In the chronicles of Father John Misty, the thirty-six-year-old singer-songwriter whose real name is Josh Tillman, the cardinal psychedelic encounter has him naked in a tree, in Big Sur, in 2010, zonked on magic mushrooms. At the time, Tillman was the drummer for Fleet Foxes, the popular indie folk band, and was living in Seattle. He’d also made eight mostly neglected albums of gloomy folk music under the name J. Tillman. Amid interpersonal discord, creative frustration, and turning-thirty discontent, he split town in an Econoline van, with a big bag of mushrooms, and meandered down the coast. One day, he went for a hike, and, as the psilocybin kicked in, he began to shed layers of clothing, until he found himself perched on a limb, stripped bare before an indifferent universe. Scratching himself, he thought, I’m an albino ape, and I can do whatever I want. He realized that he didn’t have to identify himself exclusively with his disappointments as a musician or with his bitterness about being in someone else’s band: “I should just be myself.” “Myself” was a funnier, more playful, more self-lacerating—and just plain lacerating—version of whoever he’d tried to be as J. Tillman. He returned to Seattle, packed up his things, moved to Los Angeles, and started working on a novel. He recognized his voice in it, in a way that he hadn’t in his music. After a while, he picked up a guitar and started writing songs again, and these, too, seemed different. One of the songs was a country-rocker called “I’m Writing a Novel.” The hook went, “I’m writing a novel, because it’s never been done before.”
This is when he invented the alter ego of Father John Misty—or, in his rendering, discovered a truer self and gave it a name. The moniker, he has often said, is a random and admittedly silly collection of syllables. But it accommodates his unease about the role of the singer-songwriter and the characters one has to play onstage. “There’s something innately false about performance,” he told me. “I wanted to be authentically bogus rather than bogusly authentic.”
The first Father John Misty album, “Fear Fun,” came out in 2012. Critics loved it. It was a fresh-sounding folk-rock record full of witty, withering songs about Tillman’s decadent adventures in Hollywood. His clear tenor served as a gorgeous deadpan. He’d found a way to be both flamboyant and self-deprecating, to make art out of making fun of himself and others like him who were engaged in the vain act of making art. A pair of foldup four-by-four-foot posters included in the vinyl release of the album contained, in impossibly small script, the text of that novel, which he called “Mostly Hypothetical Mountains.” “I liked relegating this thing I’d worked really hard on to a gag,” he said recently.
Two more albums followed—“I Love You, Honeybear,” in 2015, and “Pure Comedy,” this spring. Along the way, the creation of the semi-satirical Father John Misty persona, this handsome devil with a big beard and a forked tongue, had put in motion a cycle of provocation and retort that became a kind of performance art, played out mainly on the Internet—in the corner of it, anyway, that’s obsessed with the poses and codes of indie musicians. He tangled with his critics, pulled social-media pranks, and gave loquacious high-wire interviews while drunk or high, often dropping pretentious or contentious pronouncements. He could seem to be in control of all this, even as he himself often appeared to be out of control: simultaneously conductor and train wreck. He’d built a post-modern fun house. Some came to love him more because of the bluster and brag, or to like him in spite of it, but many declared him insufferable. Whatever the case, people were talking about him. He’d become a meme, as he later put it, in a mocking kind of way—think-piece catnip, a Miley Cyrus for the clever kids. He’d invited you to say Father John Misty is what you’d get if Harry Nilsson, Loudon Wainwright III, James Taylor, Elton John, Randy Newman, Kanye West, Jim Morrison, Eminem, Captain Beefheart, and Warren Zevon had a baby.
His feelings about all this could change from day to day. Sometimes he seemed almost to be hate-watching himself. One afternoon, Tillman sent me a text:
“This” was a link to a column by the eminent critic Greil Marcus, on Pitchfork, the music Web site. “Father John Misty is a persona, one of those people . . . who perform as—who perform as artists of such pretentiousness you couldn’t possibly figure out how to talk to them,” Marcus wrote. “Such characters allow themselves to appear as if touched by God, which is what they’re selling, and laugh at you if you’re so square not to know who they really are: to join their club.”
“Of all people, GREIL MARCUS is getting hung up on persona,” Tillman texted me. “What a fucking dum dum.” Dylan, Johnny Rotten, Madonna, Sun Ra: everyone makes a mask. A couple of decades earlier, Marcus had written, “Perhaps the most pernicious strain of contemporary criticism says one thing before it says anything else, says it to whatever historical event or cultural happenstance is supposedly at issue: ‘You can’t fool me.’ ”
The presumption tends to be that Tillman is playing tricks, putting one over on us. Listeners can get their backs up: You can’t fool me. “People think I’m toying with them, playing twelve-dimensional chess,” Tillman said. “And if you take it that way, and you think I’m despicable as a result, I get it, because that is a despicable thing to do. But you’re not getting suckered.”
Father John Misty performs “The Memo.”
