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A Fox in his den

Josh Tillman quite comfortable with his approach to songs

Patrick Caldwell
Josh Tillman says criticism of his work as 'unhappy' is off the mark. 'It's very joyful to me to get down to the bone and marrow of what seem like negative experiences.'

These days, Josh Tillman might be best known as a drummer and vocalist for the evocative, atmospheric folk band Fleet Foxes — as well as the onstage verbal sparring partner for frontman Robin Pecknold, with whom he shares a comedic rapport. But Tillman is an accomplished artist in his own right, having released six solo albums of spare, haunting acoustic folk since 2005. Tillman's kept busy in 2009, releasing both his fifth and six albums, 'Vacilando Territory Blues' and 'Year in the Kingdom.' He brings his personal brand of wrenching songs to Austin on Friday night. Tillman spoke with the American-Statesman on the outlook behind his music, the neuroses of performing on-stage and the effect the Fleet Foxes have had on his career.

American-Statesman: In their review of 'Year in the Kingdom,' the BBC referred to yours as a voice that's 'happy to sound unhappy.' Do you think that's a fair assessment of your music?

Josh Tillman: Certainly not. I mean, it really all depends on what you bring to the table. I think that part of the reason my music isn't very popular — and I mean I'm not trying to be self-deprecating or anything, there are plenty of reasons for that — is that it requires a very specific kind of personality or world view. Somebody else kind of asked me that kind of question, and for me it's similar to when you read Nietzsche. In a superficial way it's very easy to interpret that material as depressing or whatever hackneyed adjective you want to throw out. But if you're invested in it and really pay attention to it, it yields something. It's very joyful to me to get down to the bone and marrow of what seem like negative experiences. And the more liberated I feel to confront those aspects of my existence the more joy it brings me.

'Year in the Kingdom' is your second album this year, and you have a pretty prolific career as a songwriter. When you release and write so much material, do you still approach each album as a separate, individual creative process?

Very much so. When I finish an album, I tend to kind of close the door on the approach I used for that album. That's part of what's exciting to me about making albums, that opportunity to kind of start from scratch and reinvent the whole thing. Obviously there's a similar aesthetic through my albums, but I don't feel necessarily bound to do any one kind of thing. That gives me a lot of freedom when it comes time to make another record. But getting that vision for an album is part of the really exciting part of making music to me.

There's a lot of personal honesty in your music — is it ever a struggle to be comfortable performing it live?

It was for a long time. I think I felt pretty self-aware. But as you get older you start to realize that your myriad of fascinating neuroses and concerns and observations are far more universal than your younger self realizes. So I really don't feel that way so much anymore.

Neuroses and concerns such as?

I think your run-of-the-mill existential dread. There are things in my music that I interpret as being exclusive to me but I'm always amazed by how even the elements I feel are most exclusive to me are oftentimes the elements that are most widely relatable.

Have you found that joining the Fleet Foxes has influenced your own career trajectory? Have you noticed a change in your audience since you've teamed up that band?

I mean, I'm playing for the same amount of people now that I was three years ago. My shows are typically 75 to 100 people, which is what it's been for the last few years. There's definitely more attention within the immaterial world of the Internet. But other than that, no real significant changes.