Nothing to Fear: Father John Misty’s Music Needs no Gimmicks

Joshua Tillman AKA Father John Misty is anything but conventional. At a recent Vancouver show he used a stand-up comic as an opener, played through a giant iPhone cut-out, and performing without the aid of any background instrumentals, Tillman’s unique showmanship resulted in a rare concert experience not likened to anything audiences are used to. The result is a fresh outlook for the world of music. Watching Tillman perform, you get the feeling he’d rather stop making music altogether than sell his soul for a profit. He’s the kind of new-age rock star the music industry needs.

When the singer/songwriter formerly known as simply “J. Tillman” recorded his last album, Singing Ax, in 2010, he began the transition into the artist we now know as Father John Misty (FJM). It was a period of transition for not only the man, but also the artist. He decided to drift away from the somber style that encapsulated J. Tillman’s records. He describes this transition in an interview with No Depression in 2012:

I said to myself, “you are not ‘that,’ you are a man.” You have to not want to be anything else or want to be anything else. You just have to be what you are. I realized I am a smart-ass and that I have always been a kind of smart-ass. So, when I realized that, I realized that I had an obligation to start including my sense of humor and my actual, true, conversational voice in my music in order for it to be exclusive to me, and not to be just my best stab at trying to be a pre-existing idea.

It’s amazing how much our past experiences impact and determine who we are and what we stand for today. Tillman had released seven studio albums under the moniker J. Tillman before releasing Fear Fun last year. He had also done extensive touring with Seattle-based band, Fleet Foxes, as their drummer. All of the touring and constant output ultimately left Tillman searching for a new narrative voice. Something truer to himself. After Singing Ax, he knew his J. Tillman days were over, telling No Depression, “as an artist, you must blow yourself up to move on.” This transformation came to fruition on a road trip Tillman took down coast in his van with “enough mushrooms to choke a horse” and no clear destination. This is where he says he found his narrative voice while writing a novel, which eventually manifested itself into his music while recording in his Laurel Canyon home. The result was a creative explosion in the musician that ultimately took form in his 2012 release, Fear Fun.

Fast-forward several months to the beginning of an unusually cold, and sadly premature Vancouver winter. The Commodore Ballroom is abuzz, full of chatter as patrons wait for the new, revamped Tillman to arrive onto the stage. Little does the crowd know they are about to be treated to the inventive aforementioned show—a blend of charisma and the bucking of convention.  

In today’s Vine generation and indelibly short attention spans, it takes a lot of courage to stand in front of thousands of people with just your smile and your guitar. FJM doesn’t seem phased by our generational values. He has more than enough confidence in his voice and hard-hitting acoustic skills to keep his audience captivated. In fact, the entire crowd seemed a step further than captivated, hypnotized may be more apt a description. Gone were the problems of ten minutes ago, victim to the mesmerizing ballads sung by this boy from Baltimore, Maryland. With a healthy combination of material from Fear Fun, and new hits from his forthcoming album I Love You, Honey Bear, FJM kept the audience guessing, but never bored. He is one of those singers who sound better live. He puts raw emotion into every song he sings.

The lyrics in his songs suggest a measure of goofiness but have an underlying sense of truth and honesty. In “Funtimes in Babylon,” FJM sings:

I would like to abuse my lungs/ Smoke around everything inside with every girl I’ve ever loved/ Ride around my wreckage on a horse knee-deep in mud/ Hollywood, here I come.

Whatever you think these lyrics mean, FJM is right about one thing: Hollywood will be his next stop if he keeps churning out creative, insightful and downright different music than anyone else out there. Huge record companies and corporate companies have no doubt already attempted to direct Tillman into their sphere of influence. His music would suggest that this isn’t what he wants. His interviews, his public persona and his giant satirical iPhone cut-out would suggest that these aren’t the things that he cares about most. Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen a beloved, unique musician trade in his own voice for the material gains our Western Culture is founded on, but with FJM it feels different. It feels like Fear Fun is just the beginning of an amazing journey of musical and spiritual discovery that he’s going through and, hopefully, that he’ll continue to share.