For several years and seven albums there existed J. Tillman, a solo singer-songwriter prone to releasing self-serious LPs with titles such as Cancer and Delirium. Then dude ate magic mushrooms, slept in a tree and concocted a new stage persona. And so it was written that henceforth the former Fleet Foxes drummer would be known as Father John Misty, the wisecracking prophet behind 2012’s Fear Fun, breathing equal parts sweat, sex and spirituality into his folk-indebted music. Earlier this year the suit-donning singer (whom we’ve dressed in the season’s coolest looks) returned with I Love You, Honeybear, his most magical, absurd and downright infectious release to date. Consider us enlightened.
Father John Misty is something of a contrived performance persona. Do you view your stage outfits as costumes?
Essentially anything you wear on stage is a costume. It doesn’t matter if you wore it earlier that day, you know? It’s all a persona. There’s something refreshing about a kind of forthrightness, some acknowledgment of “I’m here to put on a show. I’m here to look good for the girls and sing my ass off.”
Is there any particular reason you almost exclusively wear suits?
I think of a suit as being like a talisman: If you wear it every day and put more performances into it—all hygienic considerations aside—it becomes a powerful object. Everything in rock music is a suit, whether you’re putting on flannel and a beard or an oxford shirt and boat shoes or an oversize T-shirt and an ironic baseball cap. It’s all a sense of identity. Anything I put on is going to become some kind of costume, so it may as well be a suit.
You were raised in a strict evangelical Christian household. Was expressing yourself sartorially a challenge?
It was a huge, constant fight. When I was really young I used to draw all over my clothes; I would come home from school with my pants, shoes and shirt covered in doodles. That was my earliest form of expression. I was really into making little holes and cuts all over my clothes. I remember the first time I ever did my own laundry, I put in bleach instead of laundry detergent, and all my clothes were covered in bleach stains. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I didn’t see it as any kind of tragedy, because I was really into mutilating and vandalizing my clothes. In high school I was really into wearing the ugliest combinations. I wore the stupidest things you could imagine. I would buy old-man slacks and then wear Tevas with wool socks.
Was that an experiment to see how people treated you when you dressed a certain way?
It was just to be a little shit. But it was kind of pointing out how subjective the whole clothing and identity game was.
Let’s talk about your beard. It has become your calling card.
I think there’s a certain anxiety around clean-cut white men, like if you fuck up in some inane way they’re going to get angry. But with a beard, you look either like the Green River killer or like you make tofu ice cream.
Some would say your most compelling creative pursuit is forming the persona of Father John Misty.
It’s a patently ridiculous name. The Father John Misty thing is an acknowledgment of “Sure, anything on stage is in some ways a curation or in some ways fraudulent,” but if you can’t accept the distance between this explicitly honest music and this ridiculous name, then there’s not really much you will understand about it.
Is it flattering to be compared to some fantastic musicians, including Harry Nilsson, Neil Young, Townes Van Zandt and Randy Newman?
Not really. I mean, the worst musician imaginable will get compared to Neil Young at least once. I’m never going to be those guys. However, I think I’m definitely the first songwriter in a good while to include the word cum in a song.
You mentioned you love the fact that Playboy is interviewing you. Explain.
Because I still remember the first time I saw a Playboy. I was at a friend’s house; I must have been nine or 10 years old. Pubic hair was a big revelation. It was something I didn’t realize existed—why would I? That was kind of the indelible impression it made on me. There’s something about published nudity. To me it’s representative of a certain variety of human agency that I really like. Maybe I’m the only person who could make naked chicks sound quite that boring.
Photography by Frank Ockenfels
Grooming by Sylvia Wheeler at Atelier Management/Styling by Michael Nash