At a time when so much popular music seems to be literally made for children it’s refreshing to see an artist that is audacious enough to take on the messy business of complicated, adult-sized relationships. For singer and songwriter Josh Tillman—better known these days by his musical nom de plume, Father John Misty—the desire to explore the intricacies of human connection has proven revelatory. After years of toiling in relative obscurity and touring in the shadows behind other more established artists, the 34-year old musician found himself at an impasse. Bored to tears of the sensitive man-with-an-accoustic-guitar trope that felt unavoidably inherent in being a singer/songwriter, Tillman abandoned his previous approach and rechristened himself with the ministerial moniker of Father John Misty, a kind of alter ego that provided him with a creative rebirth. As a result, Tillman has become a kind of sex symbol for the indie-rock world—playing the part of the charmingly erudite louse that sometimes says bad things but ultimately means well, a jerky romantic who wears his heart on his sleeve and isn’t afraid to talk about fucking. He makes folk-inflected pop music that is both sprawling and, at times, incredibly intimate. More importantly, Tillman is making the admirable effort to actually speak the language of grown ups.
“I'm making music for adults,” says Tillman, calling from a tour stop in Lawrence, Kansas. “I know it sounds pedantic to say that, but at the same time it's shocking to me how many young kids are at these shows. I'm like, ‘Wow, you're not even going to know what these songs are about for another 10 years or something.’”
Adult-sized attention might be a relatively new thing for Tillman, but he is hardly new to the music business. He spent the better part of his twenties trying, in various guises, to make a name for himself as a songwriter. Having fled from the conservative confines of his evangelical childhood in Rockville, Maryland, Tillman eventually landed in Seattle. It was there that he would eventually spend the better part of the next decade quietly releasing eight full-length records of earnest singer/songwriter fare under the name J. Tillman--to very little notice. It wasn’t until he took on the job of drummer in Seattle indie-folk band Fleet Foxes in 2008 that his musical life began to radically change. Though he was essentially a hired gun in the band with little creative input (he eventually jumped ship from the band in 2012), the experience of touring the world emboldened Tillman to rethink his own creative ambitions. Thus, Father John Misty was born. His first album under the new moniker, 2012’s Fear Fun, proved to be a kind of sleeper hit, eventually charming its way onto lots of critical “best of” lists and turning Tillman into the indie-rock equivalent of a rock star.
“I've never been particularly sentimental about the past,” says Tillman of his early body of work. “To be honest, it was sort of surreal to plunge the knife into that 10-year body of work and just be like, ‘This is over, and something else has to grow where all of this is going to die.’ I'm ambivalent because I have some empathy for 21 year old me. I was just addicted to some fucking archetype. I was trying to embody something that just wasn't me. I think that for that period of time I was looking for a painless existence. I was trying to anesthetize my life, and I think that in my mind being a working singer-songwriter was going to cure my life. I was a kid, you know?”
Tillman’s most recent album--2015’s I Love You, Honeybear—is decidedly not kid stuff. Both beautiful and occasionally exasperating, It’s a record that balances a very tenderhearted narrative about romantic love (the album is essentially a document of Tillman’s courtship and eventual marriage to his now wife and frequent collaborator, Emma) and a kind of snarky indictment of all the things it is supposed to be celebrating. It is, as one Pitchfork critic described it, a record “so cynical it’s repulsive and so openhearted it hurts.” One of the album’s many pleasures is trying to decode where the joke ends and the sincerity begins. The album is packed with zinging one-liners and smirky delivery (“Mascara, blood, ash and cum / On the Rorschach sheets where we make love”), but Tillman isn’t kidding. At its core Honeybear an album about the ridiculous and amazingness of falling in love with someone and allowing yourself to really be seen by another person. (“Everything is doomed / And nothing will be spared / But I love you, Honeybear”) In a culture that seems increasingly only comfortable operating in absolutes, the fascinating slipperiness of Father John Misty is arguably Tillman’s greatest achievement.
Since releasing Fear Fun in 2012, Tillman has cultivated a formidable persona—equal parts modern day lothario and intellectual rogue whose work treads an almost invisible line between irony and sincerity. He is a showman—an artist prone to grand gestures and occasionally ham-fisted stage antics involving props and audience participation—but his music is imbued with a kind of emotional maturity that belies the fact that Tillman himself can occasionally be a clown (albeit, a sexy one). Not only are there very few other artists are writing as honestly or as ruthlessly about sex and love, it’s hard to imagine any of Tillman’s current indie-rock peers writing a song called “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me” and have it sound not only sexed-up, but deeply romantic.
“I could just start ranting and raving, but I do think that by and large songs about love are typically advertising some fantasy, some faith-based reality that doesn't exist,” says Tillman. “Love and companionship in this day and age is viewed almost strictly in term of compatibility. Is this other person going to be this source of constant amusement for me for the next 40, 50 years? Will we get bored? Will this person help facilitate a painless existence for me?”
Given the deeply personal nature of Honeybear’s subject matter, it’s understandable that Tillman initially had reservations about performing the record live. Now, deep in the middle of what looks to be another full year of nonstop touring, he seems to have come to terms with not only sharing his music (“The last time around, the shows could be sort of borderline antagonistic,” he says. “Because I was so skeptical of myself and skeptical of the whole enterprise. Thankfully that feeling ran its course”), but he also accepts the often conflicted way that people view him. Though he is quick to point out that there exists a difference between himself and Father John Misty, the question of sincerity—whether Tillman is doing something deeply satirical or if he really means it—remains somehow central to his appeal. The irony that Father John Misty might actually be the most deeply authentic thing he’s ever done is not lost on Tillman.
“People need me to be one thing or the other,” he says. “I've been called a pretentious blowhard by some, and then by others I'm regarded as a total clown. I do think that it's difficult to reconcile the two sometimes…but I don't see any other way forward in terms of portraying life as I see it. To me, exploitation is lying to the audience, or manipulating the audience in some way. On a personal level, I want to play chicken with the audience. I think there's some kind of... it is not a morbid thrill, but I think it's some kind of variant on something that happens in my relationships, too. It's sort of this baring of yourself, you want to show more and more.”
The original version of this story appears in Man of The World Issue No. 12