The Laurel Canyon Country Store lives on Love Street. Not literally, though it has been called that. In fact, the store sits on a slope that splits the twisting thoroughfare of Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Rothdell Trail, the tucked-away surface street that briefly runs in parallel. Together, they make the interwoven strands of a pocket-size cultural history.
The store is mired in the sort of Los Angeles local mythology that transcends maps and signs and zoning regulations. Outside its door, beneath a green awning, hangs a hippie-dippy painting by the local artist Spike Stewart greeting customers with the wavy lettering and pink-petaled daisies one might have found on a ’69 Woodstock poster — or more likely, on a groovy T-shirt sold at Spencer Gifts. Overgrown potted flowers ring the exterior. Incense wafts forth. The store has stood for more than 80 years, as much an icon of a particular moment in American popular music as any record that David Geffen shepherded in the early ’70s. This is where Joni Mitchell came for tea and snacks while writing Ladies of the Canyon. This is the place Jim Morrison sang of on the Doors’ “Love Street”: “There’s this store where the creatures meet / I wonder what they do in there.”1 This is where Frank Zappa copped smokes, where David Crosby proffered grass, where Jackson Browne ran his fingers through those wavy locks. Its current owners, Tommy Bina and David Shamsa, have preserved the store’s bohemian vibe, if not its merchandise — the English chocolate candy bars that Canyon doyenne Mama Cass Elliot would pop in for have been replaced by several varieties of Doritos Jacked. But this is still Love Street. Today, it’s a sanctuary and a time machine. It’s a place to be a creature and feel the love and also grab a quick coffee on the way to Planet Fitness.
Morrison lived with his girlfriend Pamela Courson on Rothdell. They watched hippies wander in and out of the store day after day — in turn, the hippies watched the tempestuous couple fight it out night after night.
As a member of the Mamas & the Papas, Elliot sang, “Young girls are coming to the Canyon / And in the mornings I can see them walking,” and that remains true. Everyone is always strolling, strutting, working out, or blissing out in Laurel Canyon. It can be a glorious place and also a rotten cliché, etched into the side of a mountain just minutes from Hollywood, attracting strident artists, spiritually questing trust-fund children, and movie stars in equal measure. Also, Werner Herzog, who owns a home there. Some of the houses are tony and others are blown out, suitable for both the aimless and the Lululemon-ed. Retired culture warriors commingle with talent agents. To come here is to reinvent, to find a new life that would be impossible anywhere else.
This is where Josh Tillman came, accidentally, in search of just such a life. He spent days and nights at the Country Store, buying American Spirits and cheap wine, chatting with Spike Stewart about this and that, and mucking around in a house full of “lost men.” But, most importantly, the store is where he met Emma Garr.
Incidentally, that Mama and the Papas song ends this way: “I can no longer keep my blinds drawn / And I can’t keep from talking.”
Josh Tillman’s blinds were drawn for years — he sequestered himself to a darkness of his own design. In 2007, he was living in Seattle and working for a company called Snap-Tex Northwest, building acoustic paneling alongside 50-year-old men who’d been using their hands all their lives. He’d come from Maryland, a college dropout who had been indoctrinated with a fundamentalist Christianity to the point of exhaustion. After five years idling in the Pacific Northwest, Tillman was 26, aggressively bearded, and working on a music career that was more music than career. Snap-Tex was a place to go in between writing and recording songs as J. Tillman, his confessional, melodramatic singer-songwriter act. Around that time, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon became an unexpectedly famous indie star and Kanye West collaborator with just such an act. Despite seven albums, dozens of songs, and a worldview full of sorrow, J. Tillman never became much of anything. His first distributed album was called, depressingly, Minor Works.2 He forecast his own fate. He was dissolute and unknown.
The next was called Cancer and Delirium.
“The J. Tillman thing was never gonna go anywhere,” Tillman says now. “I had built this world and I had built this language. Singing Ax [from 2010] was going to be the last J. Tillman album, and the last song on that album was probably the most real, personal thing I ever did. It was called ‘A Seat at the Table.’ That’s really what I wanted out of this music, to be taken seriously, which is a very understandable pursuit in your twenties. The lyric is, ‘I wanted to build a monument here with my face in the dirt and my hands in the air, but no one came and no one cared so I gathered my bricks and I disappeared.’ It was like, ‘I’m done.’ This huffy, impotent rage.”
