Father John Misty is a lot of things. He’s a charismatic lothario and an emotive crooner. He’s a sarcastic critic and a philosophical dreamer. Before everything else, Father John Misty is a character created by an indie musician named Josh Tillman, and it's poised to engulf his personality until the two entities are one. The character is so strong and complex that it’s nearly impossible to tell the two apart, and the nature of Father John Misty is such that Tillman keeps up guessing.
Josh Tillman grew up in Rockville, Maryland, in a strict Christian environment. His family belonged to a Pentecostal church, with services that included casting out demons and speaking in tongues. He fell away from the church quickly; when asked about it in interviews, he prefers not to dwell on the topic long. In his early twenties, he abandoned the East coast entirely, and set his sights on Seattle, where he started making music. Between meager means and couch-surfing, Tillman caught the attention of fellow indie musician Damien Jurado. Jurado helped promote Tillman’s music and had him open at shows, resulting in him being able to self-release his first complete album, I Will Return, in 2004.
At this beginning point in his musical career, Tillman dropped his full first name and decided to instead record under the moniker “J. Tillman.” His music is solemn and acoustic, with the heavy influence of Nick Drake both lyrically and sonically, but with a more modern warmth of other turn-of-the-century acoustic music from the genre, like Iron and Wine. J. Tillman’s music is delicate and comforting despite its sadness. It’s calm and introspective. One may argue, however, that J. Tillman’s music is decidedly unremarkable.
In 2008, Tillman joined the band Fleet Foxes as their drummer, continuing to release solo albums at the same time. Though the role of a drummer wasn’t Tillman’s first choice, it provided him with more musical exposure and experience than he had ever had before. He found himself playing much larger venues, but it was at the back of the stage behind drums, and it bothered him. Tillman opened for Fleet Foxes for one tour and felt rather ignored – he’s said that he once walked off the stage in the middle of a set and no one noticed. Fleet Foxes make warm and earthy music, not unlike Tillman’s solo work. They are also similarly tame. In January 2012, Tillman left the band for a different path.
The origin story of Father John Misty, as told by Tillman numerous times, goes like this: On a solo sojourn down the West coast, Tillman met a shaman, who gave him a hefty dose of a powerful hallucinogen. He found himself on a vision quest of sorts. The end result was him sitting in a tree, arriving at an epiphany, which was the persona and mindset that added up to Father John Misty. Although, Tillman is known to tell a tale or two.
Tillman’s new character is the antithesis of what he was previously. Father John Misty is outlandish, bawdy, and larger than life. He has a strong proclivity for women and drugs and he is unapologetic about it. Father John Misty is sort of a cross between Jim Morrison and Kanye West - The hedonistic tendencies of the 1960’s counter-culture blended with the jaded, blasé cynicism of 21st century entitlement. And like both men, he’s a gifted, game-changing front man and musician, and a pioneer in his genre.
Tillman’s first album as Father John Misty, Fear Fun, came out in May of 2012. In it, his picks up the tempo, adds lush instrumentation, and puts on the bravado. Whether for better or worse, this record does indeed sound like Tillman woke up. The tracks are vignettes that take us on various misadventures of some handsome rogue as he boozes and screws his way through Southern California. The first track, “Fun Times in Babylon,” introduces us directly to the brazen grin of Father John Misty as he says, “Look out Hollywood, here I come.” “Nancy From Now On” gets promptly sensationalist with a little sadomasochism, and the third track and standout single, “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings,” plunges into deep, dark depths, about numerous deaths of questionable causes. The song has some biting humor to it, though: the last line is “Someone’s gotta help me dig.” This is how Father John Misty defines himself to his listeners.
But is Josh Tillman Father John Misty?
This question gets much more complex with his sophomore release under the moniker. I Love You, Honeybear finds him conflicted. In Honeybear, Father John Misty struggles with the idea of sincerity. Between the two albums, Tillman has gotten married. His love is authentic, and he dutifully endeavors to put it into his music, but it sends mixed messages. The character abandons some old ways in favor of monogamy and purity, but his cynicism remains. He’s now able to laugh at the world with a partner laughing alongside him. The title track captures this well: “Fuck the world / Damn straight malaise / It may be just us who feel this way.” The poignant and beautifully sad video is perfect for it. It features two paramedics facing the horrors of their job and their existence one tough night at a time.
In the album’s second track, “Chateau Lobby #4 (In C for Two Virgins,)” mariachi music accompanies Tillman’s celebratory depiction of his honeymoon. The last track, “I Went to the Store One Day,” is a touching story of a couple’s enduring love through decades, and the origination of their relationship. In “Ideal Husband,” Tillman even confronts his newfound vulnerability directly. The composer of those songs isn’t joking around, but the biting humor is still intact.
Upon the release of Honeybear in 2015, Tillman, through his frequent criticism and badgering of mainstream media, had gained a reputation as sort of an arrogant, pretentious jerk. This has only fed into his fire, however, and he does not let up. It’s clear that his readiness to voice opinions gets people talking, and brings him more publicity. Whether or not that is part of his motivation is debatable, but he is an expert at trolling, even when it comes to trolling himself: See “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt,” in which he actually has sex with himself. The lyrics describe a sexual encounter with an insufferable person.
Very clever, Father John Misty.
In this way, Tillman dips in and out of the character. For the most part, he holds onto his contempt, but he relaxes and becomes more honest when he addresses love. His wife is the Achilles’ Heel of his assault on his own species, because through her, he has found hope in humanity. He trusts someone.
One track on Honeybear provides social commentary in a relatable, character-free, anti-anthem. “Bored In the USA” is an ode to Millenials, as well as to all others who live in this American society of instant gratification and perpetual tedium. It’s sarcastic and snide, and it’s a perfect fit.
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
Oh, with being bored in the USA
It’s undeniable that Father John Misty provokes a following and has many fans. Regardless of his latest cover-of-a-cover or ambiguous tweet, he’s entertaining as hell.
It could be that the personality of this character is changing. If Josh Tillman can be a caring, warm person, can Father John Misty have a soft side as well? Or does it compromise everything he stands for? Only time, and the next album, will tell.