorded with other musicians for Fear Fun. Can you discuss the collaborative nature of making the record?
Josh:It was fun as hell. I had all of the chief melodic ideas, the harmonies, the main hooks, drums, and the core aspects of the songs all worked out on the demos. I always knew the direction I wanted the record as a whole to go in. I did everything that had been part of my original concepts of the songs myself. Where there was empty spaces to fill, that was where the collaboration happened. The players would come in and we would all try different things out. That's my favorite way to make music.
I like being a dictator for half the process and then stop dictating about half way through, and just trust the people around me. The guys on the record all understood what I was trying to do with the songs, and what I wanted the album to be. And that is how I would define collaboration: when you're working with people who all understand what this thing is going to be. It's like magic.
It was just really exciting to be able to communicate things effectively to people and when you see that spark when they understand and then they do it like you imagined. The whole process was super fun, and it was definitely the most fun I have ever had making a record, absolutely.
Can you talk about the album cover and artwork?
Josh:The cover is fucking bananas. It's crazy and I'm really happy with it. It was done by a painter friend of mine who really understood the record and really understands my sense of humor and stuff. It's deeply connected to the record and exclusive to the record. It's not just some random image. I saw every aspect of this record as an opportunity to say something. The music, inserts, album cover artwork, and even the video we did with Aubrey (Plaza) for "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings" I mean everything.
There's different approaches to these kinds of things, but I get giddy about this stuff. It's like brain candy, and I want to be a part of every element of the project. I'm everywhere! I think it would be such a waste to not take advantage of all of these creative opportunities. It's just so much fun doing it all, than to just do something like sit around and think how stupid album covers can be and then just go and slap a picture of yourself on there.
It was great talking to you Josh. I've really been digging the record and I wish you all the best with it. Good luck with it all!
Josh:Thanks for bearing with me! I know that when I get going it can be unbearable (laughing). I'm stoked that you are into the record.
This post originally appeared in Chris Mateer's Uprooted Music Revue.
Chris Mateer is a freelance music writer living in Brooklyn, NY. He is the founder and writer of the Uprooted Music Revue, and has been contributing regularly to No Depression. In addition to music writing, Chris teaches woodworking and plays the mandolin, banjo, and drums.