Life is album cycles—at least, for a recording artist, in a life without seasons or weekends or kids. An album cycle is the period from the completion of recording, through the rollout and the press campaign, to the last gig on the tour. In April, when I first met Tillman, he’d just released “Pure Comedy.” The ever-evolving argument about him was in full swing.
A month earlier, he’d performed a couple of songs on “Saturday Night Live,” including the title track, which begins the album:
The comedy of man starts like this
Our brains are way too big for our mothers’ hips
And so Nature, she divines this alternative
We emerge half-formed and hope that whoever greets us on the other end
Is kind enough to fill us in
And, babies, that’s pretty much how it’s been ever since.
He also played “Total Entertainment Forever,” a peppy/apocalyptic indictment of our addiction to amusement, which had already gained some notoriety for its creepy opening couplets: “Bedding Taylor Swift / every night inside the Oculus Rift / After mister and the missus / finish dinner and the dishes.” The song—and perhaps the comedy of man—ends like this:
When the historians find us we’ll be in our homes
Plugged into our hubs
Skin and bones
A frozen smile on every face
As the stories replay.
This must have been a wonderful place.
The performances were polished, even though he had consumed an unholy cocktail of chemicals. (Later, each time he or his band and crew mentioned that night in my presence they made that universal wide-eyed oh-boy expression of recollected intemperance.) As ever, his pitch was perfect and his look was sharp—his hair swept back above his forehead, in a borderline pompadour, and his trademark beard replaced by a mustache. He did his customary wriggly dance moves: Jaggerish swivels and poses that come off as (and actually seem to be) both ironic and sincere.
“If you can’t hold two ideas in your head at the same time, you’re not going to get what I do,” he said in April. He’d picked me up on Second Avenue in a livery cab, for a trip out of town. He had on black stovepipe jeans with a small hole in one knee, brown suède pointy zip-up boots, a black T-shirt, and a gray Lemaire overcoat. (“I don’t like sports, I don’t fix cars, so I just buy clothes,” he said.) He was pretzeled in back, a tall man in a small car. From time to time, he cracked his knuckles. “I try to avoid talking about the perception of me in the press,” he told me. “It creates this feedback loop.” It may be that he doesn’t try hard enough. He has a droll, almost effete way of speaking, which he moderates by making fun of himself or of the whole construct of giving interviews. He says, “Brackets, laughs bitterly” to convey some degree of irony or self-loathing. Pronouncement, caveat, thrust, parry. “Once you’re on the hamster wheel of self-justification, it’s hard to get off,” Tillman said. “You’re, like, I can fix this interview with the next interviews.”
Tillman, by now, had been marinating in the “Pure Comedy” material, and the ideas behind it, for several years. Its origins go back two album cycles, to 2013, when he and his wife, Emma, a filmmaker and photographer, were newly married and living in Echo Park, Los Angeles, in a two-hundred-and-fifty-square-foot adobe house on top of a hill, abutting Elysian Park—urban rustics, living half outdoors. They had a potting shed, where Tillman was writing “I Love You, Honeybear,” largely about what was going on in that adobe. The extended tour for “Fear Fun,” a decadent slog, with a band whose members have, for the most part, since been replaced, had netted Tillman only four hundred dollars. So he went back out on the road with just Emma and the comedian Kate Berlant. Tillman had got a little carried away with the rock-and-roll life style. In his telling, he’d become a “speed freak”—cocaine and Adderall. “I was gray,” he told me. “I was beat down. I thought, I need to take a year off.” When the tour took them through New Orleans, he and Emma hatched a plan to retreat there.
Tillman went cold turkey—he even quit the Internet—and, at dawn on New Year’s Day, 2014, they left Los Angeles in a U-Haul and drove east. (Some of this is depicted in a thirteen-minute ballad called “Leaving LA,” “Pure Comedy” ’s centerpiece and, for some, because of its length, the album’s greatest stumbling block.) They found a rambling old house in the Bywater, for the same monthly rent as their Echo Park hut. Tillman fell into a depression, wandering around the house in his bathrobe, doing little besides reading and the crossword. Emma was writing a screenplay, at least, and taking pictures. She’d grown up without any siblings on a sailboat in Santa Barbara (her father is a sailmaker); she knew how to occupy herself. “But it was difficult for Josh,” she told me. “Music is his life. It’s the only thing he likes to do. And he genuinely thought he’d never make anything again.”
He’d been battling depression since he was a teen-ager. “It’s hard to talk about,” he said. “I get this thought where there’s someone out there whose real depression I’m doing a disservice to.”
After six months, they bought a piano at a junk shop for five hundred dollars, and Tillman taught himself to play. Messing around, he soon found that he was writing songs again. “Songwriting is like encountering a bear in the woods: your body knows before your mind does,” he said. “When you drink that much and do that much speed, it takes a while for your emotions to come back on line. ‘Pure Comedy,’ or the first half of it, anyway, was created in this emotional bubble. I’d been walking up and down Bourbon Street, sober, observing the collective state of stupor—people puking neon purple. It felt like the edge of the country, the edge of the world.”
