Father John Misty Talks Taylor Swift Covers, Pop Music at Pitchfork Fest in Paris

Father John Misty photographed in 2015.
Nicolas Wagner

Father John Misty photographed in 2015.

“I am kind of a chronic over-explainer,” Josh Tillman admits, sitting backstage at Pitchfork Music Festival in Paris a few hours before his Father John Misty’s set over the weekend.

The musician has recently been the unexpected subject of the media spotlight, which he jokingly refers to as the “Eye of Sauron.” Tillman’s constant desire to explain himself manifested itself publicly as the artist released covers of Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” and “Welcome to New York” after hearing Ryan Adams’ version of 1989.

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Tillman quickly removed the covers (recorded by him and his band in less than an hour) after they drew vast attention and then released a statement that he did so after Lou Reed appeared to him in a dream. That turned out to be fictitious, but only after the media had churned out the story over and over.

Tillman is hesitant to discuss the incident, which he calls “the thing.” He says he didn’t enjoy the attention, despite his apparent participatory interplay with the media.

“I’ll say as basically as I can that I wanted to test the limits of how far you could get people to play along if this one person’s name was involved,” Tillman says, referring to Swift, who he never mentions by name throughout the interview.

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“That’s all that mattered. It had nothing to do with me, it had nothing to do with Ryan Adams. It just had to do with this person’s name being involved. And that was good for clicks. So I wanted to test, ‘If I put something out here that is associated with this thing that is just barely clinging to the fringes of what could be considered relevant will it get printed in wide circulation?’ And it did.”

He adds, in clarification, “I didn’t have any master plan. Misdirection in terms of a betrayal is really contingent on how important the thing is that you’re talking about. The whole topic had zero value or significance to me so misdirecting people in regards to it -- I didn’t lose any sleep over it.”

For the musician, there is a divide between music made on the edges of the industry and that created in its pop-centric mainstream. His relationship with that center is tenuous, at best, and despite the attention paid to his recent album, I Love You, Honeybear, which came out in February on Sub Pop, Tillman refuses to participate in it.

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“I’m a person who upholds certain dualities that I think a lot of musicians now view as being quaint,” he reflects. “I’m very suspicious of the mainstream, which is definitely the height of quaint. I think that the lines have blurred in superficial ways, I think certain dualities still exist and that there’s value in judging something as objectively as you can based on its sophistication or its beauty or its dignity.”

I Love You, Honeybear is, in some ways, an attempt at humanizing himself. It’s a deeply personal concept album that arrived with a lengthy written explanation to help the listener sort through its eleven songs as they unfold. The songs explore Tillman’s relationship with his wife, Emma, and his relationship with the idea of love overall, which he says started as anti-idealistic and transformed during the making of the music. Touring on the songs for much of the year has shifted their meaning, mostly because the audience has reflected their own understanding onto Tillman’s lyrics.

“They’ve become more inhabitable spaces,” Tillman says of the songs on the album. “The reality is, in some ways, they become easier to tune out. You’re not guaranteed an intimate, life-changing experience with them every night. But my clarity of the function of the songs or the ways in which they affect people or the ways they’re understood or misunderstood, that has come more into focus. When I first started showing the album to my friends and to my peers I had this ‘Dear God, what have I done?’ moment. It’s so intimate and to me it was so borderline sentimental. I went into these shows thinking that it was going to be good to de-mythologize myself and reveal myself through my music as this person who is full of contradictions. Because that’s my idea of what the truth is, a set of contradictions.”

Does he really believe that a mythology exists around him?

“You become an object in some respect,” he replies. “And objects are animated by other people’s imaginations. So in that respect, I think there is [a mythology about me]. What I realized is that the potential of these songs or this topic is there’s a lot more in what they can mean for people and in what they can accomplish. That has also been a shift from my anti-idealistic into a more idealistic approach for me personally into what music is good for.”

Tillman talks a lot about cynicism, as well as idealism. He sees the current landscape of pop music (and the critics who discuss it) as cynical, even if that sensibility might not outwardly seem to apply. He dislikes the media’s desire to intellectualize pop music and notes that “these 700-word Sasha Frere Jones Katy Perry reviews in The New Yorker make me feel like I’m living in a crazy world.” He won’t mention specific pop stars by name (and no, he’s not specifically talking about Swift), but Tillman has a lot of convictions about that duality in the music world today.

“There are certain pop stars that I think are poster children for cynicism,” he says. “But it would be a hard sell since they, in such a superficial way, represent the mandate of the age, like being yourself and being different and being quirky. But being a certain type of different and being a certain type of quirky. There’s a huge difference between permissible transgression and impermissible transgression. Permission transgression is to be different and to be yourself and whatever, and then impermissible transgression is to not like that person or that person’s music or what that person represents. And if you dare do that then that person’s fans will turn on you and they will destroy you… I just think that pop music is a touchstone for so much of what’s going on in the collective psyche right now. That’s what that song ‘The Memo’ that I put [in September] is about: The ways in which we chose to entertain ourselves say a lot about who we are.”

Tillman, who has enough material for a new album ready to record (but won’t confirm specifically when he plans to do so), wants to exist on the fringes, even if his songs translate to a larger audience. He’s the sort of person who responds to a query about the current president campaigns and whether Father John Misty will take any sort of political stance with the statement, “I believe in a form of emancipatory politics that isn’t represented in the current political paradigm. So it’s not really for me.”

It’s sentiments like that one and Tillman’s ongoing interest in bringing philosophical theories into discussions about music (he references Marx’s commodity fetishism several times) that Tillman feels will help prevent him from ever being too mainstream anyway.

“This is like the most pretentious way of framing it, the only role I can really live with is to be an outsider,” Tillman says. “I don’t aspire to crossing over. It’s very important to me that I maintain my ability to say certain things. You don’t move into that other realm without making concessions -- that’s the price of admission for moving into wider exposure. I don’t think I really have to worry about it too much because the things that I’m interested in talking about and the ways in which I’m interesting in addressing those things will always prevent me from doing that... In my mind it’s just important for me to maintain these dualities and to stay on one side -- and to stay on the side where I belong.”