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3 August 2016

In defence of Father John Misty: an anarchic antidote to Trump America

Amid the backlash against the musician’s controversial onstage rant against Donald Trump, his role as a mythical figure – though often maddening – reveals a certain authenticity.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

The other day a friend texted me asking if I could explain the Father John Misty song “The Night Josh Tillman Came To My Apartment”. “I thought that was FJM’s real name?” she pondered.

I couldn’t explain the song. I could guess, based on the titbits of Father John Misty’s biography and personality with which I’m familiar. The musician, born Joshua Tillman, released eight deftly bleak solo folk albums as J. Tillman between 2003 and 2010. And from 2008 to 2012 he drummed for hairy harmony boys Fleet Foxes.

Now, as Father John Misty, the Maryland native releases soul-tinged Americana tracks, all swoon and politicised sensuality, with lyrics like “I wanna take you in the kitchen / Lift up your wedding dress someone was probably murdered in” and “Maybe love is just an economy / Based on resource scarcity”.

As Tillman’s stage name changed, so did the sound of his musical output and the critical success with which his music was received.

His first album under the new pseudonym, Fear Fun, came out in 2012. Last year’s release, I Love You, Honeybear, was lauded as one of the best albums of the year by numerous publications. Both are albums of overwhelming wit, both politically and sexually.

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The sounds are guitar-based, sometimes backed by a Mariachi band, sometimes by a lush string section. Often he returns to his folky roots and hits the stage with only an acoustic guitar to hand. His broad, sensual, all-American voice rings out over the top of all this. Whatever sound he chooses, the one constant in Tillman’s current music is his intelligence, humour and playfulness with his craft.

So perhaps, in “The Night Josh Tillman Came To My Apartment”, he refers to himself in the third person as a witty ode to strangers sharing tales of their encounters with him, the celebrity. Maybe he’s intrigued by the idea of himself as a public figure. In reality, he’s likely laughing at us all as we try to puzzle this one out.

Various publications have told the story of the birth of Father John Misty as we know him today – his sudden re-awakening, naked, tripping on mushrooms, and up a tree somewhere in Big Sur, California. This “epiphany” (in which he apparently realised he could put humour and sarcasm into his songs) becomes even more intriguing when you learn of his strict evangelical upbringing. His relationship with his parents remains somewhat estranged. But it is all shrouded in mystery – he has become a thing of Pitchfork legend.

What I do know for certain is that last week at XPoNential Music Festival in Camden, New Jersey, Tillman caused another ruckus. He came onstage, spoke for six minutes, played two songs (neither of them his own) and then left the stage 30 minutes before his set was due to end.

Vitally, this event took place the day after Donald Trump’s Republican National Convention speech. Supposedly responding to this and the current American political climate, Tillman said on stage:

“It’s insane. It’s truly insane. Are we just supposed to wait for someone hilarious to say something hilarious to make us forget about it for a second?

“Do we think that our hilarious tyrant is going to be met with a hilarious revolution that is won by hilarious revolutions and the whole thing is gonna be like entertaining as fuck the whole time?

. . .

“I mean I can’t even say it out loud. I always thought that it was gonna look way more sophisticated than this, when fucking evil happened, when the collective consciousness was so numb and so fucking sated and so gorged on entertainment.”

Primarily, festival-goers were angry because they had paid to hear him play, and had been left disappointed. Instead, Tillman’s set was overridden with personal anger.

It is certainly a shame that these fans did not get the chance to hear Tillman play live. But I see his insistence on speaking rather than playing this set as proof of his authenticity. How could he stand on a stage and merely “entertain” while other thoughts were rattling through his head? He is no polished pop star who will carry on a prearranged performance that does not fit his current mindset.

For a man who enjoys playing with character, façade and guise, this honesty is refreshing. It is fitting, too, that Tillman sees hilarity and bizarre behaviour as an escape. But most importantly, his outburst may well be necessary. His dismay at US society only serves to remind his fans that they should be aware of their country potentially sleepwalking into being governed by what he labels “our hilarious tyrant”.

In an explanation posted on Instagram, Tillman referred to the Republican National Convention as “the demonic clown pageant and coronation of our next potential Idiot King”.

He then went on to write of entertainment’s “narcotic properties and horrifying efficiency in elevating madmen to the heights of influence (ironic)”.


A photo posted by Father John Misty (@fatherjohnmisty) on


A photo posted by Father John Misty (@fatherjohnmisty) on

His statement makes it clear that his onstage rant concerns Trump. Tillman may have sounded delusional talking about being “numb”, “sated” and “gorged on entertainment” with no context. But when paired with the astonishing character and policies of America’s Republican nominee, it does not seem over-exaggerated. But perhaps the most pleasing thing about Tillman’s social media existence is his awareness that everything he posts in this quasi-real world of the internet is a farce.

Father John Misty may be a man shrouded in myth, but to me, his realness couldn’t be more apparent.

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