J. Tillman Learns Through Book Writing and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy;
Gets His Kicks from Fans Getting All of His Humanity
By Crystal Murphy
Between his notably more lighthearted new songs, J. Tillman told a story about the last time he was in Pioneertown. A local approached him asking if he was a glass blower—for the town needn’t any more. His tone was sincere, and we all learnt a bit about Josh’s open-ears spirit as he relayed this encounter. I began by pointing out that such intra-song banter is why many pay to see musicians live, read through interviews and show reviews. People want to know why his music is salient.
The interview began while Bonnie Billy played, “So Everyone”—a song that might make a novice listener double take, “Did he just say that? Is he serious?”
In many ways, my task is to learn some basics that readers want to know. These are the pre-filled boxes ready when you build a Facebook or dating website profile: political preference, age and so on. Here, these are upcoming tours, releases and the like. And we’ll get there. The formatted website emerged as a symbol throughout our conversation.
Through this, I got to hear the human being that is J. Tillman face off with public “profile” assumptions about him. He described how he himself had crafted those assumptions, and the ways in which he’s now reassembling them.
I asked him how do he deals with the fact that people relate so deeply to him though he may not know them at all. And about how people still want to know more beyond the music he’s already shared.
He responded, “You need to be comfortable with the idea that there’s this avatar of you out there. It’s going to be mostly one dimensional to entertain people. I think that, like creatively my imperative right now is to try to deconstruct a one-dimensional—I think Will (Oldham, or BPB, with whom he has toured a bit) actually does a really amazing job of having various different aspects of his personality manifest in his music.”
Tillman characterizes the avatar his fans have picked up on—“just a sad dude or a religiously traumatized individual.”
And while those writings served as a cathartic expression of formidable experiences, in the last year, he has “learned to take himself less seriously,” feeling less bound by morose melodies that come to mind. Instead, he’s allowing his lyrics to break from his own assumption that they need to fit those melodies. His new song themes are “addressing sexuality, hedonism, and impulses I’ve never really, thought fit into the austere and serious music I’ve made up to now.”
It’s not so much that there was an audience out there confining him to this habit, or that he was reluctant to share these parts of himself, rather that he just didn’t know how.
He credits this transformation in his songwriting to his last year spent writing a book, Mostly Hypothetical Mountains, about bedbugs, jet packs, resource-based economies, the afterlife, and sea otters. Using a few different meta-fiction tropes, these turn into a singular story. He explained, “I can be funny in this medium; the music thing has always been so severe. I got so much satisfaction incorporating unused parts of my worldview into a creative endeavor. My music has never addressed my sense of humor or absurdity and the book allowed me to flip a switch in a brain—I can inject this part of my self into music too. The music thing has always been quarantined by myself to address only certain emotions, but now, I’m learning to allow other parts of myself to manifest in the music.”
“It’s an unbelievably redemptive experience,” he said with a laugh and a head shake, “and I’m having more fun writing than I have in a long time”
So now he’s “getting joy from seeing a spark in people’s eyes when they see something that’s funny or some way relatable or too bizarre to ignore. The last tour [he] did with a giant band, [he] turned every quiet song into a blistering sludge metal thing and every loud song into a quiet thing. [He] could see some confused faces, but by the end people got it. It’s fun to tear down expectations. And people need that—you can’t walk around having all your expectations met.”
Now what? He’s working on the Fleet Foxes album and prepping for more touring with them. He’s been “writing like a madman” since he moved to Los Angeles, and is going to make another record by the end of next year.
Ironically, at this point, Bonnie Billy shifted into sober “I See A Darkness”—a classic title track classic request typically not heeded.
Likewise, he makes no promises that his writing here on out will remain “goofy fun-times” forever, he notes, “it’s still classifiably melancholy I guess”.
Photo of J. Tillman courtesy of Michael Roberts