Father John Misty: A More Perfect Union

"Being honest on a record is a lot easier than being honest in your life."

Jul 21, 2015 Issue #53 - April/May 2015 - Tame Impala Bookmark and Share


No one wants to hear this shit from me." That's what Josh Tillman says the more uncharitable voices in his head were telling him as he was working on I Love You, Honeybear, his second release as Father John Misty. Given that he spent most of the 2000s making eight humorlessly dark and largely ignored solo albums as the sober-minded J. Tillman, it was only natural to have some doubt. It wasn't until he changed his name to Father John Misty and unleashed his creative id with 2012's Fear Fun that anyone cared much about his songwriting at all, and he knew the follow-up was an even bolder reinvention. The man whose gift for biting sarcasm and self-effacing humor had earned him a whole new audience had a new problem: he had fallen in love.

"I had to reconcile myself with the fact that I was making something that was perhaps borderline sentimental," he says, pushing out the word with distaste. "It's easy to write these things in the moment, but then I'm like, 'Oh, fuck. I have to live with this, and I'm not totally sure that I want to.' Being honest on a record is a lot easier than being honest in your life, and I think primarily what the album is about is intimacy and dealing with the fact that someone is seeing you for what you are, quote-unquote. That's the intent behind the album cover, like, 'Well, this is what intimacy has turned me into: a needy, jealous, breast-groping baby.'"

On that cover image, an infant (but still bearded) Tillman is depicted in the lap of his lover, photographer Emma Garr, surrounded by a tableau of preening demons and ominously coiled animals. It's silly, grotesque, and (depending on your taste for Hieronymus Bosch and subverted religious iconography) strangely beautiful. Unsurprisingly, it was the last of thosethe beauty—that Tillman had the most difficulty accepting in his own songwriting, and he admits he spent much of the album's recording process attempting to bury his most straightforward sentiments in overbearingly complex "walls of sound."

Those elaborate orchestrations didn't sit well with Garr, now Tillman's wife, and she pushed him to drop his "just kidding" pretense and embrace the stark reality of the material. Eventually he did just that, and the song "Holy Shit" ended up being a kind of breakthrough, an all-encompassing examination of history, religion, culture, and love, how "no one ever knows the real you, and life is brief." And yet while the song casts doubt on the idea of love as a transcendent force, it simultaneously affirms its power in his own life. "Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity," he sings over soaring strings, "but what I fail to see is what that's got to do with you and me."

"[That] was the song that I was probably the most resistant toward," Tillman admits. "I love that song and I wrote it the day before Emma and I got married, and it represents this paradigm shift for me which was this moment where I was waking up from this intellectual fantasy. It's definitely, to me, so representative of this departure from what I had been writing for the previous two years. But I'll admit it: there's no small degree of 'Will people like this?' that goes into this stuff. Do people want to hear this kind of thing from me? Or are they just coming to me to hear sardonic tales of misadventure?"

Given the near-unanimous glowing reviews that have greeted I Love You, Honeybear, it appears that people like the new, emotionally vulnerable Father John Misty just fine. But, in typical Tillman fashion, even that is hard for him to accept. "I think people liking it makes me more suspicious," he laughs. "But I am glad I never have to make my anticipated follow-up ever again. As much as I'd like to say that had no bearing on any of this, I think it did. But that's just what it is. I'm now looking forward to my disappointing sleeper third album."

[Note: This article first appeared in Under the Radar's April/May 2015 print issue, which is out now. This is its debut online.]

 

www.fatherjohnmisty.com



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