On the Road With Fashionable Father John Misty

Father John Has Button-Up Dysmorphia
On the road with the musician who’d like to see the world in pajamas.
Photographs by Erik Madigan Heck
Father John Misty on his tour bus, October 7, St. Louis.

The singer-songwriter known as Father John Misty, who was once known as J. Tillman and whose friends call him Josh (“But I don’t have any friends”), is feeling a bit disoriented. He’s just arrived in Galway, Ireland, for the start of a 21-date European tour, having finished a U.S. tour less than 48 hours earlier. (These photos were taken in St. Louis.) “Right now, I’m in a house that looks like it’s been set-designed for a movie about a 20-year-old who dropped out of college and moved into a house with other college dropouts, and I’m kind of wondering what the fuck I’m doing with my life,” he says. The house is a quarter-mile walk down a stagnant canal from the small bar he’ll be playing that night and a far cry from the Central Park SummerStage show in which he played to a sold-out crowd of 5,000 a few months ago. 

Tillman is a former member of renowned Seattle indie band Fleet Foxes, but if you’ve heard of him recently, it’s likely from the covers he released of Ryan Adams’s covers of Taylor Swift’s 1989, which Tillman did in the style of the Velvet Underground as a metacriticism of the publicity ploy of piggy­backing on the work of a more successful artist. (He deleted the songs from Soundcloud within 24 hours because, he said at the time, Lou Reed visited him in a dream — and no, he doesn’t want to talk about it anymore.)

He’s a hard guy to pin down and an easy one to become obsessed with, since the line between sincerity and irony in both his music and persona seems to constantly blur. His soaring pop-folk ballads make him sound like a man-with-a-band version of Arcade Fire, with hilariously morose lyrics referencing things like cum, the global market crash, and schizophrenia — and that’s just in the first song off his second album, I Love You, Honeybear. His stage name, which Tillman calls “the stupidest name I could think of,” is the result of a vision he had during an ayahuasca ceremony that told him to go solo. It’s a commentary, he says, on how “performance is sort of innately fake, and I wanted to be genuine about the fakeness of it all.” He also thinks it’s funny to see on a marquee. “It looks like a Christian puppet show or something.”

Tillman’s personal style draws from his musical heroes — Reed, Nick Cave, Serge Gainsbourg. “He always looked great,” says Tillman of Gainsbourg. “He went from suits to sort of a cowboy thing, and then a really great phase in the ’80s when he was just wearing denim pants with denim shirts, like, unbuttoned to his navel.” Tillman says that though he hasn’t gone full navel, he does have “a button-up dysmorphia,” meaning: “I think one button lower, to me, looks more normal than it does to other people.” 

Tillman tells me he’s wearing snakeskin shoes and purple-and-green Dries Van Noten pants. What he can’t stand are “basic-ass dude” clothes. “Like, everyone kind of looks like a graphic designer. I just hate that look.” It’s a trend, he says, that mirrors what’s happening in music. “It’s predicated on not fucking up, as opposed to the emphasis really being on expression. There’s a lot of prescriptive fashion — ‘Oh, you need the perfect white shirt, and you need the perfect khaki’ — and it’s just so boring.” If he could have any influence over the fashion choices of the men of the world, he says, “I would like to see more of a Moroccan-slash-pajama vibe.”

Market editor: Erica Blumenthal.

*This article appears in the November 2, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.