His previous records had been written in real time. For “Fear Fun,” he’d go out, raise hell, come home late, and write about it until dawn. For “Honeybear,” he chronicled his romance with Emma as it mutated into a marriage. (He wrote the song “Holy Shit” on the eve of his wedding day: “Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity / What I fail to see is what that’s got to do with you and me.”) For “Pure Comedy,” he sat at the piano for hours at a time, thinking about the human experiment from a distant vantage, as though from space.
By the time he began recording, last year, with the producer Jonathan Wilson, with whom he’d made his previous two albums, he’d been honing and rehearsing the songs for more than a year. (He’d also forsworn sobriety—selectively.) Thomas Bartlett, a producer and pianist who performs under the name Doveman, and who plays piano on the album, said, “Josh knew exactly how those songs were supposed to go, in a way that was almost irritating. He’d lived with these songs in a really intense way.” Tillman and Wilson wanted to be so fluent with the material that they could record it while tripping on LSD—“to give the thing a little sprinkle of magic,” as Wilson put it.
“Josh was in tears a goodly amount of the time,” Bartlett said. “I love the part of him that’s ready to have an ecstatic experience.”
Tillman was single-minded even about the cover art. He sent an e-mail to Ed Steed, his favorite cartoonist. “I hadn’t heard of him,” Steed told me. “I Googled the name and saw a beard man with an acoustic. Thought, I know what this is going to be.” He clicked on a video of “I’m Writing a Novel.” “My assumptions were wrong. It was funny, sexy, great.”
Tillman sent Steed a link to his performance of “Bored in the USA,” a song from “Honeybear,” a few years ago on Letterman: Tillman starts the song at a piano. When he swivels away, another camera shot reveals it to be a player piano. “Here’s one I have a feeling you’ll appreciate,” he told Steed.
Steed also checked out the earlier J. Tillman stuff. “That’s what I had been expecting when I saw his photo. Self-important, gloomy.” He added, “I’m sure people will criticize F.J.M. for being egocentric, self-absorbed, but I find the J. Tillman stuff much more deserving of that criticism.”
Tillman sent him the first half of “Pure Comedy,” requesting only two things: an image, somewhere, of a skeleton pissing into a dumpster fire and another conveying some smidgen of hope. “Hope is a powerful ingredient,” Tillman said. “Just a little is all you need. It’s like adding vanilla bean to something.” Steed drew a dense Hieronymus Bosch-like carnival of depravities and horrors. In the middle of it, a naked couple embrace on a blanket, a manifestation of the album’s faint valedictory message that, as one song puts it, “each other’s all we got.”
The album, in its sardonic despair, was widely considered, on release, to be a commentary on the age of Trump, but it was written and recorded before Trump was elected, and its bemusement and scorn aren’t limited to any particular person or party. Tillman belongs to the school of thought that believes Trump is a symptom, the leader we deserve. The world is the way it is because this is the way we want it to be. Anyway, he readily acknowledges that the observations about our vanity, greed, and violence, the folly and absurdity of existence, and the fraudulence and hypocrisy of the media, politics, entertainment, and religion aren’t exactly new. But Voltaire and Lenny Bruce, they didn’t make self-conscious folk rock. “The content isn’t that outrageous,” Tillman said. “It’s a question of whether I have the right to say it”—whether the world wants to hear from “another white guy in 2017 who takes himself so goddam seriously,” as he sings in “Leaving LA.”
“This album isn’t a delivery system for my ideas,” Tillman says. Then he’ll say that the best summation of his ideas is the album. One can certainly strive to keep both assertions in mind at the same time.
In July, a day after Trump accepted the Republican nomination, Tillman, coming off an all-nighter, took the stage at a festival in Camden, New Jersey, and launched into a harangue about the politico-entertainment complex. “Do we think our hilarious tyrant is going to be met with a hilarious revolution led by hilarious revolutionaries and the whole thing is gonna be, like, entertaining as fuck the whole time?” he asked from the stage. “I always thought that it was going to look way more sophisticated than this when evil happened.” Someone called out, “Play a song!,” but he kept going, a lot of it a paraphrase of the lyrics in “Pure Comedy,” which was still months from being released. Eventually, he played “Leaving LA,” which people mistook for ad-libbing, and a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire.” Then he pulled a Yeezy and quit the stage, leaving his paycheck behind. The ensuing Twitter bombardment went on for days, with Tillman popping up now and then to lay down some covering fire, until a certain fatigue set in. Tillman was offended by any suggestion that his behavior was a cynical ploy for attention, that it was anything other than an honest meltdown, albeit an artful one. He told me, “My attitude is, whatever I decide to do onstage, that’s my show.”
“Ever been to a Christian university?” Tillman asked. We were in the livery cab, en route to Nyack College, an evangelical school twenty miles north of Manhattan. He dropped out of Nyack in the spring of 2002, and hadn’t been back since.
