The name J. Tillman isn't going to ring any bells for most people, but the 27-year-old songwriter -- with little fanfare, no managers and no major label -- has recorded five devastatingly introspective albums over the course of as many years. With his newest, "Vacilando Territory Blues," out now from Western Vinyl, and a back catalog available through iTunes, Joshua Tillman might soon have a few more ears leaned in his direction.
His 2008 tour of Europe and Australia as the new drummer for the critically praised Fleet Foxes certainly helped. Asked to join the band in the spring, after Nicholas Peterson's departure, Tillman also filled the opening slot for the European leg of the tour. It must have been quite the contrast: Tillman's songs have no shimmer or gloss, just a bleak landscape of guitar-driven ballads recorded lovingly through the barest of means.
On a live YouTube clip from 2006 he jokes, "I play sad bastard music. For the money."
The Foxes and Tillman, both based in Seattle, seem to have gotten their timing right. "After six years of playing songs, the same 20 of my friends were coming to the shows," said Tillman, who, at that point, hadn't quit his day job in construction and acoustic paneling. "I was reassessing what I was doing. They needed a drummer, and we all got along, and for me this was an opportunity to play music. Three years ago, I wouldn't have joined any band for anything, but it's been an incredible experience. It allowed some of the pressure I put on myself to kind of dissipate a little bit."
Speaking by phone from his Seattle home, Tillman said that he just signed a lease on an Airstream trailer and a one-room cabin on Vashon Island. He's already commuting there to record "Lady Be Still," a new album that might see release this spring.
Tillman moved to Seattle six years ago, but he grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. The oldest of four, Tillman was raised in the Baptist church and attended an Episcopal elementary school, but by fifth grade he found himself enrolled in a Pentecostal Messianic Jewish day school where people spoke in tongues and there were public healings.
"No amputees though, or anything. It was more like the common cold being relieved, momentarily," Tillman said. "But the mental image of a row of second-graders lying on the ground convulsing and talking about seeing dead grandparents was definitely traumatic."
Students were taught that failure to participate was indicative of a failure to know God. "I never passed out. It didn't work. By their tenets, I was basically failing at being a Christian."
Faith and the difficulty of trying to quantify the religious experience is a recurring theme for Tillman. His songs tell of broken hearts and emotional disillusionment, but belief, or lack thereof, is the dynamo humming in the background. In "Evans and Falls," he sings: "Jumped out my first-floor window barefoot / booked it for Monument Park / Made it as far as Evanson Falls / I heard you call / 'Joshua it's not my fault, the devil took sway of my heart.' "
In 2004, Tillman recorded "I Will Return," which he refers to as "my Flannery O'Connor murder ballads album." He picked up fans in Damien Jurado and Pedro the Lion's David Bazan and eventually toured with both of them. In 2006, 150 copies of Tillman's "Long May You Run" were released on Keep Recordings, which also agreed to a 100-copy run of his first album.
That same year, he recorded "Minor Works," which employed backing musicians in an "attempt at a Ryan Adams-sounding kind of thing." "Cancer and Delirium," his 2007 album, returned to the minimalist balladry of his first two collections, although with more meticulous production.
"Vacilando Territory Blues" represents a shift, however subtle, in Tillman's sound. "It doesn't have a core. It fulfills a sort of meta-sense of purpose. It's a record of me trying to make a record."
It includes his most upbeat number. "Steel on Steel" is a rolling, summery song with mellotron, a staccato guitar line and well-orchestrated horn flourishes. "New Imperial Grand Blues" verges into Crazy Horse territory. "No Occasion" offers the line "I don't want to live again / 'cause I don't want this life to end."
Tillman insists he's not a miserable guy. If anything, his songs remain ultimately hopeful. He acknowledges the influence of Jason Molina, Will Oldham and Townes Van Zandt -- fellow travelers who carved their names in the often dreary mountainside of folk music. "With sad music, or music that's perceived as sad, there's a sense of solidarity that can be really powerful. My songs are all joyful to me. But I get it. I understand why that's what people talk about."