Father John Misty: The Truth About Love

"In some respect, I felt like I was majorly jumping the shark [with I Love You, Honeybear]. I've got two AK-47s and a hovercraft prototype, and I'm just flying over that fucking shark, guns a-blazin'."

Jul 22, 2015 Issue #53 - April/May 2015 - Tame Impala Bookmark and Share


It's only three shows into his tour, and Josh Tillman is struggling. The songs from I Love You, Honeybearhis critically-acclaimed second release as Father John Mistyare proving to be "inhospitable environments," and he can't find the right way to inhabit them on stage every night. His original planto perform them as if he was singing them to his wife, photographer Emma Garr, has fallen apart. They've moved past the sentiments in those songs, he says, and Tillman doesn't particularly enjoy revisiting that awkward and needy stage of their relationship in front of a paying audience. For an artist who appreciates self-effacing humor, it must delight him that while his listeners excitedly sing his words back to him night after night, he is the one struggling to connect with the sentiments in his songs.

Much has been written about Tillman's idiosyncratic approach to the topic of love, and it's fair to say no songwriter has achieved quite the same balance of sentimentality, cynicism, vulnerability, and transcendence while exploring the most overdone topic in all of popular music. But ever since Tillman remade himself as Father John Misty with 2012's Fear Fun, the former Fleet Foxes drummer has found his voice as a cracked troubadour, and he's well-positioned to capture the simultaneous feelings of disgust, delight, and doubt that arise in an adult man experiencing love for the first time. The songs might represent a moment that has now passed, but Tillman has discovered an essential (and strikingly honest) dimension to the modern love song, suggesting that love is both more and less than we make it out to be. Here, he explains his reaction to the album's success, his tendency to hide himself in overly elaborate arrangements, and how even an idiosyncratic approach to love becomes strangely universal in its appeal. [Note: These are extra portions of our interview with Josh Tillman, quotes that didn't make it into our main print article on Father John Misty.]

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): Since this album is so deeply personal, is it a bit like reading through an old journal to perform them every night?

Josh Tillman: I wouldn't use that analogy, but a lot of it is some ugly shit. Something started to click that I can't really explain, but it started to click when I became uncomfortably intimate with the audience and was making a lot of inappropriate eye contact with people. I can't explain why that seems to work or why that seems to really bring some vitality to the whole thing. Really, in the live setting, the music and the lyrics are scaffolded into this other thing that's being communicated. There's this other thingthis inarticulable thingthat is happening in the best scenarios, which is weird given how verbal my thing is.

So, obviously, I Love You, Honeybear has gotten great reviews. Did you have any sorts of expectations for how it would be received?

I was terrified that I was going to get something less than four stars. Just lying awake at night, like, "Dear Godanything less than a 7.5 and I'm going to kill myself!" [Laughs] There was just some anxiety because there was a long time that I wasn't willing to admit that the material was so differentdifferent from the last album and anything that I've made previously. In some respect, I felt like I was majorly jumping the shark here. I've got two AK-47s and a hovercraft prototype, and I'm just flying over that fucking shark, guns a-blazin'.

     And there's also a lot of room for confusion. No one has the same definition of any of these terms that I'm throwing around. No two people think about love or intimacy the same way, so they're very loaded terms to be throwing around. And I guess I have some anxiety about being misunderstood, which is ironic given how willing I am to wildly misrepresent myself, whether it's streamlined audio protocol or calling myself Father John Misty. I think some of that anxiety about the material was manifesting in my approach to recording within the first few months, because I was like, "Okay, I can deal with how vulnerable or exposed this shit is by gooping it with impenetrable arrangements. If I put 100 instruments on top of this song, I can live with it." There was this joke around the studio, where we called it "walls of sound." [Laughs] And I'd bring this home and Emma was like, "What are you doing? They're beautiful songs, and you just have to deal with that. You have to do these songs justice. There can't be this 'just kidding' kind of thing happening." So it took me a long time to deal with that.

Do you think you would have ended up with this album if Emma hadn't pushed you in that direction?

