Music Profiles: Josh Tillman (AKA Father John Misty)

Father John Misty Profile

No Majesty Music Profiles takes a look at artists’ careers from start to present, with the aim of documenting their impact on music culture.

“Authentically bogus instead of bogusly authentic”. The words uttered during a 2017 ‘New Yorker’ interview with the man himself; sum up singer-songwriter Father John Misty’s irreverent approach to navigating the music industry. Nothing; not his lyrics, not his stories, not even his name can be taken at face value. Yet when taken as a whole, they form the painfully honest image of a man—once known as Josh Tillman—deeply conflicted, vulnerable and hyper-aware of his every move.

Tillman’s career didn’t peak early. His 20s were defined by a series of mostly unremarkable, self-serious solo albums and a four-year stint as the drummer for the Fleet Foxes. No small feat, granted, but the artist’s work didn’t come into its own until a naked, psychedelic-fuelled night atop a tree would lead to the birth of Father John Misty and his 2012 debut album, Fear Fun.

Not only does the name “Father John Misty” have no significant meaning, its lack of meaning is the exact thing that let Tillman write without restraints. While it may be a somewhat paradoxical statement, the phoniness of the Father John Misty ‘persona’—steeped in irony and cynical humour—spawned work which could be more honest than anything that came before it.

Father John Misty

Father John Misty on stage at Fuji Rock Festival in 2017.

Fear Fun presents listeners with Misty as a man in the midst of a wild, intoxicated bender in the sunny and vice-ridden world of Los Angeles. Tracks like “I’m Writing a Novel” explore a freewheeling recklessness and the sense of entitlement that comes from running off to ‘make it big’ in LA. Conversely, somber notes like “O I Long to Feel Your Arms Around Me” speak to a more reflective, vulnerable side of Tillman. It’s clear from this side of his music that the man yearns for the affection withheld from a young age by his “culturally oppressive” devout christian parents.

Misty quickly gained a reputation for toying with audiences, critics and journalists. Both his lyrics and real-life actions give off a strong “I don’t give a fuck” attitude; some love him for it; others hate him, but few were left indifferent. Nonsense interviews, on-stage rants and controversial lyrics cemented his status as a wild card in the music industry—and it’s a status that’s stuck. It’s hard to judge how much irony accompanies any word out of Misty’s mouth, if any. There’s a nugget of truth—of honesty—in all of this work, but the work needed to dig through the red herrings of exaggeration and outrageous lyrics can simply be too much for some.

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Misty’s 2015 follow-up album, I Love You, Honeybear, doubles down on highlighting the artist’s emotional vulnerability. Inspired by Tillman’s relationship and eventual marriage with his wife, the album deals with the sacrifices, revelations and reflections that come from sharing oneself with another. Like with Fear Fun, the lyrics are still tinged with wry humour and a sense of silliness, but songs like “I Went To The Store One Day” don’t shy away from shedding more or less any pretence of silliness in favour of absolute sincerity in a celebration of true love.

2017 saw the release of Pure Comedy, an album that spun the spotlight around from Misty himself onto the vapid entertainment industry, its consumers and the world that we live in today. Its lyrics drip with hyper-exaggerated societal criticism, and yet always come from a place of honesty. When tracks like the titular “Pure Comedy” refer to life as a “horror show”, they do so from the perspective of Misty’s childish, immature side. It’s poking fun at the melodramatic streak in us all, yet indulging Misty’s own tendency to also think in such fatalistic terms. Post-Trump, it’s hard not to look at the world with pessimism, and this album reflects that marvellously.

Father John Misty

Father John Misty at Haldern Pop Festival in 2019.

Finally, we come to “God’s Favorite Customer”, Misty’s most recent release and perhaps his most heartfelt to date. There’s less (although far from zero) humour to be found here, instead replaced with buckets of introspection and enough self-loathing to fill a particularly miserable lifetime. Misty reflects on his flaws, self-destructive streak and feelings of inadequacy as a husband with tracks like “The Songwriter” and “Please Don’t Die”. This isn’t an album that’ll send you into giggling fits, but by the time its final track fades into silence, you’ll feel an intimate connection with the man pretending to hide behind the name “Father John Misty”.

What’s next for Misty? Well his first live album, “Off-Key In Hamburg” released in March of this year, but past that it’s a complete mystery. The artist’s work has always been influenced by his own mental state, serving as a reflection of his overall happiness (or lack thereof). With “God’s Favourite Customer”, it’s clear that 2018 was a year of struggle for the artist; for his own sake, let’s hope his next release channels a little more of his past work’s absurdity. One thing’s for sure: Misty is an enigma in the best possible way, and I hope he continues tearing through the world as the same tornado of charm for years to come.

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