American rock and soul singer on life, music and marriage
American folk singer Josh Tillman’s transformation is a story of two parts. His first epiphany came when he headed down the California coast with the ambition to write a novel. What emerged was a new alter ego – indie-rock prankster John Misty – and an album, 2012’s Fear Fun, which produced tracks such as ‘Nancy from Now On’ and a music video for one single that starred Parks and Recreation actress Aubrey Plaza. His second epiphany was different: Tillman got married, and on his new record, I Love You, Honeybear, he hurtles headlong into the jealousy, paranoia and self-doubt that accompany love. Embracing lush orchestral pop, the album is dark, funny and brutally honest. Talking to us from his home in New Orleans, Tillman comes across as self-deprecating, analytical and cripplingly self-aware. Yet somewhere in there, he’s enjoying the wild ride.
You moved from Los Angeles to New Orleans in 2013. What was that transition like? I was under the impression I was going to move to LA and soak up the local colour for my own cynical songwriting purposes. That didn’t happen, at all. I spent a good eight months hating myself for not writing any music. But then there was a whole album’s worth of material that was just, you know, misadventure, tales of woe, and it wasn’t very good. I wasn’t striving for some next place.
You’re fully engaged in touring after taking all of last year off, but does that have its own problems? It used to. I would get kind of stuck in this Chinese finger-trap of being on tour and being miserable and out of control and just wanting to be back home. And then getting home and just being restless and moody and bored out of my mind. I was pretty out of control physically and emotionally. Now I seem to have found a good balance. I think it also helps that, with this material, I’ve been able to reconcile myself with being a performer. [I Love You, Honeybear] is so explicitly kind of vulnerable that it would be rude otherwise.
How has your life changed since the record came out? The album is about transformation and intimacy, but a lot of days I don’t particularly feel like a transformed person. A lot of it was forged in fits of irrational jealousy that I had never really experienced before. And thankfully, that has been resolved. It’s had this really unexpected side effect of giving me a more intense clarity on the world than I expected. This album felt like a major shark-jump before it came out. Seeing it resonate just gives me more cues for next time when things feel like a question mark.
Do you find people are coming up to you wanting to talk about love? I’m just starting to see that, which is ironic, because I feel like if [I Love You, Honeybear] is a portrayal of what love is like, most sane people would run for the hills. Two young couples were actually said, ‘We got married because of your album.’ It has kind of been giving me nightmares.
Is love something that you get better at over time? Yeah. A lot of the reason people are so disenchanted with love is because the conversation around it is so obscene. Why would anyone want to sign up for that? It doesn’t get the respect for creativity that it deserves.
Do you have any new insights now that you’re married? It’s all about Emma [Tillman’s wife]. It just doesn’t exist as a thing outside of her. I don’t understand people who walk around saying, ‘Oh, I just want to be married.’ There’s nothing magical about marriage at all. [But] there was an incredible moment [at the wedding] when she turned the corner and I saw her standing there in her dress, and it was like I was seeing her for the first time. I wouldn’t trade that moment in for anything.
So you’re saying that love is the ultimate feeling? I’m really into the business of living. If you have some kind of constant nagging suspicion that there is more to be wrought from this weird horror show called life, then I feel like birth, death, love, children – these are all languages through which we get to achieve a much greater understanding of the whole mystery. I Love You, Honeybear is available now on iTunes, www.apple.com/ae/itunes.