Josh Tillman is puffing on a cigarette and thinking over all the shit people say about him.
“Some of the response is largely, ‘I’m so sick of this fucking ironic, self-aware, pseudo-intellectual folk music…’”
He tilts his head, green eyes widening. “Um, name one other guy – one other guy working today – who’s doing what I’m doing. Nobody! Just one person is too much for a lot of people in this culture.”
He’s sitting in the courtyard of a London hotel favoured by celebrities, wearing what look like bed clothes – white vest, pin-striped lounge pants and slip-on shoes (no socks) – all wrapped up in a grey overcoat.
The 36-year-old is on a whirlwind tour to promote new album Pure Comedy, an opus of philosophical pop, and it seems like a slog.
The typical media junket isn’t exactly set up for someone like Josh. His music is full of self-examination, critiques of society and deadpan humour. Pure Comedy’s title track, for instance, contains the lines:
Oh, their religions are the best/ They worship themselves yet they’re totally obsessed/ With risen zombies, celestial virgins, magic tricks, these unbelievable outfits/ And they get terribly upset/ When you question their sacred texts/ Written by woman-hating epileptics.
So when a televised BBC interview begins with, ‘Tell us a little bit about your music… you’re someone who likes to sing about stuff?’ – this isn’t exactly meeting Josh halfway.
It makes him fall back on his biting wit, describing himself as a sarcastic Michael Bublé who chooses songwriting topics by spinning a giant wheel.
This tact tends to amuse and annoy people in equal measure online. That the singer is eager to endorse his detractors only incenses them further.
Growing up in Maryland, Josh’s sense of humour was deemed the work of Satan. His Evangelical Christian parents taught him to ignore the material world and focus on the impending apocalypse.
It made for a sheltered, repressive upbringing which he escaped, at 23, by dropping out of a private Christian college in New York. He pursued music in Seattle under the name J Tillman and eventually became the drummer for Fleet Foxes, but neither of these things were really him.
Then he had an epiphany while tripping and reinvented himself as Father John Misty. It became an exaggerated identity that allowed the real Josh to surface after years of discord – a winding path that involved estrangement from his parents and being diagnosed with PTSD.
Now, on a wave of critical acclaim and micro-doses of LSD, he’s made an album about survival in the modern world, tapping into ideas he’s been thinking about his whole life.
Does it ever feel isolating to ask such big questions in your music?
Ooh… Maybe I feel more isolated than I realise because when I do meet someone with whom I can really connect with on those questions, I feel like I’m ushered into my home. It’s a feeling of safeness, like with Emma [his wife].
I spend a lot of time just parsing bullshit with people and there’s something fun about that. But sometimes there are such long gaps between moments of real empathy that the parsing of bullshit starts to feel like the be-all-and-end-all.
But delving into the meaning of life isn’t normally the stuff of chart-topping music. So at a time when your following has never been bigger, how do you think it will be received?
I think people will occasionally be turned off by my work because they think that I think I can actually answer these big questions… and that asking them is all that original in the first place. ‘Who am I? What is love? What does it all mean?’ It’s the same ol’ shit people have been asking since time began.
But what’s often misunderstood is that I know I’m creating more questions for myself. I know I’m getting further and further into this morass. The questions are recursively spawning, like the broomsticks in Fantasia. You’re never going to get rid of them. Trying harder and harder is only going to create more confusion.
The irony is that the answers do not appeal to our intellectual vanity. The whole reason this album is called Pure Comedy is because there is a childlike simplicity to it all. That’s the cosmic joke.
But doesn’t that just lead to resignation? It’s hard to get out of bed if you think it’s all a big nothing.
You certainly wouldn’t sit at a piano for hours on end, wracking yourself about the most beautiful way to say something. I think that’s a common misconception: there really is no such thing as cynical music.
A cynic does just say, ‘I can’t answer these questions, so fuck it! Let’s go drink.’ That’s not to say that I don’t do that sometimes. But there’s something heroic about trying, y’know? The meaning of life is trying to figure out the meaning of life.
So when did you start asking these questions?
Pretty young. I remember my first day of Sunday school. They said, ‘God made the heavens and the Earth.’ My first question was, ‘Well, who made God?’
The teacher said, ‘God has always been.’ I’m trying to picture this unbroken circuit and going, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ A child is wholly dedicated to sniffing out hypocrisy or incoherencies. It’s why kids are always going, ‘It’s not fair!’
That was the first moment where I felt like, ‘You’re telling me there are questions that don’t have answers… yet everyone is going around giving answers about them.’ That moment has stuck with me my whole life.
Whether you’re a kid or a grown-up, disillusionment and betrayal can go hand-in-hand. How do you move on from that?
Well, the Chinese finger-trap of the whole thing is that the more you break away from it, the bigger an agent in your life it becomes. Who’s the main character in the life of an atheist? God. Who’s the main character in the life of a Christian? Sin. Who’s the main character in the life of a feminist? The patriarchy.
It’s like the harder you try to pull away, the bigger hold it has over you. In order to escape that fate of being consumed by my hatred or my sense of betrayal, I’ve really had to start incorporating these values I was raised with in ways that I can live with.
