Father John Misty: Charlatan of the Canyon

Father John Misty: Charlatan of the Canyon

Father John Misty is a two-faced son of a bitch. 

He might look like another bearded singer-songwriter, heck, he even used to be another bearded singer-songwriter with a strong affinity for smooth folk-rock. But Father John Misty (alias: Josh Tillman) is – down to his very essence – not what he appears.

Stewing with sex, violence, profanity and excavations of the male psyche – gift-wrapped in gorgeous melodies that would woo Neil Diamond – Misty’s sophomore LP, I Love You, Honeybear, is a stunning work of duplicitous harmony. This show his relies on his ability to juggle contradictions – romance and tragedy, sorrow and slapstick, cynicism and sincerity – with casual serendipity.

Honeybear’s first single, “Bored in the USA”, remains the album’s definitive track, which Pitchfork described as, ”passionate and disillusioned, tender and angry, so cynical it’s repulsive and so openhearted it hurts.”

Father John Misty garnered major attention last November when he played the tune on The Late Show with David Letterman. Quite akin to how Future Islands managed to boost their career when they turned “Seasons (Waiting On You)” into a viral hit from the same stage.

The performance was finely planned and brilliantly orchestrated. Sharply dressed, hair slicked back, he begins playing behind the keys of a dark grand piano, flanked by a 22-man string orchestra.

Then, ala David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, he openly reveals that the audience is being fooled. After the first verse, Misty stands and turns to the audience as the piano continues to play by itself. He casually swings the mic, crawls onto the piano like a cabaret singer, and pleads for salvation. Meanwhile, canned laughter and boxed applause underline the song’s underlying textures of sarcasm, wit, and social and religious criticism.

Yet as melodramatic and conspicuously phony as elements of the presentation are, the passion and grace with which he delivers leaves no doubt that Father John Misty takes his music, and his persona, quite seriously.

Having grown up among an evangelical Christian community in Maryland, Tillman is familiar with mega-church theatrics. And just as the shiny TV pastors who believes in the gospel he spreads, even while he himself siphons the water for wine, Father John Misty doesn’t see an inherent conflict between candor and showmanship.

In an essay on the song and the Letterman appearance, Impose Magazine’s Geoff Nelson wrote:

There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. The secular brand of worship is no less damaging than the evangelical’s bizarro landscape of White Jesus. We worship our bodies, minds, our stuff – hell, we worship independent rock artists like Tillman, worrying over their artistic choices like scripture. None of us are clean.

Tillman’s world – it is our own, he suggests – requires a fistful of pills to keep leveled out. Asking for salvation again, Tillman wails, “Save me, President Jesus,” invoking a uniquely American brand of religiosity and nationalism where the best and worst day of every passing cultural year is Super Bowl Sunday.

And the paradoxes run deeper still.

In micro and meta terms, the title and chorus of “Bored in the USA” make a clever and not-so-subtle play on Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” – an anti-war tune that is mistakenly embraced as a patriotic anthem – further unveiling the duality in both himself and his songs. Underlined by the artificial laughter when he croons about “useless education” and “sub-prime loans,” Nelson continues, “If nothing else, the brilliance and the irritation of this moment lies in the hijacking of the real people who came to laugh at Letterman and found themselves the straight man in Misty’s joke.”

“It is a concept album about a guy named Josh Tillman who spends quite a bit of time banging his head against walls, cultivating weak ties with strangers and generally avoiding intimacy at all costs,” says Father John Misty of the album, intentionally confusing his real-life identity as the protagonist of his stories. “This all serves to fuel a version of himself that his self-loathing narcissism can deal with. We see him engaging in all manner of regrettable behavior.”

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I Love You, Honeybear is the second album by Father John Misty, but Tillman is by no means a newcomer.

He’s recognized by many as the drummer in Fleet Foxes, and as a folk-heavy solo artist under the name J. Tillman. After moving to Seattle in his early 2000s. Tillman befriended Damien Jurado, who helped jump-start his career. He released seven of albums as J. Tillman, between 2004 and 2010, joining the beloved indie-folk band Fleet Foxes in 2008 before departing in 2012.

Finally, Tillman packed is bags and headed south with nowhere to go. High on mushrooms and great ideas, he ended up in Laurel Canyon where he found a new voice – and new name - as Father John Misty. Paraphrasing author Philip Roth on how he came up with the new moniker, he said, “It’s all of me and none of me, if you can’t see that, you won’t get it.”

Honeybear was recorded between 2013 to 2014 in Los Angeles with producer Jonathan Wilson, who also recorded and produced Misty’s 2012 debut, Fear Fun, with mixing by Phil Ek and mastering by Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound.

Father John Misty borrows openly from his Laurel Canyon forbearers, naming artists like John Lennon, Scott Walker, Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson and Dory Previn as influences. In addition to the above album, we’d like to share some tastes of the Laurel Canyon sound – past and present.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon is a vibrant center of American rock. Such legends as Jim Morrison, Buffalo Springfield, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Jackson Browne and Carole King were all part of this scene, where counterculture, hippie collectivity and country-nostalgia flowed freely into each other.

After a few years in the backwater, the Laurel Canyon sound has witnessed a vibrant artistic renaissance as of late. Central to this happening is producer and artist Jonathan Wilson and his Fivestar Studios.

This latter playlist orbits around the music of Wilson and his many Laurel Canyon contemporaries, along with other artists and songs demonstrating a clear musical affinity to this scene that sprung out of sunny California nearly 50 years ago.

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