Tillman was reared in a strict and turbulent evangelical Christian household, in Rockville, Maryland, and, in many respects, his career is an elaborate, improvised rebellion against it. His mother, Barbara, grew up mostly in Ethiopia, the daughter of missionaries. His father, I.C., is an engineer at Hewlett-Packard. They met at a Christian youth group, in Maryland, when they were in junior high, after I.C. had declared himself to be born again.
Josh is the oldest of four children (he has a brother, Zachary, who is sixteen months younger, and two sisters, Kelci and Amanda, younger by seven and fourteen years) and as a result apparently bore the brunt of his parents’ piety. He doesn’t much like to talk about it in great detail, for fear of being entangled in it again. (He speaks with his parents every few years.) He has always been game, anyway, to talk about the household ban on secular pop music. When the boys were in high school, their father removed the car stereo, to keep them from listening on their drives to and from school. They picked up what music they could at friends’ houses or on a portable radio under the covers, and managed to sneak in a few CDs (Doc Watson, Bob Dylan) under the pretext that they were Christian rock. Josh remembers his father instructing him to smash a Red Hot Chili Peppers album to bits. Josh had come across the band on a pizzeria jukebox. (Barbara Tillman denies that her children’s upbringing was strict, or that there was any ban on secular music. “I.C. was playing pop music all the time!” she said.) All this left him, as he once said, with “a bazillion musical blind spots,” and no real connection to the pop culture of the time. “I feel nothing when I hear Michael Jackson,” he told me. “I never put the Smiths on.” Such deprivation nonetheless begat a pop-culture savant, remarkably adroit at reading and fooling around with the signs and styles: a Horatio Alger story of Generation MTV.
There was always worship music. It laid the groundwork and still informs the act. His father played acoustic guitar, and his mother sang. He was encouraged to take up the drums, to burn off excess energy. Zach picked up the bass. The Tillman boys sang and played in church. “I remember swelling the cymbals, watching people get more and more agitated by the spirit,” Tillman said. “My brother and I looked at each other, exchanging that ‘Can you believe this?’ look. At that age, you’re so binary with the recognition of hypocrisy, so we were, like, This is a total scam.”
Josh’s education was an odyssey of religious and secular schools, notably five years in a small non-accredited Messianic Pentecostal Jewish school. There was speaking in tongues, laying on of hands, baptism by fire, slaying of the spirit—his first psychedelic experiences, in a way. He was told that he was possessed by demons. But, if he was possessed by anything, it was anxiety and fear of drama at home. “When I was a kid, like fourteen, I mastered the art of shutting down completely,” he told me. “I was terrified.”
He didn’t give any thought to college. “I sort of assumed I was just going to pack up a bindle sack and start roaming the earth,” he said. “My parents went crazy with rage.” A member of their church was on the board at Nyack College, and helped get Tillman a spot.
“Oh my God, these poor children,” Tillman said when we reached the Nyack campus. He needed a cigarette. “We don’t want to be busted,” he said, and so he crossed the road, wandered down a suburban lane, and, half hidden by a stand of bamboo, sucked down a couple of American Spirits—a long, lean gent in an overcoat, with a roué’s mustache, smoking in the shadows near the missionary college.
He hadn’t told anyone he was coming. We slipped into the chapel as it was filling up with students and slid into a pew in back. We were soon surrounded by athletes, mostly women. Softball uniforms, lacrosse sticks. “More multicultural than when I was here, but it’s basically the same ‘Breakfast Club’ demographic,” he observed. “The ones you really gotta look out for are the fetishists of the individual. The ones with the pierced noses and dyed hair, the leather jacket or the studded belt. They’ve made the concession to rebellion. They’re the ones who go on to become pastors. They’re the real little monsters.” He kept going, in a kind of stage whisper, “Here’s the thing that drove me insane: what is it about Christianity, or this version of it, that is so compatible with late-era capitalism, the cult of the self, the commercial-humanist idea of individuality? Christianity is an adaptable avatar for these social movements. It’s very good at resembling the scenery.”
Tillman paused. Students were hugging. “That being said, there is no analogue for this in the secular world. The electricity in the air, the pre-service buzz, is a total narcotic to me.”
On a stage at the front of the chapel were some unattended instruments: a guitar, a drum kit, two pianos, and a row of music stands. “What you’re about to hear is going to sound an awful lot like Coldplay,” he said. “A lot of indie rock skews closely to worship music. This style of worship music operates on a ten-year cultural lag.”
Eight musicians began to play. “Ooh, kind of a Steely Dan vibe,” Tillman said. He sang along for a while, supplying a high harmony. The singer was playing one of those electric keyboards that hang from your shoulder like a guitar. “Dude, he is leading worship with a fucking keytar.”
Tillman arrived at Nyack in 1999. “I was here when 9/11 happened,” he said. “The soccer field was full of students gnashing their teeth and asking God for forgiveness for a culture of homosexuality. That began a crazy year here, wild stuff. A whole lot of prophesying. It was widely believed that in May the spirit of God was going to fall on America. The day came, and there were a hundred people in the field, waiting for the national revival.”
The keytarist was improvising a prayer: “We praise you, God, there’s no one like you. We want you to invade our lives, God, and to be yourself.”
