Father John Misty: “I set out to be a real human. Now I’m a cartoon character”

Father John Misty’s last album made him a sex symbol, folk-rock superstar and collaborator with pop’s A-list. It also made him a totem of everything he hates. As he releases new album ‘Pure Comedy’, Barry Nicolson meets a man contemplating life, religion, power and whether he’s a “pretentious douchebag”

Father John Misty wants you to know that he doesn’t know it all. The singer-songwriter, real name Josh Tillman, may be all things to all people – hirsute hipster-folk shaman, unlikely sex symbol, incorrigible bulls**t artist – but nobody ever mistook him for a sage. Sure, he’s just written an album about the absurdity of the human condition, and at one point during our interview will even wonder aloud if he’s stumbled upon the meaning of life itself (see later), but his epiphanies invariably come with disclaimers of self-doubt.

Case in point: the response to ‘Pure Comedy’, Tillman’s third album under his alias of Father John Misty. Its 13 songs are a caustic, soulful and hilarious howl of existential exasperation, but according to Tillman, the general consensus thus far, at the time of our interview pre-release, is that they’re “preachy, tuneless, self-indulgent and depressing. I think most people aren’t able to see beyond this idea that’s cultivated around me, that everything I do is disingenuous or insincere. They see me as a charlatan, and that disdain is probably what’s going to ruin this record, which is too bad because it’s actually very sincere. The phrase I see most often is ‘pretentious douchebag’. You can put that one on my tombstone.”

This is a favourite rhetorical tic of Tillman’s. Ask him a question and he’ll preface his answer with statements like, “This won’t look good in print…” or, “This will sound insufferably grandiose…” before concluding with the fait accompli of his artistic failure, or mocking himself as “an elitist blowhard who thinks he’s too good for a Chipotle commercial” (a credo which caused him to turn down $250,000 of the restaurant chain’s “burrito money” last year). In between, he might make insightful, well-argued observations on everything from the Syrian refugee crisis to the co-opting of folk music by the advertising industry, but by the time he stops talking, you can bet he’ll have found a new way to call himself an a**hole. “I’m a dramatic, depressive person,” he tells me. “I’ve engineered my life so that my only value in this world is in my writing, which is really dangerous, because if it’s a failure, then my life is meaningless.”

The last Father John Misty album far exceeded Tillman’s own modest definition of success, so perhaps it makes sense that he’s become obsessed with failure. Released in 2015, ‘I Love You, Honeybear’ was a saucy, self-excoriating look at his romantic transgressions and white male ennui, whose humour and candour found a larger audience than the eight bloodless folk albums he’d previously recorded under his real name. Suddenly, Tillman was no longer “the guy who used to drum in Fleet Foxes” but an enigmatic folk-rock superstar who collaborated with Lady Gaga, cavorted with models in a Lana Del Rey video and even scored a writing credit on Beyoncé’s ‘Hold Up’.

Yet, while Father John Misty’s songs came from a place of ruthless honesty, everything else about him was viewed through the prism of irony. Onstage, he was arch and sardonic; away from it, he earned a reputation as a first-rate troll by, among other things, covering Taylor Swift in the style of Lou Reed (purely to bait alt-country star Ryan Adams, who recorded his own take on Swift’s ‘1989’), launching a fake streaming service (which only contained muzak versions of his own songs) and ‘confessing’ to the theft of a quartz healing crystal from an LA juice bar (don’t ask). Tillman undoubtedly had a lot of fun along the way, but as he points out, “the last album cycle started with me on David Letterman, in a suit with a fresh haircut, yukking it up in front of a player piano. It ends with me bedraggled and f**ked-up onstage at a festival, screaming about entertainment…”

The incident he’s referring to occurred last summer at New Jersey’s XPoNential Music Festival, when Tillman, disturbed by Donald Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention, used his set to deliver a lecture to the crowd (“the most incoherent thing I’ve ever said”) about Trump’s “clichéd evil” and the role of the entertainment industry in making his rise possible. As he concluded that day, “You may be bummed that homeless Chris Isaak is up here in a half-unbuttoned shirt telling you that entertainment is stupid, but it may be the only thing that sticks out about the hickory-smoked f**king abortion that this culture is.”

Tillman calls Trump, “the perfect symbol of the failure of our culture”, but as an entertainer, he also considers himself part of the problem. “People used to see things that disgusted them and say, ‘I never want to see that again.’ Now we’ve reached the point where we see things that are disturbing and revolting to us, but we want to see more and more of it. The scary thing is that a lot of liberals are waking up every morning thinking, ‘I can’t wait to see what horrible thing Trump’s done now.’”

