Josh Tillman, who performs as Father John Misty, has written my favourite album of the year: ‘I Love You, Honeybear’. I spoke to him on his tourbus backstage at Poland’s Open’er Festival 2015:
What can you tell me about the writing of ‘Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)’?
“To be honest, the details around that song are pretty salacious, and I’m not sure I want them circulating in the British imagination. It’s really just a tune about the first few months of being in love with someone. It’s definitely the most sentimental thing I’ve ever written, which gave me some problems when it came time to record it. In terms of the context of the album… I know the music media isn’t crazy about context… but within the context of the album I feel like it gives the other tunes… I feel like the song has a chance to breath. It’s sort of a welcome respite from the very thorough angst of the rest of the album. Isn’t that a great story, that I just told? A classic. Tell it again! Tell the story about ‘Chateau Lobby #4’!”
How did your wife react when you played it to her?
“She went ‘Ah!’” [Clutches bosom]
Was that the desired effect?
“Yeah, yeah. Actually, it was more like ‘Ah!’” [Smiles and clutches bosom]
Did you feel comfortable sharing so much detail about your life?
“I’d be in the wrong business… you know? I think that’s just the job. I’m grateful to have something to share, you know what I mean? I definitely was writing some real bullshit for a little while, between these two albums and before meeting Emma. [I’m inside, I’m gonna take these off. I’m inside.] I think the anxiety about sharing comes after the fact. During the mixing phase I remember having quite a bit of anxiety. It’s part of the deal.”
And your wife doesn’t mind?
“No, I mean she’s kinda the one… I mean, our lives are one and the same, at this point, and we both view it that way. I think that she was very much the person holding me accountable as an artist, because my instinct was to obscure how personal and how meaningful the songs, and the experiences therein, were to me. My instinct is to kind of, if I can, inject some element of ‘Just kidding!’ to the songs. I tried that and it just wasn’t… it was horrible. The songs just laid there like wet shit, when that attitude was applied to it. She was very much the person who was like: ‘You need to be a man. You wrote these songs, and now you must suffer the consequences.’ She’s very inspirational in that regard.”
I take it she has a highly-attuned bullshit sensor.
“Well yeah, we both do. That’s part of the reason we work. More often that not… I don’t believe in love as a ‘thing’. I don’t believe you can write about love as a ‘thing’. I think love is a context. It’s a perspective, you know? It’s a perspective that allows you to address things honestly, which is I think the irony in the fact that so many love songs are rooted in some kind of fantasy that I don’t recognise. If you have love at your disposal, if you have that perspective, I think you’re able to look at things for what they really are. I think that’s what’s exciting to me about having intimacy with another person who’s willing to kind of go that much further inside yourself, and inside the other person. Literally and figuratively. Anyway…” [Waggles eyebrows].
Is there a nod to Leonard Cohen’s ‘Chelsea Hotel No. 2’ in the title?
“Oh, the numeral? I don’t know why he has that… maybe… no, that wasn’t the intention. I recorded the song like four times, kinda for the reasons I was describing earlier, where it was just like I couldn’t get to what was vital about the song, because what was vital about the song was it’s sort of blind romanticism, and that was what I was having such a hard time acknowledging. It had that component, and it just needed to be acknowledged. It needed horns and whatever else it needed. It needed exuberance, which isn’t typically my forte.”
You usually mask it with gags?
“Yeah, I mean not the gags so much, but just the unchecked angst, or the unchecked scepticism about myself, and about the whole enterprise of love or intimacy.”
It seems to be counterbalanced by songs like ‘The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt.’
“It’s a love song. It’s very devotional. Any time you write a song about someone, any time someone inspires you enough to write a song, whether it’s been distorted or not, distorted by ego or whatever, it’s still devotional. It’s passion. Everybody knows this shit, but love and hate… are not so different. Deep thoughts!”
Speaking of Leonard Cohen, your cover of ‘I’m Your Man’…
“I love that song.”
Seems to contain a lot of the DNA…
…of the Father John Misty character
“Yeah…? What character? It’s not a character. It’s just a name. It’s just a sequence of phonetic sounds. He doesn’t exist. There’s no cartoon character, do you know what I mean? But I feel like that song is good extra credit in terms of the album and the issues that I wanted to address. I think in that song he’s posing this age old question of ‘What is it that a woman wants from a man?’ It’s like: they want everything. It’s the same thing with men. What do men want out of a woman? What does anyone want out of a companion? They want everything. They want what they need when they need it. It’s incredible. That’s our attitude towards everything. It’s our attitude towards God, and life, and other people. We’re very reckless when it comes to what we need. I love acknowledging that. So often songs say: ‘I will be whatever you need’ or ‘I can be whatever you need’, which is bullshit. Coming out and saying: ‘I need everything. I need you to be everything’ is really cathartic. It’s great.”
Where do you go from here? Will you continue to write about love?
“I have no interest in writing about love anymore, or for a while. I’m kinda worn out on that. I’m proud of it. I feel like for me it was an accomplishment because, at the time that I undertook it, it felt so far out of my wheelhouse. Right now… I have the next album written.”
What’s it about?
“Well, I don’t want to confuse the issue. I feel like writing about intimacy afforded me a really unexpected level of clarity, so turning that perspective outwards is essentially what the next album is all about.”
So more along the lines of ‘Bored In The USA’?
“I would say ‘Bored In The USA’ and ‘Holy Shit’. Those two are a good indicator of where I’m going. The album after that is just pure vodka. Just The Vodka Album… I don’t know what that means.”
Does being in a happy and stable relationship change the sort of things you want to write about?
“I don’t know. Happiness and stability means different things to different people. Like I was just saying about clarity, I definitely think it broadens your perspective and broadens what you’re able to write about. At the time that I wrote ‘Fear Fun’ I was convinced that all I could really write about was getting fucked up and being bummed about it. I thought that anything outside of that I was out of my depth. I was really surprised at the outcome of going into such unchartered territory for myself with this one. I really don’t… certainly at some point I will absolutely run out of juice. It happens to everybody. I will put out some really… I’m sure there’s some horrible music from me on the horizon, but I’m not sure that that’s just yet.”
Interviewed for NME.