“This is heartbreaking,” Tillman said. “Ten years ago, I would’ve had a panic attack, coming here. Well, actually, ten years ago a friend took me to church and I did have a panic attack.”
A junior from the Youth & Family Studies Department stood to deliver a PowerPoint sermon called “Satisfaction in Christ.” “Boring,” Tillman said, after a few minutes. He stood to leave. “When you live in this psychotic cloud of nonsense, the only way to combat it is with clear thinking.”
“I can’t even tell you how unhappy I was at this place,” he said outside. “Sex was not even within the realm of the possible. I was a virgin till I was twenty-two.
“I’m a very bizarre mix of variables,” he went on. “People see a caricature of a white know-it-all. But I’m not overeducated. I’m not some kind of blueblood. I didn’t grow up in some bohemian enclave with an artsy outlet. There were zero examples. Anything you hear me say about religion in my songs is incredibly hard-won. I have license to be even more judgmental about it than I am. And it’s not purely conceptual. This is me. And there’s nothing ‘cool’ about it. There is something weirdly, cellularly conservative in me. You can only run so far.”
When Tillman dropped out of Nyack, in 2002, he hitched a ride to Seattle with a drummer he knew. He lived in the drummer’s brother’s basement. He donated plasma, worked construction, and washed dishes. Seattle was soon to be the epicenter of an indie-folk renaissance—Neil Young acolytes in ponchos and heavy sweaters, with monkish beards and mulled wine. The singing was pretty, the sentiment serious, the mood gentle, if a touch druidic—a post-grunge overcorrection, maybe. Soon, Tillman was writing his own disconsolate songs, recording them at night before taking the dawn shift at a local bakery. A demo tape reached Damien Jurado, a singer-songwriter with a small but reverent following, who asked Tillman to join him on tour. There followed a series of J. Tillman records—eight in all, in about as many years—on a series of labels, plus occasional tours with other bands. His brother, Zach, had moved to Seattle, too, and they lived together for a while in the University District and played on each other’s recordings and at each other’s gigs. People knew about J. Tillman, he had admirers, but despite the persistence nothing quite took. “That stuff, it was a huge inspiration to me, but it’s not getting anyone’s dick hard,” Zach told me. “He’d play these sets of sparse, dry material, and then between songs he’d light the room up with his humor, and then he’d sink back into the music.”
In 2008, Fleet Foxes, an ascendant Seattle pop-folk troupe characterized by high harmonies, heavy reverb, and delicate, layered orchestration, asked Tillman to sign on as their new drummer. He had the voice and the beard for it. The band was about to release its first album. He quit the construction job and toured with them, as the record garnered year’s-best acclaim. Here was industry success: a global audience, a thriving partnership, real money, and even love, of a kind. (Aja Pecknold, the band’s manager and the older sister of the band’s leader, Robin Pecknold, had become his girlfriend.) But, as work commenced on the next album, “Helplessness Blues,” the collaboration began to fray. Tillman was still making his own music and chafing at the supporting role. “We all started hating each other,” he told the Guardian. “A lot of people have complicated relationships with Robin,” he told me. “I don’t wanna talk about it.” Pecknold, for his part, recently told Rolling Stone that he hasn’t listened to Tillman’s music—“like, intentionally.”
Videos of the band’s live performances from this time show a sullen drummer, scowling and crossing his arms between songs. Singing such moonlit, almost twee material amid such acrimony felt counterfeit to him. In 2012, while the band was in Japan, Tillman announced that the next show, in Tokyo, would be his last. “Back into the gaping maw of obscurity I go,” he wrote, on his Tumblr. Toward the end of the second-to-last gig, he kicked over his drum set and stalked off the stage. He wound up sobbing in the arms of the band’s keyboard player, as Pecknold improvised a few songs solo.
Tillman and Emma recently moved to Laurel Canyon, to a two-bedroom house at the end of a cul-de-sac. He’d lived in the neighborhood when he first moved to Los Angeles, and critics drew the inevitable line back to fabled predecessors—Gram Parsons, Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, and Nash. “Yes, that ‘unmistakable Laurel Canyon sound,’ ” Tillman said. “The sound of Laurel Canyon is entertainment lawyers screaming at their dogs.”
As spring went on, the album cycle called for rehearsals. Tillman gathered his band at S.I.R. Studios, on Sunset Boulevard, in preparation for an appearance at Coachella and then a round of theatre gigs. He’d selected these theatres because he had been planning to put on a musical of “Pure Comedy,” and he wanted the band to be in an orchestra pit. “There were to be trucks full of twelve-foot-tall therapist puppets and giant banana-peel costumes driving around the country,” he told me. “I had builders ready to make sets.” He’d written the musical, he said, “to contextualize the record in its comedy and absurdity, and to drive home how personal it is.” “Personal” seemed a mild way of putting it. His description of the musical made it sound like a Robert Wilson fever dream—on acid. He was to appear onstage as Father John Misty playing the role of Josh Tillman, while the character of Father John Misty was to be played by a troupe of dancers. “Father John Misty and child Josh Tillman are Jungian shadow selves,” he said. “One exists because of the other. They do horrible things to protect each other. And when they meet they die.” He had them, at the end, drowning in a leaky rowboat.