Trump’s victory affected Tillman in unexpected ways: for one thing, he shaved off his beard the day after the election (“People will roll their eyes at that, but I just felt crazy”) and now claims he’ll never play his signature tune ‘Bored In The USA’ again, citing its “ineffectual liberal platitudes” as something he can no longer stand behind. Yet, while nothing on ‘Pure Comedy’ would have been invalidated by a different outcome last November, he does question whether his history of douchebaggery makes him the wrong vessel for its message.

“When this record comes out,” he declares, “all anybody is going to care about is the Taylor Swift line.” The line in question – “Bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift” – appears on ‘Total Entertainment Forever’, a song that wonders where our growing addiction to entertainment may eventually lead us. The answer plays out like an episode of Black Mirror, as the human race becomes permanently plugged into what Tillman describes as “a narcotic state of total entertainment, where we’re never bored and never have to feel despair again – and maybe that’s the answer to the meaning of life.”

All of which sounds suitably dystopian, and entirely plausible. But about that Taylor Swift lyric… “Oh, I tried to think of someone else who rhymed with ‘Oculus Rift’, but I just couldn’t. I don’t want that to happen to Taylor Swift, but look at the hope people once had for the internet as the tool of true democracy, and now we mostly just use it for pornography. “If you don’t think that one of the first things they’re gonna do with VR is figure out a way for you to have sex with any famous person you want, you’re kidding yourself. But I knew that line would sink the whole album, that people would get mad and call me a misogynist, because right below pornography, our second favourite form of entertainment is outrage.”

Another new track, ‘Leaving LA’, is either a remarkable 13-minute portrait of the artist as a self-loathing middle-aged man or, as the song describes itself, “some 10-verse, chorus-less diatribe”, that will horrify and alienate his fans. It imagines an encounter between Tillman and the Buddhist demon Mara, who ridicules him for being “another white guy in 2017 who takes himself so goddamn seriously”. The moral of the story, he explains, “is that we all have to face the fear that we’re delusional. When you write songs and put them into the world, you’re vulnerable to criticism. The strange thing is, when I started doing this, I thought to myself, ‘I’m not gonna be one of those white guys living in a white-guy romantic fantasy – I’m gonna take myself to task.’ Fast-forward five years, and when people think of a clichéd, bearded, white-guy singer-songwriter, it’s my name that comes up. I set out to be a real human, not a cartoon character, and now I am the cartoon character…”

Tillman was raised in an evangelical Christian household, and while he no longer believes in God, “I still talk to him a lot.” Given the anxiety and confusion he feels about the state of the world, however, I can’t help wondering if he misses the spiritual certitude of organised religion. “No, because it was terrifying,” he replies. “My whole childhood I was convinced that I was going to hell, and when the idea of demonic possession entered the scene, that really scared me.” The closest Tillman comes to a religious experience these days is through songwriting. “When I first discovered that, I was like, ‘Oh, so this is the feeling of transcendence everyone was talking about’.

“There’s a song on the album called ‘When The God Of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell To Pay’ that imagines this scenario when God comes back and we’re all like, ‘F**k you! You have no right to judge us, you made us this way!’ In Genesis, God made the world because he was bored and lonely, and that’s why we make things, too. We make things to be understood, which is why it’s so tragic to make something and only become more misunderstood. If the music I make just pushes people further away, that’s real failure.”

There’s more to connect with on ‘Pure Comedy’ than Tillman gives himself credit for – look beyond its black humour and penchant for apocalypse, and you’ll find an album full of warmth, empathy and admiration, even, for our over-achieving “race of demented monkeys”. Not for nothing does its final track, ‘In Twenty Years Or So’, end on a note of reassurance, with Tillman singing over and over that, “There’s nothing to fear.” “You can look at that line and say, ‘You idiot, look at the world! There’s everything to fear!’ But I don’t think there’s any virtue in fear: it’s just a choice. You can choose to live in love, or choose to live in fear. That sounds naive, but I don’t think the answers are as sophisticated as we wish they were.”

Being the “insufferable know-it-all” that he is, Tillman has one such answer he’d like to propose. In the 1,800-word essay he wrote accompanying the album, he posits a return to what he calls the ‘Vedic cycle’, where humanity goes back to its primal hunter-gatherer scene and every day that we manage not to get eaten by a bear constitutes progress. It’s a hard sell, but he’s sticking to his guns. “That essay is about the core irony that our boundless appetite for progress and entertainment and advancement are the same things that make us unhappy, that destroy the environment, that isolate us from one another. We take it for granted that we can walk down the street and not worry about a lion dismembering us, but if it gets a couple degrees hotter, we’ll probably have no choice but to re-enter the natural order.”

And how would he fare in that bear-eat-man natural order? “Me?” he laughs. “If I got sent out on a hunting expedition, the first thing I’d do would be to lay down in the rain with my mouth open and wait to drown. I’m too philosophical to survive.” Now, there’s an epitaph worthy of Josh Tillman’s tombstone.