There isn't much that's Shakespearean about Josh Tillman's 2012 album Fear Fun, released under the moniker Father John Misty, but questioning the importance of a namesake is certainly a theme.
In the final track, "Every Man Needs a Companion," Tillman discovers the trouble with projecting an honest version of himself: "I got hung up on religion, though I know it's a waste / I never liked the name Joshua, I got tired of James." Yet, "Father John Misty" is less of a replacement and more of what Tillman sees as a natural artistic progression.
"Father John Misty, that's just something to put on a marquee," Tillman admits. "It's kind of a sick joke to toil for 10 years, putting everything you have into something, and by the time you reach this new artistic plateau, it's under a different name."
This "new artistic plateau," for Tillman, was attained by merging three mediums. A painter, fiction-writer and songwriter, Tillman's quest for a comfortable narrative voice came to fruition within a space shared by those three pursuits. Indeed, one can hear the novel-like voice in Fear Fun. Where conventional songwriting may suggest quick, concise thoughts wrapped up after a bar or two, Tillman stretches a single thought across as many as 17 measures, and often doesn't seem to find rhyming all that necessary. Ironically, the most songlike track on the album is entitled "I'm Writing a Novel," in which Tillman sardonically asserts that he's doing so "because it's never been done before."
There doesn't seem to be any hierarchy to Tillman's artistic exploits: No one medium is more important to him than another. Be it fiction, songwriting or painting, the idea is the same, projecting himself — a skill he admits was something that had to be learned.
"I know what I sound like when I talk, and I know how I think, and I knew where my sensibilities were," he says. "I think I got to this very singular instance where I asked why nothing that I made resembled that. By asking myself this question, I gave myself license to start writing, singing and painting like myself."
Despite the fact that this self-realization resulted in abandoning the name Josh Tillman on stage, Tillman doesn't see it as an abandonment of self. In fact, with a new professional name came a more honest and genuine performer.
"The things that you see on stage — the dancing and the joking — those are aspects of my personality that I hid for a long time."
In the end, Fear Fun is not about a name. Tillman is sure that after three or four more albums, the name will come to mean nothing at all. Father John Misty is about seeking one's self and, when finding it, being honest enough to project what is found.
"A lot of the album is about not what you call yourself," he says. "Just calling yourself by your name doesn't mean you're being yourself."