Josh Tillman of Fleet Foxes will play John Misty in Kerry

As Josh Tillman gets ready to play in Kerry, he tells Ed Power about Fleet Foxes, his painful childhood and an album that’s been one of the sensations of the year.

Josh Tillman of Fleet Foxes will play John Misty in Kerry

CAN a person be polite and acerbic? Such is the face Josh Tillman, aka critically lauded troubadour Father John Misty, presents to the world. On record, the Los Angeles-based singer proceeds from melancholy to mocking; in person, he is softly-spoken, yet with the faintly withering disposition of someone who gave up suffering fools a long time ago.

“It’s cool that people like my record,” says the singer-songwriter, referring to his acclaimed LP, I Love You, Honeybear. “But I’m not sure how I can articulate that feeling. You’re not going to get very far with me on that line of thinking. I mean, how many times have you got a cogent, interesting answer to that question? It’s not as if my life has changed in any meaningful way.”

Tillman is in his mid-30s and possibly too jaundiced to accept success at face-value. Nonetheless, Honeybear, garlanded in five-star reviews and rave tweets, has brought him to the attention of a wider audience; he is in a position to replicate the popularity of Bon Iver, another tortured singer-songwriter who unintentionally stumbled upon a mass following.

Album review: Father John Misty

This popularity is doubly striking when you consider the subject matter of the album. It was written in the run-up to Tillman’s marriage to Emma Elizabeth, a Los Angeles filmmaker.

However, the project is no valentine to monogamy; rather, it is a warts-and-all chronicling of a relationship — a confessional that refuses to believe in happy endings.

“The record does a better job of articulating my thoughts than I can,” he says. “It was definitely an album where I was cannibalising my life experiences. The songs are postcards from an array of emotions. I’m asking the question of whether divine love exists. I’m not really sure it does.”

Honeybear is remarkable — a rumination on love that rejects received ideas about romance and commitment. It is unusually clear-eyed, with little room for cliche. Tillman’s goal was to channel his experiences of intimacy into something that felt real, rather than “the kind of generic crap that passes for long songs”.

Tillman has been around the block. Through his 20s, as ‘J Tillman’, he released a series of deeply bleak albums. However, his introduction to wider audiences was via Fleet Foxes, whom he joined as drummer in 2004.

Fleet Foxes

He made two LPs with them, but it was not the happiest of hook-ups. Tillman was a hired hand with little creative input (“I was making more money than I ever had,” he said later. “Robotically playing these parts, night after night.”) Moreover, his outgoing presence jarred with the group’s somnambulant vibe, as will have been clear to anyone who observed them in concert. “It was fun for a while,” Tillman says. “We had a good time at the start”.

Eventually, Tillman could take no more and quit. He was angry and frustrated at how things had worked out. His solution was to travel by van from Seattle to Los Angeles (his new home), partaking freely of magic mushrooms (“I had enough to choke a horse”) along the way. Don’t try this at home folks, but for Tillman, the overall experience was liberating: it blew out the cobwebs and allowed him to rationally contemplate the next chapter of his life.

On that long, hazy journey south, Father John Misty — which he views as somewhere between stage name and alter-ego — came into being.

Behind his slightly jokey demeanor, Tillman confesses to carrying a weight of pain. He had a difficult upbringing and the scars never quite healed.

His parents were evangelical Christians in suburban Maryland, who believed the Bible to be literally true. He was told hell was an actual place; that, if he wasn’t careful, he might be on a path to eternal damnation. At the time, he was eight years old: as a teenager, he drifted away from the Church, and his relationship with his mother and father is strained to this day.

“I went to a Pentecostal, messianic Jewish cult school, where I was taught to exorcise demons from my classmates and speak in tongues, and had these insane, engineered psychedelic experiences,” he has said. “People were lifting my arms up to worship, while kids lay convulsing on the floor, talking about seeing their dead grandparents.”

The Tillman that emerges on Honeybear is a contradictory figure: at once spiritual and selfish, melancholic, yet obsessed with carnality. What did his new bride think of his bearing his soul — and pulling back the covers on their relationship — so explicitly? “That’s what she loves about me,” he says. “It’s why she married me.”

Father John Misty performs at the Killarney Festival of Music and Food on Sunday, June 28.

Highlights of the Killarney Festival of Music and Food 

Duran Duran (Sunday): The icons of frosted-tip 1980s pops have avoided the purgatory of the nostalgia circuit. In fact, they never broke up and released albums through the 1990s and 2000s. A new LP is expected later this year.

Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran

Texas (Sunday): Led by the mercurial Sharleen Spiteri, Texas are a rarity: a rock band that went pop and came away with their credibility enhanced. Remember ‘I Don’t Want a Lover’? They will celebrate their 30th anniversary in 2016.

Burt Bacharach (Sunday): Incredibly, Bacharach is still touring at 86. The doyen of easy-listening, he had a hand in some of the greatest pop songs ever written, including ‘Walk On By’, ‘Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa’, and ‘Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head’.

Mick Flannery (Sunday): The Cork singer-songwriter has quietly built a huge following and released four acclaimed collections of bruised and plaintive blues-ballads.

Walking On Cars (Saturday): The Dingle band have been hailed Ireland’s answer to Mumford and Sons. Their songs certainly have a folksy lilt, though the interplay between singers, Patrick Sheehy and Sorcha Durham, is surely their secret weapon.

Killarney Festival of Music and Food takes place on June 27-28

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