When Father John Misty—the nom de plume of singer-songwriter Josh Tillman—first took the stage, crowds saw a trope: a white guy with an acoustic guitar and a messianic mane. Yet by the second line of lyrics, they were taken aback. “There was nothing about train tracks or listing off state names,” Tillman said on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast in 2013. “Especially now in what’s called neofolk, there’s a lot of shit about, like, your brother’s wisdom?”
Tillman quickly got diplomatic and noted that his disdain didn’t extend to Fleet Foxes (whom he’d drummed for from 2008 to 2012), yet for Seattleites, his break with his former milieu has special significance. From 2002 to 2010, he played as J. Tillman, a fledgling Seattle folk singer. He had been drawn here from Maryland by our indie-folk elder statesman Damien Jurado, and he spent those years hoofing demos to Neumos and churning out albums of soporific brooding, with names fit for his list of cliches: Cancer and Delirium, Vacilando Territory Blues, Singing Ax. The city’s most prominent acts then included the Head and the Heart, Band of Horses, and Fleet Foxes—groups of literate, largely white men, with lovely harmonies and beards plagiarized from a Burt’s Bees label. If Sub Pop grunge was the first “Seattle sound,” then that label’s folk wave (which included all the above bands) would likely be the second.
Tillman split with Fleet Foxes dramatically in 2012, sobbing in the arms of the band’s keyboardist at his penultimate show, and kicking off a passive-aggressive feud. “I haven’t listened to it. Like, intentionally,” Foxes lead singer Robin Pecknold told Rolling Stone of Tillman’s music.
Then Tillman released Fear Fun, also in 2012, and became beard rock’s greatest satirist. Or partial satirist, since Misty’s m.o. is cognitive dissonance. Instead of the sometimes affected sincerity of his Seattle ilk, he offered biting portraits of sensitive male self-involvement. “Another white guy 2017 / who takes himself so goddamn seriously,” he sang of himself on last year’s “Leaving LA,” a 13-minute track that is itself pretty goddamn serious. While his targets are broader than Seattle’s folk scene—that album, Pure Comedy, seemed to take on all of U.S. culture, even all of human existence, a scope which was its downfall—his best target is himself, and part of that self was a Seattle resident for eight years.
Listen to Singing Ax—his last album as “J. Tillman”—and Fear Fun back to back, and Tillman’s croon carries from final song to opener almost note for note. The vintage influences shift between albums, less Neil Young and more Harry Nilsson, and the lyrics change; it’s tough to imagine any Fleet Fox uttering, “The doctor took one look at me and took a skin graft out of my ass…. / If I make it out alive of Hollywood and Vine / I’ll build a cabin up in the Northwest.” But the continuity and the critique are unmistakable (notice that slant-rhyme of ass and Northwest).
In some sense, “building a cabin” up here is what Tillman had just left behind. This region is rich with iconography that fetishizes the natural, the mangy hair and dingy flannels and conifer-covered mountains shrouded in misty grayscale—all of which reinforce stereotypes of the region as fundamentally authentic, remote, pure. A liberal oasis, at one with the elements. That these ideals have carried over to a good chunk of our music, from J. Tillman to Brandi Carlile, is hardly a surprise. But they’re also ideals that do little to speak to what we are, especially as a technologically progressive and increasingly large city, the very existence of which contradicts such pastoralism.
Later in that interview with Maron, Tillman spoke more about his shift, how he began questioning his songwriting instincts, his reflex to toss the word mountains in a song: “How many important things in my life have happened atop a mountain? Almost none. Or none.”
Father John Misty headlines this year’s Capitol Hill Block Party, supporting God’s Favorite Customer, which was released in June. Of his albums, it’s the leanest, full of poised but often yearning pop songs, dispatching many of his past theatrics. The opener, “Hangout at the Gallows,” sounds like an updated, Mistyfied take on Neil Young, while the title track recalls Leonard Cohen at his most celestial. In its directness, God’s Favorite Customer feels like the closest thing he’s made to his J. Tillman records, though over its 39 minutes he mentions no mountain.