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California Dreamin’: The Los Angeles Of Lana Del Rey And Father John Misty

Last night, Lana Del Rey debuted a new video for “Freak,” a standout from her 2015 release Honeymoon. It was anticipated, and is notable, because of a particular guest star: Josh Tillman, aka Father John Misty. While it had never seemed like a given that the two would collaborate, it feels inevitable now that it happened. Back in 2013, before Del Rey truly came into her retro-own on 2014’s Ultraviolence, she told how much she liked Father John Misty, crediting him with “reminding me of my roots.” (The next three people she namechecks are Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Allen Ginsberg.) In an interview with the Current last November, she called herself his “number one fan.” One of Tillman’s favorite albums of 2015 was supposedly Honeymoon. (I say “supposedly” because fact and fiction are constantly blurred in almost any of Tillman’s public decrees, and because his #1 choice was Jeff Bridges’ Sleeping Tapes, which leaves a person a bit skeptical.) They have toured together in the past. Now, Father John Misty has temporarily walked into the narrative of Lana Del Rey. This takes place in a video for a song where the chorus features Del Rey singing, “Baby, if you wanna leave/ Come to California/ Be a freak like me too.” That’s important here.

Beyond the fact that they are artists who appear to be fans of each other, and the fact they draw on similar eras of American pop culture, there’s a larger resonance to seeing them actually together in the video. Father John Misty and Lana Del Rey are similar projects, with similar concerns often attacked with different methods. Both are alter egos, concepts these singers created to find their ways into new careers. And the location where both of those identities came into their own is, naturally, California. Stories of remaking yourself on the frontier are archetypal in American culture. The call of the west has always promised this. The Golden Coast, the terminus to the American escape westward, the land of eternal summer. And more specifically: Los Angeles, the city where American culture flowers and mutates, where our pop culture finds its apotheosis through an endless supply of new identities on TV and in movies.

By the 21st century, this stuff is stereotype and it’s myth. It’s lore built up from countless stories of people trying and failing to escape themselves through the promise of the West Coast, of California, of Los Angeles, and of Hollywood. But just because something’s dismissed as a fictional trope doesn’t mean people won’t try. People still flee to New York for many of the same reasons, even in a New York defined by the post-9/11 years and gentrification rather than Andy Warhol or Jack Kerouac. Just because something’s dismissed as a fictional trope also doesn’t mean that, well, it can’t still work. Sure, when it comes down to it, you’re always going to be you under whatever new identity you adopt at the end of whichever road. These ideas are the engine behind the entire projects of both Father John Misty and Lana Del Rey. And for both Josh Tillman and Lizzy Grant, that classic lure of California once more seemed to promise the way out. Funtimes in Babylon, as the former once sang.

Both artists have been divisive. While there’s a long history of artists taking on adopted names or personas in their careers, there’s something specific about the lineage that Lana Del Rey and Father John Misty have joined. We all know that these people are Lizzy Grant and Josh Tillman. They give interviews as such, they divulge actual details about their lives as such. But they also have these names through which they almost engage in performance art. It’s more than a pop diva’s stage name, but not as much of a smokescreen as Bob Dylan’s constant toying with journalists and his own narrative. They might be more akin to a David Bowie, though they don’t go as far as to craft a stage persona and then splinter that off into multiple new characters. (Or, at least, they haven’t yet.) The adopted identities are seemingly distortions and/or expansions of their real-life personalities, half-shields through which they can engage with their interests in a more vivid way, as we continue to watch them build and change the character and their accrued imagery. But because we understand it’s a half-shield, and we know some biographical information, we also understand that Father John Misty and Lana Del Rey have also just become ways for Lizzy Grant and Josh Tillman to be more vulnerable as artists than they might’ve been otherwise. Even in 2016, this is still polarizing — whether because we for some reason still have hang-ups about authenticity, or because of the things they get to say or indulge in as a result of their split artistic identities.

The pairing of Lana Del Rey and Father John Misty for “Freak” makes a ton of sense. Though their corners of L.A. might be disparate, the two feel as if they could be characters that would pass into each other’s worlds. Father John Misty and Lana Del Rey are both people who would live in different neighborhoods in a phantasmagoric L.A. where decades of cultural debris mingle freely with no regard to time or the passage of eras. Psychedelic bohemians and doomed noir starlets hanging out together in a haze emanating from the Chateau Marmont, writing melancholy-porn poetry in a city where specters flit amidst pristine mid-century ruins, and re-runs of everything walk down the street.