In February, he had been aboard a flight with his choreographer, en route to New York to audition dancers. “She asked me a question: ‘So why in this scene do you have these Girl Scouts sexually assaulting Mother Earth?’ And I had a panic attack. I was, like, I have to get off this plane. But, obviously, I couldn’t. So, I thought, I have to have a cigarette. Couldn’t do that, either. So I went to the bathroom and e-mailed my manager and said the musical was off.”
Still, he kept the dates. He’d play rock concerts instead. The arrangements on the album are mostly sparse, to emphasize the vocals, but onstage Tillman goes for a heftier sound; he aims to entertain. He’d be touring with horn and string sections, plus his regulars: a bass player, two guitarists, two keyboardists, and a drummer. At S.I.R., the day I visited, word got around that Kiss and the Foo Fighters were rehearsing in the studios next door. You could hear muffled arena rock in the halls. “If a meteor hit this place, it’d be the end of the male gaze,” Tillman said.
Tillman has an easy rapport with the guys in his band, who are crack musicians and who, in a few cases, have their own recording careers. (They seem more comfortable with the arrangement than he did as a Fleet Fox.) Tillman had on snakeskin loafers, no socks, the black jeans, and a white shirt with the top few buttons undone. He and his team had learned, earlier that day, that “Pure Comedy” had reached No. 10 on the Billboard pop chart, and was the No. 1 album on the Rock, Alternative, and Americana charts as well. That this was the product of just thirty-five thousand units, in the first week, didn’t dim the thrill of having a hit.
They ran through a song called “Strange Encounter,” from “I Love You, Honeybear,” about the aftermath of a one-night stand. It begins, “Only ever be the girl who almost died in my house.” In a section after the chorus (“The moment you came to, I swore I would change”), Tillman stopped and said, “Don’t just truck through that bit. Let’s play that section on a loop till it sounds slinky. Let’s pretty that bitch up!”
Someone dimmed the lights. Next up was “Fun Times in Babylon,” the first song from “Fear Fun.” He sings, in a sad kind of way, “Look out, Hollywood, here I come.” (The music video has him strolling through the smoldering wreckage of an airplane crash, a set left over from Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds.”) Even in the absence of an audience, he threw in some wags of his ass and wristy gestures. Mostly, though, he stood still and made his serious singer-at-work face: lips pursed, nostrils flaring slightly, eyes trained on the middle distance.
At one point, Dave Grohl, of the Foo Fighters, appeared in the studio. He and Tillman talked near Tillman’s microphone stand. They’d never met, but Grohl acted as if they had—the old assumption that all celebrities know one another, or, at least, drummers from iconic Seattle bands who have gone on to have big careers of their own—while Tillman’s nonchalance edged into indifference. As Grohl was leaving, Tillman called out, “You’re welcome to come in anytime and listen to some folk rock!”
“Feel free to turn on some lights,” Grohl said.
“He’s like a Bill Murray of rock: just kind of shows up,” Tillman said when Grohl had gone. “Actually, Bill Murray is the Bill Murray of rock.”
As the players dispersed, Tillman got behind the drum kit. The sound engineer, Trevor Spencer, picked up a guitar and began playing some distorted riffs. Spencer, who is twenty-seven, started out doing sound with Fleet Foxes and is now Tillman’s right-hand man and all-around Sancho Panza. Tillman, who is constantly changing the name on his Twitter account (Farmer Jah Misery, Feather Jam Ministry, Jon “Trxxxth” Misty), had recently dubbed it “Jazz Imposters,” as he and Spencer uploaded some crappy iPhone videos of themselves scuffling on keyboard and drums. They announced a forthcoming album and an “exclusive JI interview.” Some fans seemed to take this literally. Others knew it was a joke but felt obliged to explain it. Tillman’s news alert filled with blog posts. Then he deleted the tweets—a social-media sigh. MTV.com turned all this into an occasion for a think piece on Internet trolling, from which Tillman, after he and Spencer had finished goofing off, began to read aloud, with disdainful delight: “What purpose does trolling actually serve? In a word: control.” And then, “Trolling creates a window of freedom through which artists can do whatever they’d like for a limited time: While false leads are being chased, they can live their real lives.”
“So obtuse,” Spencer said. “It was basically a fart joke.”
“Wait to see how those words look on the Internet,” Tillman said.
