In February 2015 I joined the internet listening party late and signed myself up for a membership with Spotify. I hadn’t kept up with what was new in music since my departure from working at Amoeba Music in Hollywood almost a decade ago, so I found myself at somewhat of a loss as to who to check out. On my first active day with Spotify, I saw an Instagram post from a young up and coming songwriter I’d worked with and highly respect named Phoebe Bridgers. It was a picture of a man with a short beard and shoulder-length hair screaming into a microphone in what appeared to be a strip club, with a topless dancer standing close by, appearing somehow to be in the mix. What Phoebe wrote I found to be damn near as striking as the image. She wrote: “the new father john misty owns hard go listen”. I marveled at her rebellious way of communicating; no punctuation, all lower case, with that ‘owns hard’ part – as if to say this album will own your mind and soul – it just bled cool. I was intrigued enough by every element of her post to make Father John Misty’s I Love You Honeybear my first Spotify listen on my drive to work that morning.
The next hour of my life found me beside myself with wonderment. I think I may have cried at many points throughout the listen. I was floored. Truly every note – every moment of production, the subject matter and humor. His voice. It was the greatest thing I’d heard in years by a far margin. After years of solely listening to reliable artists and albums of my past, it felt good to love something new again. I found myself ‘owned hard’.
Arriving at work that day I immediately began the joyful work of proselytizing for Father John Misty and this album, raving about what I had heard with co-workers and clients upon running into them that morning. This was an early point in his career and most people hadn’t heard of FJM which only added to the magic of making the introduction. I found some Youtube footage on my phone of a recent Letterman performance he had done, a song I especially enjoyed towards the end of the album called ‘Bored In The USA’. While sharing the footage with others I couldn’t help but imagine that this is what it must have felt like to watch artists like Randy Newman spring onto the scene for the first time in the 70’s; so direct, painfully honest, at times callous, devastatingly comical, and musically superb.
From that day on I began immersing myself in I Love You Honeybear and his debut album Fear Fun. I listened at least once a week for many months. I couldn’t shake the vulnerability he expressed, especially on Honeybear. It felt as though my own ideal musical and artistic standard had been achieved in every way artistically by FJM; he had arrived at the land of milk and honey before I did, and everything about who he was as an artist was so mesmerizing I couldn’t help but internally bow to him and cheer on his success.
I’m currently the co-founder and Spiritual Director of a drug and alcohol treatment center in Santa Barbara called Good Heart Recovery, where I regularly facilitate ‘mindfulness listening’ groups with our clients. I ask a room full of freshly sober clients to make themselves comfortable, close their eyes and listen to a different piece of music I’d select for the group. Using techniques intended to create present time awareness, we explore how a song reveals itself to us personally, note for note, word for word, from a real beginning to a real ending (not from when we choose to tune in and out). It’s likely I’ve used the song ‘I Went To The Store One Day’ from Honeybear for this practice more than any other. The song tells the true life story of how FJM met his wife Emma unsuspectingly one morning at the Canyon Country Store located at the southern mouth of legendary Laurel Canyon in LA. The recording uses sparse instrumentation; an acoustic guitar and mandolin, later joined by high strings, and features a vocal performance that sounds honest and intimate – as if it’d been captured while Emma was sitting across from him on their bed in their bedroom dimly lit by candlelight. The story begins illustrating the moments of their first interaction and spans (with vivid imagination) throughout his entire life (still yet lived), leading climactically to his final breath where he promises her “I’ll save the big one for the last time we make love”. The last line of the song acknowledges and encapsulates the fact that this Love they’ve found, not only the inspiration for this song but the entire album, was solely made possible “all cuz I went to the store one day”.
