Father John Misty Is a Horny Man-Child Mama’s Boy Worth Your Earnest Attention

On the day before Josh Tillman’s 2013 wedding in Big Sur, the 33-year-old folk-rock troubadour — aka Father John Misty — took his bride, Emma, for a long hike before they climbed into an oak tree overlooking the Pacific. Years earlier — long before he’d met Emma in a store parking lot in Laurel Canyon and they’d traveled the world side by side — Tillman had tripped hard after meeting a shaman and ended up, naked, hallucinating in this same tree.

Returning to the tree in question was a full circle moment, one that Tillman marked by writing “I Went to the Store One Day,” the closing track on his stunning second album, I Love You, Honeybear, to be released next week by Sub Pop. The song explains how Josh and Emma, whose story sits at the center of the album, got here, and previews where they’re headed next. Even the pleas of a horndog jokester — “Don’t let me die in a hospital, I’ll save the big one for the last time we make love” — can’t detract from the universal truth tucked within these tensely beautiful orchestrations: your soulmate could be one trip to the store away. It was the hardest song for Tillman to put on the album, but also the one with the biggest payoff.

“That song is the real resolution, where I say, ‘I claim the right to have these experiences, and to have them as if no one has ever had them before,’” Tillman told me earlier this week by phone. “I’m even saying ‘fuck it’ to all the Woody Allen shit, which is funny and appeals to my vanity, as well as appealing to some tragicomic perception that the human experience is farcical, but I don’t want to stay there. Even Woody Allen, you can see in his work like Magic in the Moonlight or Shadows and Fog, has moved past it too. He is constantly sacrificing his sacred cows.”

For the first six months of writing I Love You, Honeybear, Tillman struggled to kill his own sacred cows. It was Emma who encouraged him to move past cracking jokes, his go-to defense mechanism, and Say Something Real about intimacy and ultimately, humanity. At first, Tillman bartered with himself: “OK, I’ll let you be this vulnerable if you let me cloak these songs in these huge, fucked-up Disney orchestrations” (string ensembles are as crucial to the album’s sound as Tillman’s guitar and his soulful voice). Eventually the music and the lyrics settled into an “uneasy kind of an alliance.”

The result is an album that’s so emotionally intense, Tillman’s one-liners about girls who misuse the word “literally” serve as necessary comic relief. The songs on I Love You, Honeybear dive deep into Tillman’s journey from a commitment-phobic, narcissistic wanderer to someone who holds concrete ideas about what it means to love and to be loved — but maybe still struggles with those other things. (Love can alter our perceptions of what our lives can be, but can it really fix the things that are wrong with all of us?)

“Emma was like, ‘You just can’t be afraid to let these songs be beautiful. You’re not going to do what you did last time again. You wrote very different songs. They’re either going to succeed or fail by virtue of them being beautiful.’ That was the scariest thing for me. I was just terrified of being sentimental, and of trivializing my experiences, and her experiences.”