The J. Tillman songs are strange to hear now — quiet, delicately strummed, and straining for credulity — given the transformation Tillman has undergone across the past eight years. Today he is Father John Misty, a swaggering shaman, droll and devastating. He is tall, lean, and handsome, like a cypress tree. This version of him — the third — approximates a history of self-knowing hipster-genius troubadours, coagulating Randy Newman’s acid, John Lennon’s roar, and David Bowie’s hips. That’s Misty,3 but J. Tillman was a sad bastard and his music would not save him. His songs were vague, deathless, and self-serious. He says he was making them, in part, to alienate listeners, to build an impenetrable wall of morose mystery. Tillman dreamed of failing and dying before being discovered and posthumously celebrated, like Townes Van Zandt or some other quasi-obscure hero.
It’s a nonsense name meant to represent the faux-mystical act overall, to recall the Source Family’s Father Yod and California’s history of spiritual yahoos — not conjure a mysterious persona. Fans call him “Father John,” but he prefers Josh. Nevertheless, the title fits.
“I don’t have access to [those songs] anymore,” Tillman, now 33, says, sipping a coffee on the patio of the Laurel Canyon Country Store. “They feel like they’re just about nothing. ‘When I light your darkened door, will you curse the day?’4 What the fuck does that mean? I think for a long time, that’s just what [I thought] poetry sounded like or something. I should’ve been writing about being a dishwasher when I was 25. There was more interesting stuff there than that escapism.”
From the 2007 J. Tillman song “When I Light Your Darkened Door.” Note the uniform of the depressive folk singer in the video: Navajo print poncho, woolly beard, sad-lion’s mane, acoustic guitar.
Then, an actual escape hatch appeared and opened. The rising folk band Fleet Foxes was on the eve of a worldwide tour and down a drummer. Tillman knew a guy who knew a guy and, having started his musical life behind a kit as a teenager, was asked to join. Just like that: good-bye, Snap-Tex, debt, and 50-year-old colleagues. Though not yet good-bye to “J. Tillman,” who continued to release albums — sad, sad albums — while touring with Fleet Foxes. (Sometimes he even opened for the band.) His prayers had been heard, he hoped. But the gig turned out to be little more than a temporary salve.
“When that opportunity came around, it was just like, ‘Here’s the magical answer to all of my boredom and pain,’” he says. “It wasn’t creative, it was just survival. It was a way out of the despair. But that’s not building any way for yourself, that’s just pain relief. That’s another dream I had to wake up from: saying [that] ‘if I’m just playing music, I’ll be happy.’”
When Tillman talks about this period in his life, roughly 2007 until 2011, he subverts his present self. He is a roving and dry wit, able to riff on why Instagram is a farce as artfully as on the filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s theory of the created soul. His songs are articulate and swinging and damned funny. When we sit down, he is wearing a luxe black velvet blazer, a patch of a banana stitched onto the left lapel. The Josh Tillman I meet is a literate rascal. It takes nearly three hours of conversation to get around to this phase of his life, to talk through a moment that would otherwise be perceived as “making it.” He was down and out before this came along, and the period when he was playing drums in Fleet Foxes represented a kind of chrysalis.
“For me, being a drummer in a popular band was complete anesthesia,” he says. “It was a completely unconscious experience. All I was doing was doing this gig. I found myself, I had a comfortable life. Whatever.”
When I press on the comfort most would find in this time, Tillman winces a bit, equally exhausted from discussing this as he is reaching for that abandoned period.
“The decision that I made was to leave Seattle — I just wanted a level of anonymity,” he says. “I just wanted to move somewhere where I didn’t know anyone, where I felt like I could make something else without all these cues, these referential cues. I knew that I had a cush thing going on, but I don’t know. I told [band members] Casey [Wescott] and Christian [Wargo] and Phil [Ek], our producer, ‘I’m quitting the band. I’m not happy, I don’t want to do this.’”
After four years — and, frankly, an enormous amount of success for a folk band called Fleet Foxes — Tillman had resigned himself to quitting.
