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Father John and the Evolution of a Character

by admin on December 1, 2016

Josh Tillman has worn lots of hats throughout his life. Apart from actual headgear, he’s played more roles throughout his musical career than a chameleon. First he was Joshua Tillman, son of devout Christians from Maryland, who dropped out of a religious college and moved to Seattle to make music. Then he was J.Tillman, an unknown musician writing sad confessional songs about his feelings as he worked a day job installing solar panels. Then, through sheer luck, he signed on as the drummer for hit indie band Fleet Foxes, just as they went on a worldwide tour. Tillman spent four years as a part of Fleet Foxes before he left the band and moved to Los Angeles. There, he assumed the name Father John Misty, and there’s where the fun began.

Under the new name, he released Fear Fun in 2012, a journey through Los Angeles that tackled everything from taking too many mushrooms to trying to get in a bar fight to having sex in a cemetery. The album simply drips in both hooliganism and awareness, like on “Now I’m learning to love the war” where he sings about the “criminal” amount of oil needed to make a vinyl and the packaging, while simultaneously hoping they “Make something useful out of me.”

To be clear – Father John Misty is a character. He’s not a stage name, he’s an invention of Josh Tillman, designed to skewer hipsters, the zeitgeist, consumer culture, and above all, Josh Tillman. Father John uses his platform to criticize many aspects of life—consumer culture, the current state of entertainment, the environment, spirituality—in ways that are both biting and funny. He’s a non-serious man talking about serious things in ways designed to make people angry with either him or whatever he’s currently speaking about. He’s been called both a genius and “music’s asshole laureate.” In his most recent stunt, he spent thirty minutes speaking at a music festival about modern entertainment culture, calling entertainment “numbing” and asking people to “Take a moment to be really fucking profoundly sad. It’s a lot less sexy of a festival look.”

And in between all those politics, he finds time for the ridiculous. He stole a rose quartz crystal from a juice bar, bizarrely “claiming responsibility” on Instagram. Later he posted the same video over and over again on social media with different captions each time, all somewhat relating to studio work, before deleting his Instagram entirely.

So what happens when he gets married?

I Love You, Honeybear was released in 2015. The album is an intimate, sentimental look at love, affection and the ideals of marriage. Father John’s sophomore album is impressive not only for its musical qualities, but also because it shows a new sense of maturity that is both connected to and a result of marriage. On Honeybear, Father John Misty takes a break from the antics and the bravado to show the audience who he is and what he struggles with. He wrestles with his insecurities, he daydreams about spending the rest of his life with one woman, he gets jealous, and he is honest with his listeners for the first time ever.

That’s not to say Tillman ditched the cynicism entirely, though. I Love You, Honeybear is an album about a cynic falling in love. That’s most clear on “Holy Shit” when he wails “Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity/ But what I fail to see is what that’s got to do with you and me.” Cynicism is a both a theme throughout Father John’s music and a goal of his music. Honeybear shows that Father John is learning to drop the cynicism when he wants to, and he’s using that to explore places he couldn’t previously go, such as intimacy. Father John is fascinated by love, because before he met his wife, it didn’t exist to him. Father John is needy, he is insecure and he is too-often rude, but above all, he loves his wife .

By Miles Kish

Anna Lee Skinner December 6, 2016 at 5:39 pm

I reviewed this article and the edits you chose to make are really great. I love the subject matter and the conversational tone of the article serves it well. It makes me want to listen to the music and learn more about it and I think that’s kind of the idea here.

Christian T Smith December 6, 2016 at 4:11 pm

I really appreciate the idea of art for art’s sake, and found it to be recurringly present in this article. I’ve listened to Father John Misty, but all of this was new information to me. I think that understanding these things really put some of the music in perspective, and I was able to draw connections of narratives to titles like his “Hollywood forever cemetery sings.”

Catherine Allen December 6, 2016 at 11:53 am

I had never heard of Josh Tillman or Father John Misty before, but now I am very interested by his music! I enjoyed how you talked about both his older and newer works and compared the two. I thought that it was very interesting how he has moved away from his partying life due to his wife, but is still able to keep cynicism in his music. I also thought that it was interesting that he really allows his fans to see his everyday struggles in his newer work.

Kailey Hackett December 6, 2016 at 1:04 am

I have heard of the The Fleet Foxes, but have never heard of Josh Tillman before now. After reading this, I am curious to learn more about his life and about his music. I thought it was very interesting how he can go from such an extravagant lifestyle of partying and being almost badass to showing so much love and affection for one person. I listened to part of “Holy Shit” and I thought that the way you described him fit almost identically with the way I envisioned him from listening to that song. I liked the way you were able to incorporate his newer work into his older pieces and what contrasted them.

Emma Berg December 4, 2016 at 11:34 pm

I’ve heard of Father John Misty and The Fleet Foxes but I never knew about Josh Tillman. I never payed enough attention to the lyrics of Father John Misty’s songs to realize the cynicism and satire that fills his music. This article is extremely interesting and immediately made me put on his music after finishing the article. I love the background and detail you give on Tillman and that you clarify Father John Misty is a character. Also, I love how you got into his newest album and relate it to his exploration of intimacy while still making it clear he hasn’t lost his cynical side.

Lea Gilbert December 4, 2016 at 4:41 pm

What a genuinely engaging article. First I was smiling from the ridiculousness of his life and then smiling from the deep love he shows his wife. I clicked on the “Now I’m learning to love the war” and found I really enjoyed the ironic, biting tone of his lyrics combined with the smooth, folk sound of his music. His persona blends well with his music, but I’m glad that through his wife he’s explored other levels of music and found something that’s both sincere and unironic.

Sarah Chao December 4, 2016 at 12:08 am

After reading this, I want to listen to all of his songs. Written with focused structure and organization, you bring Father John to life by describing the evolution of a man, a character, a career. The first sentence is funny and brings all attention to the table. Also, good inclusion of a divider in the article where you insert a question of a pivotal moment in his life–marriage, love. This totally changes the tone of the article because of how he’s changed as a person and in his music.

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