Josh Tillman isn’t making things easy. For the first four minutes of his interview with the Georgia Straight, the singer and songwriter also known as Father John Misty declines to give a serious answer to any of the questions being tossed his way. When asked why he relocated from Los Angeles to New Orleans, for example, Tillman drolly claims that he has taken a job with ExxonMobil.
When the Straight attempts a change of tack and queries Tillman about the significance to his career of his recent appearance on the cover of Billboard, he replies with “I wasn’t aware that it was gonna have to mean something when I agreed to it. If that’s the case, then maybe I wouldn’t have done it. But I thought it was just gonna be a big old stupid nothing.”
At this point, your panicked correspondent is feeling beads of flop sweat form on his brow, as he watches his hopes of establishing a rapport with his circumspect subject slowly sink into a quagmire of flippant indifference and hears his carefully wrought questions leave his mouth as a flailing sputter of gibberish.
Tillman then either takes pity on his hapless interrogator or he figures out that he’s dealing with someone who has given more than a merely cursory listen to the latest Father John Misty album, I Love You, Honeybear.
Released in February, that album is Tillman’s attempt at responding in song to the events of the past few years that have shaped him the most, namely falling in love and getting married. His challenge was to do so without resorting to either cheap sentiment or cynicism. Irony, on the other hand, was definitely not off the table.
“I use satire or irony or whatever as a way of resolving certain obsessions that I have,” Tillman says. “With me, a lot of the time contempt turns into obsession very quickly, and the only way for me to resolve that is to render it meaningless by virtue of irony or satire or something. And so I think within the context of my album, there was some contempt-based obsession over the whole enterprise of love songs.”
For someone who professes to hate love songs, Tillman sure can write a beautiful one. Take “I Went to the Store One Day”, which closes Honeybear with a hush of strings and acoustic guitar, atop which the singer implores his new bride, “Don’t let me die in a hospital/I’ll save the big one for the last time we make love.” He follows that with a self-referential line that could be read as a somewhat snarky dismissal of the whole business of writing such a song in the first place. Tillman argues otherwise.
“It’s very sincere for me to include a lyric in a song that’s like, ‘Insert here a sentiment re: our golden years,’ which, yeah, is ironic in a technical sense, but that’s the most sincere thing that I could say, because I was really at a loss for words,” he says. “And this experience that I had in that moment left me at a loss for words, because in that moment, as a writer, I was terrified of marginalizing this experience, or turning it into some kind of schlocky bullshit.”
Schlocky bullshit has never been the man’s stock-in-trade. After recording a bunch of folk-rock albums under the J. Tillman moniker, the singer reinvented himself as Father John Misty for 2012’s Fear Fun. That record was written in the wake of Tillman abandoning his former life—he quit a lucrative gig as Fleet Foxes’ drummer—and driving from Seattle to L.A.
Fear Fun was very much about Tillman’s self-discovery, but it was heavily informed by both mind-expanding drugs and geography, with locales like Laurel Canyon, Hollywood, and Malibu serving as settings for Misty’s psilocybin- and ayahuasca-fuelled misadventures. It was a Day-Glo map of Los Angeles County drawn on blotter paper.
Tillman, who notes that his use of psychedelic drugs still has an impact on his work, says, “I think that part of the reason why psychedelics have long been so taboo in the culture is that the psychedelic experience violently throws into question just about all of the conventions that we’re taught to respect and internalize, whether it’s money or duty or debt or ownership—these ideas that, through that lens, are stripped of whatever value that culture imbues them with.”
And that helps explain one of the other themes that run through I Love You, Honeybear. It’s romantic, sure, but it’s about lovers in a dangerous time, finding solace in each other despite living in a world that is truly, deeply fucked. As Tillman sings, beautifully, on the album’s title track, “My love, you’re the one I want to watch the ship go down with” and “Everything is doomed/And nothing will be spared/But I love you, honeybear.”
Consider also “Holy Shit”, a stream of lyrical imagery that includes “dead religions, holocausts”, “infotainment” and “consumer slaves”, with its narrator weighing the notion that romantic love is “just an economy based on resource scarcity” but accepting that he’s already soaking in it.
Even more pointed is “Bored in the USA”, a ’70s-style piano ballad that pokes at the bloated corpse of the American Dream. In a particularly cutting passage punctuated by canned sitcom laughter, Tillman sings, “Oh, they gave me a useless education/And a subprime loan/On a craftsman home/Keep my prescriptions filled/And now I can’t get off/But I can kind of deal,” before entreating “President Jesus” to save him from his soul-destroying ennui.
“Those songs are sort of like where my work is going,” the tunesmith says. “And I feel very emboldened by the fact that those tunes, and themes that are just starting to crest in those songs, seem to be the things that people are the most interested in, or respond to the most.
“Prior to the psychedelic experiences, my impulse was very much to alienate people with my music, and I think that that was palpable on a subatomic level; I think that anyone who heard it could feel that intention, that the music was engineered to alienate. And for some reason the shedding of certain layers of ego and fear and whatever else through the psychedelic stuff did put me in a position where I was far more apt to write material for the function of communicating and creating commonality.”
Those are ambitious goals, especially when you remember that Tillman is otherwise engaged in the full-time pursuit of draining the Gulf of Mexico of its last remaining drops of petroleum.
Father John Misty plays the Commodore Ballroom on Sunday (May 24).