Father John Misty: How the most online man in folk rock disappeared

There was a time, not so long ago, when Josh Tillman – best known by his stage name Father John Misty – was almost as famous for his bizarre social media antics as he was for making wry, sardonic folk rock records. In the year that followed the release of his breakout second album, 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear, Tillman would fill his popular Instagram account with all manner of idiosyncratic images: hundreds of stills from virtual world Second Life, dozens of stock photos of men taking selfies, iPhone videos of sunsets and a whole series of himself just staring at his phone.

His Twitter presence was just as trollishly absurd. In June 2016, he claimed to have been responsible for the theft of a crystal from an organic juice bar in Los Angeles. He then released a series of tongue-in-cheek, straight-to-social media songs claiming to be unused Prius jingles, rejected promos for streaming service Pandora and his own “official lyrics” for the theme tune to Netflix’s House of Cards. When President Trump fired FBI chief James Comey in May 2017, there was a jaunty Father John Misty song about the incident on Twitter the very next day.

Always hungry for fresh content, the online pop culture news economy ate it up. Pitchfork placed Father John Misty at the top on their list of “The Top 30 Artists You Need to Follow on Social Media”, writing: “On the one hand, @fatherjohnmisty is an extension of Tillman’s mission to cast a sardonic modern gaze on faded rock’n’roll archetypes; on the other, it’s a great outlet for an incorrigible prankster who gets off when people don’t get it.” It’s true that even many of his most dedicated fans seemed to be left entirely perplexed by the whole performance. Typical comments included: “I don’t understand this page” and “Get off your phone and live brother trust me.”

Tillman may well have taken that advice to heart. In September 2016 he deleted his Twitter and Instagram accounts without explanation, briefly rejoined Twitter, then quit again in August 2017. These days, his social media presence is back in a much more conventional form, full of artful but bland promotional material. It appears that for majority of the past five years his social media has been run by his record label or management’s social media team.

But at least he was still talking to the press for some of that time. The release of 2017’s Pure Comedy was accompanied by a media blitz that saw him profiled everywhere from Rolling Stone to The New Yorker. He gave great interview, he knew it, and at the time seemed to be enjoying it. “I love the exhilaration of feeling a pull quote come out of your mouth,” he said in a New York Times profile. “The words just taste better.” He even sang about it. “These LA phonies and their bullshit bands / That sound like dollar signs and Amy Grant,” he crooned on Pure Comedy’s 13-minute epic Leaving LA. “So reads the pull quote from my last cover piece / Entitled ‘The Oldest Man in Folk Rock Speaks’.” Not long afterwards, the oldest man in folk rock stopped speaking publicly altogether. He has declined to give any interviews since 2018, either to promote that year’s God’s Favorite Customer or the forthcoming Chloë and the Next 20th Century.

If fans attending his most recent live show were hoping he might offer any deeper insight into those records, they left disappointed. When he played Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall last month he was unusually taciturn for someone who once punctuated his live shows with frequent snatches of stand-up comedy. One of his few pronouncements during the show alluded to his age – Tillman turned 40 in May last year, and has since shaved his head and trimmed his beard short, a look that places him somewhere between a medieval monk and a tech CEO. “I know what you’re thinking,” he said as he first took the microphone. “I’m old now. This is the big reveal.”

Birthdays seem to be significant to Tillman. It was a decade ago, just before he turned 30, that he took himself off to Big Sur with a bag of magic mushrooms to contemplate his next move. Back then he was merely the former drummer for the Fleet Foxes who had put out eight unheralded solo records under the name J Tillman. One day, hiking through the wilderness and feeling the effects of the psilocybin, he stripped naked and decided it was time to reinvent himself. Father John Misty was born and he released Fear Fun, his first record under the new name, on 30 April 2012, three days before his 31st birthday.

It seems as if entering his fifth decade has had a similarly transformative effect on Tillman. For the most part, Chloë and the Next 20th Century is more earnest and less cynical than the first three Misty records were, and the jokes are fewer and further between. Musically it bears the distinct influence of the Beatles, particularly on heartache lullaby “(Everything But) Her Love” and the carnivalesque “Q4”. In Beatles terms, Misty was once a rebellious, sharp-tongued John Lennon type, whereas now he seems to be embracing his inner Paul McCartney. On closing track “The Next 20th Century”, lyrically the most conventionally Father John Misty track on the album, he lays out his faith in music – and suggests one reason he’s happy to let his songs do the talking: “Now things keep getting worse / while staying so eerily the same,” he sings. “I don’t know about you / but I’ll take the love songs / and give you the future in exchange.”

The last time I interviewed Tillman was in a London hotel room in February 2017. I asked how he was finding life without the endless distractions of Twitter and Instagram. “It goes on!” he said. “It’s fine. I will look at Twitter occasionally, but I found that when I was on it the anger you see on there felt normal. I was immersed in it, acclimated to the anger. Now when I go look at it I just think: ‘What are you so angry about?’”

The conversation then turned to Neil Postman’s 1985 book Amusing Ourselves To Death, in which the media theorist argues that in the modern world the public is kept docile and controlled not by state oppression, as George Orwell foresaw in 1984, but rather in the way Aldous Huxley predicted in Brave New World: by keeping the populace distracted and addicted to endless amusement.

“[Postman] says that when the transcontinental telegraph was invented someone was taking issue with it, saying: ‘Well what are we really going to learn? That the princess has the whooping cough? Who needs to know that?’” explained Tillman. “It’s kind of the same thing now. When you look at the anger now online it’s because people have invited a bazillion different things that they don’t need to know into their life everyday, whether it’s a new Father John Misty song and they’re going: ‘Who the f*** is this a**hole? Why won’t he leave me alone?’ Because you have invited a million voices into your life every day!”

His tone grew incredulous as he described the insane routine that so many of us subject our fragile minds to, the background roar that makes it impossible to even hear yourself think. “The first thing you do in the morning is invite a million ideas that have nothing to do with your real life into your real life, and you have made those things that have nothing to do with you the substance of your life,” he said. “That’s a problem. It makes people angry and feel isolated, but it’s nobody’s fault but themselves.”

Perhaps, then, the question shouldn’t be: why has Father John Misty decided to shut up? It should be: why haven’t the rest of us?

‘Chloë and the Next 20th Century’ will be released on 8 April

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