“People who make records are afforded this assumption by the culture that their music is coming from an exclusively personal place, but more often than not what you hear are actually the affectations of an ‘alter-ego’ or a cartoon of an emotionally heightened persona.”*
Those are the considered words of Joshua Tillman, solo artist and former drummer of Fleet Foxes.
It’s an observation that perhaps few others would consider, but for Tillman the obligation to amplify fragments of his identity and reinforce a limited spectrum of emotion for the sanctity of his music became an unsustainable endeavour that left the offbeat songwriter disillusioned with the entire creative process.
“I mean, I did enjoy it (the creative process) but it was like the enjoyment of nursing a viper to your breast. I would make these albums but I knew people weren’t going to get it… Everyone of those albums was like a little ‘fuck you’ to the world and they were difficult, they demanded that I be vulnerable to the world in a way that was very difficult for me to internalise much longer than I did.”
“It’s difficult to get up in front of an audience of people who don’t really care and are all talking, armed with nothing but your precious songs about your precious deep dark feelings…when I know that I could just like tear these people a new asshole, but I can’t because I have to be true to the music and be true to the attitude therein.”
For Tillman music has always been a vessel for unadulterated expression, and yet despite releasing numerous records under his own name of J Tillman, it’s his latest offering Fun Fear, published under the moniker of Father John Misty, that finally sees Tillman achieve what he considers to be a true representation of self in the starkest of terms.
The character of Father John Misty was created by Tillman in an effort to distance himself from the self-described ‘immature notion of honesty’ that permeated throughout his J Tillman albums. No longer able to consider his past solo musical efforts as an honest portrayal of his complex character, Father John Misty offers Tillman a new beginning to explore his evolving perspective of creativity.
“With the J Tillman touring I realised that I was more entertaining in my two minutes of between-song banter than I was in like five or six minutes of song, but I didn’t regard that banter as really being a moment of creativity, which ultimately it was. It was creative thought, expression, communication, all those things.”
“What was at one point a very depressing realisation all of sudden became a very illuminating realisation, which was like ‘here’s where your gifts are, you don’t get to choose what you’re good at, use that’. Once I started doing that it reduced a lot of the dissidents that had previously been part of the creative process for me.”
“It was like a singular kind of realisation that informed everything that I do creatively, and also what I regard as creativity.”
The genesis of Father John Misty’s debut album Fear Fun began as Tillman made his way along the western coastline of the United States. As Tillman travelled he started to ink the makings of a novel and in turn stumbled upon the inflections of what would become Father John Misty’s unfettered voice of storytelling, which could retrieve and relay any aspect of Tillman’s identity.
“I more or less started writing this novel pretty spontaneously on a trip, a very open-ended coastal road trip. I guess it was in the process of writing that I kind of gained access to what I perceived to be my natural narrative tone, which kind of bore a striking resemblance to just how I talk in my everyday interactions or even what my kind of bullshitting with my friends or associates looks like; it was very natural.”
“It kind of stood in stark contrast to anything that I had done musically until that point.”
In need of fixed shelter, Tillman settled into what he dubbed the ‘Laurel Canyon Spider-Shack’. The arachnid-infested ‘dilapidated unheated barn’ would be the staging ground where Tillman experimented with capturing the language of general discourse found in the midst of idle conversation and placing it in a musical framework.
Tillman, no longer content to submerge his rounded personality in favour of a flat artistic caricature, sought to lay bare the bones of his existence. In attempting to gain unguarded access to his cognitive functions and articulate the sincere, sarcastic, subtle and subversive elements of his nature, Tillman turned to a familiar ingredient in order to alter his perception of self-awareness.
“Mushrooms were certainly kind of instructive in a certain way. Mushrooms really, you know I can only speak for what they do for me, but…my observational faculties regarding myself just become very heightened. Kind of the first thing to go with mushrooms is your vanity.”
“They (mushrooms) work in concert with where your mind is. That’s what all hallucinogenic or psychedelic drugs do, they serve as a conduit for things that are happening subconsciously anyway.”
“I think it was just like the right time for me to really explore that, but I was on the cusp already. I knew that I couldn’t keep creating the way that I had been in the past when I was like really ready to kind of rewrite everything.”
Tillman’s candid relationship with ‘drugs’ is one that seems increasingly rare, at least in a public arena. The role natural hallucinogenics and psychedelics can play in spiritual well-being and creative endeavors is often cast aside as an unconventional, unhealthy and invalid ‘leftist’ experience.
