“In the last five years, this whole experience has, in a lot of ways, turned me into a person I don’t recognise anymore,” says Josh Tillman, fidgeting with a packet of cigarettes and sipping a coffee. “I used to talk so much more freely, and I just feel so self-conscious now. Fortunately in my music I can still say what I want to say because that’s a true place for me, but now I second guess everything and I’m very anxious about the whole thing.”
It’s 10 days since the singer dropped ‘Pure Comedy’ – the first taster and title track from his forthcoming third album. And if the record finds the public face of Father John Misty in the most opinionated, eloquent and astute form of his career, then
Josh, the man behind the moniker, is having a more troublesome time of it. “I was just looking online, making that mistake. I know it’s silly,” he concedes. “But the perception is that this whole thing and my whole life is some kind of disingenuous schtick. I mean, well, why even do this [if that was the case]?! I’m a human and I’m an artist and I was so proud of this record and then I just realised how tone deaf I am in terms of what people would like to hear from me. I realised I made a huge misstep by thinking I could talk about the world…”
In case you haven’t clocked the memo yet, ‘Pure Comedy’ is, on paper at least, a very different record from the luscious, loved-up theatre that characterised breakthrough 2015 LP ‘I Love You, Honeybear’. While the wry lyrical voice known to pepper the most windswept of love songs with references to depression and schizophrenia remains, this time he’s turning the lens outwards. “I’m acutely aware of the fact that the questions that inform my music are really cliche,” he laughs. “The last album was like, ‘What is love?’ And this album is like, ‘What is life? Who are we?’” In for the big game it may be, but what ‘Pure Comedy’ most certainly isn’t, however, is a misstep.
“A recurring theme on the album is that we don't know anything.”
— Josh Tillman
Despite being written back in 2015, Father John Misty’s third is an almost unnervingly prescient reflection of the modern world in 2017. “When I wrote ‘Pure Comedy’, I figured Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton or someone was going to be President. That song became very literal overnight,” he notes. “A recurring theme on the album is that we don’t know anything. However sophisticated we think we are now, in 100 years people are going to look at us and laugh. We’re just idiots with toys.”
It’s a comment that finds immediate reference in ‘Total Entertainment Forever’’s opening line: “Bedding Taylor Swift, every night inside the Oculus Rift.” Surely someone as smart as Josh must know the grimly predictable controversy a line like that is bound to create? “It’s terrifying thinking about that song coming out because I know it’s going to be a total shit show, a total fucking shit show,” he agrees. “And that line is clearly not about me having sex with her, it’s saying where the technology is going: it’s going to be used for porn just like the internet. But it’ll probably be the only thing that people talk about with the record. With me, once I get to the precipice, I have to jump off. I can’t resist,” he continues. “I don’t have self-control when it comes to these things. Like well, nothing else rhymes with Oculus Rift... But I know how it’s gonna go, and it’s gonna fucking suck.”
It’s just one example of how his semi-recent ascent into the public domain has forced him into a limbo of hyper self-awareness. Do you concede and censor yourself for an easier life? Well, sometimes, yes.
“Once I get to the precipice, I have to jump off. I can't resist.
— Josh Tillman
Last September, when the singer deleted his social media accounts, the story went as viral as the jokey, deadpan pictures that he formerly filled them with. “I always wanted to just portray myself honestly and my sense of humour is who I am. You can be someone who deeply, deeply cares about their music but also doesn’t take themselves too seriously and is able to joke around,” he begins. “But it feels like in the very binary world of internet outrage, those two are completely incompatible. I put so much into the music and I guess I underestimated how seriously people take goofing around on the internet. There’s a level of animosity that’s depressing, that I’m shitty as a person. It’s disheartening on a human level.”
But if the painful awareness of outside judgement has started to filter into his general psyche, then thankfully his creative brain remains untainted.
‘Pure Comedy’ is both fragile and confrontational, informed simultaneously by a childhood raised in the fire and brimstone extremity of religious devotion and his inherent belief that “life is a fucking joke”. “I grew up being told that none of this was real. That the world was gonna be engulfed with flames,” he laughs, speaking of his Evangelical Christian upbringing in Maryland. “I used to get days off school for the end of the world because someone would make a prophecy. I’d have demons exorcised out of me every Friday – that kind of crazy shit! The phrase ‘pure comedy’ – some people are gonna look at that and think ‘what a completely condescending, soulless, cruel assessment of humanity’. But another perspective on it is realising that it’s comedy that liberates us. That we have to acknowledge our insignificance and the humour in how important we think we are; that’s the only way to be free.”
“I underestimated how seriously people take goofing around on the internet.”
— Josh Tillman
And there’s the rub. Though ‘Pure Comedy’ is unquestionably an album with a clear narrative voice, from ‘Ballad Of The Dying Man’’s character study of a man still consumed with his online relevance until his last breath to the dead-eyed technology consumption of ‘The Memo’, it’s not a lofty or condescending record.
From lyrics about choking on candy as a child and thinking he was going to die to the chirpy strains of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Little Lies’, to acknowledging his own album’s propensity for failure, ‘Pure Comedy’ is either a stroke of genius, commercial suicide or somewhere between the two. “If you’re going to make an album about humans then you need a real portrait of a human being at the centre of it, and I don’t know anyone better than I know myself,” he says.
Heading into a year that will see him headline his first major UK festival (September’s End of the Road) and release ‘Pure Comedy’ to a world awaiting his every move, Josh is still doubtful. This, he feels, could be the pinnacle. “If I’m going to continue to make the music I want to make and to challenge myself, then it’s not gonna get bigger from here,” he says. “I have to be OK with that. This album is clearly not a bid for mainstream success.” Astute as he may be, you sense he might be pleasingly, deservedly wrong about that one.
Photos: Phil Smithies
Father John Misty's new album 'Pure Comedy' is out on 7th April.
Taken from the April 2017 issue of DIY, out now. Subscribe below and read online here.