Father John Misty’s new album, I Love You, Honeybear, is a tricky thing to wrestle with. Musically it’s big and beautiful, its sterling strings, mariachi horns and cosmopolitan indie-rock fittings given extra uplift thanks to Misty mastermind Josh Tillman’s strapping tenor voice. But then you listen to the lyrics and you’re like, “Wait, what did he just say?” In some moments the dude is open-hearted and reflective; in others he’s raunchy, hilariously sarcastic, even downright mean.
The album revolves around the topic of love generally, and specifically his relationship with his wife, the filmmaker Emma Tillman. But if some singer-songwriter fare deals with such subject matter in mushy and overly sincere ways, Tillman is more like that intimidating older kid chilling in the back of the schoolbus, cracking smart-ass jokes at everyone’s expense—only he’s older and smarter now, and he has the benefit of a big platform to put his incisive ideas across. At any rate, it’s an attitude that’s in many ways unbecoming of the earnest singer-songwriter tradition, and for that I find it quite refreshing.
I recently interviewed the 33-year-old songsmith, formerly known as the drummer for Fleet Foxes, for an article that was published in San Diego CityBeat. Right away he caught me off-guard with his curious diction and acidic sarcasm, and then in the span of 20 minutes he managed to dive deep into matters of songwriting and the institution of love. Here’s the Q&A as it went down, with minor trimmings and edits for clarity. —Peter Holslin
Where are you at right now?
Father John Misty: I am in a glade. A lemon glade. And I’m kind of lackadaisically swinging a sledgehammer around.
A lemon glade?
FJM: Yes. You heard it.
That’s awesome. I don’t even know what a glade is.
FJM: A glade, as I define it, is kind of a grassy area enclosed by trees with a lot of, like, refracted sunlight. Kind of casting a mystical power over the proceedings. Especially when you put a guy with a sledgehammer in the middle of it.
What are you doing with the sledgehammer?
FJM: I don’t know. I just picked it up. I wanted to see how it felt. I wanted to imagine how it would feel to murder a San Diego music writer with a sledgehammer.
FJM: In a grassy glade.
Does that happen every time you do an interview? That flashes through your eyes?
FJM: No, no, no, no. Saying something borderline inappropriate does cross my mind every time, though.
Right on. You live in New Orleans, right? How do you like New Orleans?
FJM: I like it a lot, though I would not call myself much of, like, you know, a cultural ambassador. We’ve spent the last year just kind of really holed up. We’re kind of like the neighborhood freaks. We have this hearse, and we’re just so obviously from California, you know? It’s embarrassing. But, uh, yeah. Emma’s been writing her movie and I’ve been, you know, having like spent about nine months of the time that I was there having a songwriting crisis in a bathrobe. So, that’s about it. Doing the crosswords.
What do you mean by “songwriting crisis”?
FJM: I’m prone to episodes of what you might call “artistic temperament,” where, you know, … in my mind, in my… [sighs] my ridiculous mind that has a prejudice towards magical thinking, all of my songs have been written in this sort of like, you know, mountaintop kind of way. For whatever reason, when I’m just not writing or whatever, I just get crazy. I start to think, like, “Well, maybe I need to go on, like, a motorcycle trip!” Or something stupid. But then, you know, “But I can’t go on a motorcycle trip because I’m with you!” Just sort of confronting that head on. And I think for me, what was really amazing about this year was kind of coming to a realization that it’s not magical, and that it’s not based on the intervention of these designed externalities that I’m able to write songs. That it’s this thing that fucking comes from me, you know? And it’s like, you can either sit down and fucking do it, or you can sit around and wait for, like, Zeus to come down from on high and finger your anus or whatever it is you’re looking for.
And Zeus isn’t coming. Is that kind of the conclusion you reached?
FJM: Yeah, yeah. And to realize that he never came down, you know? I’m trying to make sense of what the fuck just happened, you know? The last three or four years or whatever—well, how did that happen? And just thinking, like, well, this is some kind of fluke, you know? Some kind of just statistical anomaly. It’s bizarre. I mean, I think a lot of artists deal with this thing where for some weird reason, you aren’t willing to accept responsibility for what you’ve made. It has to be attributed to some other thing. Some kind of freak accident. Yeah, but anyway, come on down to New Orleans and eat some food.
When you’re writing your lyrics, do they come easily to you? Or do you put in a lot of time and effort and thought and drafting and stuff like that?
