Albums of 2015 (#8): Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear

Although Father John Misty's biting sarcasm and unflinching honesty could make him seem larger than life, I Love You, Honeybear is irrefutably autobiographical, as its author explains

Feature by Katie Hawthorne | 01 Dec 2015

Father John Misty is neither the alter-ego nor stage-persona of Josh Tillman. He’s taken great pains to explain this, throughout the course of 2015. Although Tillman’s biting sarcasm and unflinching honesty could make him seem larger than life, I Love You, Honeybear is uncomfortably, autobiographically about the man himself.

On a frosty November morning, The Skinny phones Tillman in a hotel room in Iceland to ask him how he feels about the second record under his holy moniker, some ten months on. In his own words, Tilman’s enduring “the most tone deaf week” of his life, having inadvertently told the “echo chamber” of online media that he hates “all men’s fashion” and “all pop music”. “My lack of media training is maybe... refreshing?” he sighs. “But I worry that I’ve lost my sense of humour. You do enough press and you start to take yourself really seriously.” 

Yet, on record, he does take himself very seriously. Or, to put it better, he takes sending himself up very, very seriously. Acutely self-aware – so much so, he needed a built-in laugh-track on the record’s first single – Honeybear chronicles Tilman’s highs and lows. But mostly his lows. Over thirteen tracks of hilarious, horrible analysis, Honeybear offers a mirror to your deepest, darkest suspicions that you are, in fact, a piece of human garbage.

And as it turns out, we're all gluttons for self-punishment. Since the record’s release in February Father John Misty's played to full-capactiy venues the world over, and his UK tour next May has already sold out – with most venues upgraded to far larger stages. While you’re indulging in delicious egotistical self-pity, though, it bears remembering that these stories belong to Tillman.

"You open the door to madness and you make a choice" – Josh Tillman

“It’s a demented line of work,” he laughs, and it doesn’t sound like he’s joking. “You walk this line; I want to be honest… but as long as no one ever sees that I’m capable of being an asshole. But that’s actually what my art is all about; people seeing me for what I really am.”

A lot of people have the record pegged as Tillman’s “love album” – something he easily dismisses: “I’ve only been married two years… I haven’t come anywhere close to writing about love.” Instead, he sees Honeybear as a record about intimacy. “Unmasking.” “For me, that meant I had to confront my neediness and my jealousy,” he explains. “Intimacy was about confronting my weaknesses. And… I don’t… identify as a mean person, but I have this… propensity for using my sense of humour, or whatever intellect I have, in very petulant, self-sabotaging ways.”

“What I’m writing about, what I think the album is about… you know, now that I can step back and look at it… it’s about ignorance. It’s about thinking that I know myself, and not knowing myself at all.” He pauses. “And thinking that I know anything about love, and realising that I don’t know anything about love at all.”

He describes the writing of the album as anecdotal – songs which once functioned as a quick release, or an impulsive analysis of a less than savoury situation… but, with hindsight, have morphed into something else entirely. We discuss The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment. The song’s got a silly title and an even sillier video, but when you pay due attention you’ll find a savage takedown of a certain type of person. It’s witty, brutal and painfully enjoyable. And, when you recognise the gross, garbage behaviour patterns as something you might do yourself, it’s cathartic. But can laughing at lines like “she says like, literally, music is the air she breathes” help cure a Father John Misty fan of behaving in a similar fashion?

“No! No.” He laughs. “So, there’s a few different things. I wrote that song within hours of the thing happening. In a fit of impotent rage. You can put ‘laughs bitterly’ in brackets.” Tillman laughs again, bitterly. “But there’s an ethical dilemma. Really the big elephant in the room with a song like that is misogyny. Is this a misogynistic sentiment? In some ways, it is. In that moment, I didn’t like women. Just to protect my own selfish pride, I had two choices. I could either not like women, or I could face the things about myself that are truly disgusting." 

"The bridge where I’m saying ‘Oh my God, I swear this never happens”, that is – literally – impotence. So in what ways does someone like that lash out? In these petty judgements of this other person. And really, she’s fine. The real question is why am I there, in her bed, if I don’t like her so much? What is it that I’m looking for? It’s a narcissist who’s just looking to be affirmed, whose behaviour says one thing, and whose self-regard says a different thing. And at some point you have to face it.”

He continues, “it’s like the song Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow. That’s another song about this impotence, this powerlessness. In the moment I was writing it, I was like yeah, I’m gunna slap this guy in the dick. Some blustery, chest-pumping thing. But looking at it a year later... JESUS. It’s pathetic. But I think that, if anything, it’s what makes the album sort of timeless for me.”

Clearly, though, with these twists of self-analysis still yet to fully unravel, he’s leaving his work wide open with potential for misinterpretation. Does Tillman ever worry that he’ll be taken… not too seriously, but too literally? “I am asking a lot of the listener in terms of unpacking all of that, but at the same time I’m willing to live with the consequences. Creativity… you open the door to madness and you make a choice, whether to let the messiness into your music or not. And that was the whole point approaching this album, that I was going to include everything. Including the ugly. How else are you supposed to have any perspective on life, or whatever?”

The result of all this ugliness is a singularly self-confrontational record – for Tillman as much as any listener who seeks refuge within Honeybear's sarcastic, sardonic walls. But in recognition of writing a record based upon human (in)decency, he sighs “I’m walking a very fine line, and I understand why there are a lot of decent people who don’t like what I do. Any decent person should be like, look, this guy’s an asshole.” He’s right, Josh Tillman is an asshole – sometimes. But we all are, and that’s the point.

Playing Glasgow O2 Academy on 12 May and Manchester Albert Hall on 13 May