Father John Misty: Notes on People Who Sing Atop Pianos | Column

If a stockbroker woke up tomorrow and decided he wanted further — more brazenly — inhabit all the qualities which seem to fashion a stockbroker, he might slick back his hair.

If he had a decent head of it, he could pull off Gordon Gekko’s white collar mullet. To convince those around him that he was increasingly interested in the job philosophically, he could knock off a Gekko mantra. Something like, “Money, at least, gives ruthless people focus.”

If he wasn’t a firstrate stockbroker salary-wise, he could still probably assemble a decent, if untailored, power suit from his local Kohl’s. It wouldn’t have to be Kohl’s, but anyone who knows a bargain knows that’s where he’d go.

He could yell about self-definition.

“Working late again, dear?”

“Goddammit, honey, I’m a stockbroker. And when you’re stockbroker, sometimes the seeds of glory aren’t sewn before 5 p.m. Anyway, the lines were hell at the Kohl’s over on Westchester Ave.”

All this might allow him some intangible vocational focus. It would likely not make him a better broker.

But such an identity chase, blending Americana opera with life, is the most amazing part of how Josh Tillman has become Father John Misty for two albums and 23 gut-splitting, lovely and disturbing songs.

In the journey from verbose folk singer J. Tillman to crooning, bleeding trope, Father John Misty mined something from a slender Jagger strut and psychotropic haze that sees him writing songs counterintuitively truer than before. By self-mythologizing a rock star exterior, he became a success. As a songsmith and as a spectacle.

Call it post-modernism or the fact that 30-to-40-year-old artists are likely the first generation who’ve come of age wholly raised with a pop culture parent. Or more aggressively inundated, perhaps.

“Insert here, a sentiment re: our golden years,” Tillman sings in “I Went To The Store One Day,” the sentimental closer of his February 2015 Sub Pop album I Love You, Honey Bear. Backed by tender violin, Tillman’s voice scales the facade of this acoustic anthem to deliver the laugh.

As in, “I love you dearly. But recorded art has left me only with this Madlib to say it.”

You’d need to look to a force like Community, peaking some time in its second season, to find this much substance in art so terminally aware of structuralism and publicity machines.

There’s some wing-spreading to be done in 2012’s Fear Fun, with its mythic ass-kicking and pelvic swinging despite the feeling that nothing is real.

And some feather-ruffling to be exacted in I Love You, Honeybear, with its sneers and side-eyeing chauvinists, cultural appropriations and know-it-alls.

All of those, by the way, Father John Misty knows he touches, is or affects himself.

“That’s how you live free: truly see and be seen,” lands the final jump of the new song “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me.”

Below, former HN intern Gabriella Martinez-Garro and I discuss the artist, his Wednesday show at Sokol Auditorium and the writing around I Love You, Honeybear, from justified criticisms to misinterpretations.

The following conversation has been edited for brevity and to make it seem like we don’t make grammatical mistakes over Google’s chat function.

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Chance Solem-Pfeifer: So, how many times seeing FJM live will [Wednesday] make for you? Three?

Gabriella Martinez-Garro: Yup! I saw him once in Omaha in 2012 and another time in Minneapolis during his solo tour. Both very different experiences. I’m so amped for you to finally see him, you’re just gonna love it. He’s one of the most enjoyable performers I’ve ever seen.

CSP: 2012 was very big in its presentation?

GMG: Oh yeah. It was during his Fear Fun tour and took place on the front room stage of Slowdown. His whole band was with him and FJM wore this really ratty white t-shirt and thrashed around on stage for a while. It was great.

from the 2012 Slowdown show: Chevy Anderson

CSP: I remember he was supposed to do an in-studio for KRNU the day of that show, but it was just as he was blowing up. And, thus, he bailed.

GMG: Yeah, I was really excited about that and actually went down to the KRNU office to try to see it live.

CSP: So, let’s get into the music. This is a leading question — as I presume you adore I Love You, Honeybear — but was there anything when you first heard it in full back in February that you were iffy about? Or still are, I suppose.

GMG: “True Affection” still seems a little out of place for me. Not that it’s a bad song, but whenever I listen to the album straight through, it always seems to stick out. But maybe that’s the point? (I feel like that question is always a possibility with FJM.)

Did you feel that way about that song? Or anything on the album?

CSP: I felt that way about “Ideal Husband” the first few times, too. But now I feel that song is really necessary as a bulldozing change-up. Which leads me to … I like this album, but I think Fear Fun was more musically interesting? That album went from wistful to bubbly to dark and towering to rompy folk in the first four songs. I Love You, Honeybear might feel like more of a trudge if you’re not all-in on the lyrics. Which I am.

GMG: Fear Fun is a lot more fun to listen to, while I Love You, Honeybear is a lot more emotionally affecting. I find Fear Fun a lot funnier, as well, although the new album definitely has its moments (in particular, “The Night John Tillman Came To Our Apartment”).

CSP: That song is a riot. Did you read the NPR essay by [Ann Powers] that mentioned how she thought his peers which were actually comedians?

GMG: Yeah, I did see that! When I saw him in Minneapolis he actually had a comedian open for him, which was very fitting.

CSP: I should do due diligence on that essay, which was critical of FJM at times.

I guess I could ask: Do you ever feel like that fact he doesn’t like, ya know, humans, gets in the way of what the music or writing is doing?

Berlant was talking about misogyny that appears by way of him exploring, mocking and propping up masculinity. I know Jim DeRogatis from Sound Opinions hated this album because he said Josh just seemed like a hateful person. Or hate-filled, maybe.

