Josh Tillman is dead serious. You can tell by the sound of his voice, a flickering whisper that illuminates his songs as well as a candle might, burning steadily but never providing enough light to fully dispel the shadows. His songs may seem like typically tender, acoustic-based fare on a casual listen, but they're mired in old-time religion and an ambience carved out of a fertile but unforgiving natural landscape. He's not interested in enlightenment or transcendence at the top of the mountain; the Seattle singer/songwriter instead sounds bunkered in an isolated log cabin in the valley, near a gushing, ice-cold stream, singing about being human in all its mundane beauty.
At least, that's the impression I get. Tillman doesn't like to examine his creative process too closely. "It is interesting to talk about within certain parameters," he tells me. "But I kind of see it as being, for myself, more [of] a metaphysical experience. And that can retroactively lose its value the more you try to frame it in a certain language."
His newest album, Year in the Kingdom, closer resembles his hushed, sparser early material than it does last year's Vacilando Territory Blues, which contained a few bluesy detours into rock 'n' roll territory. Kingdom, on the other hand, contains almost nothing in the way of electric guitars—or even a drum kit, which might surprise casual fans who first became aware of Tillman after he joined Fleet Foxes last year as their drummer.
His association with Fleet Foxes hasn't really affected his solo work, probably because he'd been doing it long before joining the band. "I guess there's more attention in the immaterial world of the internet, but what is that?" Tillman says. "It's not like I'm playing for more people than I was two or three years ago. I'm still playing for 50 or 60 people a night. I guess I give people more credit than that. People know that I'm not going to get onstage and play Fleet Foxes songs so they're not going to come to the show for that reason."
Year in the Kingdom is likely too subtle to win the kind of audience that Fleet Foxes have, but that's a testament to its unvarnished, quiet beauty. There's a release at the conclusion of "There Is No Good in Me" when voices and hammered dulcimer rise to a stunning climax, and elsewhere a few soothing string arrangements invoke the ghost of Nick Drake. In all, however, Kingdom inhabits an unforgiving terrain that's both desolate and honest.
It should be interesting to hear its sparse songs performed on this tour, Tillman's first in the US with a backing band. He's joined by his brother Zach Tillman of Pearly Gate Music (who is opening the show), along with Sera Cahoone's drummer Jason Merculief, pedal steel player Bill Patton, and Colin English of the excellent Seattle band Final Spins.
In the meantime, Tillman is content to keep things mysterious, both for his audience and for himself. "I try not to think along the lines of becoming a better songwriter," he says. "I'm not really interested in becoming better at the craft of songwriting. I'd rather try to maintain some level of ignorance, I guess—just to be a more potent receptor as opposed to muddling things up with a kind of arbitrary criteria for what makes a good song, you know?"