A Serious Man: Father John Misty's Transformation In Progress

Feb 12, 2015
Originally published on February 13, 2015 8:13 am

When singer-songwriter Josh Tillman started on his latest album, he set out to write honestly about love and intimacy.

"The things that emerge in true intimacy can be fairly brutal," he says, adding a joke: "That's why it's a metal album."

On stage, Tillman is known as Father John Misty. His last album, Fear Fun, was lauded by critics for its mix of psychedelic rock, folk, country and imaginative lyrics. To move forward from that point, Tillman says his concept of a "serious artist" had to evolve.

"There was no way I was gonna be able to take my real-life experiences with intimacy, et cetera, and spin them into the kind of generic crap that passes for love songs," he says.

Father John Misty's new album, I Love You, Honeybear, is more personal. In the song "Chateau Lobby #4 (In C For Two Virgins)," Tillman describes his first night with the woman who would become his wife: "First time you let me stay the night, despite your own rules / You took off early to go cheat your way through film school / You left a note in your perfect script: 'Stay as long as you want.' / I haven't left your bed since."

Though Father John Misty songs tend to be full of graphic imagery, Tillman was, in fact, raised in a strict evangelical Christian household, where he wasn't allowed to listen to secular music. When he turned 18, he left home and found his way into a music career, going by the name J. Tillman. During that time, he says he rarely spoke to his parents.

"I was really angry for a long time," he says. "A lot of, like, impotent rage."

Tillman says it took him several albums to realize the dark, brooding J. Tillman persona wasn't who he really was, and that he needed to let his sense of humor appear in his writing.

"When I was a kid, I would look at The Muppet Show or Monty Python and I would just think, 'That's me,'" he says. "I have to engage that if I want to make things that are honest and not contrived."

That playfulness is evident in the new Father John Misty track "Bored In The USA," which targets middle-class despair. Tillman calls the song a "sarcastic ballad."

"I put a laugh track on that song. I don't know why; it was just an instinct," he says. "It's just kind of a cruel, grotesque sound to me, and I think that laughter, in a lot of cases, is a form of domination — a way of neutralizing uncomfortable ideas."

Tillman says that since embarking on the Father John Misty project, his idea of what it means to be a serious artist has changed — and that he expects that transformation to be an ongoing process.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We're about to meet a singer-songwriter who is known for his risque presence. His name is Josh Tillman. On stage he's known as Father John Misty. His witty, provocative lyrics are boosting his profile in indie rock. The new Father John Misty album is called "I Love You, Honeybear." NPR's Lindsay Totty has more.

LINDSAY TOTTY, BYLINE: When singer-songwriter Josh Tillman started work on his latest album, he set out to write honestly about love and intimacy. Check out this song called the "Ideal Husband."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE IDEAL HUSBAND")

JOSH TILLMAN: (Singing) Every woman that I've slept with, every friendship I've neglected, didn't call when Grandma died. I spend my money getting drunk and high.

The things that emerge in true intimacy can be fairly brutal.

TOTTY: Brutal - that's why it's a metal album. Tillman hasn't erased his sentimental side. Listen to him describe his first night with the woman who would become his wife.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHATEAU LOBBY #4")

TILLMAN: (Singing) First time you let me stay the night, despite your own rules. You took off early to go cheat your way through film school. You left a note in your perfect script - stay as long as you want. I haven't left your bed since.

There was no way I was going to be able to take my real life experiences with intimacy, etcetera, and spin them into the kind of generic [expletive] that passes for love songs.

TOTTY: Father John Misty's songs tend to have, shall we say, graphic imagery, but Tillman was raised in a strict evangelical Christian household. As a kid, he wasn't allowed to listen to secular music. But when he turned 18, he left home and found his way into a music career going by the name J. Tillman. During that time, he rarely spoke to his parents.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUR BELOVED TYRANT")

TILLMAN: And it's true, you strike me as less godlike with no son to crucify.

I was really angry for a long time, a lot of, like, impotent rage, you know, of my 20s.

TOTTY: This song called "Our Beloved Tyrant" may sound confessional, but Tillman says the story is fiction. The characters are all imagined. It took several albums for him to realize that this dark brooding J. Tillman figure wasn't who he really was. He had to show his sense of humor in his songwriting.

TILLMAN: When I was a kid, I would look at "The Muppet Show" or Monty Python and I would just think that's me. I have to engage that if I want to make things that are honest and not contrived.

TOTTY: He came up with a name for his new act - Father John Misty. We hear the playfulness of Father John Misty on the new song "Bored In The USA." He sings about middle-class despair, but Tillman calls the song a sarcastic ballad.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORED IN THE USA")

TILLMAN: (Singing) Bored in the USA. Save me, white Jesus Bored in the USA.

TOTTY: Listen to how he uses a laugh track to underscore that angst.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORED IN THE USA")

TILLMAN: (Singing) They gave me a useless education.

(LAUGHTER)

TILLMAN: (Singing) And a sub-prime loan on a craftsman home.

(LAUGHTER)

TILLMAN: I put the laugh track on that song. I don't know why. It just was an instinct. It's just kind of a cruel, grotesque sound to me. And I think that laughter in a lot of cases is a form of domination. You know, a way of, like, neutralizing uncomfortable ideas.

TOTTY: And uncomfortable ideas come up again and again in his music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLY S**T")

TILLMAN: (Singing) Ancient holy wars, dead religions, Holocaust.

TOTTY: Josh Tillman says since embarking on the Father John Misty project, his idea of what it means to be a serious artist has changed. And he expects that transformation to be an ongoing process. Father John Misty's new album is called "I Love You, Honeybear." It's out this week. Lindsay Totty, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLY S**T")

TILLMAN: (Vocalizing).

GREENE: OK, this song - the full version is at npr.org, but keep listening here. Tillman threw some familiar voices into the version he performed for us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLY S**T")

GREENE: Good morning. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Here is something to think about when taking a...

(CROSSTALK)

GREENE: Renee, I think that was us. Tillman put us in a mashup.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.