She just inspires me in that way on a human level, as lovers...I can't believe I just said that. But the material, I don't really need too much encouragement to write. That directness comes from me. It's easy to write something, but I have this bizarre conflict in me. I have some weird sense of propriety, believe it or not, that attempts to cohabitate with my appetite to provoke. And there's this converse desire to turn a woman into a sacred object or some kind of impossible deity. Love and a womanthese are all very terrestrial concerns. But the danger is in turning them into something divine or whatever. That's the root, I think, of all the problems with the enterprise of lovedenying that it's a human activity and trying to turn it into something celestial or divine. That's why this album is probably one of the least divine explorations of the love thing.

Did it ever feel like you were exposing too much when you were writing?

No. Not when I was writing. When I'm writing I'm invincible and willing to say anything. When I'm writing, for me, that's the access to my child, primitive brain. It's some kind of altered state. But it's when you're back in your adult mind that worries about cooperating with culture and norms that you start to worry. You have to do whatever you can to keep that silenced.

Do you think that the way you've written about love heredemythologizing itwill ultimately become romanticized as its own mythology?

I'm sure it will. That's just what happens. But fortunately for me, I live with this other person and we have our life. That makes it sound like I'm talking about something mundane, but I certainly wouldn't be the first person to mythologize love. But I think it's hilarious, like a sublime cosmic joke, that you set out to make this thing to demythologize love, and by virtue of that connecting with people, that demythologizing becomes some kind of post-modern mythology. So whatever. I think it's funny. I'm not worried about it.

I can't really think of another album where a songwriter presents love in quite this way, with sentimentality and cynicism and doubt and hope. It's an odd mix.

I've never hated all the same things as somebody else. For me, finding someone who hates all the same things I do was very sentimental and beautiful and powerful, but it's a funny sentiment. It's only cynical in context, in that you don't usually hear a sentiment like that in a love song. But I think they coexist for me. Like in that line, "I want to take you in the kitchen in a wedding dress someone was probably murdered in." I realize how funny that sounds, but the reality is that's just Emma's vibe. She's into this haunted 18th century stuff, and seeing her wedding dress was like, "Someone was definitely murdered in that." That's how it starts, and then it works its way into a song. But it has significance for me. For the listener, it might be bizarre, but for the discerning listener maybe after taking the whole album in, they understand that I don't say things without any reason. While maybe they don't totally get it, they at least get that there's some method behind these seemingly disjointed references.

Are you surprised that people have so quickly and easily related to this material, given that it's so personal?

People were asking me that question the last time around too, and I think I waxed poetic at the time about how we all have deeply personal experiences, so in some way, it's really universal. Obviously, no one has had those exact experiences, but we're all having the same experience. You just change a few dates and names around, so it does not surprise me. I was saying that early on that this album is only going to work if it communicates a certain emotional quotient. If it doesn't do that, then it's just going to be crap. It's either going to be great or it's going to be the stupidest shit anyone has ever heard. There's no middle ground with something like this. The soufflé either rises or it doesn't. There's no "This soggy egg mixit's pretty good!"

Was there a moment when you started to realize what kind of album you were making?

No. I'd say that happened in the writing stage, but with the recording you're just fucking hanging on for dear life and praying that you're not making every possible mistake. I hate to say it, but when you're recording, you hit some juncture where you're like "I will do anything just to make it through this process." Your concerns become far less ephemeral at some point. You're like, "Dear God, just let me make it through this vocal. Just let me go home." So it's bizarre having that kind of experience. I didn't have quite as much gray hair when I started making this album, and to get to the other side and be like, "I can't believe this thing actually sounds cohesive and [like] there's some intention behind it, because I just remember it being a monument to second-guessing."

I know that your Father John Misty stuff is a pretty clear break from your J. Tillman material, but do you think that making those albums year after year, in a way, prepared you to make an album like this?

It really is just something I do. Now it's every couple years, because it's a different thing. But I was cranking out two records a year for most of that time. It's just how I experience life, and I have zero hobbies, zero skills. This is the only thing I can do. I'm like a drooling savant. So I just have to do it.

[Note: This article first appeared in the digital version of Under the Radar's April/May 2015 print issue for tablets and smart phones, which is out now. This is its debut online.]

 

www.fatherjohnmisty.com

 



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