Father John Misty Is a Horny Man-Child Mama’s Boy Worth Your Earnest Attention

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On the day before Josh Tillman’s 2013 wedding in Big Sur, the 33-year-old folk-rock troubadour — aka Father John Misty — took his bride, Emma, for a long hike before they climbed into an oak tree overlooking the Pacific. Years earlier — long before he’d met Emma in a store parking lot in Laurel Canyon and they’d traveled the world side by side — Tillman had tripped hard after meeting a shaman and ended up, naked, hallucinating in this same tree.

Returning to the tree in question was a full circle moment, one that Tillman marked by writing “I Went to the Store One Day,” the closing track on his stunning second album, I Love You, Honeybear, to be released next week by Sub Pop. The song explains how Josh and Emma, whose story sits at the center of the album, got here, and previews where they’re headed next. Even the pleas of a horndog jokester — “Don’t let me die in a hospital, I’ll save the big one for the last time we make love” — can’t detract from the universal truth tucked within these tensely beautiful orchestrations: your soulmate could be one trip to the store away. It was the hardest song for Tillman to put on the album, but also the one with the biggest payoff.

“That song is the real resolution, where I say, ‘I claim the right to have these experiences, and to have them as if no one has ever had them before,’” Tillman told me earlier this week by phone. “I’m even saying ‘fuck it’ to all the Woody Allen shit, which is funny and appeals to my vanity, as well as appealing to some tragicomic perception that the human experience is farcical, but I don’t want to stay there. Even Woody Allen, you can see in his work like Magic in the Moonlight or Shadows and Fog, has moved past it too. He is constantly sacrificing his sacred cows.”

For the first six months of writing I Love You, Honeybear, Tillman struggled to kill his own sacred cows. It was Emma who encouraged him to move past cracking jokes, his go-to defense mechanism, and Say Something Real about intimacy and ultimately, humanity. At first, Tillman bartered with himself: “OK, I’ll let you be this vulnerable if you let me cloak these songs in these huge, fucked-up Disney orchestrations” (string ensembles are as crucial to the album’s sound as Tillman’s guitar and his soulful voice). Eventually the music and the lyrics settled into an “uneasy kind of an alliance.”

The result is an album that’s so emotionally intense, Tillman’s one-liners about girls who misuse the word “literally” serve as necessary comic relief. The songs on I Love You, Honeybear dive deep into Tillman’s journey from a commitment-phobic, narcissistic wanderer to someone who holds concrete ideas about what it means to love and to be loved — but maybe still struggles with those other things. (Love can alter our perceptions of what our lives can be, but can it really fix the things that are wrong with all of us?)

“Emma was like, ‘You just can’t be afraid to let these songs be beautiful. You’re not going to do what you did last time again. You wrote very different songs. They’re either going to succeed or fail by virtue of them being beautiful.’ That was the scariest thing for me. I was just terrified of being sentimental, and of trivializing my experiences, and her experiences.”

(Photo by Emma Tillman)

Tillman’s debut as Father John Misty, Fear Fun, arrived in 2012 just a few months after his departure from Fleet Foxes, the Seattle band he’d drummed for since 2008. If Tillman was trying to hide something with these clever tales from the freewheeling life, few noticed amidst his charming goofball persona. To see Tillman live for the first time is to realize that it’s possible for a crooning, light-touch sex symbol like Tom Jones to exist among the bearded indie rock set. At 6’4,” Tillman puts his whole frame into electric performances, sauntering awkwardly like a teenage girl who’s just discovered her body’s sensual power. Shirt buttons are definitely optional. The daffy side of this act makes Tillman’s sexuality seem a lot less threatening, but it also nicely accompanies the side of him that would prefer to make everything a joke.

“There’s something really cathartic for me about demystifying, whether demystifying the language around love and intimacy, or demystifying the enterprise of putting on a rock show,” Tillman says. “I’m on this big stage, I’ve got this big band, and I have T-shirts for sale in the lobby. Everything about it is serving the function of turning me into this big persona, a larger-than-life thing. But to be able to get down on my knees and look an audience in the eye, and just be like, ‘This is who I really am. I am this horny man-child mama’s boy [a reference to his song “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me”]. I was eating Chinese food in bed like an hour before I did this’ is an act of demystification.”

Tillman recently took a crack at demystifying one of the music world’s most convoluted topics: streaming services. He launched a separate section on his website dedicated to a service he called SAP (Streamline Audio Protocol), where stock photos of beautiful people accompany headings like, “free to hear, free to create, free to be free.” Tillman really committed to the satire, offering up a flimsy bitcore recreation of I Love You, Honeybear in full. All words and any distinguishable instrumentation were stripped.

At first I thought Tillman was trying to make a statement about the quality of digital audio files; humor would be more effective than Neil Young’s current strategy. But after we talk about SAP, it becomes clear that Tillman is thinking about the implications of freeconomics on a level most of his peers are not.