Whereas once the bond between drugs and music was overtly discussed, and admittedly overly romanticised, nowadays it seems taboo to even consider the possibility that plant-based conscious-altering agents, when consumed in a non-abusive manner, can have beneficial effects.
“I think that people have a fairly cartoonish version of what that relationship looks like. One that I’ve been confronted with is that I do these interviews and people’s mental image of it is that you take like a bunch of mushrooms or acid or whatever and then freak out and then you sit down immediately with a guitar and start writing a song in this altered state. And by proxy of that the music that comes out is in someway invalid.”
“I feel like, at least in America, this is the very kind of prevalent attitude about drugs right now, which is that the true mindset is the sober one. Even though you’re constantly under the influences of caffeine and advertising and stress and Ambien and that all of that is in someway a lucid sober critically thinking real state of being.”
“I think there’s quite a bit about ourselves that is hidden by our constant short-term present bias-based desires and that a lot of people have so many distortions around themselves in their sober state that they have no idea who they are outside of what they think that they need outside of the expectations for their life that they’ve been taught to internalise constantly: like a lot of shame, a lot of vanity and guilt. And all those things don’t add up to a mindset of clarity to me. That is like a state of constant confusion.”
“So if anything, at best that’s what something like mushrooms or any kind of controlled altered state that you use to explore yourself is. That to me looks like real clarity and there are always things in those states that I bring back with me that are very useful or informative or instructive.”
Of course there exists the murky balance of using a drug and abusing a drug. The difference between employing a drug-induced altered state of consciousness to momentarily reconsider matters outside the rigid patterns of behaviour or simply rendering oneself as an incoherent mess can be a fine line.
The former is especially tricky to even consider as a legitimate option of being, considering that for many of us our introduction to an alternated state of consciousness is intoxication by alcohol, where the socially accepted norm is to ravage oneself by over-indulging.
“Really, in this day and age drugs are more or less about oblivion to people. They use them to obliterate their conscious, to momentarily destroy their consciousness.”
“I think that’s ultimately what alcohol does, like it numbs everything. It makes everything slower and dumber and I like that, believe me I like turning the gears off as much as anybody else, but I think that in terms of the conversation of drugs, or what people colloquially refer to as drugs, and creativity – it just requires a level of nuance in the language, because the language is admittedly somewhat problematic, but it requires more nuance and language than most people have the energy or interest to employ.”
“I can’t really speak to the music culture because I don’t really listen to any new music or I don’t really keep abreast of it. But I know the attitude of my peers, my contemporaries.”
“People just have this kind of cartoonish perspective on it… Basically anybody, you know in American culture, anybody experimenting or utilising those substances is more or less operating on the fringes.”
Through Father John Misty, Tillman has enabled himself to discuss any subject matter through the artistry of song, warts and all. Merging his pursuit for the musical expression via everyday language and his penchant for ‘illicit’ substances, Tillman doesn’t so much glamorise drug use but rather celebrates the absurd outcomes that can often accompany it.
In the track I’m Writing a Novel, the opening lyrics, ‘I ran down the road, pants down to my knees, screaming please come help me that Canadian shaman gave a little too much to me’ give an insight to the humorous personality now abundantly evident in Tillman’s music.
“It’s a gently fictionalised version of real events. I was doing some ayahuasca ceremonies around that time and that line in particular is about this realisation that I had in one of these experiences. You go into these spiritual, soul searching…psychedelic things thinking I have to learn to let go or whatever and appreciate.”
“And the experience that I have doing ayahuasca and in some of these psychedelic episodes is that my humour and my cynicism and my critical thinking…those are things that I need to hold onto and explore and use and not check at the door when it’s time to go to the creative space or time to go to the spiritual place or whatever.”
“It’s just funny to me that that line is what it looks like when I attempt to have a classically psychedelic experience; it ends up looking like something funny and absurd.”
Fear Fun by Father John Misty out now
Father John Misty Australian Tour Dates
Friday July 27 – Oxford Art Factory – Sydney, NSW
Saturday July 28 The Corner Hotel – Melbourne, VIC
Sunday July 29, Splendour In The Grass, Byron Bay
Watch: Father John Misty – Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings
Watch: Father John Misty – Call Me Nancy From Now On
*opening quote lifted from press release by Paula Zabrey, Jan 2012.