Cheeky and Transformed
By Arrissia Owen
Father John Misty is ready to testify. The singer-songwriter, whose Christian name is Joshua Tillman, packed up his van in 2011, stocked up on psychedelic fungi and left behind his adopted home Seattle for some self-discovery.
With no destination planned, Tillman inadvertently steered the wheel to his new Babylon, a.k.a. Los Angeles, specifically Laurel Canyon, where he settled down in a spider-infested cottage. Not long after, he resigned his post as drummer for the wildly popular indie rock band Fleet Foxes.
What Tillman found on his path of literal self-destruction, as cheesy as it sounds, was Josh Tillman. So fittingly, he renamed himself an entirely nonsensical nom de guerre to celebrate the end of taking himself so seriously, introducing the world instead to his true narrative voice in the form of Father John Misty.
The result of the musical transformation, the album Fear Fun on Subpop Records, is a revelation, a hedonistic offering reminiscent of Harry Nilsson, Waylon Jennings and Gram Parsons with the quirkiness of Warren Zevon. On the album’s opening track, “Funtimes in Babylon,” Tillman declares “Look out Hollywood here I come.” On Saturday, June 22, Father John Misty is headed to The Glass House.
But you can just call him Nancy, if you’re into that kind of thing—and after watching the S&M-style video for the Father John Misty song “Nancy From Now On,” you just might be. YouTube it and feel the risk-taking contagion. Other fun to fear includes the sacrilegious sex immortalized by Parks and Recreation’s Aubrey Plaza in the gripping video for “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings.”
Tillman’s come a long way in search of Father John Misty. Prior to joining Fleet Foxes, he released eight albums as an austere solo artist under the moniker J. Tillman, in the key of Damien Jurado and Will Oldham.
“In my twenties I think I had a lot of self-loathing about the things I was actually good at,” Tillman says. “I wanted to be good at being, like, a drunk old wizard that makes this moody, celestial music about wisdom and death. I wanted to prove to everyone how serious I was.”
Strangely, the seeds of discontent that spurred his creative transformation took root during a time in his life when he should have been ecstatic—on tour with Fleet Foxes. “I just really went on a warpath to try and discontinue all this dissidence in my life,” Tillman says.
Tillman mentally checked out from the fleet while continuing to fulfill his contractual obligations, freeing him to start conceptualizing the other Josh Tillman music. To his surprise, it was much more mirthful than J. Tillman ever let on.
Name checking Neil Young and existential philosophers Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre in “I’m Writing a Novel,” Tillman sings about his a-ha moment: “I ran down the road, pants down to my knees / Screaming ‘Please come help me, that Canadian shaman gave a little too much to me!’ / And I’m writing a novel because it’s never been done before.” Even in times of crisis, Tillman pokes fun at himself and any moments of grandeur he may let slip into his consciousness.
That clarity helped Tillman put all the self-imposed mindfucks that manifested while on tour with Fleet Foxes into perspective, which he affectionately recalls as “a nerve-filled toothache.” He was effectively calling himself out on his own BS.
But much to Tillman’s relief, once he owned up to not wanting to be the drummer with no creative input for a fantastically successful band, things got less excruciating. The acceptance freed him up to think more candidly about his muses, he says, and to hit the road without a plan.
The result was a happier, much cheekier Josh Tillman than the one who nursed his wounds for a decade, working out his issues with his parents and their God. Yet the Josh Tillman who emerged is the same that his friends knew all along—the first on the dance floor, the first to make a joke at his own expense with a deadpan delivery.
“It’s been kind of like a Jungian return to the fascination of the child,” Tillman says. “That’s where the humor, the dancing and the liberty, and all that kind of stems from. It’s kind of a reclamation of my pre-20s state.”
Now in his early 30s, Tillman is more comfortable in his checkered skin. “It can be a tricky thing to talk about,” he admits. “It can sound so banal, like ‘I just learned to be myself,’ but it is just as simple as that.” Look out world.
Father John Misty performs with White Fence at The Glass House, 248 W. Second St., Pomona, 909-865-3802; www.theglasshouse.us. Sat, June 22. 7PM. $20. All ages.