Although I have largely been a guitar and piano based songwriter and frontman for most of my career in music (pre-dating Good Heart Recovery), it’s a little known fact that in 2001 I played drums for a band that was signed to the Seattle-based indie label Sub Pop, who’d released both Fear Fun and Honeybear. Josh Tillman (aka FJM) had originally had a similar entry to Sub Pop, when in 2008 the band Fleet Foxes he was playing drums for got signed to the label. Tony Kiewel, head of A&R for Sub Pop, who signed us to the label all those years ago, had also been the driving force in signing FJM. Tony still is to this day one of my favorite people working in the music business. He spoke of his process signing bands in an interview a few years ago, stating “I’m concerned with finding people I respect making music that I love listening to. It’s the only way I know to stay happy doing what I’m doing.” It didn’t surprise me that he had been responsible for introducing the world to FJM. Sometimes while listening to his music, my imagination would convince me that Josh and I had (at this point in all likelihood) shared some of the same experiences that come with a Sub Pop signing; the celebratory contract signing dinner on the record company dime (with Sub Pop’s co-founder Jonathan Poneman attending, having everyone at the table sarcastically and honestly chant “thanks Nirvana!” as he lays down the company credit card), the raids of the album promo bins when visiting their main offices, collaborating with the folks in the art department on album art ideas, etc. It all seemed very likely, and I felt our worlds merging in some strange way; the combination of an illusive dreamlike mystery with a dash of grounded familiarity.
Summertime arrived that year, and with six solid months of familiarizing myself with his entire catalog, it’s safe to say that Josh Tillman was an artist more than any other whom I would’ve loved to have met and shared some space with.
That summer in July I took a week off from work to drive the family up the coast for a vacation to visit family in Big Sur. The morning we prepared to make the drive back up the coast, I had created something of a mental checklist and timetable that was not being fulfilled. Everything that could’ve gone wrong did. Sometimes I feel that Los Angeles is like a jealous lover, whom upon learning you’re going to leave her, even with the promise of return, throws every obstacle at her disposal to keep you from going. My wife at the time and I had a tough time on deciding the crucial items we’d need for the journey; there were difficulties packing up the car; the kids fought a few times which led to meltdowns and mediation; so by the time we actually got on the road it was almost noon.
After a long stretch of road, including many unscheduled gas station visits to pee along the way, the family and I found ourselves on Highway 1 approaching the quaint seaside town of Cambria, 90 minutes or so away from our final destination. A family member had suggested we stop in Cambria at an organic farm called Linn’s Bin, known for their incredible pies, to pick up a few delicious items for our week together. I began to look for signs for the place as we got closer to Cambria. My daughter called out for my attention in the rearview mirror to show off something she had drawn, and by the time my eyes were directed back solely onto the road ahead, a billboard whizzed by for Linn’s Bin, and the only bit I caught was their logo and a few words: ‘first right’. I felt the logical move would be to take next right turn and see if there might be a sign down a ways leading the way further.
I turned off Cabrillo Highway onto a road that had an open stretch of road that seemed to become dirt in about 100 yards, and a smaller road to the left that had a few buildings down a short ways. I took my chances with the left turn and our vehicle approached a green sign you’d commonly see in California once you cross into a new city. The sign read: HARMONY (population 18 – elevation 175).
The town of Harmony appeared to be a cul-de-sac with three buildings only. Whoever these 18 people were that had claimed to lived here, none at all were visible on that day. A black Jaguar with tinted windows was the only car parked on the street in front of the Harmony Pottery Store that had a sign indicating it appeared to be open.
First of all, one of my great loves has always been singing harmonies, like my hero’s The Beatles and The Beach Boys. From a very young age, I would always discover the harmony part to a main vocal melody in any piece of music that came over the radio. So as far as I was concerned, having my wife take a photo of me standing next to this sign would make the detour well worth it. So I got out of the car and posed for a few shots next to the Harmony sign.
I hopped back into the car, got myself and the kids situated, plotted a more reliable route via iMaps, and flipped a U-turn in the Harmony cul-de-sac with my mind set on jumping back on Highway 1. It was at this moment I caught some signs of life out of the corner of my left eye; a couple walked out of the pottery store, arm in arm, carrying a small brown souvenir bag.
These people were Josh and Emma Tillman.
