It’s not the kind of thing you expect from an audacious singer-songwriter, especially one known for a disarming wit and an artistic back story built on a naked hallucinogenic episode in a tree.
Father John Misty’s grandiose new album, “I Love You, Honeybear,” is largely about falling in love and getting married and all the weird and wonderful moments that go with that. Nine times out of 10, records with this depth of introspection/narcissism are about divorces, breakups or breakdowns.
Granted, his widely acclaimed sophomore effort isn’t all doe-eyed puppy love. It’s spiked with a lot of F-words and topsy-turvy, provocative, grade-A FJM lines. Like the one in the honeymoon-inspired single “Chateau Lobby #4,” where he sings, “I want to take you in the kitchen / Lift up your wedding dress someone was probably murdered in.” Would you believe it’s a damn sweet song, though?
Asked if it’s harder to write about the upside of love than the downside, the man who would be Misty — real name: Josh Tillman, age 33 — said the new songs all came to him rather easily and quickly.
“Writing the record wasn’t the challenging part,” said Tillman, who plays a sold-out First Avenue show Saturday, his first of three big Twin Cities gigs over the next half-year. “Living with it was the hard part. The aftermath of it was hardest, and wrestling with the idea of what this record might mean for my ego.”
Always a wry cutup on stage — he even cracked jokes when he was just a drummer in the non-jokey Seattle folk band Fleet Foxes, circa 2008 — Tillman shows an even sharper wit in interviews, where it’s often hard to tell if he’s being pointed or plain.
When he found out he was talking to me in the middle of the South by Southwest Music Conference two weeks ago, for instance, he talked as straight-faced as a news anchor about how the Austin megafest “is so great. It’s finally giving so many hard-working bands an outlet to match up with the right sponsorship and advertising brands.”
Calling from his adopted home of New Orleans — he originally hails from Maryland and bounced from Seattle to Los Angeles in recent years — Tillman at least sounded straight-on sincere when he talked about the finer points of his new album.
Written after he wed filmmaker Emma Elizabeth Tillman, “Honeybear” is loaded with real-life, sometimes awkwardly exposed personal details about their meeting, courtship and marriage.
He recollects his first few stayovers at her place in “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt.” And a night he got jealous over a guy hitting on her in “Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow.” The record ends (oddly) with the plain line Emma said to him when they met in a parking lot: “Seen you around. What’s your name?”
“To be frank, a large percentage of the appeal of these songs, I think, is in divulging those personal details,” Tillman said.
“I didn’t know whether or not I really wanted to put it all out there like that. I worried about whether or not I was exploiting something special. Was there a price to pay for this level of intimacy? And I really worried about sounding like a pussy.”
The latter concern helped shape the sonic approach of the album. Instead of adding some kind of dark edge, he and producer Jonathan Wilson loaded up many of the songs with elaborate strings and a sound that verges on Broadway-ready.
‘Putting a wink on all this’
“The way the songs are arranged is what I wrestled with the most. Some of those most ornate arrangements are me putting a wink on all this, trying to obscure the reality of it with arrangements that sound so over-the-top.”
Nowhere is that “wink” more obvious than in the first song to go public from the album, “Bored in the U.S.A.” A gushing piano ballad about American misery and hypocrisy, “Bored” includes a canned, sitcom-style laugh track during some of the song’s least funny moments (“They gave me a useless education / And a subprime loan”).
Tillman drew a perplexed reaction when he debuted the song in a quirky performance on “Late Show With David Letterman” back in January. Even his own reaction to the appearance was mixed, he admitted.
“I didn’t know what I’d just done,” he said. “It was my first performance back after taking a year off, and it was hard to strike the right kind of hubris for it. There was a little bit of, ‘Who the [bleep] do I think I am?’ afterward.”
That laugh track, he said, “was just instinct” and fell right in line with the way he has used humor in his act since his first Father John Misty album, 2012’s “Fear Fun.” (Before that he issued a handful of folkier, less funny records under the moniker J. Tillman.)
He said his sense of humor was born in an “antagonistic, self-loathing space” that could be traced to his upbringing in an ultraconservative evangelical Christian household. He has likened his parents’ church to a cult in prior interviews but admitted in our conversation, “I’ve only scratched the surface on it in my music.”
“My instinct is I’ll probably cover it more thoroughly at some point. There definitely seems to be some kind of creative mandate there.”
Sardonic and sarcastic
Tillman certainly got creative with his stage banter at the Basilica Block Party, given its setting outside Minneapolis’ historic Catholic church. “Dear God,” he said at one point in his set, pointing to a red-cross-adorned box at the side of the stage, “If you’re so powerful, why do I need a first-aid kit so close to me here?” He dropped a G.D. bomb at another point.
That was just the apex in a long series of Twin Cities gigs filled with sardonic, wiseacre talk. Tillman performed in Minnesota a half-dozen times behind “Fear Fun.” He’s due to play here two more times this year, too, including a quickly sold-out outdoor concert May 30 with Alabama Shakes on Minneapolis’ newly refurbished Hall’s Island, plus a third gig to be announced later.
Assuming he’ll keep up the yuk-yuk shtick, Tillman was asked to explain his droll ways a little more clearly, and how that wit plays into his music.
“Of course, you never want to have to explain humor, because then it’s not funny, but for me it’s tied to my original ‘moment of clarity,’ ” he said with a slight affectation. That moment he referred to was his supposed transformation to the Father John Misty character while tripping on some mushrooms in the woods around California’s Big Sur.
“When I was sitting naked in a tree, trying to recollect myself, I realized I needed to start writing. It was as if the great cosmic joke was on me, that being a songwriter was going to give me access to some kind of heightened existence.”
He continued, toning down the cosmic talk but not the irony, “When I was a kid, I was always trying to be funny, to the point where nobody took me seriously. And then when I became a songwriter, I was trying too hard to be taken seriously. Now look at me.”