“The night I left Seattle, I was watching a movie [on TV] and watching Netflix, on two different screens, at the same time, because I was just so bored,” he says. “It was four in the morning and I just stood up and left. I can’t do this.”
In a story he has told often, Tillman got into a van and just started driving south. He soon found himself sitting naked in a tree in Big Sur, scratching his head like an ape. Suddenly, a figurative interrobang appeared over his head. He was on mushrooms at the time, deep into a psychedelics phase. He was in that tree on a vision quest when the “cosmic joke” landed: Just be me, he recalls realizing. The real me. The sarcastic, overcompensating asshole. That’s the bigger-than-life character — being a tortured artist is meaningless.
“It just never occurred to me to write like myself,” he says. “It was almost like that scene in Network where Howard Beale is lying in bed and is like ‘What? OK!’ And I ran out and did it.”
Thus, Father John Misty, the Only Son of a Ladies’ Man, was born.
Tillman didn’t know where he was going until he found it. He’d heard about a place that had a spare room in Laurel Canyon. Only, he mistakenly thought it was Topanga Canyon, an oasis in western Los Angeles County, far away from Los Angeles’s madding crowd. That could be a place to think and write and be alone, he thought. But, well, Topanga Canyon is not Laurel Canyon. Tillman hated the idea of Laurel Canyon — he hated CSNY, the Mamas & the Papas, and all the other harmonizing, sickly sweet folk bands that thrived there in the ’70s. It wasn’t until he drove his van up Laurel Canyon Boulevard that he realized his mistake. Still, he needed a room, and he had no other options. It was there that Tillman really began writing again, in that strange house in the canyon.
“I think I knew I was on to something,” he says. “I was living in a house of lost men up the street [from the Country Store]. A house of wilderness men, lost 30-year-olds. And it was as simple as they’d hear something playing, in my little shack off to the side, and they’d ask me later to play it, they wanted to hear it. They just liked it.”
Tillman wasn’t exactly familiar with the sensation of people liking his music. But when his friend the longtime L.A. producer Jonathan Wilson heard the GarageBand demos, he knew something had changed in Tillman. “That’s when he broke through into his own personal, artistic algorithm of expression,” Wilson says. “That theme opened the floodgates.”
He wrote “Funtimes in Babylon” about the mock-exhilarated sensation of arriving in a new city. It’s a half-serious, half-arch treatise on the golden promise of L.A. — “Look out, Hollywood, here I come,” he sings on the chorus, like a limp lothario. His opinion of Laurel Canyon quickly changed, and he began haunting the Country Store’s narrow aisles, befriending locals like Spike Stewart.5 “Funtimes” would become the first song on the first Misty album, Fear Fun, and a calling card for his sashaying, postmodern second debut. Misty wasn’t necessarily meant to become this character — a soulful lounge lizard with a heap of vinyl outstacked only by his Philip Roth novels — but a metamorphosis was nevertheless taking hold. “I sensed a freedom and letting go of the past,” Wilson says. “[He was] just genuinely excited to be in the mix of Hollywood.”
As we talked at the store, Stewart approached on two different occasions. “This is the Father John Misty. Practice what he preaches!” Stewart jovially blurted at me while hugging a somewhat squeamish Tillman.
As the songs spread around L.A., he signed with the legendary indie label Sub Pop.6 There are flashes of J. Tillman’s weary moan in these songs, but the shift is mostly profound — especially on big-dick rock anthems like “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings.” There is a confidence in Tillman’s vibrating tenor that is palpable, and often an uncommon intelligence in the lyrics about what it’s like to realize you’re an asshole. I can still recall hearing “Nancy From Now On” — with its keening opening line, “Pour me another drink, and punch me in the face” — for the first time and pulling over to listen more closely. If you struggle with self-loathing and/or have recently relocated to Los Angeles, Father John Misty’s songs can have that I need to pull over effect.
Also the home of Fleet Foxes, the Shins, Mudhoney, Nirvana’s first album, and loads more.
Tillman dots his lyrics with real-life L.A. landmarks like the cemetery and that party crypt the Chateau Marmont, but he describes the songs as metafiction — there’s a “creative crisis” at the core of Fear Fun. He sings, “I’m writing a novel, because it’s never been done before.” Tillman says the song is about the death of originality, but at the time he was also actually writing a novel, called Mostly Hypothetical Mountains,7 which is sold with Fear Fun. He cites the novel as his songwriting skeleton key. Like his best songs, it’s hallucinatory — “We can do ayahuasca!” he exclaims on “I’m Writing a Novel” — but earthbound.
