I don't remember the first song I ever heard by Joshua Tillman, but it hardly makes a difference. After purchasing the Keep Recordings re-release of his 2004 debut I Will Return and its follow-up, Long May You Run, J. Tillman, in January 2006, I became engrossed in the young Seattle artist's work.
His songs barely deviated from a hushed vocal paired to the stark fragility of slowly strummed or fingerpicked acoustic guitar, making the music the perfect accompaniment to a particularly bleak winter. And the limited-edition, hand-numbered albums were thoughtfully packaged, down to the wallet-sized portrait of Tillman tucked inside. Beyond the photo, though, little was known about the relatively mysterious man who preferred to go by his first initial.
Over the next five years, the prolific singer-songwriter released a steady stream of five more full-lengths on a variety of under-the-radar labels, sometimes making Tillman even tougher to follow. While his more prominent bearded counterpart, Sam Beam of Iron & Wine, dabbled in dense arrangements and pushed toward mainstream attention, Tillman remained reliably dour and unheralded. There was a slow and subtle evolution, like the warm flourishes of pedal steel and organ on the somewhat hi-fi Minor Works, or Vacilando Territory Blues' flirtations with garage, psych-rock and hymn-like solemnity. Still, Tillman remained squarely in the territory of sad bastard music.
Fast forward to 2012, two years since the release of the last J. Tillman album, Singing Ax. Fresh from a four-year stint drumming and harmonizing for Fleet Foxes, Tillman re-emerged in June as Father John Misty with the Sub Pop release of Fear Fun. I didn't expect much difference from Singing Ax's bare forms, unaware that Fear Fun featured contributions from fiddler Sara Watkins, members of Dawes and Fleet Foxes, and an extensive list of Los Angeles session musicians. Although the album's de facto single, "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings," was pained and achingly beautiful like its predecessors, Tillman's vocals were larger than ever. They came drenched in reverb and matched a towering, hypnotic beat and distorted electric riff. This was more than a name change; Tillman's music was different now. "Every Man Needs a Companion" and "O I Long to Feel Your Arms Around Me" felt like fleshed-out takes on Tillman's traditional fare, but "Tee-Pees 1-12" explored honky-tonk territory with Cajun dance-hall strings and handclaps. Soon, it veered into salsa-like breakdowns.
Tillman had also picked up a wittier pen. On "Hollywood," he sings, "Jesus Christ, girl/ What are people gonna think/ When I show up to one of several funerals/ I've attended for grandpa this week," mocking the timeworn excuse. And where Tillman's words once oozed out like molasses, he meets the barroom piano and woozy organ on the sardonic "Writing a Novel" with a quick delivery that makes it hard to catch everything on first listen—probably the first time his hushed mumble hasn't been blamed for that problem. The solo artist had transformed into Janus, a singer with two distinct faces and phases in a very short career.
Looking back, Tillman barely toured behind Singing Ax, an album that its label scarcely promoted. He admits now he knew it would be his final record as J. Tillman. "[Those albums] came out of my own sense of alienation and my impulse to alienate. I can say that I did that with music for a long time, and I kind of got my rocks off that way," he told nodepression.com in April. "I know now that that kind of thinking is a really, really dangerous and narcissistic place to stay creatively."
Instead of touring, Tillman tried to write a novel and wandered along the left coast, living out of his van. He credits the trek with adding a conversational voice to his songs for the first time. While confessing to Australian site TheVine that the moniker is a "ridiculous red herring [and] admittedly patently ridiculous name that's also phonetically beautifully and looks good in print," Tillman claims Father John Misty is closer to himself than anything he's done under his own name. On tour, he's even ditching his guitar onstage to shake his hips and sashay around the microphone like a soul singer.
It seems he's stopped fearing fun.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Tide turner."