Father John Misty's Josh Tillman on Fearlessness and the Human Condition
Josh Tillman sighs into the phone, taking a breath before launching into a personal sentiment that's a signature of his tell-all take to his music -- something he's fond of exploring rather than simply talking about his inspirations. As the man behind Father John Misty, the psych-folk act that's followed his work with both Fleet Foxes and his previous solo project J. Tillman, he's no stranger to plumbing the depths of philosophy to create his own narrative.
At the moment, we're talking about his approach to his songwriting, often laced with Tillman's off-center and sometimes absurd sense of humor. "I think all humor is rooted in tragedy, and it is rooted in sadness, and it's rooted in the deficit of the human experience," he says. "There's this deficit where what we expect out of life and what we get, and the remainder there is the thing that comedy addresses. If you touch on topics that are sensitive enough, people are going to laugh whether it's funny or not. I think that that's a lot of what I'm doing with the music."
Whatever it is, it's working.
Fear Fun, Tillman's debut as Father John Misty, was released last April on Sub Pop, and it's proven to be the personal hallmark of Tillman's career, most indicative of his persona outside of his music. It's also been the catalyst for national attention via Conan O'Brien and David Letterman performances, both of which were noted for Tillman's breezy, referential throwback sound and stage presence.
"People that I knew kept saying was that it sounded like me, that it really sounded like me, because I've been making these J. Tillman records for a really long time," he says. "My friends were supportive, but there was a pretty big difference between the person that they saw and knew and the music that I was making."
Finally, Tillman seems to feel at the point where he's at his creative best, working on a yet-to-be-titled Fear Fun follow-up that's his most exposed work yet. While watching him in interviews, or making note of his tongue-in-cheek perspective of popular culture, there's the sense that Tillman can be willing to say what others aren't. In the case of his latest, forthcoming offering, he's revealing things even he wasn't quite willing to say before.
"The new album, it's violently personal, so much so to the point that I have some anxiety about releasing it," he explains. "I'm writing about things that are very, very sacred to me. There's some anxiety about commodifying that and turning it into a product that's for sale and then it's open for criticism or even praise -- whether someone is praising me or criticizing me, it's kind of equally embarrassing."
However personal the final product may be, it's going to be relatable. During our conversation, Tillman reminds me that his work has foremost been about relating to himself rather than pandering to the whims or emotions of others. Given Fear Fun's success though, there must be something that resonates with his listeners.
"When you see someone on stage or you hear someone's music that's just full of humanity, as you suspect that it is, that attracts people," he says. "We're just monkeys looking in the reflective lake. We can't get enough of it."
Where Fear Fun had Tillman holding up to mirror for us all to see, this next record has him turning the same mirror on himself. He has no qualms about introspection, however. Tillman remains steadfast in his belief that being bold is the only way to accomplish anything of note.
"The more bravery you're willing to exhibit in terms of conveying what you really are and what you really think takes a really long time, as an artist, to kind of get to that place where your vanity and your fear subsides enough so that there's no barrier between what you really think and what comes out in your music or mode of expression you're working in," he says. "You have to be fearless if you want to do anything worthwhile."
Father John Misty is scheduled to play tonight at Crescent Ballroom.
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