“I’m so sick of [music] just being about money,” he says. “It feels like it’s gotten to a point where we can only talk about the inherent value of music in this monetary sense. To me, I was just thinking, ‘What if we keep pulling this thread of this conversation? Where does it eventually go?I ended up at, ‘Well, how would it work so that “free” works for the artist too?’ Then I have this scenario where the artist is willing to make concessions that no artist would ever make. It would never be worth it to put your album out in that format, to save money. Of course not. But if the conversation keeps being particularly about money, that’s what the conversation eventually turns into: solutions like that. Logic will always break down because the artist will always be willing to do something free. That Gillian Welch song says it best; that ‘Everything Is Free’ song. That’s a beautiful articulation of what I’m trying to say.”

“I just think that the rhetoric around the streaming music is just so funny, and it’s all about discovering and sharing,” Tillman continues. “What about fucking listening!? It’s such a huge misnomer to say ‘discovering.’ You’re talking about going into a giant ship full of pirate’s booty and saying you discovered a gold galleon. It’s like going to the grocery store and saying that you discovered Cheerios. I’m breaking one of my cardinal rules by talking to you about this because it’s really important to me that the joke be the articulation itself. But outside of the joke, I just think the conversation around this stuff has become so joyless. You’re either an old man screaming at a train, or a money-grubbing capitalist. I’m just too much of an anarchist in general to really subscribe.”

The cover of “I Love You, Honeybear,” feat. Tillman as baby Jesus.

On I Love You, Honeybear, Tillman sounds like he’s at war with intellectualization, even his own tendencies. It’s a battle as universal as they come: the head versus the heart. As it turns out, Tillman’s 35-65 split between thinking and feeling proves to hit a near perfect ratio. Still, I’m left to wonder if people will fully get what he’s trying to do, which is perhaps the point.

Tillman announced the record back in November with a lengthy letter that read, in small part, “I Love You, Honeybear is a concept album about a guy named Josh Tillman.” It was a joke that required understanding his sense of humor, as well as a nod to fiction writers who offer up thinly-veiled versions of themselves in their work.

“All of these tunes, this whole thing, putting myself on the cover as a baby,” Tillman says, “they are all very deliberate voices intended to draw the listener back to some understanding of the idea that these can be real, that a song about me can be real, and really be about me, and can really mean something. I’m trying to mislead, but I’m not trying to have some kind of discussion about me versus me as a character. What you see is what you get.”

More misunderstanding followed, as Tillman went on the Late Show with David Letterman the night the album was announced, and debuted its first single, “Bored in the USA.” With a 22-piece orchestra behind him, Tillman mounted a grand piano and got on his knees, seemingly pleading with Americans to hear him out. Of course they didn’t all understand him.

“I’m not totally psyched with this idea that ‘Bored in the USA’ is just a torch song for uppity liberals to crucify some straw man that acts as a dumb American,” he says. “It’s not a scathing takedown of blah, blah, blah.”

“The point of the tune is that ideology is always sophisticated,” Tillman continues. “The way that we maintain the status quo ideology always sounds good. But the real human condition rarely sounds good. It can be something like, ‘I’m bored. And what’s worse than that is I’m afraid that my boredom is illegitimate. I don’t what to be that guy, who’s complaining about his use of education and whatever else.’ But it’s like, ‘Look man, you have to fucking feel your own pain, whether it’s sexy or not, whether you view it as legitimate or not, whether there are starving babies in third world countries or not.’ Because if you don’t, you just keep allowing yourself to get anesthetized. That’s what the culture wants. The culture wants your cooperation, and they want you to just keep anesthetizing, keep numbing the experience. I think anyone can at least identify with the question that the song is posing: is this seriously it?”

Tillman’s will to honor his multifaceted vision is bound to make him a misunderstood figure in the mainstream. When he starts talking about his personal pantheon of creators — Kurt Vonnegut, Vladimir Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor, Richard Brautigan, David Foster Wallace, Alejandro Jodorowsky — it becomes apparent that his aspirations are not confined to music.

“There’s this continuity for him, where satire and heart can coexist,” he says of Vonnegut. “People don’t realize that I’m capable of bumming myself the fuck out, and despite all of the satire, and nay-saying, and mockery, that’s an impulse. If that was it, I would kill myself. I’m looking for something else too, and I need to create meaning and humanity. Just because I’m trying to make an attempt to cut through the bullshit, that doesn’t mean that I’m not trying to get somewhere.”

Tillman’s idols are people whose work continues to be debated on a fierce intellectual level. Of course he’s not going to be satisfied merely writing an album about love, even if his own capacity for intimacy has shook him to his core in the last few years.

“At some point in intimacy, the facade starts to come down,” Tillman says. “And it’s not like it’s some malicious attempt to mislead this other person, but that’s one of the hardest things of intimacy, is to be loved for the other person’s reasons, as opposed to your reasons. I think that’s something that Woody Allen definitely articulates kind of constantly: why are human beings worth love? I mean, look at us.”