Father John Misty: 'We all cherish our first betrayal. It makes me who I am'
Joshua Tillman is a complicated guy. Under the stage name Father John Misty, the Los Angeles songwriter has released one of the year's buzziest records, I Love You, Honeybear (yes, the album your cool friends keep yammering on about).
However, excitement around the LP has done little to dent Tillman's hard-boiled insouciance. He's friendly, enough – but never less than exceedingly intense. Sitting down for a chat, you have a feeling things could get dark – like REALLY dark – any moment.
"What's it like [having a successful record]?" he muses, in the sort of sun-kissed drawl for which 'laconic' could have been coined. "Better than digging a ditch, not as good as getting married."
Tillman doesn't mean to sound ungrateful. It's just that, after years of rejection and underachievement, he isn't inclined to look upon his breakthrough in unambiguously positive terms. Good things come, good things go. Such is the way of the world. Best not to get worked up either way.
Also, he's plainly one of those tortured souls for whom happiness is a chore, even in the best of circumstances. All his life, the 33-year old has wrestled with self- loathing – a struggle the popularity of Father John Misty, and the ensuing attention, may actually accentuate. He's not saying this WILL happen. All the same, he's minding how he goes.
He performs to a beyond sold-out Whelan's, Dublin in a few hours, on the first date of his European tour. He is fond of Ireland, where he has played on several occasions with Fleet Foxes, the critically-adored 'alternative' roots crew whose marriage of revivalist folk and American psychedelia could have been machine-tooled to send readers of Mojo magazine into a tizzy.
However, memories of his previous shows in Ireland have come to acquire a melancholy gloss. Tillman is no longer on speaking terms with Fleet Foxes. Having joined the group as a drummer when his solo career was at a low-ebb, he was always an awkward fit – and it didn't take long for the fault lines to manifest. I mention a 2011 Vicar Street gig at which Tillman, crouched behind his kit, cracked up the rest of the band and most of the audience with a torrent of acerbic asides. He sighs – the mantle of class jester has always come easy and he isn't proud of it.
"My clowning around at those concerts was misinterpreted as me having a knee-slapping good time," he says. "For me, humour is something I have to be careful with. I have this line in the new album, 'I'm telling people jokes to shut them up'. That's not a trait I particularly like in myself. It is something I am working hard to curtail. I had fun up there on stage – all the while part of me was thinking 'why can't I just shut the f*** up?'"
The recording of Honeybear coincided with Tillman's marriage to film-maker Emma Elizabeth. The LP is a rumination on eternal love – something Tillman happens not to believe in (it was also, it should be pointed out, informed by a 'mushroom fueled' van ride from Seattle to Los Angeles following his exit from Fleet Foxes). Don't get him wrong – he adores his wife. But, married or not, he's still the same flawed striver. Love has not saved him, or even changed him particularly. People tend not to write songs about the messy reality of long-term relationships. He felt it was time someone piped up with the truth.
"We're all the same," he says. "We all have these universal experiences. Most [love songs]leave people cold in describing some fantasy that those of us who aren't totally willing to delude ourselves are locked out of. "
The portrait of Tillman that emerges on the record is not especially flattering. He can be self-obsessed, coarse, vain. "There is something really disappointing when your less than charming attributes start to emerge in relationships," he says. "It's disappointing. You don't want to be that guy."
He enjoys Los Angeles, revels in its extremes of shallowness. He has opened for Lana Del Rey, found himself at parties with Marilyn Manson (the goth icon mistook him for a lumberjack). "The whole city orbits around celebrity, " Tillman recently told Rolling Stone, ironically in the lounge of the Chateau Marmont off Sunset Boulevard. "Anyone who tells you there's anything else going on is deluding himself."
Tillman is clearly a man with demons. The roots of his unhappiness are no mystery – to him least of all. He was raised by Christian fundamentalists in Maryland and continues to live in the shadow of his childhood. Aged 12, he concluded there was no Heaven or Hell, no God or Satan. This led him to surmise that everything his parents had told him was a lie. He still carries the burden of that revelation, takes the measure of it every day.
"We all cherish our first betrayal," he says. "It's like the first time you have sex or something. It makes me who I am. There's no better way of putting it, really."
Father John Misty plays Whelan's, Dublin tonight.