In a single moment, what was left of my rational mind completely blew apart (there wasn’t much left), and I fell into both a state of existential shock and ecstatic bliss. How could this be? I mean… is this real? What is real, really?
I immediately pulled over the car, got out and approached the both of them. I somewhat awkwardly yelled when addressing him “Father John Misty?!!!” still in somewhat of a state of disbelief, but he replied back warmly with a slight laugh “yeah…. my name’s Josh. This is my wife Emma.” They both seemed a bit taken back by the fact that someone had identified them in the middle of nowhere.
As the dusk began to fall over a town called Harmony, Josh and Emma listened as I recounted the entire story; how I’d become a huge fan practically overnight, the mindfulness listening groups, my former Sub Pop roots, only to meet up here in an unfathomably interconnected web of cosmic design. He asked me about the band I was in on Sub Pop and who had signed us, and I shared the band was called Arlo and that Tony Kiewel had signed us as well. It was really neat to watch the expression on Emma’s face as she listened to me describe the magic of this occurrence. This event, even for them, seemed to be rich and meaningful in relation to their own journey.
They shared that they had just moved back to LA after living a while in New Orleans, and were currently on their way up to Big Sur to reconnect after a long tour she had actually accompanied him on. Big Sur was where they’d been married a few years back, and was also the psychedelic birthplace of the artist we all know as Father John Misty. In 2011 prior to meeting Emma, Josh took a life-altering dose of ayahuasca, and that night ended up naked in a gigantic oak tree overlooking the Pacific. While under ayahuasca’s dazzling display of insight, he claims to have found his authentic voice as an artist; a sarcastic skeptic who isn’t afraid to show vulnerability with his listeners. He said in an interview regarding the realization: “my spiritual gift is my skepticism and my cynicism and my sense of humor and my penchant for stirring shit up.” After I told them both that I was now a spiritual counselor of a treatment center in Malibu, Josh shared that he was currently looking to be chemical-free from all substances, adding the caveat “we do still have a trunk full of mushrooms”. I know now that this momentary period of sobriety in his life was all a concerted effort to fuel the creative writing process, writing what would become his most successful album to date, 2017’s Pure Comedy. It’s an added honor to know I met up with him while he was in the middle of writing the songs that would end up on this album.
Before we parted ways, Josh and Emma approached our car to say a quick hello to my children Tiger & Sia, who had been waiting patiently for us to conclude our moment. I asked Josh if he would be so kind as to take a photo with me in front of the Harmony sign.
Ironically as we all pulled away from Harmony, being that we were all traveling the same Highway going the same direction, they ended up following right behind us for a good twenty minutes before we eventually found the real exit for Linn’s Bin and merged off the highway. Josh and Emma, now in the rearview mirror. At the actual point our little caravan finally disbanded, they both went out of their way to give one final wave goodbye to us, something they initiated and neither of them had to do.
As we drove away, the awe-filled insanity of this Universe and it’s connectivity was all I could think about. That morning, every single thing I felt that had went wrong had gone mind-blowingly right. Not to mention every acceleration and de-acceleration of our drive that day, every unscheduled pee stop, all leading to that perfect moment of meeting the one artist in this world I would’ve wanted to meet more than any other. This, by way of a ‘wrong turn’, down a dirt road in a dead end, population 18 town called ‘Harmony’. It had also occurred to me that in some strange turn of events, rather than continuing to be a listener to his song ‘I Went To The Store One Day’ I had actually jumped myself into the song and their story. The mathematical chances of this happening are unfathomable. This was the quintessential demonstration of the term synchronicity coined by Carl Jung.
When I returned to work after vacation, this story instantly became legendary. I’ve used it now for years facilitating groups to demonstrate not only the depth and power of true life synchronicity, but also to illustrate that if things would’ve gone the way I would’ve wanted them to that morning, this event would’ve never taken place. So don’t be afraid to let go of your ideas; you could be in for the ride of your life.
A friend wrote me a text message about a month after the Harmony experience. He wrote: “Hey, your boy Father John is playing in LA in a couple months. We should go see him!”