FJM: I have been lately. Lately I’ve been really kind of, I would say digging, getting more meticulous than I ever have, because I’m just trying to write a different sort of thing. But no, this album was very, very primal. It’s not fucking Shakespeare, you know? That’s for sure. Some of the lyrics that I like the most are just kind of, you know, cannibalized directly from real life. Like that “mascara blood ash and come”—that’s Emma and I laughing at what a mess our sheets were. And you know that whole Rorschach thing just being like, to a certain person, this would be a disgusting scene. But I’m with this other person who sees these kind of things the same way I do. Beautiful and funny and whatever else. Or, you know, like that “lift up your wedding dress somebody was probably murdered in,” it just sounds so grotesque and whatever, but that’s just Emma’s taste, you know? She got this wedding dress. She’s very into the haunted 18th-century kinda stuff, and her wedding dress was this crazy antique, haunted wedding dress. That was just something I said offhand. I was like, “Man, somebody was probably murdered in that.” But yeah, a lot of the lyric writing is just kind of being open to the things that catch your ear.
I really love the line in ‘Chateau Lobby,’ “I haven’t hated all the same things as somebody else, since I remember…” That’s an amazing line.
FJM: [chuckles] Yeah. It’s just funny. I think this album is really kind of characterized by this conflict between me and sort of this enterprise of, like, writing love songs. And yeah, a sentiment like that… We’re kind of these two grumpy people. But we’re in love, you know? I think that that’s where the album title comes from, it’s sort of this sarcastic kind of throwaway thing where it’s just like, “Oh, man, I can’t believe I’m actually copping to this.”
Did you make an effort to try not to be mushy with the love songs?
FJM: I mean, I don’t think that mushy is really in my nature. But worrying about being mushy is definitely in my nature. Because it was just new territory, and so there is this very real set of checks and balances with me and my writing, you know? I think that in a lot of ways I am like a product of this sort of post-modern critical thought, where you’re just like, “Everything is a cliché!” It’s impossible to say anything without aping somebody else, and that being very frustrating. But that’s really the function of this post-modern irony, this school of thought, where the whole point is to regain autonomy with language. And that’s the point even of the album title, is being like, here’s this corny fucking phrase that is just overtly sentimental and goofy, but if I can recontextualize it and recontextualize this language, then I can pull off this magic trick of getting to make it mean anything I want to make it mean. You know what I mean? Instead of being like, “OK, in my writerly fashion, I need to come up with some completely new way of saying this thing.” That doesn’t happen in the writing anymore. It happens in the attitude, and it happens in the context. That’s where all the work of reclaiming language happens.
Were you surprised when you fell in love? Are you just not a person who believes in love? Do you have a tricky relationship with love?
FJM: I think that love for me is sort of an inevitability. There’s this gravitational pull. I’ve been in like three or four relationships, you know? It’s definitely something that I gravitate towards, but that I also have been like very skeptical of. There’s this real conflict. That song “Holy Shit,” it’s me waking up from kind of this intellectual fantasy where it’s, like, OK, yeah, maybe love is just an institution that blah blah blah… But I’m not going to live inside somebody else’s reasoning. There’s something so stupid about living in defiance of this thing that’s so obviously happening. It’s happening. It’s happening in my life. I’m not going to live in some kind of pseudo-intellectual defiance of that. I want to be free. Which is, you know, a work in progress admittedly. And that song does not really offer any answers. It’s just kind of like, OK, well, I know all this is not true. Or is true in a way that, I don’t know it’s just sort of irrelevant.
It’s definitely kind of unresolved at the end. It’s more questions than answers.
FJM: Yeah, definitely. I find certainty to be really grotesque—going around telling people that love is the answer or something. Love is always written about in the context of the divine, and I’d say that this is not a particularly divine album about love.
I feel like a lot of love albums are fairly predictable. But this one, it’s kind of cynical and kind of bitter, but also very open. It’s conflicted, in a way. It’s hard to put my finger on it.
FJM: Yeah. There’s definitely conflict in it, and I think that there’s not a whole lot of that. People don’t want to acknowledge the conflict in intimacy or love, because they want to maintain their sacred cows. They want to maintain this kind of status quo sacred cow that love is magical cure-all for the condition of life. And you know, life is boring. Life is confusing. And when it’s not boring, it’s painful. And love doesn’t cure that. There’s no way out of that. I mean, I thought that being a drummer in a successful band was going to be a magical cure for the boredom or pain for the inevitabilities of human existence. But at the same time, there’s as much magic and wonder and whatever in this world as exists. It’s like, how do we reconcile these two things? And how do we reconcile these two realities? For me, love is more about having a partner with which to try to reconcile these two things. It’s about having this other person with whom you try to make sense of this fucking chaotic horror show that is the human experience. And that kind of solidarity, and that kind of mutual understanding. I don’t believe that love is this thing, that you find love. I think that you either make it with another person, or it doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist out there. It’s an illusion that we either choose to cultivate or not. But for humans, illusions are as real… We’re the myth-making animal. It’s just what we do.
OK, last question. How do you maintain your vocals when you’re on tour?
FJM: Well, I didn’t used to. I quit smoking. I do some warm-ups, as stupid as those sound. Try to get some rest. Drink water. Horse steroids. Equine steroids direct to the throat.