Father John Misty on stand-up comedy and his Halloween costume

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Photo by Emma Garr
Will the real Josh Tillman please stand up? Artists are constantly evolving with new albums, but some give up their personas altogether. Josh Tillman, formerly of Fleet Foxes and J. Tillman, and currently performing under Father John Misty, is of the latter. Father John Misty manifested from Josh getting into his van "with enough mushrooms to choke a horse and started driving down the coast with nowhere to go." After a few weeks on this journey, Tillman started writing a novel, and it was also where he finally found his narrative voice.

The singer sat down with Gimme Noise, after he helped sell out a show as an opener at the Varsity Theater, and spoke about his transition into the next part of his musical career.

Gimme Noise: When you started writing for Father John Misty, did you have a goal, or did your musical voice become clearer as you were writing?

Josh Tillman: Well, I guess I reached some impasse where I realized I couldn't do what I'd been doing anymore. My initial impulse was to think I couldn't play music anymore or that songwriting couldn't meet what I needed. I had been stuck in a specific aesthetic or set parameters creatively.

GN: Did you feel you were creatively exhausted?

JT: Well, no. Essentially I had these artistic parameters that I had set when I was twenty, and I had tried writing music within those parameters for so long that I eventually thought those were the breadth and depth of my world -- my creative world. That's a dangerous place to get to: when you think you know everything that you're capable of. I got very sick of that world, of that creative perspective, so when I decided to leave the atmosphere, I started writing that book in the album. It was in the process of doing this certain writing that I realized I had quarantined myself to a small portion of my mind or my inspiration or anything. It was a while before I started writing songs again, but when I started writing again, I realized they didn't resemble the J. Tillman music or anything I had done before. It was like pissing on my own grave or something, and that was very exciting. It felt wrong. It just felt totally bizarre. I don't know. That excitement was what propelled all the rest of the songwriting along.

GN: Did it feel liberating to try something new?

JT: Yeah, you know, trying something new is always one of two things: it's either liberating or feels like a complete failure. For me, the prospect that it could be a complete failure was sort of exciting in itself.

GN: That lack of fear makes you not afraid to try new things.

JT: Yeah, there's a lot of new things that would not be exciting for me to try, but this music was a natural by-product of a larger moment of realization about myself.

GN: You released your album Fear Fun a few days before your 31st birthday. Was it a rebirth for you? Musically and in real life?


JT: It wasn't really a rebirth. It's more like when you decide to become a songwriter at whatever age, for me it was when I was around 19, when I decided I was going to play music instead of going to school or getting a real job or anything like that. You start to develop a persona. At that age -- at least for me -- I assumed that none of the things that came to me naturally had any innate creative value, and so you curate the parts of yourself you think you can get away with showing people while still maintaining your dignity. I did that for ten years. The longer I played the music, the more I realized this growing disparity between J. Tillman and his music of despair and Josh Tillman the human being, who was maybe a lot more interesting. At some point, I wanted to put the Josh Tillman that I know into my music as opposed to the self-loathing that makes you create some alter-ego. It's not so much a new person. It's an ability to musically have access to the real person. By doing that you have to reveal a lot. For me, really expressing myself musically means that I have to include my desires, my self-destruction, and all of these things that are very tricky. Yet, to do it with dignity, that's really more of what it is. It's more the old person that's in the music.

GN: I was at your last Minneapolis show when you opened for Youth Lagoon at the Varsity, and what I found particularly entertaining was you spoke almost between every song and you involved your humor into the show. I think people might be surprised at how funny you are. Did you involve that into your shows before Father John Misty?

JT: I have the same sensibilities I had then that I have now. A big moment of realization for me as an artist was playing these J. Tillman shows, in between songs, I would banter and tell stories and joke around. People would be laughing and really engaged, and when I went back to playing my "doom" music, I would notice their eyes glaze back over. That was a very sobering realization that I was far better at engaging people and communicating my truth through that mode. I don't want to be a stand-up comedian, so how do I reconcile these two very polarized elements about myself? I think that you do hear that in this new music. A lot of the album is about reconciling these things that don't seem to be related. Even the album title, that's a very uneasy juxtaposition of words. It's a soufflé combining existential fear and bathroom humor, more or less. That takes a long time for anybody. I'm not a genius or anything, so it's taken me a long time to figure out how to do it, and a lot of times, it's trial and error.


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