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Introspection pays: Sad folk ballads of J. Tillman

January 22, 2009 |  5:33 pm

The name J. Tillman isn’t going to ring any bells for most people, but the 27-year-old songwriter — with little fanfare, no managers and no major label — has recorded five devastatingly introspective albums over the course of as many years. With his newest, "Vacilando Territory Blues," out Tuesday from Western Vinyl, and a back catalog now available through iTunes, Joshua Tillman might have a few more ears leaned in his direction.

His 2008 tour of Europe and Australia as the new drummer for the critically flaunted Fleet Foxes certainly helped. Asked to join the band in the spring, after Nicholas Peterson’s departure, Tillman also filled the opening slot for the European leg of the tour. It must have been quite the contrast: Tillman’s songs have no shimmer or gloss, just a bleak landscape of guitar-driven ballads recorded lovingly through the barest of means. On a live YouTube clip from 2006 he jokes, “I play sad bastard music. For the money.”

"Opening the show as a quiet act is a pretty difficult thing to do," Fleet Foxes singer and guitarist Robin Pecknold said in a phone interview. "People were definitely entranced. It's probably frustrating, because if it's not really quiet, the spell of the music can get broken pretty easily. I don't know what it must have been like to play a solo show and then jump up there with us."

The Foxes and Tillman, both based out of Seattle, seemed to have gotten their timing right. “After six years of playing songs,” Tillman said, “the same 20 of my friends were coming to the shows. I was reassessing what I was doing.” Tillman hadn’t quit his day job in construction and acoustic paneling. “They needed a drummer, and we all got along, and for me this was an opportunity to play music. Three years ago, I wouldn’t have joined any band for anything, but it’s been an incredible experience. It allowed some of the pressure I put on myself to kind of dissipate a little bit.”

Speaking over the phone from his Seattle home last week, Tillman mentions that he just signed the lease on an Airstream trailer and a one-room cabin on Vashon Island. He’s already commuting there to record “Lady Be Still,” a new album that may see release this spring.

Tillman moved to Seattle six years ago, but he grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. The oldest of four, Tillman was raised in the Baptist church and attended an Episcopal elementary, but by fifth grade he found himself enrolled in a Pentecostal Messianic Jewish day school. People spoke in tongues. There were public healings. “No amputees though, or anything. It was more like the common cold being relieved, momentarily,” Tillman said. “But the mental image of a row of second graders lying on the ground convulsing and talking about seeing dead grandparents was definitely traumatic.” Students were taught that failure to participate was indicative of a failure to know God. “I never passed out. It didn’t work. By their tenets, I was basically failing at being a Christian.”

Speaking about his parents, and their foisting of what he terms a shuffled “liberal arts education of religions,” Tillman demurs passing judgment. “You can’t tell someone that Jesus didn’t come into their heart.”

Faith and the difficulty of trying to quantify the religious experience is a recurring theme for Tillman. His songs tell of broken hearts and rootless wandering and emotional disillusionment, but belief, or lack thereof, is the dynamo humming in the background. In “Evans and Falls,” he sings: “Jumped out my first floor window barefoot / booked it for Monument Park / Made it as far as Evanson Falls / I heard you call / ‘Joshua it’s not my fault, the devil took sway of my heart.’ ”

In 2004, Tillman recorded “I Will Return,” which he refers to as “my Flannery O’Connor murder ballads album.” He picked up fans in Damien Jurado and Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan and eventually toured with both of them. In 2006, 150 copies of “Long May You Run” were released on Keep Recordings, which also agreed to a 100-copy run of his first album. In that same year, he recorded “Minor Works,” which employed backing musicians in an “attempt at a Ryan Adams-sounding kind of thing.” “Cancer and Delirium,” his 2007 album released only in Europe, where he’d modestly toured the year before, returned to the minimalist balladry of his first two, although with more meticulous production.

“Vacilando Territory Blues” represents a shift, however subtle, in Tillman’s sound. “It doesn’t have a core,” he said. “It fulfills a sort of meta-sense of purpose. It’s a record of me trying to make a record.” It includes his most upbeat number to date. “Steel on Steel” is a rolling, summery song that includes mellotron, a staccato guitar line and well-orchestrated horn flourishes. “New Imperial Grand Blues” verges into Crazy Horse territory, complete with guitar non-solos. “No Occasion” offers the perplexing hopeful line “I don’t want to live again / ‘cause I don’t want this life to end.”

Tillman insists that he’s really not a miserable guy. If anything, his songs remain ultimately hopeful. He acknowledges the influence of Jason Molina, Will Oldham and Townes Van Zandt — fellow travelers who carved their name in the often dreary mountainside of folk music. “With sad music, or music that’s perceived as sad, there’s a sense of solidarity that can be really powerful,” he said. “My songs are all joyful to me. But I get it. I understand why that’s what people talk about.”

Mournful songs aren’t the kind of thing likely to sit for long in a radio station’s hard drive, but J. Tillman’s audience is out there, busy checking blogs like Aquarium Drunkard, burning CDs and sharing them with friends. After all, listening to sad bastard music is ultimately cathartic. “It’s a shared experience. It makes the music more exclusive — like it’s for you and you alone.”

--George Ducker

Photo courtesy J. Tillman