Tillman often marvels that people take such interest in him—that, for example, a trio of Chicago critics would devote a podcast of more than two hours to the question of whether he is an asshole. (The conclusion seemed to be yes; even the host, a fan, had to concede so, though she did not endorse one panelist’s hot take that Misty is Trump.) And yet Tillman can’t help poking the bear. Salient attention-seeking escapades include a mock confession, via Instagram, to the apparent theft of a valuable rose-quartz crystal from a Moon Juice shop in Silver Lake; a press release, picked up by the Times, regarding a made-up visitation, in a dream, from Lou Reed; the merchandising of a Misty line of fragrance called Innocence; a video in which Tillman picks himself up in a bar and goes to bed with himself; and, recently, his dissemination of a new development in the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which had him involved in the Satanist-pedophilia ring based in a D.C. pizzeria. Once, when I was talking to Tillman or, rather, listening to him talk, at length, about himself, and the misperceptions that keep springing up around him, he suddenly said, “Aw, fuck it, that’s enough.” He began singing a little ditty in a froggy voice: “Everybody’s my therapist. Everybody’s my therapist.”
Spencer and Tillman left S.I.R. Studios together. In the parking lot, they saw Gene Simmons in an Escalade, taking a nap. They took Tillman’s car, a black 1999 Jaguar XJ8, which he’d bought for three thousand dollars. (Emma has one, too. It replaced an old Cadillac hearse. The Misty vehicles are part of the lore.) There was a yoga mat on the back seat and a pile of parking tickets on the floor. Crawling down Hollywood Boulevard, they spoke dryly of eminences they held in less than high regard. David Crosby. Art Garfunkel. Tillman remembered a night when Garfunkel visited Fleet Foxes backstage after a show: “The first thing he says, ‘Isn’t it great to hear that sold-out crowd cheering, so you know business is booming?’ ”
“He also said, ‘I hear you’ve been ripping me off.’ ”
They were quiet a moment. “Music attracts more decent people nowadays, much to its detriment,” Tillman said. “Boring guys who make nice music.”
Later, he had dinner with his friend Emile Haynie, a pop and hip-hop producer (Eminem, Kid Cudi, Bruno Mars), on Hollywood Boulevard at the Musso & Frank Grill, the old-school touristy chophouse. Tillman ordered spaghetti and meatballs, garlic bread, and creamed spinach. There was white wine and talk of lost weekends, prompted by Tillman’s discovery of some artifacts in the pocket of an overcoat that he hadn’t worn in a while. Haynie often counsels Tillman to give up trying to explain his music and himself. Be more like Jay Z, he says: Let the work speak for itself. “I’m, like, ‘Dude, you have to stop,’ ” Haynie said. “It’s almost like he’s explaining it to himself and you happen to be there.”
They’d first met at the Chateau Marmont, when Haynie was living there, making a record. Tillman, who’d just finished his second album, was a guest for a few nights, while shooting a video with their mutual friend Lana Del Rey. “Emile was across the hall, playing music at wayward volumes,” Tillman recalled. They started hanging out. Haynie encouraged Tillman to write pop songs and connected him with some artists. “We recorded a song together,” Tillman said. “It was the first song I ever wrote for somebody else. Beyoncé bought it. She cut it. She was working on ‘Lemonade.’ But it’s not on the record. It’s in the stash.” Tillman also wrote the refrain, the first verse, and the melody of “Hold Up,” one of the big singles from “Lemonade.” He had written, “I’m not gonna lose my pride if I’m gonna lose my shit,” but Beyoncé changed it to “Fuck me up a bitch,” which became everyone’s favorite. “There’s no way I’d write that,” Tillman said.
Haynie said, “Once the songs come out, he wants them back.”
Ventriloquism has its rewards. Tillman recalled one line from a song he’d written for Lady Gaga. “Gaga was, like, ‘What’s this bit about the fish?’ The metaphor revolved around fishing as an occupation, as an expression of freedom. No woman thinks of fishing that way. For her, freedom was the fish. I didn’t have a perspective on how a woman would see it. That blew my hair back. That I fucking loved.”
At a certain point, he began telling everyone that he didn’t want to work with pop stars again, because the credit and the pay had not seemed to align with the contribution: “You only get paid as much as your manager is a total asshole.” But he’d recently run into Ellie Goulding, the British pop singer, at the Bowery Hotel. “We hit it off, she’s a fan,” he said. “Once you have that appeal to your vanity, you’re doing it.” A few weeks later, there he was at the laptop at home, 8 A.M., in reading glasses and a tank top, trying to make a hit. “I’m cranking out a banger, in the trashiest way. Abusing GarageBand for fame and profit.”
Tillman once described himself to me, with an indeterminate degree of sincerity, as the best lyricist in the business. Critics certainly give him his due for the words. They tend to overlook the melodies. Some people have dismissed “Pure Comedy” as an undifferentiated trudge of mid- and slow-tempo piano ballads in the mode of early Elton John. Tillman told me, “Someone said somewhere, ‘It’s all of my dad’s music thrown into a blender and turned into a smoothie.’ ” Dad-music guy talking here, but there seems to be more going on melodically in the songs than first meets the ear. “Josh is more elegant and understated about how smart and complex he’s being musically,” Thomas Bartlett said. “Even the songs that sound really simple, like ‘Magic Mountain’ ”—a hymn about aging, with some killer falsetto—“they’ve got some really strange changes in them. He has these sets of chord changes that, harmonically, I don’t know anyone who has them.” In this regard, he’s self-taught. No theory, just feel.
