Finding Father John Misty
by Michael Ayers on August 21, 2017
Josh Tillman still doesn't know what to make of Pure Comedy, his third album as Father John Misty.
“At first blush, the record seems kind of cold,” he says from his home in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles. “I don’t know if it’s too cold or intellectual or something.”
Confusion over Father John Misty albums isn’t specific to him, either. Ever since his 2012 folk-rock debut Fear Fun, Tillman has come on strong as one of rock’s more enigmatic songwriters—which often gets lost in Internet-driven echo chambers, where headlines, tweets, and Facebook posts with Misty-isms are simply passed around like things to gawk at.
That’s partly his own doing. Tillman isn’t particularly interested in hiding his feelings and speaks his mind freely, unconcerned with what people may think or say about him. There’s an acute self-awareness in his lyrics—a perfect mix of irony, anxiety, sadness and confusion.
Tillman named his album Pure Comedy, though at its core the album has few substantial laughs. The record won immediate praise for its lush, grandiose numbers that find Tillman dissecting modern society’s most ridiculous tendencies, notions of success and what it means to be entertained nonstop.
But he knows this invites backlash.
“This album’s too easy of a target for a certain intellectual type to resist,” he says. “It can be portrayed as indulgent, preachy and coming from a place of privilege. For me, it is just a very personal record, in that I understand this worldview does not come from some objective place.”
Maybe he’s brought it on himself. But something is clicking. These days, he regularly sells out 3,000-seat theaters and has a top billing at major festivals. When Pure Comedy was on the cusp of release, he performed on Saturday Night Live. At this point, resistance may be futile. But a big question remains: Can Tillman survive Father John Misty’s success?
Tillman was born and raised in Rockville, Md., a suburb outside of Washington, D.C. His parents were strictly religious and put the fear of God in him—literally.
“I spent most of my childhood under the impression that I would not live to be an adult because Jesus was gonna come back any day now,” he recalls. “People talked about death all the time. They talked about the afterlife all the time.”
Secular music wasn’t allowed in the house, but he learned to play drums at an early age and would perform for his congregation.
“I remember this one Sunday morning when I noticed for the first time that if I swell the cymbals, the intensity of worship would increase, and then when I brought it down—or when I played quietly—the intensity would decrease,” he says. “My brother was playing bass, and I remember us looking at each other, like, ‘Can you believe this?’ You know, feeling like we were running some kind of scam.”
Tillman started writing songs in his teen years and, after a year at college in Nyack, N.Y., he relocated to Seattle to start perfecting his craft. He wanted to emulate the introspective nature of artists like Will Oldham, Jason Molina and Damien Jurado, which boiled down to sad songs for sad dudes. One of his standouts of that era was an album called Cancer and Delirium, which sounds like it could be the title of a Father John Misty album, except the music’s completely different.
“I was just wrapped up in identity and wanting to animate this archetype that existed in my mind,” he says of his early work. “I didn’t wanna be myself. I wanted to be like some other guy.”
Jurado got wind of Tillman’s work and invited him on tour as the opening act, giving him a taste of what life was like as a professional musician. Over the course of seven years, he released eight albums under the name J. Tillman. But something wasn’t quite right, a fact that he’d soon come to terms with on a much bigger stage.
In 2008, he started drumming for Fleet Foxes, right as the band broke out with their self-titled debut. (His girlfriend was the group’s manager and also frontman Robin Pecknold’s sister.)
The tours took him to faraway places where he graced some of the world’s grandest stages. Though Tillman continued to release his own material, he jumped from a singular folk singer still struggling with what he was articulating in his music to a member of what was becoming a very successful band.
But this wasn’t what he wanted either. As Fleet Foxes were recording their sophomore album, Helplessness Blues, Tillman started working on a batch of new material—the beginnings of what would become the first Father John Misty songs. Fleet Foxes dropped Helplessness Blues in 2011 and, less than a year later, Tillman exited the band; after a few months, he reemerged as Father John Misty, with the release of Fear Fun in April 2012. Was the moniker a new persona? A stage name? Was he becoming a priest?