As a kid, being told that nothing is real – I interpreted that as nihilism, as meaninglessness. But now I think of it in terms of, ‘Well, if we’re just passing through this life, then why not speak the truth? Why not take care of people? Why not reject the empty, grotesque values of this world and do what I think is right, regardless of the consequences?’ Because that’s freedom, you know? It should be liberating.
You’ve been saying that things are the way we are, on some level, because we want them that way. Are you optimistic about the future?
I don’t think we’re really going anywhere. Not to be wilfully obtuse, but the future is just somebody else’s today.
That also feels a bit fatalist, though.
I mean… believing that the x axis represents progress and the y axis represents time is fascist. It’s Hobbesian fascism, you know? I mean it is a circuit and it is all a matter of perspective. The future will be good for some people and it will be bad for other people. Just like now is just yesterday’s future.
It’s gotten better for certain people and it’s gotten worse for other people. I mean, look at America: yeah, we don’t have institutional slavery anymore but we have turned other countries into slave states so that we can enjoy cheaply manufactured goods.
And while things have gotten better for certain people in America, it has gotten exponentially worse for other countries. Other countries for whom things used to be a hell of a lot better before things got better for us.
Have you been surprised by the response to your music?
I was surprised by the response to the song ‘Pure Comedy’, which was anywhere from ‘Finally, a song for atheists!’ to ‘This snowflake motherfucker…’
Me using that device of saying, ‘They do this, they do this, they do this’ led people to project their worldview onto it. That was deeply disturbing. In my mind, I deployed that to encourage people to come out into space with me for six-and-a-half minutes and just look at humanity, then make an assessment. ‘Is this really how we want to live?’
Going back to what you said earlier, I think it can be healthy to detach occasionally. In Eastern religions, detachment is a virtue. It’s something to strive for… not in a callous, ignorant way but in a way to forget your prejudices or your own self-love; to take a step back and look at the world objectively.
Yet people get hung up on the idea that much of what you do is sardonic or insincere…
But that’s the culture. That’s not me.
Well, for instance, just before releasing an intensely thoughtful album, you upload these ‘generic pop songs’, which are catchy and beautiful, then remove them as if to make a point…
This is how you have to approach everything that I do. This is the secret. [Pauses] Everything I make is sincere… but then at the end, I put this tweak on it.
Those songs are not satirical. I would love for them to have a good home because I think it’s a sin to waste music. But calling them generic pop songs – if you’ll permit the third person – is ‘just something that Josh would do’.
It’s funny… but only because the songs are really good. It’s the same thing with the perfume [‘Innocence’ by Misty]. I spent six months making the most beautiful perfume for girls that I could. You wouldn’t think that a middle-aged white guy could tell stories that resonate with someone who, superficially, is as different from me as possible.
But it’s happening, so I wanted to make something for them. That may sound weird, because it’s ‘something I would do’, but that doesn’t mean I don’t mean it.
Maybe when you’re poking fun at society, people have a hard time taking some of the other things you say at face value…
Don’t get me wrong, there is shit about this time that I fucking despise. I do think that we we have equipped ourselves with every tool that we need to live in front of Narcissus’ pool.
‘The Memo’ really addresses this:
It’s not self-love that kills you/ It’s when those who hate you are allowed/ To sell you that you’re a glorious shit/ The entire world revolves around.
Self-acceptance is the opposite of narcissism. Narcissus is not sitting in front of the pool because he loves himself so much. He’s sitting there because he is terrified that the moment he steps away from the pool, he will cease to exist.
So he is completely disassociated with his consciousness, with his ability to love himself for who he is. And if you delete a 15-year-old’s Instagram account in the middle of the night, they would wake up in the morning and have a genuine existential crisis.
Their friends would be saying, ‘Where did you go?’ The obvious answer is, ‘I’m right here! I’m still here! I’m me!’ But we have now fully identified with the image.
I say in the song ‘Total Entertainment Forever’: ‘It’s like the images have all become real/ And someone’s living my life for me out in the mirror.’
We have disassociated. More and more so. And when you don’t value yourself and your consciousness in that most fundamental way, you become incapable of empathising or identifying with other people, which makes you incredibly selfish – and selfishness is destruction. Hedonism and narcissism are always the last stop on the apocalypse express.
The day after Trump clinched the Republican presidential nomination, you gave a speech at a festival in New Jersey about the price of apathy and the numbing role entertainment plays in our lives. But I’m sure those people still wanted to hear ‘Bored in the USA’. Do you think, in the bigger picture, much of what you communicate gets lost in translation?
No. There’s just not enough that’s superficially appealing about what I do. Old uncle Jerry’s banjo music about the end of the world… you can’t really gussy that up. I mean there are shows where there are women up front for whom I’m just Barry Manilow or something.
But people wouldn’t even ask me the questions they’re asking if what I say was so obscured by my surface appeal. I wouldn’t be where I am if that were the case.
I am an outsider but, in other ways, my success is all the evidence you need that I’m sort of an insider… only because what I’m saying resonates with enough people. And it turns out there’s a lot of them, which is very weird.
Pure Comedy is out on Bella Union.