The video itself, directed by Del Rey, is of a piece with her other work. Naturally. Father John Misty guests as the latest of her video paramours, and the early shot of him walking behind her and trying to put his hands on her shoulders could almost fool you into thinking it’s archival footage from the late ’60s. They sit outside and take acid, at which point the colors shift and Misty becomes surrounded by the girls from Del Rey’s “Music To Watch Boys To” video. Del Rey drinks Kool-Aid, because of course Del Rey drinks Kool-Aid. At one point toward the end of the song, she guzzles it so that it flows down her chin like blood. As the song ends, the two of them dance, surrounded by a white haze of smoke, before walking into a light that cedes to Part 2. That’s the whole second half set underwater, to Claude Debussy’s “Claire De Lune.” It almost comes off like we’ve shifted into one of their perspectives for much of it, gazing at the women from “Music To Watch Boys To” twirling underwater. Whether it’s a moment of genuine peace, or whether they’re haunting sirens or mermaids, it plays somewhat like a fashion video (fittingly enough, considering that the recent iteration of Lana Del Rey looks like a ’60s femme fatale luxury icon). The whole segment is prefigured by the “Music To Watch Boys To” video, in which the same setting is home for the color interludes to Del Rey’s black-and-white sections.

The Father John Misty that walks into “Freak” looks like he could’ve just walked out of any of a handful of his own videos. (More likely the listless guy from “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” or “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment” than the guy experiencing psychedelic marital bliss in “Chateau Lobby #4 [In C For Two Virgins],” one of the several videos to feature his wife Emma.) It’s a successful crossover, playing on the core Sex, Drugs, & Rock ‘N’ Roll iconography that’s run through both of their songs. But there are differences between these characters, too, and they have distinct visions of L.A. In Sean Fennessey’s brilliant Grantland profile about Tillman, the writer chronicles the dense history of hippies and musicians who have hung out in the Laurel Canyon Country Store over the years — the store outside of which Tillman met Emma. That’s Misty’s L.A. (It helps that Tillman bears a resemblance to Jim Morrison.) A druggy, hedonistically Bohemian one, linked to the ’60s and ’70s strands of folk-rock and the singer-songwriter tradition his music is indebted to — even if, as that same profile points out, he claims to hate most of that stuff.

In that same Current interview from last year, Del Rey describes Honeymoon as being a tribute to Los Angeles, but hers is almost entirely the one from the movies: long drives and falling in and out of love in that eternal summer weather. It’s just a movie you can actually live in. Difficult love and destructive relationships are often at the core of Del Rey’s music, depicted in a grand, cinematic brand of wreckage. Even if Lizzy Grant claims she doesn’t listen to contemporary music — and even with Father John Misty processing falling in love amidst the climate of the times — Lana Del Rey is more of a product of today’s culture, in her way. Hip-hop is an influence as much as Nina Simone, and a lot of people know her from an EDM remix of “Summertime Sadness” courtesy of Cedric Gervais. Del Rey comes off like the tragic ghost of a classic (or classic-yet-fallen) Hollywood actress, navigating the 21st century pop culture that exists as an ever-living and ever-growing palimpsest of every era of pop culture ever. Their favored topics intersect sometimes, but Father John Misty is more of a play on loose imagery, present in the now, with biting commentary and the resonance of Tillman’s personal life. Del Rey, by comparison, feels like an amalgamation of a dozen Californias past, oblique and inscrutable, with the ability to create an impenetrable atmosphere of evocative yet evasive romantic self-destruction.

And while they’re deploying these characters toward the same general end of self-transformation, their journeys and specific arcs differ. By now, you probably know some part the story: Josh Tillman leaves home, becomes the confessional songwriter J. Tillman, but that doesn’t go anywhere so he joins the surprisingly successful Fleet Foxes as their drummer. Growing bored with being a hired gun, he bails on that, driving a van down the West Coast and eventually finding himself holed up in Laurel Canyon, having rechristened himself with a cult leader moniker, Father John Misty. He addressed that arc on the loopy, hallucinogenic origin story from his FJM debut, Fear Fun, in 2012. As the legend already has it, Tillman began to conceive of the Father John Misty project while on a mushroom trip, naked in a tree in Big Sur. Ironically, the revelation was that all the sarcasm and meta qualities of Father John Misty would be more truly him than the forced dour-folkie J. Tillman.

