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J. Tillman slips out from under Fleet Foxes’ radar 

Wednesday, Aug 19 2009
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You'd certainly be forgiven for not knowing that Seattle singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Joshua Tillman – who records under the moniker J. Tillman – has released five albums since 2005. His sixth album, the forthcoming Year in the Kingdom, has generated more buzz than the previous five combined. It's gotten the kind of attention, advance praise, and excitement usually reserved for a promising debut. Why the sudden fuss? Tillman's profile has skyrocketed of late thanks to his "day job" for the past year or so: He's the drummer for indie-pop heroes Fleet Foxes.

Not that Tillman feels any added pressure this far into his solo career. "I think the fact that I'm the drummer lowers most people's expectations," he says from Montreal, a stop on Fleet Foxes' brief summer tour. If anything, the bearded, long-haired 28-year-old is quick to quash any notions of amplified success. Instead, he displays an attitude that's somewhere between self-deprecation and self-loathing, figuring fewer people will be interested in his music as time goes on: "My music will inevitably become boring to everyone but me, no matter what I think about it. I kind of like that idea." Later, he adds, "I think on some subconscious level I design my music to alienate."

If that's indeed Tillman's goal, Year in the Kingdom has quite the opposite effect, drawing listeners into his world from the start. At first, it's his voice that's so compelling: a half-whispery, occasionally wobbly tenor that's weary but resolute. Like fellow indie-folk troubadours Damien Jurado and Sam Beam of Iron & Wine, Tillman's delivery imparts peace and doom in equal measures. The meditative music pulls you in further, comprising spare acoustic guitar strums or plucked banjo joined by gingerly plinked piano, hammered dulcimer, distant traces of percussion, and modest strings. Sepia-toned, morning-mist melodies cradle Tillman's tenor, and baroque choral harmonies arrive to buoy his occasional disconsolation.

His words provide yet another intriguing layer. Often, his narrators indulge in self-flagellation – "There is no good in me/I possess a taste for blood," he sings on "There Is No Good in Me." And on "Marked in the Valley," he confesses, "Oh, I've been a poor brother/Lord, I took what was yours." But the exact circumstances remain shrouded, these characters' intentions unclear. And just when you think Tillman's tales are about to come into sharp focus, they dissolve into a haze of protracted "ooohhhh-oooohhhhs" and vocal harmonies that would almost be maddening if they didn't sound so heavenly. The tender "Earthly Bodies," for all of its enigmatic couplets, feels like an especially sublime expression of affection, whether that's for another person, the natural world, or both.

"I've never really been able to write about love in a way that feels honest," Tillman says of his work prior to Kingdom. "It's easy to write about heartbreak because it's so visceral, but writing about love in a way that's sacred is something else entirely. I was trying to make sense of that."

Tillman plans to challenge his fans' preconceived notions of his music on this tour, mostly by altering the songs' arrangements. "If you can turn a show into an opportunity for the audience to change their ideas about your music, it's an opportunity for creative dialogue," he says. "I'd like to think that a show can be more than a traveling commercial."

Granted, Tillman may be loath to sell himself, but the music he's creating is absolutely worth buying into.

About The Author

Michael Alan Goldberg

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