It's a Wednesday afternoon, and Josh Tillman is in a glade. A lemon glade, to be exact. The 33-year-old songwriter, better known as Father John Misty, is speaking to me by phone from another part of the country. But he sure has a gift for setting a scene. I can hear birds chirping over the connection. He says sunlight is refracting mystically through the trees. Also, he's holding a sledgehammer, swinging it around lackadaisically.
Why the sledgehammer? I ask.
"I don't know. I just picked it up. I wanted to see how it felt," he says, adding with characteristic sarcasm: "I wanted to imagine how it would feel to murder a San Diego music writer with a sledgehammer."
Tillman has the singing voice of a gentleman, the facial hair of a lumbersexual, the sartorial grit of a GQ model gone rogue. The son of enthusiastic Christians, he grew up with a religious education only to abandon his flock and eventually play drums for celebrated Seattle beardo band Fleet Foxes. In 2012, he ditched those guys ,too, decamping to the folk-rock sanctuary of L.A.'s Laurel Canyon to reinvigorate his sound and create the Father John Misty name. And now, here he is, standing in a glade.
I had to ask him for a dictionary definition of "glade." Basically it's a fancy word for forest clearing. And that's Father John Misty for you—insightful, charismatic and kind of a smart ass.
We're on the phone because Sub Pop has recently released Father John Misty's new album, I Love You, Honeybear. The 11-track effort revolves around his relationship with his wife, the filmmaker Emma Elizabeth Tillman, but it also takes on the institution of love as a whole, and to that end it's both beautiful and conflicted. While the orchestral arrangements, piano-man confessionals and West Coast indie flourishes come straight from the singer-songwriter tradition, Tillman takes every chance at subversion with his lyrics, contrasting heartfelt ruminations on love and commitment with mean jokes, graphic imagery and tossed-off colloquialisms.
"Insert here a sentiment re: our golden years," the strapping tenor murmurs at the end of album closer "I Went to the Store One Day," deliberately besmirching the emotional climax of the most tender acoustic ballad to come out so far this year with an unsightly bit of e-mail shorthand.
The Tillmans, who live in New Orleans, have been happily married for almost two years. But for this songwriter, tackling love head-on proved to be a challenge. An aloof romantic like Bon Iver can hide away in a cabin and write a break-up album with no trace of embarrassment or self-consciousness. Father John Misty, on the other hand, is terrified of letting his guard down and surrendering to wide-eyed, full-bore sentimentalism.
"Love is always written about in the context of the divine, and I'd say that this is not a particularly divine album about love," Tillman says. "I don't believe that love is this thing; that you find love. I think that you either make it with another person, or it doesn't exist. It doesn't exist out there. It's an illusion that we either choose to cultivate or not."
Tillman himself is no stranger to illusions. Though he's recorded 10 solo albums over the years, his post-Fleet Foxes sound reportedly took root thanks in part to a shit-ton of psychedelic drugs. "I ran down the road, pants down to my knees / Screaming 'please come help me, that Canadian shaman gave a little too much to me!'" he sings in "I'm Writing a Novel," a Dylan-esque folk-rock number off his 2012 album, Fear Fun, the first official Father John Misty release.
For all the inspiration and epiphany he's gotten from those experiences, though, he says he's come to see in the months he spent working on Honeybear that good songwriting doesn't come from hippie-dippie otherworldly stuff.
Father John Misty plays April 14 at Observatory North Park
"You know, for me, what was really amazing about this year was kind of coming to a realization that it's not magical, and that it's not based on the intervention of these designed externalities that I'm able to write songs. That it's this thing that fucking comes from me," he says. "And it's like, you can either sit down and fucking do it, or you can sit around and wait for, like, Zeus to come down from on high and finger your anus."
And Zeus isn't coming? I ask.
"He never came down," he says. "I think a lot of artists deal with this thing where for some weird reason, you aren't willing to accept responsibility for what you've made. It has to be attributed to some other thing. Some kind of freak accident."
This more realistic outlook shows through in I Love You, Honeybear. In "Chateau Lobby 4 (in C for Two Virgins)," Tillman describes a raunchy sexcapade over a tableau of brilliant strings, shiny acoustic guitars and triumphant mariachi horns. Later, in "Holy Shit," he wonders how a long list of institutional crises and political talking points stack up against personal experience: "Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity / What I fail to see is what that's gotta do with you and me."
For Tillman, this "you and me" is the key to understanding love. The way he sees it, love isn't a "magic cure-all" that will make life perfect and ideal. It's a partnership, a bond of solidarity and mutual understanding—"having this other person," he says, "with whom you try to make sense of this fucking chaotic horror show that is the human experience."
These days, he and Emma seem to be doing just that. And whether they're sampling the boredom and pain of life, or its wonder and magic, their partnership is sure to grow—especially since they've spent so much time in recent months tucked away together in their New Orleans homestead, focusing on creative pursuits.
"We're kind of like the neighborhood freaks," Tillman says. "We have this hearse, and we're just so obviously from California. It's embarrassing."