Having created himself anew in L.A., Tillman was reborn a fast-talking, louche meta-shaman. But then he found himself in L.A., too. Fear Fun was followed by one of this decade’s masterpieces. The story of I Love You, Honeybear is what takes Father John Misty to the next level, from brutally acidic and brutally insightful to brutally human. Over the course of the album he dissects modern relationships, as well as a whole lot of other things we buy into culturally, trying to remain skeptical, or dismantle his skepticism, as he falls in love. Along the way, he dismantles himself. He dismantles his cleverness and his stupid masculine tribulations. And then he gives in to good things happening. In “Holy Shit,” which he wrote on his wedding day, he counters “Maybe love is just an economy/ Based on resource scarcity” with “What I fail to see/ Is what that’s gotta do with you and me.” After an album defined by moments like the scathing admission of his laundry list of transgressions in “The Ideal Husband,” I Love You, Honeybear closes with the beautiful “I Went To The Store One Day,” a song that visualizes a whole life lived with his wife. After all the drugs and pettiness and bleak hook-ups, the album ends at its quietest and sparest: Everything gets stripped back to Tillman and his guitar and a lonely burst of strings, and he sings, “All ’cause I went to the store one day/ I’ve seen you around/ What’s your name?”

Much of Honeybear is intricate and bordering on over-the-top in its lushness, but it’s balanced by the naked emotions at its core. Were it not for the self-laceration and self-accounting, it might be insufferable, and many find him insufferable anyway. (One person’s wry and honest take on how we act in front of one another this decade is another’s excuse to eye-roll at what they look at as another anxious white guy being glib.) One of the album’s highlights, “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment,” was also accompanied by the best Father John Misty video yet. In a conversation last year, one of my editors pointed out that Del Rey could’ve been the woman Misty hates, and hates himself for hooking up with, in the song. Maybe if different versions of Misty and Del Rey had crossed into each other’s worlds, this is the video collaboration we would’ve gotten instead of “Freak.” Instead, the video is a crucial extension of the LP’s relentless scrutiny turned inward: all the smug self-satisfaction and crippling self-loathing of the lyrics are made literal because Josh Tillman hooks up with Josh Tillman after meeting himself at a bar.

At one point, Lizzy Grant was a songwriter based in New York. Then she became the California cipher called Lana Del Rey, immediately garnering buzz on the strength of “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans.” The stuff from the Born To Die and Paradise EP era was seen by some as a failure to capitalize on early promise. Even when some of the music didn’t seem to fit the project, the ideas were there already, especially when she sang things like “Tell me I’m your National Anthem” or the infamous intro to “Cola,” “My pussy tastes like Pepsi-Cola/ My eyes are wide like cherry pies/ I got sweet taste for men who’re older/ It’s always been so it’s no surprise.” The character was formed, but blossomed into something as dark and weird as had been hoped with the doomsday Pop Art of Ultraviolence, an album that doubled down on the imagery of affairs and drugs and fame. Were it not for the magnetic presence of Del Rey at the center of it, it might be insufferable, and many find her insufferable anyway. (One person’s romantic fascination with lustful oblivion is another’s excuse to roll their eyes at what they look at as overwrought drama and a millennial languishing in received nostalgia.)

From “Video Games” up through “West Coast” or to “Freak,” Del Rey is an expert wielder of smoky melodrama. Father John Misty’s videos come with song title stamps with his name and label in an old time-y font, making each come across as discrete chapters in the ongoing missteps and occasional redemptions of Father John Misty. Del Rey’s singles and accompanying videos, too, feel like parts in an ongoing series. Even in the simpler clips, like “West Coast,” she’s exploring her favored themes, always expanding her already well-established perspective. The model Bradley Soileau played one of her love interests, from “Blue Jeans” to “Born To Die” up to “West Coast.” In the last video, she meanders around the beach with him, all in moody black and white. But those scenes are intercut with her in a car with an older man, played by tattoo artist Mark Mahoney; some of the scenes here go more eternal and more noir, the black and white of the video occasionally taking on the appearance of a faded charcoal drawing. Mahoney became a recurring character, too, appearing as the central love interest in the video for another Ultraviolence track, “Shades Of Cool.” The tone, as it has been in recent times, is consistent. The videos come together into one long-form vision, a glimpse of Lana Del Rey’s nostalgia for the glamor of America’s past, seen through the smoke of seven seasons’ of Mad Men worth of cigarettes.

