Josh Tillman, Father John Misty.
"I’ll be loping around with my ‘There Goes The Neighborhood’ sandwich board." This is how you can find Josh Tillman. The singer-songwriter — performing as Father John Misty
— recently moved to New Orleans and, yes, he's aware he's living in the "gentrification fast track."
Tillman's latest album is the gorgeous, funny, heartbreaking and brutal I Love You, Honeybear
(Sub Pop), in which he reconciles his fears, doubts, and, in his words, "the unutterable pleasures of true intimacy, and the destruction of emotional and intellectual prisons with an imprint that is undeniably my own" in a love letter of sorts to his wife Emma.
Tillman recently talked to Gambit
about life in New Orleans, performing the deep cuts, and turning off your damn phone for a couple of hours at a concert. Father John Misty performs at the Civic Theatre (510 O'Keefe St.) at 10 p.m. Saturday, April 25. Read more from Tillman's interview with Gambit
G: So you’ve taken up residence here pretty recently. What’s it been like?
JT: Shit, I mean… we have just been kind of like hermits for a year. We’re sort of the conjoined Boo Radley in our neighborhood. We’re so obviously from California, it’s ridiculous.
There’s a lot of that here now.
I came into town as the gentrification angel of death. "All right, this dude’s here. Shit is fuckin’ over."
"The herald of the apocalypse is here. Show’s over."
And I get it. But it’s just fucking… "King Hipster moves to town." I get it. I’ve never called myself King Hipster before. I hope that one doesn’t stick.
I have so much respect for the place. I feel there’s this tendency for like, someone who has some kind of profile to move into town and within 72 hours they’re like, dancing in a second line and just… I would be annoyed, personally. Regardless of all that, it was a really impulsive decision, you know? Out of nowhere. I love it. I love it for a lot of reasons that don’t make sense to most people when they think about New Orleans, you know? I kind of like the spooky quietude. There’s this real heavy, slow vibe. I just wanted to kind of drop out.
It’s an easy place to be anonymous if you really wanted to. You could just drop out of whatever else is happening in the world.
Yeah. For me, I like cruising around on my bike. Emma’s been working on a script, she wrote her first feature-length film. I’ve been working on a book. I bought a piano. I’ve been writing a lot. It’s just got so much presence. The place is kind of… I don’t know… otherworldly, to me. We kind of keep to ourselves.
May I ask where you live or does that give away too much.
Yeah, let’s keep it close to the chest. But we’re definitely on the side of the "gentrification fast track" neighborhood. If you know what I mean, wink wink.
You allude to it in "I Went to the Store One Day," in getting a plantation house and going down South. That’s how a lot of people are drawn to New Orleans — they see the plantations, the Garden District mansions, the picturesque French Quarter rows of houses and they think , "I would live there." Is that what came to mind when you considered moving here?
We sort of moved down sight unseen. And in that song I’m very much acknowledging that fantasy between two people. It’s sort of meant to sound like that uninformed fantasy speculation. There’s this rampant Chipotle-ization happening in every American city.
I think we’re getting a Chipotle.
[sarcastic glee] We are?! That’s wonderful! Maybe they’ll do some kind of special, like red beans and rice and Santa Fe boudin burritos.
I kind of want that.
You’re performing here during the onslaught of Jazz Fest.
I was hiding under a blanket last year.
"I don’t want to turn these shows into some kind of tomb wherein the bones of the years 2011-2014 reside and I charge admission to come check them out."
You’re performing these vulnerable and honest and personal songs. How do you have a frame of mind to perform them and take them on tour and perform them every night?
I had fucking no idea at first, to be honest. There was as certain amount of hubris that was afforded me with the last album. So much of the vibe of that whole thing was subversion and antagonizing the idea of being a performer, antagonizing the audience for being an audience [laughs]. This weird inverse thinking about the whole thing. That’s sort of how I was giving myself permission to be a performer, to be loathing of the whole enterprise.
In that song ‘"Now I'm Learning to Love the War," it’s asking this existential question of, "What am I going to do? I’m taking up these limited resources, I’m taking these peoples’ time. What am I going to do with it? Is it just glorified navel gazing?" Asking questions about questions and running everything in circles. I’m fucking sick of it. In terms of a performance, I have to come to a place where it’s like, "Look, asshole. This is where you are. This is your reality. You can either do something with it or you can just keep jerking off." I guess a song like "Holy Shit" is the closest I’ve gotten, that’s my best bid for being like, "OK, I’m going to make a statement now!" [laughs] "Gather around, everyone!"
There’s something about being in the source material, I am so vulnerable and exposed. The jig is up. There’s no mask. I think going into the performance, going into the first couple of shows, I was like, "I guess I’m supposed to sing these songs for Emma every night?" And I tried that, and it was horrible, because there’s a lot of angst in these songs that I’m fairly loathed to revisit. And also because Emma and I have moved on. We want to keep moving on, and I want to keep moving. I don’t want to turn these shows into some kind of tomb wherein the bones of the years 2011-2014 reside and I charge admission to come check them out. It has to be a living, breathing thing that has vitality.
For some reason, and I can’t quite articulate, my instinct just became to sing these songs to the audience, like some kind of demented… [laughs] There’s something about creating this psychodrama between me and the audience that gives the thing vitality. "I may as well be singing this tune to you people." I don’t know why that makes sense, and I think a lot of people leave the show feeling like they’ve been riding the bus with a pervert.
The flipside of that is to completely detach and just recite from a songbook without any sort of investment whatsoever, which is the opposite of what anyone would want from a concert.
Right. I think there’s some interior reality that you can conjure up with a live show, where the lyrics of the song become an incantation, like a spell. Even your movements begin to take on this added layer of context. If done correctly, this intangible spirit or whatever is allowed to emerge. This "thing" that has nothing to do with the lyrics and nothing to do with the music, it’s all there to conjure this "thing," this untamed, un-nameable "thing" — which is why people should not watch shows through their cell phones.
The thing that’s happening is not really happening on stage. It’s not happening in the songs. It’s this other thing you have to be present to experience. Your rational mind tells you, "Oh, there’s this guy singing this song onstage that I can capture. That’s the thing I’m here to see." There’s this whole third dimension that I’m in service to that I want the audience to be in service to, it’s what makes this whole thing exciting. You’re waiting to see if this fucking monster, if you’re successfully able to conjure this "thing." But still getting very black magic-y.
Still going to require some spells.
Yeah, whatever, buy my T-shirt, blah blah blah. And that "thing" I’m talking about is merch
. It’s the desire to purchase merchandise