Where To Start With... Father John Misty
Josh Tillman is still only 37, but he has already lived many different musical lives. Born in Rockville, Maryland to Evangelical Christian parents, Tillman – better known to most these days as Father John Misty – was an early developer as a musician, learning to play drums at a young age before moving on to learning guitar at age 12. His parents were strict (he has described his upbringing as “culturally oppressive”) and didn't allow 'secular' music in the house, so the young Tillman was limited to buying music either from Christian artists, or albums by non-religious artists with Christian-sounding names or themes (he has mentioned U2's Joshua Tree as an example in interviews).
It's partly for this reason that Bob Dylan became an early and formative influence on Tillman; having managed to persuade his parents that Dylan was identified as a Christian artist, he bought albums such as Slow Train Coming and soon realised that a career in music was his calling. Moving to Seattle aged 21, Tillman took a job at a bakery, working unsociable hours and recording demos at night in between shifts, self-releasing a series of largely acoustic albums under the name J. Tillman before catching the ear of Fargo Records, who released his first properly distributed album Minor Works in 2006. During that time Tillman also played in several other bands, playing drums for Saxon Shore alongside his brother Zach on two albums before both Tillman brothers departed in 2004.
In 2008, Tillman began a new musical chapter when he was recruited by Fleet Foxes, replacing the band's original drummer Nicholas Peterson shortly after their self-titled debut album was completed and joining them on tour. Tillman stayed to play drums on the band's second album Helplessness Blues and the accompanying tours, but by 2012 he was bored and restless. As he tells it, one night he just upped and left at 4:00 am, getting into his van and driving south from Seattle. Deep into a phase of experimentation with mind-altering substances, Tillman found himself naked in a tree somewhere in California's ruggedly scenic Big Sur, where he had an epiphany. Whereas his early solo recordings under the J. Tillman moniker were almost a willful attempt at obscurity, he realised that he was essentially writing as an imagined character, rather than as himself: “Just be me” he recounted in a 2015 Grantland interview, “the real me. The sarcastic, overcompensating asshole. That's the larger-than-life character...being a tortured artist is meaningless.”
He's described his Father John Misty persona as a “sarcastic Michael Buble”, and while that's certainly underselling his abilities, there's an undeniable dry wit that permeates his unusually cerebral lyrics. His first album as Father John Misty, 2012's Fear Fun, is a major change in direction from his early solo albums that incorporates folk, blues, jazz and all manner of Americana, while the lyrics address everything from a hedonistic lifestyle to the existence of God, all delivered with what has become a trademark mixture of self-deprecation and black humour.
In the time that passed between Fear Fun and its follow-up, I Love You, Honeybear, Tillman met and then married his wife, and while the title itself is undoubtedly meant sarcastically (he says he has never called his wife 'Honeybear'), the album is a very real attempt to address the subject of falling in love in a serious way, while still being self-aware enough to avoid cliché in doing so. The descriptions of sex on its title track are a case in point; graphic and unseductive, but also refreshingly honest and not entirely without romance.
He followed this with 2017's Pure Comedy, another album that arrived with high ambition. This time, topics like technology, fame, the environment, politics, social media, ageing, human nature and human connection all found themselves under Tillman's microscope, set to a soundtrack of sprawling, elegant avant garde folk.
His next trick is God's Favourite Customer, which arrives on shelves on Friday (June 1st). To help him out, Tillman has pulled in a wide range of contributors for the new album, including The Haxan Cloak, Weyes Blood, Mark Ronson and Tillman's long-time producer Jonathan Wilson.
The album is another strange odyssey, tracks like 'Mr Tillman', 'Hangout At The Gallows' and 'Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All' find Tillman in excellent form, pouring forth his musings over staccato waltzes and beautiful orchestration, all done with a wry smile and an increasing confidence.
As he returns with God's Favourite Customer, we've picked out five key moments on Josh Tillman's musical journey so far...
'Lorelai' (with Fleet Foxes)
Taken from Fleet Foxes's Grammy-nominated sophomore album, 'Lorelai' – much like the rest of Fleet Foxes' music – offers only the slightest hints of the music that Tillman would go on to make as Father John Misty, but his influence is audible enough to add another dimension to a band already in ascendancy and it's one of the highlights from what is probably still their best album.
'A Seat At The Table' (as J. Tillman)
The closing track on 2010's Singing Ax, the final solo album under his J. Tillman moniker, seems deliberately placed; it's essentially a goodbye to what he once described as his “sad-wizard, Dungeons & Dragons music” and there's an acute sense of self-awareness in its opening lyrics: “I wanted to build a monument here / With my face in the dirt and my hands in the air / But nobody came, and nobody cared / So I gathered my bricks and I disappeared”. Of all things he released under the J. Tillman name, this is one of the finest.
'Nancy From Now On'
As opening lines go, the lyrics that open 'Nancy From Now On', taken from his 2012 Father John Musty debut Fear Fun, are up there with his best: “Pour me another drink, and punch me in the face.” A clear indication of Tillman's direction of travel under his new alias, it's also one of the highlights from his superb debut.
'I'm Writing A Novel'
If you're still in need of an example of father John Misty's self-confessed sarcastic tendencies, you'll find plenty in the lyrics to this track from his 2012 debut, particularly in its chorus refrain: “I'm writing a novel, because it's never been done before.” In actual fact, it happened to be true – a hallucinogen-inspired story issued in tiny print onto a double broadsheet and packaged with the album – but it's also another example of the self-awareness and self-deprecation that often permeates his writing. It's a great song too.
Our final pick is this track taken from the second Father John Misty album I Love You, Honeybear, written at a time when Tillman was entering into a new relationship that was being hampered by his touring and travel, dealing with the challenges of having to communicate his feelings via email. It's this that reportedly inspired the song's 'synthetic' feel and represents the only real shift into electronic music on his sophomore LP, but it stands up as one of the album's most intriguing tracks.