Tillman is excellent at naming things.
“On that last album, the songs are a Rorschach test,” he says. “If all you see is a drug reference, then that’s what you’re fascinated by, you’re drawn to that.”
Joshua Tillman was the eldest son of deeply religious Christian parents. When he bolted Rockville, Maryland, as a teenager, he rejected Christianity full stop. “When I was young I was concerned with the bogusness of the sentiment of a worship song, singing, ‘God I love you more than anything, I love you more than silver and gold.’ It was just like, I don’t,” he says. “How can you be expected to sing that? [In church] I used to have someone raise my hands for me.”
By 21, he was J. Tillman, the depressed acoustic panel-maker in Seattle. Then came Josh Tillman, the invisible and irreconcilable drummer for Fleet Foxes. In 2012, he was channeling a new energy, dressing in slim blazers and hip-hugging jeans, his hair more lush and close-cropped; the beard that had been a range of twisty wisps was somehow smoother. He lost weight. He appeared taller. He smiled more. Playing Fear Fun songs at soda-sponsored music festivals and increasingly imposing theaters, he danced with his microphone stand like a drunken Lumière, the candlestick holder from Beauty and the Beast — all limbs and mock grandeur. Be his guest! He was becoming a thing after all this time.
Fear Fun went on to sell roughly 80,000 copies. It finished 14th on The Village Voice’s Pazz and Jop albums poll, just ahead of records by Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and Taylor Swift, in that order.8 He also started exploring the outer reaches of his sense of humor. He began selling a fragrance for men on his website — “Innocence” by Misty, which features notes of “Tunisian Neroli” and “Nigella Damascena.” He made a video in which he is brutally beaten and shaved by a dominatrix. His interviews became operatically goofy, mixing pretension and humor with the kind of unfettered drug talk that makes journalists soar. Something was still missing, though.
“Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” finished at 33 on the songs poll.
The last song on Fear Fun is called “Everyman Needs a Companion.” When Woody Harrelson consummates his lust with Beth the cell phone store girl on the sixth episode of True Detective’s first season, “Everyman” plays over the scene. It’s an aching and secretly confessional song. On the final verse, Tillman sings:
Joseph Campbell and the Rolling Stones
Couldn’t give me a myth
So I had to write my own
Like I’m hung up on religion
Though I know it’s a waste
I never liked the name Joshua, I got tired of J.
Tillman is rarely this straightforward on Fear Fun. It’s a capstone on a cloud, a little reality in the dream. At song’s end, he returns to the chorus: “Every man needs a companion, someone to console him, like I need you.” Shortly after writing the song, on his way to grab some smokes, he met a photographer in the parking lot of the Laurel Canyon Country Store.
“I’ve seen you around,” he said. “What’s your name?”
Emma Garr and Josh Tillman fell hard for each other, the way lost people sometimes do. They began to spend every day together, first rampaging through the Los Angeles night, getting high and making love and blending their creative lives. Slowly, they began to slow down and recede from view, finding themselves in each other, the way lost people sometimes do. Their intimacy became the most important thing in the universe, and it radicalized Tillman. But not before it offended him.
“Really early on in our relationship she got asked to be part of a photography show,” he says. “Everyone was hanging these big, framed black-and-whites. I got to the gallery, and she had three photos of me that she had taken within the last month and just taped them to the wall, which, especially in that point [of our relationship], was not my vibe. I was like, ‘That’s so sentimental, I’m so embarrassed.’
“I asked her why she had done that, and she said, ‘That’s just my life right now.’”
In a press note9 for the video to his new song “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins),” Tillman writes, “Sentimentality brutalizes emotion.” Sentimentality is a point of concern for Tillman. And falling in love with another person has really fucked with that concern.
Tillman writes a lot of his own press releases — they are their own kind of bizarre meta-communication.
His new album, I Love You, Honeybear, is an attempt to make songs about falling hopelessly in love with someone but with none of the trappings of songs that are about falling hopelessly in love with someone. It’s an experiment in hysterical transparency. Jealousy and confusion and extremely specific bodily secretions10 and, er, sentiment joust to make an overwhelming thing.
