Josh Tillman performs as Father John Misty. (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)
Josh Tillman lives with his girlfriend, Emma Garr, in a tidy dollhouse-sized studio in the Echo Park hills. The bed is on the floor beside the fireplace. Books on a wooden shelf wrap two walls and there are no curtains on the windows, which on a recent night let light from the full moon into a room warmed by a brightly burning fire.
Tillman, a singer-songwriter who performs under the moniker Father John Misty, plays songs from the new album he's been recording while Garr steps out to buy ingredients for a supper of salad and avocado at a nearby organic grocery store.
The scene is almost too idyllic — like a Hollywood set dresser's romantic idea of an artist's shack. But there is a catch.
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"Emma and I are not very pleasant people," says Tillman, sipping on a glass of bourbon. "These are some pleasant affectations, but don't be fooled."
He's joking, to a point. The statement reflects his conflicted relationship with both his art and his swiftly rising public profile. Tillman was once best known as the drummer for the popular Seattle-based indie rock band Fleet Foxes, but since releasing his first solo album as Father John Misty in May, his somewhat opaque persona has eclipsed Tillman's former identity and taken on a life of its own.
The inaugural Misty album (Tillman has released seven other solo records under his real name) is titled "Fear Fun," and Tillman has achieved significant buzz with it. He recently played aboard the S.S. Coachella cruise ship through the Bahamas and Jamaica after returning from a nearly four-month tour of the U.S. and Europe. He headlines his biggest L.A. show to date on Saturday at the El Rey, and on Jan. 4 he hits the road for another month before heading to Australia.
"It's a little soon to call the game," says Tillman, 31, of his recent success. "I think of this phase of my life as a bizarre detour on the way to dishwashing."
Tillman is tall and lanky, with mussed brown hair and blue-green eyes as clear as polished marbles. He gets noticeably uncomfortable when he thinks that something he is saying about his music is being taken too seriously. His work is not meant to be "precious," he says, and the role of Misty is as much an experimental gag as a muse.
"This is the sort of thing that when you'd get stoned with your friends you might say, 'Wouldn't this be a great thing to do?,'" says Tillman. "Those are my best ideas — not when I sit down with my guitar. That was just a huge realization for me. That changed the way I wrote songs and curated my albums."
In taking on a stage name, Tillman found freedom. He was finally able to write honest songs. Raised by deeply religious parents in the Maryland suburbs, Tillman was a trouble-making child who hated school but thrived on playing drums and writing poetry. As a result, he was hyper self-aware, so he's hip to the irony of the notion that in wearing a mask he's revealing his core identity.
"I had zero vanity attached to it, so I was liberated," he says of the Father John Misty project. "My fear-based instincts were impeded and what came out was my observational cantankerousness. There's a lot of risk in putting what you suspect you really are into your music. That was a Hail Mary for me."
His fans caught his musical pass, though, and the album received glowing reviews from industry career-makers including Pitchfork, which called it "gregarious, engaging, even funny."
Over the course of 12 songs and 43 minutes, "Fear Fun" romps through the surreal, sometimes epic, often petty, always sun-drenched landscape of Los Angeles with writerly lyrics and catchy melodies that evoke the city with razor-sharp specificity.
There's a song about the Hollywood Forever Cemetery with the hummably bleak chorus of "we should let this dead guy sleep," there's also a reference to making "it out alive from Hollywood and Vine" and more than a few pointed jabs at the hollow nature of celebrity culture in the entertainment capital of the world.
"Look out Hollywood, here I come," is the refrain in one of the album's most resonant songs, "Fun Times in Babylon."
For his next album, however, Tillman plans to shift his focus to love, a subject that he considers a great challenge.
"I've been writing a lot about my encounter with love," he says of the intensity of his relationship with Garr, whom he met at a store in Laurel Canyon about a year ago. "Which is the white stag as far as songwriting is concerned because love songs are so banal and my experience with love is anything but that."
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