The title of I Love You, Honeybear came to Josh Tillman — a/k/a Father John Misty — at a time when he was nowhere near the studio and hardly in a position to jot the idea down. He was in the shower. His wife, Emma, had just joined him, and the first four words she uttered before she got her hair wet were not “I love you, Honeybear,” but a rather specific litany of the various substances spackling their bedsheets at that very moment: mascara, blood, ash, and cum.
“All of my favorite lines of my songs are things that she’s said,” he boasts without breaking from Emma’s gaze. The Tillmans are sharing a love seat in a dark bar on Broadway, just two weeks before they’ll return to New York to celebrate I Love You, Honeybear‘s release — and Valentine’s Day — with sold-out shows at Rough Trade and the Bowery Ballroom. The two are breathless after a brief laughing fit inspired by the filthy folds of their bed. “Mascara, ash, blood, and cum” was too perfect a line to pass up, so he matched it with the most ridiculous term of endearment he could think of, and that’s when the bones of “I Love You, Honeybear” began to calcify.
“The world just looks less farcical and banal to me when I’m with this other person who views it the way that I do, who catches the things that I miss,” he says. “It’s how we make sense, the language that we speak. ‘I’ve seen you around, what’s your name?’ That’s something she said to me. It’s a really innocuous thing to say, but from her, it just transforms this experience.”
Emma introduced herself to Josh using that very line while in the parking lot of a “glorified liquor store” in Laurel Canyon in 2011. At the time, he was still a member of Fleet Foxes (he played drums in the Seattle folk-rock outfit from 2008 to 2012) and she, a filmmaker, was enrolled in a graduate program at UCLA. Soon after, Father John Misty’s critically adored 2012 debut, Fear Fun, sparked two years of relentless touring and performances that enamored major festival bookers and late-night television hosts (namely David Letterman, who’s had Tillman by twice). Emma then started showing up in Father John Misty music videos: She appeared in Fear Fun‘s “I’m Writing a Novel,” a haphazard home movie that follows a strange voyage aboard the S.S. Coachella, and “Nancy From Now On,” which opens with Emma stepping on Tillman’s face in a pair of latex boots and later shows her shearing his shoulder-length locks. In both a romantic and collaborative capacity, the couple went all in.
“We had known each other for four or five months by the time we did the ‘Nancy’ video,” he reflects. “ ’I need you to dress up like a dominatrix and slap me around and cut my hair off, is that cool?’ We were just in cahoots. I never thought twice about that. I had this real companion who understands what I do.”
They were married in 2013, capping a whirlwind year that saw Tillman’s profile rise, as well as Josh and Emma’s move from Los Angeles to New Orleans. All the while, Tillman continued to write and record an album that was drastically shifting from fiction to the truth that he and his new wife were living.
Honeybear is the first of Tillman’s efforts to incorporate the idiosyncrasies of their life at home into his work. This level of transparency is a break from the magical-realist mythos of Fear Fun‘s storytelling and social commentary — and Emma is as much Honeybear‘s muse as she is its conspirator and critic. In place of Fear Fun‘s flaming swords and coffins tied down with garter belts, Honeybear invokes everything from Emma’s name and her greeting from that Laurel Canyon parking lot to the fears and paranoia Tillman dealt with as he fell deeper in love with her.
“There’s something about putting your really intimate, beautiful shit out there into a song,” he says. “She’s married to a songwriter, and everything is fair game. She’s only ever motivated me to be more real about it. It was kind of a nerve-racking album to make. There were some ballsy divergences from the last album, but I’m not sure that those were necessarily made in full confidence. Emma saw me coming home every night from these sessions with full confidence in what I’d just done and watched me slowly unravel while having major anxiety about this album.”
For “True Affection,” Tillman employed a synth-laden, uncharacteristically electronic exploration to revisit the isolation and inaccessibility he felt while trying to woo Emma through text messages and emails from the road. “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me” is the pillow talk of a terrified man exposing the debatably repugnant aspects of his being. The title track, which kicks off the album, is less a declaration of love and more a wail “rooted in depression and despair” about relinquishing emotional control in the initial stages of infatuation.
“I Love You, Honeybear” is immediately followed by “Chateau Lobby #4 (In C for 2 Virgins),” a sweeping, grand musical gesture brimming with affection and sentiment. A mariachi band backs Tillman as he recounts his and Emma’s romance, from their first days together (“ ’Stay as long as you want’/I haven’t left your bed since,” a line borrowed from a note she wrote him) to their nuptials (“I want to take you in the kitchen/Lift up that wedding dress someone was probably murdered in”). The collateral for “Chateau Lobby” follows suit: For the music video, the Tillmans filmed each other over the course of their first anniversary weekend with a kaleidoscopic lens turned on their enraptured faces. The love note is included in the album’s artwork, which also features snapshots from their wedding and travels together. “Chateau Lobby,” Tillman says, was a breakthrough: The number of personal details he chose to share was one thing, but for the first time, he had failed to impress Emma with the initial demo.
“It never occurred to me before this album that there was something I could bring home from the studio that you wouldn’t like!” he says, turning to Emma. “I think I made some kind of subconscious bargain with myself, where I was like, ‘I’ll let you be this exposed and vulnerable about your life if you let me cloak these songs in massive, Disney orchestra arrangements.’ ”
Emma nods. “There’s just more of a code to crack than what I think is immediately obvious,” she replies. “I think so many of those songs represent a certain layer of intimacy that we’ve since surpassed, which is what I think you should do as a human and an artist: just continue to go deeper into what it is you’re looking for in yourself and your ability to be honest with yourself. That’s what I think is so beautiful about his songs: They’re these moments in time that are so meaningful, but I think Josh is already on the other side of a lot of the songs themselves.”
Tillman would go on to work through four different versions of “Chateau Lobby” before mastering the final take. But the dialogue with Emma has now become part of the process, which wasn’t the case with Fear Fun. “If there’s some kind of roadblock for one or the other of us artistically, we fire each other up to a fever pitch, either by arguing about the thing or telling the other person that, yeah, this really is the end of the world, and then it reaches some critical mass,” she says. “And then we just talk about it.”
This happened the last time Tillman appeared on Letterman. After giving what he felt was a lackluster performance of the ballad “Bored in the USA,” he retreated to the green room, where he felt he was “dying inside.”
“I know when I’ve done something really well,” he says, “and that wasn’t it.”
But Emma tells a different side of the story.
“He was only dying inside for two hours before we watched it on television,” she says, before addressing him. “And then you saw this whole other element outside of yourself, and it was totally a success! You were proud! I was so happy that you saw beyond what you felt inside.”
By looking outside of himself and opening all that he loves up to criticism and dialogue, Tillman shelved his fictional exploits in favor of a vulnerable, valuable musical evolution.
“So much of this album is about intimacy,” he says. “I see it as a byproduct of intimacy and receding narcissism, which is a complete lack of self-awareness. Being in a situation with someone else where all you’re doing is peeling back layers, I just couldn’t have any perspective on myself without that.”
Father John Misty performs on Thursday, February 12, at Rough Trade in Williamsburg and on Saturday, February 14, at the Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan. Both shows are sold out, but you can find tickets on the secondary market. I Love You, Honeybear came out February 10 on Sub Pop Records in the U.S. and Bell Union in Europe.