But as much as Del Rey has continued fleshing out her vision, there’s a journey there, too. Just as Father John Misty transformed between Fear Fun and I Love You, Honeybear, and across the latter album, the Del Rey of Honeymoon has become more powerful. For all the repeated flirtations and ill-fated affairs, she has a self-realization running parallel to that which Father John Misty undergoes through I Love You, Honeybear. The Del Rey of today is less tied to those filmic bad boys she’s so enamored with, after playing up the role of alluring and unreachable but more submissive figure. The Del Rey of Honeymoon is the one who’s the voyeur in “Music To Watch Boys To.” She’s the one who’s running the show and in control of the acid trip in “Freak,” even though she’s hanging with the guy who assumed the fake shaman name. Remember the video for “High By The Beach?” Del Rey hangs out in a vacant seaside house, and a helicopter hovers outside taking her photo. It’s another play on fame, and being watched, but this time she rejects it outright. After toying with them for a moment — putting up with them being there, or playing into it — she runs outside and grabs a guitar case, runs back up to the porch of house, pulls a gigantic sci-fi gun out of the guitar case, and blows up the helicopter, leaving tattered pages of tabloids fluttering through the air. It’s one of the most indelible images of a very visual-based career, and one of the most indelible images pop music as a whole has given us in recent memory.

It conjures an almost entirely different version of Los Angeles than Father John Misty’s. And it’s there in the sound, too. Whether the lustfully thick atmosphere of Ultraviolence or the more ethereal, string-laden Honeymoon, Del Rey’s music is the sort you can only listen to on viciously hot days. It’s music where individual instruments appear as stray elements of steam, of blinding heat, of air heavy enough to suffocate, coming together into that enigmatic whole. Which is to say: It’s music built from the same thick air of layered history, an intricate network of pop culture footnotes from across the decades. Father John Misty’s music is overloaded, too, but it’s more in the way his viewpoint flips and twists, the words jangling through willfully saccharine or catchy music that has literary ambitions on its mind. They are both dense artists, capturing the city that birthed them in ways fitting to the characters that birth yielded.

While their respective visions differ, the surface take is direct enough: Father John Misty and Lana Del Rey both make music that would seem to offer a decadent and/or disenchanted take on the promise of L.A., the promise of the American Dream. But there’s a damaged, earned romanticism underlying both their projects, the true connective tissue between the two figures. Whether through Father John Misty’s sardonic bleakness or Lana Del Rey’s numbed nostalgia, the conclusion would seemingly be the same. Modern life, and modern love, are bullshit. Which is why you throw up these guards, these characters as conduits for skewed worldviews that may or may not be your own. But, at the core of it, these two artists are finding some kernel of truth, something to strive for. Empowerment, self-actualization, true love, maybe. But also in a very real, tangible way: Josh Tillman and Lizzy Grant are two artists who found success through that California dream. They went out to L.A. to reinvent themselves, and it worked. Maybe that’s part of the reason why they’re divisive. We’re used to tales of the broken-down myths at this point. But what if it turns out there’s something legitimately hopeful and aspirational running through that as well?

“This is not the answer,” Tillman says at the end of that Grantland profile, after emphasizing, “I am really loath to present my experience as a prescription for living.” But this is the reason our American myths persist. Occasionally, someone comes along and legitimately confirms them, reifies them. They remind us fantasies can be rooted in real history, and fiction and fact are always blurred. There are many more stories of the failure of chasing that self-reinvention than there are successful ones. But maybe tales like those of Father John Misty and Lana Del Rey are told in the language we understand, weighed down by doubt and a bit of despair, despite the fact that we, as spectators and listeners, can perceive them come into being in real time amidst all that. That we can watch people come into their own, or fall in love, even at the same time as they’re finding falsehoods and empty guarantees at the end of that road of reinvention. It’s working, despite themselves. These two artists are new myths, where we have digital trails of their former selves, and we can trace the fault lines. It isn’t a magazine exposé that Bob Dylan is in fact Robert Zimmerman. We can see the borders between person, performer, and performance constantly shifting, and collapsing and being rebuilt. They’re legible, as messy and intertwined as they are. Maybe when you can see the stains left by blood and tears on one of those American tropes of rebirth, that’s what simply makes it a story about people. Father John Misty and Lana Del Rey passing into the same world in “Freak” goes beyond the collaboration of like-minded artists. It’s a reminder that, somewhere, sometimes, the promises at the end of a continent or a highway are real, as sung by two of the great American voices of our time.