"At the time I was making it, there were long nights laying awake thinking, 'What the hell are you doing? This is ridiculous," says Josh Tillman about last year's Fear Fun, the debut release under his Father John Misty pseudonym. "The only thrill out of it, or the only thing that comforted me in that moment was like, 'Well, you're just doing whatever you want to do and that's fun. There's real value in that.’"
As it would happen, Fear Fun landed in the top five of nearly every indie music writer's 2012 favorites list and propelled Tillman to indie rock royalty virtually overnight. Still, a year later, the prolific songwriter and former Fleet Foxes drummer — who'd already released seven somber folk albums as J. Tillman — says the actuality of Fear Fun's success was the least plausible outcome. He'd just quit one of the most successful indie folk bands in the world, moved from Seattle to L.A. and abandoned his extensive (and often depressing) back catalog in favor of a completely self-indulgent approach to songwriting. One that was celebratory, orchestrated and funny, a reflection of the real Josh Tillman, the entire Josh Tillman.
"There's this whole other narrative that really should have played out," he reflects. "And that's that random guy foolishly quits good thing that he had going and then makes a marginally OK album that disappears forever. That would have made much more sense. And if that had happened, I would not have been shocked. I would have just been like, 'Well, I made this thing that I wanted to make.' … And I think that's kind of why it's successful. I think the album is kind of oozing that type of liberty."
Tillman's assessment is spot on. The cathartic undercurrent of Fear Fun is palpable, and that sentiment ties the otherwise disparate collection together, from the sun-soaked country numbers like "I'm Writing a Novel" (think Gram Parsons) to lush, melodic pop songs like "Nancy From Now On" and gritty, classic rock offerings like "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings." And though the album leaps across genres, decades and emotions, Tillman's sharp wit and playful irreverence are always lurking at the surface. He's perpetually looking for the "cosmic joke" in every scenario, and on Fear Fun, Tillman has no trouble finding it.
"I have a deep cynicism about, not wonder itself, but man's approach to wonder," he explains. "Or man's tendency to parse and anesthetize and dogmatize these things. It's just stupid to think that we could even know anything about it. And I think that's where my affinity for that cosmic joke thing came from. You're either struck by your insignificance or wowed by the expansive hugeness of it all. And I'm definitely someone who leans closer to the side of laughing at my vast insignificance. Which is a more cynical take."
Fear Fun's success has kept Tillman on the road for the better part of a year, but that hasn't kept him from continuing the self-indulgent creative streak. In fact, the overwhelming response has only encouraged him to delve even further into his strange and often hilarious imagination. Speaking with Xpress just before the start of his latest tour, Tillman is enthusiastic about his newfound passion for painting, "a creative act that, for a lot of people whose passions and sense of self are wrapped up in this other medium, is a chance to do something without any lust for success or any vanity whatsoever." (Tillman jokes that his works "look like an alcoholic 8-year-old was painting.") Even more unexpected, he's just finished filming the pilot for a TV series he co-wrote called Pure Gold.
"It's about a washed-up country music duo who gets wrapped up with a Korean crime syndicate, and the Korean crime syndicate ends up getting wrapped up in the country music business," he explains with laughter. "It's pretty crazy. TV is a really scintillating prospect for me, because I love having an almost infinite number of aesthetic considerations to, umm, consider [laughs]. You get to just play God with some made up story. So that's been pretty fun. We'll see where that goes."
Somehow, in the midst of his touring, painting and script writing, Tillman's also written a new Father John Misty record, which he began recording in late April. Not surprisingly, he says the "liberty" of Fear Fun is still very much a part of his new songs, despite the pressure to follow up such a successful debut.
"I'm definitely not exempt from those kind of laws of physics, in terms of success and the inevitable impact, or if not impact, at least complications. It's like a new variable to contend with. Fear Fun, the creative thing that instigated it was so based in the thrill of just doing whatever it is you want to do. … That's still very much informing me as I make this new album. Maybe by album three it'll be so convoluted that I'll just be like, 'Is there enough of me just doing what I want to do in this so that it's successful?' But it's not quite that contrived yet."
— Dane Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Father John Misty, with Jessica Pratt
where: The Orange Peel
when: Tuesday, May 14 (9 p.m. $15/$17. theorangepeel.net)