If “weed and Adderall” were the watchwords on Fear Fun, “blood and cum” could be their counterparts on Honeybear.
“I’ll say I’m really glad I never have to make an ‘anticipated follow-up’ ever again,” Tillman says before nervously sighing. “There were definitely some looking-in-the-mirror moments like, OK, you’re a fraud. Everyone’s gonna know that the last time was just a total fluke.”
Tillman is nervous about the album, and perhaps he should be. But the way he talks about Emma, who became his wife in the fall of 2013, is the way born-again Christians talk about Him — with fealty and awe. He calls her his “role model” and “inspiration,” and for a person who will occasionally follow a serious proclamation with the phrase “brackets bitter laughter,” Tillman never winks or grouses when it comes to his lady.
“When I was with her, it was just like, ‘This is the world that I want to inhabit,’” he says. “She’s actually capable of living in the world that she wants to live in, whereas I get hung up on pettiness and banality and stupidity and complain and gripe and satirize — which last time around it was like, ‘OK, that’s who I am.’ When I was experimenting with consciousness and mushrooms and externalities and all that stuff, and coming to this realization that I am a petty, sarcastic person.”
But Tillman isn’t that person anymore, and Honeybear marks a fascinating documentation of a relationship evolving in real time. It’s a handbook for how an asshole becomes less of an asshole — a defrocking of Father John Misty.
“Honeybear” is a joke, by the way. Tillman doesn’t call Emma that; he’s never called anyone that. But it’s his way of acknowledging that what you’re getting when you hear the album is something with that much emotional glop inside of it. Within the opening seconds of the titular first song, Emma and Josh are staining their sheets with “mascara, blood, ash, and cum,”11 rolling around in bed while the stock market crashes and the world burns. Straight off, this is a thing between two people, and everyone else can piss off. It unfolds more or less chronologically from there.
Tillman is also selling a tote bag featuring those words on his website. Just $15!
“‘Chateau Lobby’ is about Emma and I running around L.A. when we first met. This mariachi band [on the song] is part of the atmosphere here in L.A. You just hear it in the air,” he says. “[The third song] ‘True Affection’ is about isolation. I wrote it on tour while trying to woo someone with text message and email and trying to make a connection that way and the frustration of that. So that song had to be synthetic and inorganic.”
“True Affection” is the first Father John Misty song that is primarily electronic, a hard shift from the James Taylor–on-hallucinogens feel of the first album. There are clever musical signposts like this throughout. Working with Keefus Green, a piano player and close musical collaborator, and Jonathan Wilson, Tillman pushes the possibilities of what “folk rock,” as this will likely be classified, can sound like. “Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow” — named for a notable Silver Lake bar at which nothing good ever happens — prominently features a lap steel guitar, recalling Hank Williams’s honky-tonk melancholy before shifting into a New Orleans oboe stroll. The song comes in two parts: The first chronicles Tillman at the Crow, turning down aggressive women — “My baby, she does something way more impressive than the Georgia Crawl,” he snarls at one woman who’s approached him. Verse two finds Tillman agonizing on the same scene in reverse, as men harass Emma drinking alone at the Crow while he’s stuck on tour in god knows where. Part one is a sad-arrogant country blues. Part two is a mournful jazz dirge. Together, they’re gutting. He says he was “in a fucking state” when he wrote it and is disgusted by the version of himself in the song.
“I hear a very insecure, petulant imp who is objectifying the woman he claims to love,” he says, anguished, “thinking of her like an object that is his.”
A version of Honeybear was already in process before Emma came along. “There was another album, but I met this person and it just made all of that irrelevant,” Tillman says. There were outlines for songs that appear on the album, including “Strange Encounter” and the Julian Assange–referencing “The Ideal Husband.” The lyrics have taken a turn, naturally. Some other things have changed too.
“Emma, at one point, said to me, ‘You just can’t be afraid to let these songs be beautiful,’” he says. “And that was, to me, [when] I realized that the album was a different beast and it had to be approached differently.”
