Father John Misty doesn’t make psychedelic music per se. The songs aren’t bursting with backwards organ solos or extended wah-wah guitar workouts. They may be lacking in acid-rock trappings. However, they make up for that with lyrical insights that their author attributes to his psychedelic experiences.
I have talked to Father John Misty—a.k.a. Josh Tillman—twice; once in 2012 and again in 2015. Interviewing him can be a daunting prospect. He evidently doesn’t suffer fools; he can be cagey and evasive while he assesses whether or not his interrogator knows their shit. (Evidently, I passed muster.) During our second interview, Tillman discussed the ways that mind-expanding drugs had changed his world view. He further revealed how those changes informed his songwriting.
I’ll provide an excerpt of that 2015 article below, but first a little background.
Exit Fleet Foxes
Before Father John Misty emerged, Tillman released a number of albums under his real name. (Well, “J. Tillman”, technically.) In 2008, he jumped at the chance to join Fleet Foxes. He filled the drummer/backing vocalist role recently vacated by Nicholas Peterson.
Tillman performed on Fleet Foxes’ 2011 LP Helplessness Blues. That record reached the number-four spot of the Billboard 200 and earned a Grammy nomination. In support of the album, Tillman toured the world with the band. However, his stint with Fleet Foxes came to a close in early 2012. In July of that year, he explained his decision:
“My sense of propriety was telling me that any decent person would be happy in my position, and that since I am unhappy, ergo I’m an ingrate, or some sort of terrible person, for not being able to enjoy that,” Tillman told me. “But I had some moment of clarity within the last year, where I just realized that it’s as simple as, ‘The reason you’re not happy is because you’re not doing what you want to do.’ ”
A moment of clarity
That “moment of clarity” didn’t just hit him out of the blue, per a 2015 Pitchfork article:
On a solo trip along the Californian coast, Tillman linked up with a French-Canadian shaman and a course-altering dose of ayahuasca near Big Sur. He found himself naked, hallucinating in a large oak tree on a cliff overlooking the Pacific, and experiencing what he now describes as the first clear glimpse of himself—pretty good as far as rock’n’roll origin stories go.
“I started to recognize my voice coming through for the first time,” he says. “And all the conflict and the psychotic caveats and disclaimers and messy extraneous bullshit was, ironically, where all the clarity was: My spiritual gift is my skepticism and my cynicism and my sense of humor and my penchant for stirring shit up. That’s what I have to offer the world.” He resolved to pursue a creative vision based not on the prevailing archetype of how a singer/songwriter should look or sound, but one in service of a newfound sense of self: “I realized I’m the hero of my own tale.”
Enter Father John Misty
Tillman documented his ayahuasca experiences in songs like “I’m Writing a Novel” and “Tee Pees 1-12”. Both tracks are on Fear Fun, the 2012 debut LP of the newly awakened Father John Misty.
As I wrote in 2015, Tillman made that record in the wake of abandoning his former life and driving from Seattle to Los Angeles.
Fear Fun was very much about Tillman’s self-discovery. Moreover, it was heavily informed by both mind-expanding drugs and geography. Locales like Laurel Canyon, Hollywood, and Malibu served as settings for Misty’s psilocybin- and ayahuasca-fuelled misadventures. It was a Day-Glo map of Los Angeles County drawn on blotter paper.
In 2015, I interviewed Tillman about I Love You, Honeybear, the follow-up to Fear Fun. Here’s a bit of the article I wrote:
Tillman notes that his use of psychedelic drugs still has an impact on his work. He says, “I think that part of the reason why psychedelics have long been so taboo in the culture is that the psychedelic experience violently throws into question just about all of the conventions that we’re taught to respect and internalize, whether it’s money or duty or debt or ownership—these ideas that, through that lens, are stripped of whatever value that culture imbues them with.”
And that helps explain one of the other themes that run through I Love You, Honeybear. It’s romantic, sure, but it’s about lovers in a dangerous time, finding solace in each other despite living in a world that is truly, deeply fucked. As Tillman sings, beautifully, on the album’s title track, “My love, you’re the one I want to watch the ship go down with” and “Everything is doomed/And nothing will be spared/But I love you, honeybear.”
Bloated corpse of the American Dream
Consider also “Holy Shit”, a stream of lyrical imagery that includes “dead religions, holocausts”, “infotainment” and “consumer slaves”, with its narrator weighing the notion that romantic love is “just an economy based on resource scarcity” but accepting that he’s already soaking in it.
“Bored in the USA” is even more pointed. It’s a ’70s-style piano ballad that pokes at the bloated corpse of the American Dream. In a particularly cutting passage punctuated by canned sitcom laughter, Tillman sings, “Oh, they gave me a useless education/And a subprime loan/On a craftsman home/Keep my prescriptions filled/And now I can’t get off/But I can kind of deal.” He then entreats “President Jesus” to save him from his soul-destroying ennui.
“Those songs are sort of like where my work is going,” the tunesmith says. “And I feel very emboldened by the fact that those tunes, and themes that are just starting to crest in those songs, seem to be the things that people are the most interested in, or respond to the most.
“Prior to the psychedelic experiences, my impulse was very much to alienate people with my music. And I think that that was palpable on a subatomic level; I think that anyone who heard it could feel that intention, that the music was engineered to alienate. And for some reason the shedding of certain layers of ego and fear and whatever else through the psychedelic stuff did put me in a position where I was far more apt to write material for the function of communicating and creating commonality.”
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