Father John Misty is a mass of contradictions. He’s credited on Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ album and appears in Lana Del Rey’s ‘Freak’ video, but thinks fame “smells like burning garbage”. He’s touring the UK this month, but “everything that happens on stage is bullshit”. He’s a blast, says Leonie Cooper
When Josh Tillman was 10 years old, his teachers told his class the world would end the very next day because of a religious prophecy. School was cancelled and Tillman prepared for the worst. Yet the sun rose again, and lessons resumed. “And the adults pretended like nothing had happened,” he says, now 34 and yet to witness the apocalypse. Growing up in an evangelical Christian household in Maryland on the east coast of the United States, and attending a hard-line Pentecostal school, has shaped Tillman.
“I lived in constant anxiety that I was going to hell if I died,” he says over a cup of tea in a café in Los Angeles, his new home. After changing his mind about wanting to be a pastor, Josh spent his twenties making earnest, acoustic folk under the name J Tillman, releasing first album ‘Untitled No. 1’ in 2003. “When I started with music all I was looking for was to ensure I never had to live the life I grew up with,” he says. “I wanted a foolproof exemption from pain and boredom.
I wanted a life of constant amusement and leisure.” He laughs when we ask how that’s going for him.
By 2010 he’d recorded eight emphatically under-the-radar solo albums, and joined pastoral Seattle rockers Fleet Foxes. He played drums when he toured their self-titled debut with them, and contributed to 2011’s ‘Helplessness Blues’. By 2012 he’d quit the band and was reborn as Father John Misty, his last-ditch attempt at becoming a successful singer-songwriter. That year he released the psych-folk and country-rock flavoured ‘Fear Fun’, a wry look at Hollywood and drug-addled delirium. The more successful follow-up, 2015’s ‘I Love You, Honeybear’, tackled the adult matters of love and intimacy.
Sounds serious, and it kind of was, but it was also injected with the sardonic and showy nature of the Misty persona, and the fatalism picked up from his childhood. The result is a fascinatingly contradictory artist. He can be serious when he wants to be, when he’s singing about his wife and their life together. But mostly he’s just poking fun at the futility of existence. “We’re doomed,” he says, casually. “There’s no question about that. But it’s OK to be doomed because then you can just enjoy your life.”
On the UK tour beginning this week, Tillman will be playing to bigger crowds than ever before. His relationship with live performance is complicated – back when he was playing as solo artist J Tillman and in Fleet Foxes, he felt “as if everything that happened on stage was bullshit”. He adds: “The biggest con you can pull on people is go on stage and pretend to be yourself. I came to realise that this was a fraudulent version of myself.” He has, he says, “a lot of contempt for myself on stage, and a tenuous relationship with my status as a performer”.
But despite his cynicism about playing live, as Father John Misty he’s one of funniest performers you could hope to see. There’s deadpan banter that has the audience in stitches and stage props that mercilessly mock selfie culture and social media braggadocio – giant iPhone screens and neon ‘No Photography’ signs.
He gets weird crowds, too, something to do with the sex symbol status he’s been conferred with in recent years. “When I go down into the crowd, almost every night I have someone grabbing my dick,” he says. “I’ve had women reach their hand like f**king ninjas into my underwear.” He says that yes, “on paper”, this is assault. But in the guise of Father John Misty, Tillman can’t get enough of being on stage. He explains: “I would go on stage every night if I could. It’s this weird sickness. People ask me if I love what I do and I’m like, ‘It’s not about love’. It’s obsession. I’m obsessed with it.”
In the wake of 2015’s ‘I Love You, Honeybear’, Father John Misty’s fame has taken off. There’s been an on-stage duet of ‘Love Hurts’ with Florence Welch at Coachella Festival, a cameo on Aziz Ansari’s cult Netflix series Master Of None, an appearance as an oversexed cult leader in Lana Del Rey’s ‘Freak’ video and – most recently – a credit on Beyoncé track ‘Hold Up’. He celebrated the landmark by tweeting: “Woke up this morning in an unmarked car with a band aid on my temple, a slight metallic taste in my mouth and a Beyoncé writing credit”. He was also nominated for Best International Male at this year’s BRIT Awards. You may have spotted him at the ceremony. He was the guy who, when he lost to Justin Bieber, was filmed gazing absently at his phone while the winner was read out.
He has, of course, mixed emotions about his success. “It’s like being out in a frozen tundra,” he says. “You’re alone there for years and years and suddenly you come across a giant burning pile of garbage and you start to warm yourself by the fire and can’t believe your luck. But the moment you get acclimated to the heat you start to smell the stench of burning garbage, so you think you’ve got to get away from the smell. You’d literally go back into the frozen tundra to get away from the smell. I think that’s a lot of people’s experience of fame.”
Perhaps the biggest contradiction at the heart of Father John Misty is he has no intention of heading back into the tundra. Last year, he started work on album number three, after around “eight months of staring into the middle distance in a bathrobe”, working out what the hell to write about. He decided to “address human life, beyond a political paradigm. It’s about the cosmic joke.” Kind of funny. Kind of serious. A mass of contradictions. Just like Josh Tillman himself.