After dinner, Tillman had a gig at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, sufficiently atypical that he’d been reluctant to have me along. “It’ll hurt your eyeballs,” he said, which meant that his being observed there would hurt his. A tattoo artist and fan named Dr. Woo, who had a studio next to the hotel’s pool, had asked Tillman to come play a few songs at a “connectors” party there, in exchange for a free tattoo. Tillman, on a lark, said yes, then learned that it was a branded event, a promotion for Apple’s Beats headphones. In the past, he had loudly resisted promoting anything, besides local radio. He’d turned down two hundred and fifty thousand dollars from Chipotle to cover the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way.” (Chipotle got Jim James, of My Morning Jacket, and Brittany Howard, of the Alabama Shakes, to do the ad.) “I don’t want your fucking burrito money!” he declared, from the stage of the Newport Folk Festival. It wasn’t Dylan-goes-electric, but it filled up the news feed again.
The hosts got Tillman a room across from the tattoo studio. It opened onto a patio that was part of the palmy poolside lanai where the party would be. While Spencer got to work on Tillman’s setup, Tillman retreated to the patio. He broke out a vial of kava, an herbal extract supposedly good for building serotonin, and added a few drops to a glass of water. Room service brought two bottles of Casamigos tequila, mainly for his friends, who’d be coming later. “I’ve been chilling on the booze,” he said. “I found myself thinking, like, ‘I didn’t used to cry so much.’ ” He also doesn’t smoke pot: “I don’t like it. That didn’t stop me from smoking it every day for ten years.” His go-to medicine is microdoses of LSD, which he finds help keep the depression at bay. “It’s like what people say weed is like,” he said.
At the height of Tillman’s acid period, not long ago, he was taking ten hits at a time. He’d built up a tolerance, so much that he concluded that the sell-by date on his vial had expired, or something. When Elijah Thomson, his bassist, wanted to try this microdose thing, Tillman told him to take a lot, since the batch had lost its oomph. This was before a gig. “Eli proceeded to have a full acid trip,” Tillman said. “I kept turning around during the set, to give Eli a little . . . love and light, make sure he was O.K. One time I turned and he looked at me and silently mouthed, ‘Who are you?’ ”
Before the show, Tillman, alone in his room with guitar in hand, sat facing a full-wall mirror, jotting down lyrics and working through some changes. “I’ve been writing like crazy,” he told me. “I’m a few songs short of LP four.” This song was currently called “I’m Gonna Make Some Weird Decisions.” He said, “It’s about depression—the evolving methodology of co-existing with it.” He took it from the top, while I sat on a couch with a tumbler of tequila: Misty, play for me. The bridge consisted of lines he’d cribbed from think pieces about him—a weird decision, too.
Later that evening, stuffed with spaghetti, Tillman stood on a small platform in front of the d.j. deck and began to strum: “Oh, pour me another drink / And punch me in the face / You can call me Nancy.” By now, the lanai was teeming with young Hollywood hipsters, amid a hubbub of fervid greetings, dilated pupils, and blunt smoke. This was not a folk-rock crowd, or an atmosphere for acute lyrical or harmonic consideration. It wasn’t worship, either. Beyond the ring of listeners up close, the din kept up, as people tuned in for a moment or two, and then, perhaps in disbelief that such a party, in Hollywood, in 2017, had been taken over by a white guy with an acoustic guitar, began to feel free to ignore him. An undiscerning witness might mistake him for the folkie on the stairs in “Animal House,” singing “I Gave My Love a Cherry.” Save for a few snide interstitial remarks—“Hello, Coachella”; “Is everyone networking successfully?”—Tillman gamely played his best-known songs, but at a slightly slower tempo, as though testing his ability to play through inattention.
In the following weeks, I saw him perform other gigs before thousands: a smoldering dusk set at Coachella, his voice and visage beaming out from immense speaker stacks and video screens to acres of attentive ears and eyes; a lush two-hour extravaganza at the Kings Theatre, in Brooklyn, where, in front of a cavalcade of Ed Steed’s ghouls he thrashed and swooned through his bangers, and then, during the encore, with something like total sincerity, delivered the last few songs from “Pure Comedy”— delicate, subtle pieces, the ones with a few beans of hope—to a hushed and enraptured crowd. A review afterward called him “the best rock star of his generation.”
At the Roosevelt, though, he wasn’t much more than a “minor fascination,” as he refers to himself in “Leaving LA.” After a drizzle of applause, he made his way through the crowd, back to the patio outside his room, where Emma was waiting. “That’s what you call a partial debasement,” he said. “It’s kind of poetic that, the week I have a Top 10 record, I have to go back to my beginning of playing a party with no one paying attention.” A small party-within-the-party sprang up in his room, but it wasn’t long before Tillman felt a kind of depression coming on and began to gather his things. He invited everyone to stay as long as they wanted, and he and Emma headed out to their Jaguars and up into the hills. ♦