It is jarring to hear Tillman talk this way, with such unencumbered sentiment. He says many of the songs on the album were written quickly, when he was confused and anxious about the future, clinging to the idea of his love while also battling his own cynicism. The album ends with three emotionally apocalyptic songs, and these were more deliberately composed. “Bored in the USA” is the cheeky first single, a song that no one wanted him to perform on Letterman as the big announcement of his new record last November. (Letterman likes Father John Misty; you can tell by his exuberance after Tillman’s two appearances on the show. “Are we touring this summer?” he asked after the first. “I’m comin’.” Sure thing, Dave.) “Bored in the USA” and that performance are as close to Fear Fun as he gets — it’s an affected and too-clever-for-its-own-good sort of thing that features canned laughter and clever phrases but less of Honeybear’s wide-eyed emotionalism.
Despite his turn to radical sincerity in his songs, Tillman is still pulling mock-jerk stunts to promote Honeybear. Last week, he posted a version of the album in MIDI, the ancient digital file format of the early online music era, along with a faux-manifesto. Sample: “For the fans, SAP helps make the daily barrage of content that much easier to analyze and rate, leaving more time for discoverness, freedoming, and sharehood.” He and I talk about other plans that include an ironic art project with a prominent youth-targeted clothing company. Last week, he visited the offices of the streaming music service Spotify and sang new songs from the album accompanied by a cheap, strobe-light-flashing karaoke machine. No matter the depth of his feelings, there’s chicanery just below the surface.
That may be why his label didn’t want him to do “Bored in the USA” on Letterman, perhaps hoping he’d lean on one of the lovelier (and catchier) songs instead. Like, maybe “Holy Shit,” the stirring second-to-last song on the album, which paints a picture of “ancient holy wars, dead religions, holocausts, new regimes, old ideas,” and a laundry list of agony, wordplay, consumer malaise, and Woody Allen–ish existential woe. (“No one ever really knows you / and life is brief!”) Eventually, it builds to a clattering crescendo that recalls the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” a moment of knowing pastiche on an album full of them. By song’s end, it becomes clear that no matter the raining frogs or, in this case, “the eunuch sluts,” Tillman is singing specifically about everything that falls away when you’re with one person. “Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity,” he sings, “but what I fail to see is what that’s got to do with you and me.”
Tillman wrote the song on the day he and Emma were married, in a small ceremony in Big Sur, the site of his first epiphany.
“The way that I felt on my wedding day was just so, so wild,” Tillman says. “To make a decision like that based on something you believe in — to get out of the morass of ambivalence, to live according to endless contingencies and potential mishaps, potential unhappiness — is just huge for me.”
The last song on I Love You, Honeybear is called “I Went to the Store One Day,” and you can probably tell which store that was. It starts on that fateful night in Laurel Canyon and winds through the future: 50 years of love, encompassing seven daughters, sleepless nights, paranoia, sex, exuberance, a retirement down south, and ultimately death — all the vagaries of a marriage. Near song’s end, he sings, “Insert here, a sentiment re: our golden years.” It’s typically Misty — a tear in his eye, but he’s winking.
“I was working on that tune and I just could not figure out what to put in that spot. I kept writing this stuff that was like, ‘Oh, in this type of song, this type of sentiment goes here,” he says. “It was all just coming out like fill-in-the-blank, adhering too closely to that type of song. Instead of trying to outsmart it, I just had this note written in my book, ‘Insert here, a sentiment regarding golden years,’ and I just ended up singing that as the lyric. That way, you see me stepping out. You see me just being like, ‘Am I seriously writing a love song?’ That awareness, I think, is a big part of what I do that helps me live with myself as an artist and as a human being.”
Because the songs on Honeybear are often so raw, Tillman worries about performing them live. He could hardly bear to play them for those close to him when he’d finished. He credits his wife with the courage.
“She’s always the one pushing me to go further,” he says. “That’s just an agreement that we have. She doesn’t ask before taking a nude photo of me and putting it on the Internet, and I don’t expect that to happen.”
His collaborators also pushed him during recording.
“I was there for all of those concerns and would probably be the one not to console but to encourage [him] that this shit was great,” Wilson, his producer, says. “When he throws it out there, when he tosses it out there, it says what everybody wants to say but can’t quite think of how to say.”
Now faced with the prospect of live performance, Tillman must confront the best and the worst of himself, night after night.
