Billboard Hot 100 Fest
Inside the Making of 'Pure Comedy' With Jonathan Wilson, Father John Misty's Secret Weapon
What’s the first thing that happens when you call Jonathan Wilson at his Echo Park studio? Well, he’ll ask if you want to say hello to “Josh,” the given name of the man otherwise known as Father John Misty. “Rob from Billboard? What was this cuck headline Billboard gave me, claiming I sang some song about being a cuck?!,” Josh asked. “Not me, Father John. I’m a freelancer and---”. Then, Josh laughs. “We’re just a bunch of long-haired idiots fooling around.”
The singer-songwriter may be spot on about his and Wilson’s flowing manes, but he’s otherwise being self-depreciating -- Father John has morphed into one of the most respected names in music thanks to a no-fucks-given attitude, thoughtful lyrics, and his critical (sometimes groovy) assessments of society, politics, and human existence in general. The folk singer has had a well-documented rise, from former drummer for Seattle-bred Fleet Foxes to his acclaimed FJM debut Fear Fun, which was released with few expectations in 2012. It’s all led up to his current stature with the recent release of third album Pure Comedy hitting No. 1 on the Rock, Alternative and Americana/Folk album charts, the first such feat in his lightning rod of a career. While Father John has carved out a unique aesthetic with a decidedly singular sound and vision, he’s done it all alongside co-producer and multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Wilson, his longtime close collaborator.
“Josh and I met the first time he came down to Los Angeles from Seattle,” explains Wilson from the Echo Park studio where much of Pure Comedy was crafted. “People kept on telling him, ‘You need to hook up with this guy Jonathan!’ When we finally did meet we were immediately buddies.” It was no wonder the two got along, as the North Carolina-raised Wilson and Maryland-raised Father John both shared a deep affinity for folk. (Their first collaboration was for an unreleased tribute album to Roy Harper that Wilson was spearheading, the recording of which has since been lost.) In addition, the two bonded over laissez faire attitudes about creativity and the music industry at large.
“When he first came to my studio I think he saw the sonic possibilities, since I’m this guitarist-drummer-pianist,” notes Wilson, who at the time was on the verge of releasing his own album, the future cult-hit Gentle Spirit, which (at least on its surface level) sounds like a complement to Father John’s style, especially the atmosphere and basic aesthetic of Pure Comedy. “I remember when he said he was having a bit of an existential crisis in his life and sent me some demos which turned out to be the initial songs on his first album. I was completely blown away by them. I was like, ‘What the fuck is this?’”
A highly regarded figure in the Los Angeles music scene, Wilson had a front row seat to Father John’s creative evolution. “I remember when he called me and said, ‘Um, I think I have a name for this thing. Father… John… Misty. And I was like, ‘That’s pretty fucking good, dude,’” explains Wilson, who was also present for the burgeoning artist’s debut show. “It was at a strip club named Cheetahs,” he remembers with a laugh. “That’s actually where it all started. He almost broke the Hofner bass I lent him, just on the stripper poles being completely insane. My manager at the time, Mr. Music Business, was like, ‘Josh, you’re too good to act like this on stage. Don’t ever do that again.’”
When not swinging around stripper poles, the two also developed a connection in the studio thanks to a shared tendency to shred suppression and conservatism, coupled with a common mission to, well, simply have fun. “I came up against, and developed a disdain for, sessions with people who talked a big game, but when they got into the studio were crippled with conservative decisions. Josh and I were baked in this process of, let me do what I do and let’s explore and figure this out all while we’re having fun at the same time. That’s been the spirit since the beginning and I think it shows. That said, we don’t have any business to attend to unless we’re making a great fucking song.” It’s that process that the pair employed throughout Father John’s discography, from aforementioned debut Fear Fun, to 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear, and now Pure Comedy.
“Our dynamic has shifted from project to project,” Wilson notes. “In the past, there was a lot more back and forth but (for Pure Comedy) he had prepared more of a concept. He already had most the songs and even went as far to have a sequence early in the process. Now, sometimes a producer will arbitrarily change things just to create a job. In this specific case, since a lot of it was already set in stone, that just meant I could open up and concentrate on the other things. What are the frequencies? The textures? What drums are we going to use? What microphones are we going to use? What’s the studio we’re going to use?”
Aside from recording everything together with a band instead of their usual process of Wilson or Father John playing every instrument and piecing together “Frankenstein-like tracks” later, there was another major component that added to Pure Comedy’s flavor. “By now it’s pretty well known that all of this was done under LSD,” Wilson points out. “We’d all practice the songs and then go in with this hint of something magical. By not being your normal self, we’d see if we could get that to read on the tape as some sort of expansion of consciousness.”
While Father John is known to take micro-doses of LSD, Wilson is more restrained when it comes to the drug. “I don’t use it every day, just because I don’t want to get into the habit of doing any outside substance regularly. The last time I went down that road was when we performed on Saturday Night Live.” Wilson also points out there’s a limit to its use. “If you get debilitated to the point where you can’t even fucking hold an instrument, that’s probably not good in the studio.”
Lyrically speaking, Pure Comedy sounds like it could be first protest album of the Trump age when, in fact, it was recorded throughout March of 2016 with the bulk of the album written while Father John was living New Orleans in 2015. “I think that had more to do with this brewing feeling,” notes Wilson of some of the album’s more prescient lyrics and tracks. “For someone who’s a little more in tune, you can sort of sense these things before they take hold.” Specifically, Pure Comedy’s 10th track, “Two Wildly Different Perspectives,” is perhaps the most overt when it comes America’s political divide. “That was a really special one,” notes Wilson of the mournful ode which boasts the lyrics “One side says kill ‘em all/ the other side says line those killers up against the wall.” Not only was it not part of the initial lineup of songs Father John crafted, but it was originally conceived as a B side. “He was kicking it around the entire time we were in the studio, sitting over at the piano and fucking around with it,” Wilson remembers. “I kept going, ‘What is that? We need that. It’s not a fucking B side, it’s beautiful.’ So we cut that one the last day in the studio, just the two of us.”
Despite the fact Wilson helped give birth to Pure Comedy, he won’t be on tour with his musical child. That’s because he’s hitting the road with another collaborator and musical force, Roger Waters. The legendary Pink Floyd frontman is about to embark on his 2017 tour and recruited Wilson to play guitar. “I’m having to learn stuff like ‘Wish You Were Here,’” Wilson says of the 73-year-old legend, whose upcoming album he also helped craft from his Echo Park studio. “It’s pretty amazing. He occupies some pretty special particles, so having him in my kitchen every day and to be able to join up with him is surreal.” And, oh yeah, he’s also working on his own stuff, currently concocting tracks for what will be the upcoming album Rare Birds, slated for a fall release. “Along with these various other projects, I’m trying to mix my own big fucking complicated album,” Wilson says with a chuckle. “So we’ve got a bunch of shit going on.”