Finding the right words and right sentiments for "I Love You Honeybear," the title song on his second Father John Misty record, Josh Tillman was able to push through his own mythologizing on love.
"Prior to writing that song, I had a baker's dozen of tunes that were just really boring or were just completely rooted in sexual misadventure," Tillman says. "They were OK, but they didn't have a whole lot of vitality, much like my life at the time. It was like a bloopers reel, a really boring bloopers reel on a loop."
Tillman had met Emma, now his wife, and the couple had embarked on what he calls "a very traditional trajectory" of falling in love, with a set of expectations that didn't entirely match the experience. "I was sure that this love was going to magically cure the human experience, which is boredom and when it's not boredom, it's painful. By virtue of this relationship I was going to be able to step out and be immune."
But then his old demons started to surface.
"With me, that's this depression, anxiety, defeatist pseudo-intellectualism that I'm prone to. And I was just thinking 'Oh fuck, this is going to wreck my fantasy. It's back.'"
So with "I Love You Honeybear," Tillman dove right into the midst of those contradictions, discovering how intimacy can reconcile his more fatalistic thinking with the glowing, often divine moments of love. As he sings it, "Everything is doomed /and nothing will be spared / but I love you, Honeybear."
"With that song, I was really able to articulate all of these fears and reservations that I had and I still have, about myself, about my capacity for intimacy, my skepticism and all that," he says. "I thought this was a really different sentiment for me. It was this first glimpse past the utopian magical thinking phase and thinking about what intimacy truly looks like."
Continuing with writing songs for the record, Tillman found himself far beyond that magical thinking, songs like "Chateau Lobby 4 (in C for Two Virgins)," "Nothing Good Ever Happens At The Goddamn Thirsty Crow" and "Holy Shit" full of imagery that wouldn't be mistaken for love poems.
"Love is so often parsed in this kind of divine language," he says. "To be specific, this album isn't even necessary about love as a thing. It's about this few years of my life. Me writing about love will look a hell of a lot different 10 years from now. And of this was an album that was an advertisement for love most people would run for the hills."
Writing so unabashedly personal songs, Tillman felt not only exposed, but uncertain along the way how much his individual experience would connect with listeners.
"Once you start peeling back the layers of borrowed thinking and wishful thinking about what's really there, not just between a man and a woman, but between Emma and I, it's not a particularly general thing," he says. "All I can hope is maybe by writing so explicitly about myself and my experience, and being willing to border on some real ugliness about myself, that other people see themselves in that. That's the rabbit out of the hat."
The beginning stage of relationships is characterized turning the loved one into some sort of cure-all or antidote to the human experience, Tillman says. But that next phase, the one of actual companionship, is at the root of the songs on I Love You Honeybear.
"That's most of what intimacy or love is about to me, someone who's willing to say 'Life is chaos and boredom and pain, but it's also this magical motherfucker that we can barely get our arms around, and how do you reconcile those two?'To me it's about having a companion to reconcile that and to explore that with," Tillman says. "Without another set of eyes on everything, at least for me, I'm so prone to viewing the world just as this farcical obscenity. I think there is something about intimacy or companionship that sets a mandate for finding meaning here. You're cultivating meaning with this other person."
The album closes with "I Went To The Store One Day," Tillman's meditation on just how random, how prone to chance life can be. If not for that store, if not for that meeting, and if not for all the decisions along the way that put two people in the same place at the same moment, there's no "Honeybear." There's no magical thinking, no true companionship. If not for that introduction ("I've seen you around, what's your name?"), there's no Josh and Emma.
"I wanted to be really thorough about demystifying these romantic notions of fate or whatever else. It's just chaos out there. And we as humans, as these mythmaking animals, take all this chaos and circumstance and turn it into stories," he says. "I just thought that after all this angst and whatever else, it was good storytelling to end it that way with drawing the attention back around to this very terrestrial encounter."
And despite how personal his new record is, Tillman says it's more comfortable to perform live than Fear Fun, when he was a novice rock 'n' roll frontman.
"I was very uncomfortable with the whole enterprise, which originally made for a pretty good show. But there's something about being so exposed and so vulnerable in these tunes, there's nothing to hide. In some way that's very much a relief. It's just fascinating to be so kind of naked," he says. "There's a lot of eye contact happening this time around, which is interesting. I think it definitely freaks some people out, like they've been riding the bus with a pervert or something."