He’s 39! The absolutely fabulous Father John Misty

Random serendipitous moment coming up. I happened to be Netflixing one evening and chanced upon a straggly but striking looking gentleman having his photo taken in Barnaby Clay’s incredibly pretentiously titled Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock, a documentary of “the man who shot the ‘70s” (it says here). The snapper and subject of the film was Mick Rock, known for his in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time glam snaps of Bowie, Blondie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop et al.

Much more interesting to me at that particular moment was the ruggedly handsome chap taking his shirt off for the camera. ‘Wow, I wonder how often people tell him he looks like Jim Morrison,” I smirked to myself.

A scan of the credits revealed his name was singer Josh Tillman, drummer in folksy indie combo Fleet Foxes until 2012. 

Hello, I love him

Tall, willowy and biblically bearded, and possessed of a wonderfully expressive voice, the same year he hung up his drumsticks he wasted no time in releasing the psychedelic-folk Fear Fun, the critically acclaimed debut album under the musical persona of the not un-Messiah-like figure Father John Misty, transforming himself from quiet percussionist into an eccentric singer-songwriter frontman of his own band.

Oh, and did I mention he was easy on the eye? Cough.

Born in Maryland on 3 May 1981 (the very same week I officially bought my first single, Stand and Deliver by Adam & The Ants. Similarity stops there), Tillman was raised in a Baptist church, attended an Episcopal elementary school, then a Pentecostal Messianic day school. You getting the Father nom de guerre now?

Maintaining a steady output of solo recordings (initially as J. Tillman) since 2003’s Untitled No. 1, JT’s music is drenched in sadly beautiful baroque arrangements painting languid portraits of love and life on the margins evoking the frailing folk of Pete Seeger and the moody depth of Harry Nilsson and Nick Drake, both key influences. 

I Love You, Honeybear (2015) saw Tillman take his caustically sweet and sour storytelling alongside a delicate acoustic guitar and a beautiful, Laurel Canyon-esque production to a place of raw honesty and ornate romantic confession. Labeled by FJM as a concept album “about Josh Tillman,” it had listeners weeping tears of bliss, heartbreak, sadness and laughter. None more so with the album’s first 45, the slow, sarcastic piano ballad Bored in the USA, a biting tragicomic spin on a certain Bruce Springsteen standard, but sung in a way that doesn’t appear to mock The Boss, instead seemingly in sympatico with the Jersey Boy’s ironic disaffectedness with the American Dream and a prescient pre-Trump-era account of a quotidian malaise infecting the country.

It’s the kind of wistful satire over an elegiac early Elton John meets late-era Ben Fold piano line that Misty explored to even greater success on subsequent works. Indeed, such is the uncanny throwback, not just in his cognate arrangements but in his swooping vocal affectations, that it’s impossible not be transported back to the heady ‘70s when Elton ruled the airwaves. But whereas Elt left behind Reg Dwight legally and emotionally, there’s a sporadic nature to the rotating between which character Tillman/Misty channels, while the either crassness or beauty of his words all cultivate into one large, lovable experience.

A third album, Pure Comedy dropped in 2017. Lyrically, the record touched on themes such as politics, social media, the environment, technology, and celebrity culture. Key tracks include the bittersweet Ballad of the Dying Man and the epic So I’m Growing Old On Magic Mountain, a sonic adventure so magnificent that when his voice drops out and distorted guitars lurch across the terrain it swiftly became of the best music moments of the year.

Ever the prolific artist, Misty returned in 2018 with God’s Favorite Customer, my personal favourite of the four. See, I just had to get the proper spelling of the word in somehow.

Trailed by the singles Mr. Tillman, Just Dumb Enough to Try, and Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All, GFC was written during a six-week period when the singer was “kind of on the straits” living a life of misadventure in a hotel. It’s a startlingly honest, personal collection of songs, a broken album by a man in one of his most desperate moments, and as a result it’s one of the most affecting and vulnerable series of compositions Tillman has released.

Over the last eight years, the character of Father John has evolved into the Jim Morrison-meets-modern day cynic/eye candy swooner who’s become renowned for enrapturing live audiences with his semi-deranged onstage banter and the mind-blowing delight his soaring voice can bring.

It was on this basis that I made a brief pitstop on this year’s American road trip (direction North to Northwest, all thanks to the expert jigsaw assembling of Cassie Bull at Flight Centre Balgowlah), and checked out his June 14 show at The Armory, a cavernous historic venue built for the Minnesota National Guard in Prince’s hometown of Minneapolis. In one of those happy/sad coincidences, it was 15 hours and seven days after what would have been the Purple One’s 57th birthday.

Father John Feety

Tillman is a pelvis-thrusting, guitar-hurling hunk, and the kind of performer who talks and talks and talks—in on-stage tirades about the liberal listener’s complicity in orange ogre Donald Trump’s revolting rise, mainly. Bob Dylan he ain’t, babe.

Oh, he sings as well though. I don’t know if he was having an off night or the venue was a little on the large side, but I sensed a crowd slightly disappointed with the crazed Casanova.

A steady steam of people were vacating throughout his performance, but as I spied the support act, Southern alt. Country rockers Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit, doing as roading trade in T-shirts I put it down to Father John failing to preach to the unconverted. 

“See, people are leaving,” I heard a middle aged woman tell her companion. 

Well, the bailers missed out on an intriguing encore number; the premiere of a song he claimed was commissioned then rejected from the film A Star Is Born. Having already worked with Lady Gaga (co-writing two tracks on her Joanne album of 2016) it’s not unthinkable that he wasn’t having us on. For a change.

Anyhow, watch it happen around the 1:20:00 mark above.

Happy birthday JT.

Steve Pafford

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