Father John Misty: Not even the power of love can save you

Monday 06th, July 2015 / 13:44
By Sebastian Buzzalino
Photo: Emma Tillman

Photo: Emma Tillman

CALGARY — Speaking with Father John Misty a.k.a. Joshua Tillman is not far off from speaking in self-aware riddles and ironic word games. He has this uncanny ability, perhaps more so than any other artist I’ve interviewed, to hold seemingly contradicting and incongruous ideas in simultaneous balance, relishing the space for play this tension opens up.

Indeed, as is evident on his excellent sophomore album as Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear, his quest for honesty and truth is necessarily one mired in dead ends and hallways of mirrors, in paths that turn back on themselves and rabbit holes that seem to duplicate and triplicate at will — in self-flagellation and self-salvation and the realization that both those notions are pointless and crucial.

At the same time, he’s all too aware of the futility of searching for truth or honesty, as if these are idealized notions that can somehow be attained through perfection or redemption. No, the world according to Father John Misty is one where truth and honesty and love and beauty must be made day in and day out in a bodily fashion: these must be lived truths, rather than Holy Truths, and they are, by definition, fallible and broken. All the better for that.

Photo: Emma Tillman

Photo: Emma Tillman

“That’s all honesty to me,” he begins in his calculated drawl, taking the time to be precise in his imprecision, in selecting just the right things to say to open up the spaces in language which his body already inhabits before letting the words curl away in a puff of cigarette smoke. “There’s a difference between honesty and honesty-themed verbiage — what the culture at large considers to be true honesty, this very plaintive, dumbed-down kind of thing. But yeah, I enjoy playing around with words and concepts and whatever else. But I don’t think irony is inherently dishonest. I think irony is sometimes the best… an elegant way of getting to the truth of the matter. And, the fact of the matter is that, often times the truth is located at the cross-section of a violent contradiction. How can this album about love include so much about despair and jealous and fear, you know? Love is a context.”

Later on in the interview, as we settle into the rhythm of the phone call, both scripted and organic, he doesn’t hesitate to turn his back on those words. “I don’t put any stock into what I say in interviews, cumulative or not… nothing I say in an interview can hold a candle to the statement I have on the album. I don’t know… I’m like the least trustworthy source of myself.”

What emerges from the deconstructed chaos, then, is Tillman/Misty’s body itself: the body of the artist, the body of work on Honeybear, the body that moves and fucks and pains and betrays that leaves ash and cum on the sheets after an encounter with itself, the body that multiplies and intersects with other bodies in order to create and recreate reality. Like a creeping rootstalk, Misty’s body sends out filaments and particles from its nodes — self-doubt, self-destruction, self-medication — in order to grow, ceaselessly establishing corporeal connections with no beginning and no end, just a break from structuralist models of identity.

“I think that the last couple of songs on the album are really interesting,” he says. “The idea that there’s something that lies beyond all that kind of intellectualizing and the confusion and anything else. And that’s the way I kind of identified with the world, for a long time, and it was a bizarre liberation to relinquish that.”

The final suite of the album includes the work’s cornerstone, “Bored in the USA,” in which Tillman overtly dismantles the a priori arena that culture forms and bursts out of it himself, bodily….

“They gave me a useless education/A sub-prime loan on a Craftsman home/Keep my prescriptions filled/And now I can’t get off/But I can kind of deal,” he moans in between a canned laugh track where you can almost feel the track splinter. In himself, he’s able to hold the tension between representation and immanence, between flattened narratives and the creation of being, and there’s a sense of vitality — indeed, coursing throughout the album — that threatens to transcend both his body and the body of his work.

“I feel like I located liberation in terms of the intellect and in terms of dismantling ideas like love. Dismantling, identifying it as a chemical illusion, for instance. And that liberation was a liberation of living in this constant state of negative identity, where you identify solely as something you’re not,” he continues.

It’s this very move towards transcendence, breaking free from the paradigm of negative identity, that forces Misty towards the honesty and love that characterizes the album, even when he’s actively sabotaging himself.

Self-described as a “tragicomic character,” Misty is overt and deliberate about how he wields this tension and how deftly he is able to manipulate it in service of creating his own truths. He routinely falls back on irony and word play in order to create and extract a more immediate sense of honesty.

“It’s a work in progress,” he explains. “The album itself is supposed to be an anti-salvation message in terms of intimacy and love. I don’t believe that these have some magical power to save you and to cure your life of boredom and pain.”

By eschewing the traditional narrative of love as the meaning of life, as the endpoint for personal progress, Misty forwards a more powerful message: the self is the only thing that can be perfect by nature, even if that perfection is ironically flawed. That’s the elegance to it all, according to Misty. The body, in its perfection, can never be whole, can never be complete. No one in Misty’s anti-salvation, fatalistic twist is “awfully glad to be here for yet another mindless day.”

BeatRoute July 2015 Alberta print edition cover

BeatRoute July 2015 Alberta print edition cover

The Last Word

Now more than ever, my engagement with music has become an introverted experience. And I struggle with artist interviews, because they’re inherently tense and uncomfortable, even after a decade of conducting them: the author penned his or her work, but their stake in my experience, in my consumption, ends there. During the interviews, they can confirm or deny certain suspicions I may have formed about the piece of work, but they can’t legitimize them. Roland Barthes killed the author in 1967 and we haven’t looked back since. To engage with a piece of work now is to infiltrate the land, to poach meaning where we can irrelevant of the author’s steely gaze, to create a new sense of reality by traversing the body of work with our own.

“Ninety percent of my job is just jerking off,” I tell him towards the end, when we briefly break character at the same time and allow ourselves a certain space to confide. And he laughs and it feels real, but Father John Misty remains inscrutable as a figure on the other end of the line because all I need to know is what’s on the album, the vitality that emerges in his best work yet. His answers to my questions are irrelevant because they don’t change the way I consume his work, nor the way he produces his work. At best, he indulges and we briefly intersect for 20 minutes and nothing changes.

“I have this almost pathological bent towards thinking that I can’t actually pull this over people,” he says. “Maybe it’s pride, maybe it’s ego and I’m trying to pitch it as honesty.” Even if it was a farce and Joshua Tillman turns out to be one of the biggest con artists of 2015, it doesn’t change the work: the album continues to form this shifting landscape on which I can unravel and create an ongoing reality, on which I can form, as Balzac once wrote, a “delicious delicacy of feeling.” Joshua Tillman, Father John Misty, is the creator of I Love You Honeybear, but there’s no sense in tyrannically centering the body of work on him because the album isn’t something that precedes his being, but a space of dimensions where he and I unfold in the present. Maybe it is pride, maybe it is ego and everything and nothing is honest, but it’s that sense of carnal liberation that forms the basis of Honeybear.

Father John Misty performs during the Calgary Folk Music Festival Friday, July 24 on the main stage.

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