“Just in the practice space, I have a hard time getting through the songs. I have to go back to this kind of painful moment,” he says. “I can barely get through ‘The Ideal Husband.’”
Tillman is on the verge of a tour when we first meet. A few days later, I see his band perform a warm-up show in Sonoma at the wine country town’s Veterans Memorial Hall, which is essentially a high school auditorium. Tillman is adept with the new material, shimmying with the mic and riffing with the audience. “Feel my feelings,” he purrs when he waltzes onstage. After a spirited “Chateau Lobby,” he turns to his seven-piece outfit and deadpans, “See, you guys? First Sonoma, then the world.” During “The Ideal Husband,” he whips himself into a frenzy that it would likely be difficult to replicate 200 times a year. Before his encore, he unravels the concept of “encore,” explaining that the band will indeed return for a two-song finale, but only if they are greeted with sufficient applause to gratify their tender artistic souls. When they return and set off into a version of Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man,” he hollers, “This is a Leonard Cohen song. Get those iPhones out, you don’t want to miss it.” The band plays nearly all of Fear Fun and every single song on I Love You, Honeybear, save for one: “I Went to the Store One Day.”
Tillman is mostly sober now, or, at least, off psychedelics. He says intimacy is trippier. He’s writing a new album.
“I’m trying to cultivate a lack of oblivion,” he says. “My concept of consciousness is changing. It’s becoming less to do with distortions, with what the funhouse mirror can tell you about yourself. For what I need to do right now, what I need to write right now, the cultivation of an inner silence is really important.”
Earlier in our conversation, he talks about the difficulty of expressing what it is, exactly, that he wants to say about himself. He is eloquent but conflicted, and often onto some other plane of thought. I get the impression that Tillman is always formulating some personal theory of the self, a practitioner of the Bro-cratic Method.12
Here is a typically digressive answer to a question about how people will relate to his songs: “Humans more so than any other mammal are just completely helpless when we’re born. Then evolution gave us these massive brains that were so big initially they couldn’t even get out of the birth canal because they were so big, so evolution had to shrink our brains down so that when we come out of the womb, we’re not fully formed. We need culture and mommy and whatever else to fill in the blanks for us. We have to be held. Any other mammal is up and going, it’s got its instructions. It knows what it’s supposed to kill and how it’s supposed to fend for itself, while we have no idea. We have to be coddled. It created a bizarre family unit in this primal scene. We’re dealing with iron deficiencies and men were dealing with the fact that they were pretty much biologically completely useless. Men don’t have anything to give to a baby outside of this thing we invented called love, this prerogative that you can take or not take, to take care of other people.”
“I mean listen to me, I’m full of disclaimers and caveats and starting sentences and stopping and retrying and staring into the middle distance and trailing off and getting embarrassed, and it’s just part of who I am,” he says. “When you’re writing something, you get to sit there ad nauseam, trying to get exactly what you want to say.”
To do so, he and Emma actually did retire to the South. They left Los Angeles, Laurel Canyon, and the Country Store, and moved to New Orleans. They don’t know a soul there. At first, they couldn’t even get a place, because landlords would Google his name and discover his persona and his predilections for mushrooms and meta-fictive cussing. They eventually found a cozy house, where they live quietly and intimately, at least until the album arrives next week. Emma is writing a movie now, about a pair of incestuous siblings in love. She’s still taking a lot of photos, many of them posted to her Tumblr page.13 There are several images of Tillman in moments of repose, shots of friends and flora, black-and-whites from the Chateau, and nude self-portraits. They have receded from society and socializing, like a lot of couples in their thirties. “I don’t really spend that much time with people,” he says. “I’m just with Emma.”
She also directed the video for “Chateau Lobby,” which is a sort of wedding anniversary reel.
It’s hard to know where Tillman goes from here. He’ll tour, make another record, be with Emma. But to encounter two emotional-intellectual thunderclaps in the span of 36 months is unquantifiable luck. For now, he’s relishing the chance to share it without selling it.
“I think in this world it’s birth, death, love, creation — these are the big elemental things that carry us through this narrative. But I can’t speak to other people’s experiences. I am really loath to present my experience as a prescription for living.
“I think that the album is not sentimental for that great reason,” he says, stubbing out an American Spirit. “This is not the answer.”