After a handful of dense, constipated albums as J Tillman, 33-year-old musician Josh Tillman changed the name over the door to Father John Misty.
Suddenly he was a showman and a troubadour, and his 2012 album Fear Fun was joyous, sexy and hilarious: a stand-out record of that year.
Now, the one-time Fleet Foxes drummer is back with some new friends – strings, a mariachi band, more strings – and an ambitious, deeply personal album about love and misbehaviour, I Love You, Honeybear.
You came up with the idea for your last album Fear Fun when you were sat naked in a tree in Big Sur. How fully formed was the vision?
It was like a cosmic-joke moment; some moment of clarity where I could articulate to myself that I was an albino gorilla in a tree. You know, it’s no secret that I was fucking around with psychedelics at the time, but it really did arrive fully formed. If it hadn’t gone well, I’d be in a home or something. Because it was one of those moments: “What? Say that again!”
It was easy then?
Super-easy. Easy to write, easy to record. And it was just such a new experience. I’d never really made a record that had a beat on it [laughs] so in a primitive way, it was a very gratifying experience.
Word is the direction of I Love You, Honeybear came when you were hallucinating in Joshua Tree National Park.
Yeah, that’s when I heard the sound of the album. Just this huge sound. I just knew the songs had to be beautiful. So it was strings, and there are strings all over the album. And anything I write from here on out, it’s going to be on the same continuum.
Are drugs important in the creative process?
At the time, I was still very dependent on externalities. But psychedelics, for me, is sort of like the current sacred cow that must die.
At one point weren’t you getting high most days?
I haven’t been smoking weed in a year or something, but when I met my wife Emma, we were going hard. She was like a weed dealer, paying her way through film school selling weed and whatever. So we’d just smoke her stash all day long. That was kind of the vibe.
With Fear Fun, you played with a 'Josh Tillman' persona. But this time, it’s you, isn’t it?
Fear Fun felt really honest to me, but it was really honest about things it’s cool to be honest about. Like: [croons] “smoking weed and having sex in a graveyard.” And that was my life at that time. But when we were mixing this album and people were hearing it for the first time, I wanted a trapdoor to open up beneath me and take me away forever. I was mortified. It hit home for the first time: “Holy shit! This is very personal.”
How’s that going to impact on your famously exuberant live show?
I don’t know yet. I think I’m going to cry a lot more. Seriously.
You’re writing a novel, you draw, you make your own videos – do these give you something that music doesn’t?
I think I’m a songwriter. I wrote a TV pilot that I’ve pitched to Amazon, IFC, Comedy Central, all of them turned them down, but I couldn’t believe I got meetings with these places. That’s called Pure Gold and it’s about this washed-up country music duo that get wrapped up with the Korean mafia and the Korean mafia ends up getting wrapped up in the country music industry. If the Coen brothers directed The Dukes of Hazzard, it’s kind of like that.
I do these things, but songwriting is what I really care about. I don’t know how to justify it yet, but I have to write about myself. That’s all I’m interested in.
I Love You, Honeybear is released on 9 February (Sub Pop)