Father John Misty interview: ‘I was so sure I had made a dud record’

The ex-Fleet Foxes drummer has scored a hit, and a Glastonbury slot, with his horribly honest love songs

Father John Misty’s breakthrough second album I Love You, Honeybear, which came out in February, was proclaimed the release of the year by critics, and Misty, aka Josh Tillman, is handling all the newfound attention well.

“Me? I’m totally fine,” he says, picking up the knife on the table and pretending to hack at his wrists.

The 33-year-old musician is unused to creating a commotion. While his debut record, 2012’s Fear Fun, was well received, it hardly caused much of a stir. He even flew under the radar throughout his three-and-a-bit years spent as the sticksman for Fleet Foxes from 2008. Once he walked off stage during a gig and no one noticed.

But Honeybear has changed all of that. When he toured through London with Fear Fun he played the 200-capacity Shacklewell Arms in Dalston, east London. Now he’s appearing at Glastonbury on the Park stage, where Adele performed in 2007.

“So yeah, it’s my first time at the rodeo,” drawls Tillman, who recently moved from Los Angeles to New Orleans. “I can’t really say that it’s had any kind of meaningful impact on my life but I’m truly shocked that people are responding to the record in the way that they are. I was so sure that I had just made completely the wrong record at completely the wrong time.”

The album, a mixture of caustic observations on modern life as well as, more predominantly, a love letter to his new wife, Emma, is an unusual affair. And don’t be fooled by that warm and cosy title. These aren’t traditional love songs. These are explicit, witty and acerbic paeans that focus as much on Tillman’s own worries and shortcomings as they do on his passion for his bride.

He goes on to try and explain why he thought he’d made a dud of an album.

“Have you seen Kanye West’s video for ‘Bound 2’?” he asks, referring to the much-ridiculed video that has Kim Kardashian riding her husband on a motorbike. “When you are enveloped in intimacy, the kinds of things that occur to you that people want to hear or see are pretty tone deaf. I feel like that video is a really good articulation of two people who are so wrapped up in their own thing that they have completely lost perspective on what the world is interested in.”

So what did he want to contribute to the love-song canon? “I just wanted to shit all over it. I started this thing in a macho way thinking, ‘I’m gonna write about love without all the bullshit, the clichés, the sentimentality’. Because in my experience it’s exhilarating but also frequently torturous. It’s not just, you know, puppies, right?”

Indeed, he doesn’t pull any punches. “Bored in the USA” carries the line: “I’ve got a lifetime to consider all the ways I grow more disappointing to you as my beauty warps and fades, and I suspect you feel the same.”

We’re sitting in a Mexican restaurant in east London that has bad Europop pumping out from the speakers. With a record-store appearance to play that evening, Tillman is drinking water. It’s a bit disappointing, this set-up. After all, on Fear Fun Father John Misty cultivated the image of a hard-drinking lothario. I feel like we should be in a dirty tavern doing shots while a jukebox blares out old country tunes.

“I think that there is definitely an appetite over here for that journeyman thing: the California wanderer,” he says. “That last record was very much about myth-making and identity. But I’m now at a phase where the cowboy shit is over. The whisky-swilling, cigarette-smoking, womanising thing. You can get that anywhere else. Listen to Ryan Adams. I mean, I like Ryan Adams, but you’re not going to get that from me. It’s something else for me now.”

It can be confusing to navigate Tillman. Is Father John Misty an alter ego? Or simply a stage name? Much was made of where one began and the other ended on the release of I Love You, Honeybear, with critics tending to conclude, “well who knows, but the songs sure are great”.

While he might have played up to it previously, Tillman now finds himself frustrated at the perceived dichotomy.

“The problem I have with alter ego is that it implies that it’s not real, you know? That the lyrics aren’t real and that I didn’t really have these experiences and that’s the greatest insult to me. It’s like, dude, use your critical mind. Ignore the flashing lights of the name and listen to the fucking tunes and tell me that this is not about a real person.”

“On paper it’s confusing but I don’t think you have to listen to much of the music to realise that it’s, like, very obviously and explicitly about me. It’s just my sense of humour. Calling myself something so patently stupid is just more me than calling myself Josh Tillman.”

Born in Rockville, Maryland, Tillman was raised by two devout Christians and sent to a “crazy” Pentecostal school. It is clear he has a difficult relationship with his past. Although he offers up details of his schooling and parents himself, his voice becomes quiet and he stares at the table while he talks.

“It was inescapable. I went to church three times a week, everyone we knew were Christians. At school they would cast demons out of us and speak in tongues. It was crazy. It wasn’t until I was 19 that I could liberate my mind from it.”

He has limited contact with his parents now and the family seems to operate a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with his music.

“I wouldn’t know what they thought. I think when people from work ask them what I do, they tell them that I’m in the music industry,” he shrugs. “I’ve never gotten any feedback anyway.”

Throughout his twenties, he put out several sincere folksy records under the name J Tillman, alongside working odd jobs to support himself. He was invited to join Fleet Foxes because he was dating singer Robin Pecknold’s sister at the time. It’s not a period he looks back on particularly fondly.

One new track, “Ideal Husband”, is a collection of all the bad things he’s done in his life, from not calling when his grandmother died to drink-driving. “My OkCupid profile”, as he calls it. I ask what he deems the worst thing on the list.

“The big one in the song is telling people jokes to shut them up,” he insists. “That is my biggest and most misleading antisocial behaviour. I struggle with contempt for people and I can keep them at arm’s length by making them laugh. I find the happier I become, the less funny I get. But at those Fleet Foxes shows you could not get me to shut up. I was talking between every song just because I was so unhappy.”

When I saw him live three years ago, he had the room chortling with his between-song chat and his louche dance moves. So should fans expect a more demure performance when they see him at Glastonbury?

He leans in close to the recorder on the table. “Look,” he mock shouts. “I’m still pretty fucking funny. Alright?”

Father John Misty will be at Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion on 26 June and Glastonbury Festival on 27 June. “I Love You, Honeybear” is on Bella Union