When Father John Misty played the Civic Theatre during Jazz Fest, his was a highly self-conscious performance and breathtaking meditation on intimacy in contemporary culture.
"Now, I'd like to get increasingly more intimate with you, if that's alright."
Josh Tillman, who performs as Father John Misty, is a performer who dramatizes how complicates intimacy is. Tillman is the former drummer of relentlessly sincere folk outfit Fleet Foxes, and he fulfills many characteristics of the weepy-eyed, folk singer-songwriter stereotype. Heavily bearded, acoustic guitar in hand, songs about love, and a soaring, effortless voice? Check, check, check, and check. Once his lyrics and stage persona are taken into consideration, however, Tillman becomes an entirely new artist. He brought cabaret drama to the most intimate parts of his Saturday, April 25 set at the Civic Theatre, redefining and embodying contemporary notions of sincerity.
Often singer-songwriters are expected to bare their soul and be sincere in the extreme. Tillman's performance was insistent on its self-awareness, but it was by no means insincere. He walked onstage in a nonchalant gray outfit with a scarf, but it's the same outfit he's seemingly worn for months in photo shoots, at music festivals, and it seems every single tour stop. At this point, it's no longer tired, touring troubadour attire but a parody of touring troubadours. He mock-introduced one of his own songs as a "tragic, traditional Bulgarian folk tune."
Tillman danced through purple smoke like a cabaret dancer, all fluid hips and arms at impossible angles. In some ways, his performance was a lot like cabaret. He sustained eye contact with audience members, simultaneous presented sexuality and absurd comedy, and bared himself in theatrical, stylized, tongue-in-cheek flash. His physical performance, when taken alone, could have been written off as mere theater performance, a persona to be shed as soon as he walked offstage.
And yet, Tillman's performance didn't seem to hold the audience at arms' length, perhaps because he consciously pushes himself to fully commit to his songs and listeners. His songs are focused narratives, and his singing itself isn't stylized. Nestled in every lyric is some sincere sentiment. Jokes may abound, but he started his set tackling the complications of love head on. In Tillman's world, irony doesn't mask pain; it is the pain itself. During "Bored in the USA," audience members laughed uproariously during the parts of the mock-ballad when a laugh track usually rolls. By placing one of the most insincere sounds inside a song that lambasts white middle-class American culture, Tillman doesn't pull his punches. He insists that everyday life is performance, and when the audience sang along, it agreed. Who would have expected such a metaphysical moment, cradled inside a rock show? Well, of course, probably Tillman.
Tillman's persona is so particular and absurd that I was often tempted to think his lyrics weren't true. On "Strange Encounter," he sang, "It's not cheap but here I am / giving it away." He's talking about relationships, but it's a statement that extends into pop culture and celebrity. Art and personal identity is a high-stakes game -- how you present yourself is constantly renegotiated by those viewing you, and Tillman knows this. It's hard to protect your privacy and "true self," whatever that is, if you're constantly in the public eye, giving yourself away to anyone with a camera and blog to write about you.
Likewise on "True Affection," he laments, "When can we talk / with the face / instead of using all these strange devices?" Here, the device is cell phones or email, or anything that mediates a conversation. By that definition, Tillman's "strange device" could also be the studio recording or the concert performance. The very presence of a stage and theater suggests that true sentiments are presented alongside scripted action, each difficult to untangle from the other.
The problem with the assumption that singer-songwriters need to be absolutely sincere and transparent is that in our contemporary, postmodern culture, that's impossible. Tillman puts up a sign that declares "No Photography" knowing full well that Instagram will be inundated with photos of that very sign. The sign kept flashing and occasionally just said, "Photography," which seemed to encourage fans to take photographs - mixed messages to goad the audience. During his encore, Tillman walked back onstage and declared, "They told me I was insane and I had fulfilled my contract to the Civic. Except if I had omitted a few Internet hits. Oh yes. It says 'encore' right here. Well, put a catwalk in." The photos, the stage banter, the structure of a concert set -- there is no escaping performance in Tillman's world.
Which leads to the bigger question: Who is Father John Misty? Is he Josh Tillman? Is he a completely different character? To what degree are the two separated? Based on his performance at the Civic, it seems impossible to talk about one without the other. Contemporary culture demands that we adopt a persona, whether that comes in the form of the clothes we choose to wear in our everyday "performances" or our social media presence.
I kept thinking that Father John Misty was playing the same game Beyoncé was playing, only without the hot pants and on a much smaller scale. The difference between their stage personas and what they're like cooking breakfast are completely unknowable to fans. We might never know how much they actually believe their messages or if the self they've presented within the frame of a magazine spread or two-hour set is the same self they are when first waking up in the morning. Then again, there's no way to fault them because putting on a stage persona is really no different than what we do every day when we get dressed in the morning or change our Facebook status. It's all performance and we use it to navigate everyday life. Poet Seamus Heaney once said, "Veneers are very important. Without veneers, how do we conduct civil life? Veneers are important between enemies and friends. I don't think it demeans something to say it's a veneer." We cannot completely, sincerely know one another -- we merely interpret the fragments that people choose to present to us.
Father John Misty's genius is that he is clearly aware of this, and doesn't deny it. On the set-closer "Holy Shit," he sang, "No one ever really knows you and life is brief / So I've heard, but what's that gotta do with this black hole and me?" In the end, his performance was itself a meditation on intimacy. Self-conscious, constantly performing -- that's the world we live in now. Father John Misty doesn't pretend to have the answers on how to be sincere in that kind of world, or what to do inside this black hole. His performance emphasizes that he's just trying to figure it out, like the rest of us. In doing so, he fully participates in contemporary culture to write narratives about contemporary culture. If most singer-songwriter folk music uses narrative to develop commentary on modern events, then perhaps Father John Misty is one of the most straightforward folk musicians right now.
As Father John Misty wriggled his hips and lifted his arms to the stage lights, I couldn't help but feel like he was somehow letting me into his world, an absurdly heightened reflection of my own daily life. Under the lights, Father John Misty's persona was the most intimate, and perhaps honest, thing about him. And in admitting that, he didn't seem insincere at all.