I don’t agree, but there are weird moments I have of feeling cathartic release and then stopping. And remembering he probably wouldn’t like me at all.

GMG: Haha it’s a weird feeling loving an artist so much, but not being sure if you’d ever want to actually talk to or spend time with him. I can see how his pessimism and seemingly general dislike of humanity could be alienating to listeners. But I think that’s part of the reason why his music is so good. It’s not fluff and it’s not sugar-coated, unless he means it to be.

CSP: Which he definitely does on like five songs on this record.

GMG: Right.

CSP: I guess I also think that he sees himself as an artist with a capital ‘A’. Which contributes sometimes to the feeling that he’s being inhumane. He’s exploring romantic and existential stuff that, on the way there, if he dashes up a sexist line or a joke seems off-color, that’s your collateral damage from someone positioning themselves as an Artist in the middle of a culture that has no idea how to deal with masculinity (one of his big topics), outside of think-piece headlines. Which is I think why he does what he does, but it’s not always humanly responsible or kind.

Also, he just said in this interview I’m listening to that he thinks The Far Side and Monty Python are bigger influences on what he’s doing now than any music.

GMG: Damn, I didn’t know that. That’s super interesting.

CSP: Last thing on the lack-of-kindness topic. There’s no humility in what he does. In fact, a very performative lack thereof (which is the point). I’ve been trying to think of ways he could rub people the wrong way. That’d be one.

I can see if you came at “Strange Encounter” from a different way, you’d be like, “Dude, this lady almost died at your house, and you want us to sympathize with the fact that she could have been your last hook-up? She almost died!” Inherent vanity in writing how he does.

GMG: In a lot of interviews, he seems to think himself mightier and wittier than the interviewer. But I’ve always thought of it as part of this character he’s playing. He’s been a lot kinder and honest doing press stuff for I Love You, Honeybear than he was for Fear Fun.

CSP: Totally. Also, I could write a really indulgent book, that no one would like, on the irony of “Father John Misty” being a bigger-than-life character and this new album being framed entirely as autobiographical. Like Tillman went big and fictional in order to get to the personal writing that everyone still looks at as the ultimate convention of singer-songwriters.

GMG: Haha that’s great. I’d read it.

CSP: I’d dedicate that book to you, GMG. No one else would want the dedication.

Coming Autumn 2019. Five years after the album.

GMG: One copy sold.

CSP: Haha. What else? How good is “Holy Shit”? Formerly “Atom Bomb and Me.”

GMG: God damn, so good.

CSP: Like the 21st century version of “We Didn’t Start The Fire.” I’ve been telling anyone who will listen.

GMG: Weirdly enough, I was just comparing Billy Joel to FJM the other day in my head.

CSP: But not to anyone.

GMG: Haha no, never. I didn’t get very far.

CSP: “Funtimes in Babylon” is the sequel to “Say Goodbye to Hollywood?”

I got nothing else.

GMG: “Only Son of the Ladiesman” written by “Piano Man”?

CSP: Haha.

GMG: Yeah, I didn’t get very far.

CSP: Well, Billy Joel was famously enamored of LA’s romance in the early 70s when he moved out there! Same era everyone is saying FJM’s music sounds like it’s from.

GMG: There we go!

CSP: Even though Billy Joel didn’t remotely play that kind of music. IT’S NOT A GREAT COMPARISON OK?

GMG: I really thought I was on to something. It was gonna change everything. Or nothing.

I’m curious, what are your favorite lyrics from this album? There’s a lot for me, but a few in particular that I really love.

CSP: So I think “…your wedding dress someone was probably murdered in” is amazing from “Chateau Lobby.” Perfect descriptor for a moth-bally classical, Dickensian wedding dress.

GMG: ”And the neighbors are complaining that the misanthropes next door are probably conceiving a Damien.” I always think that one is funny.

CSP: Like I said, “Ideal Husband” I’ve slowly grown to like, but at the end of that song when he’s having a conniption and is like “…Said something dumb, like, ‘I’m tired of running.'” Even when he’s peaking emotionally he can’t help a small self-aware comment. You got one more?

GMG: I’d say possibly my favorite lyric (at the moment) is: “People are boring, but you’re something else completely. Damn, let’s take our chances.” It’s simple, but basically everything about this album, summed up into two lines.

CSP: That’s really true. He loves Emma. Everything else, be damned. I have a send-off question for you — one I’ve been mulling over. Do you think FJM is around in five years? As FJM?

GMG: Hmm. You know, I’m not sure. I hope so, but I could see him doing something really different. Maybe something more sincere or more like “True Affection.” Or even going all out and doing comedy.

CSP: Ah, “True Affection”! Great call. This is what I was going say if he were to keep going. That he’d write less telling, but more atmospheric, songs.

And I say that because I think being the kind of person who always wants to rip off the correct joke to mock the right topical thing — but also you kind of despise the those things — could get exhausting. His fake music streaming service, SAP — I found that hilarious. But behind it, there’s this shadow of him genuinely being irritated about how the industry works or how the whole process of content and publicization online works. He’s always lampooning that. But I wonder if he wouldn’t find it more personally rewarding to just disengage. And I Love You, Honeybear is all about finding genuine personal rewards, i.e. be in love and that’s all that matters.

GMG: Right, I think the future for him is either to continue in the vein of writing genuine, personal music or to break from that completely and, like you said, make music that continues to skewer whatever is current. I hope he doesn’t lose his bite, but I really enjoyed his more honest writing this album.