My Life in My Art: Knausgaard and Misty

Deputy Sports Editor | Jack Wright


Every writer will, at some point in their lives, have heard this classic piece of advice: ‘write what you know’.

I cannot say whether this is good advice. If that is a question that you would like answers to, I would recommend reading some of the insightful opinions shared by published authors.

I’m also going to be careful not to cross into the realm of debate regarding whether we should separate the art from the artist. This is a topic that has seen a surge in discussion in recent years, particularly at the height of the #MeToo movement and with the murder of rapper XXXTentacion, for example.

There are two individuals I would like to examine, one literary and one musical. Namely, they are Karl Ove Knausgaard, the bestselling Norwegian author, and Josh Tillman, the singer-songwriter who performs under the name Father John Misty.

In their respective work, both artists have revealed a great deal of potent personal information about their past and about others, including family members and partners. They differ, though, in several ways.

My Struggle (deliberately ‘Min Kamp’ in Norwegian) is Knausgaard’s six-book semi-autobiographical series, published between 2009 and 2011. He is unflinching in his presentation of his family members and of himself. Excluding little-to-none of the detail surrounding puberty, his father’s death and his grandmother’s decline into senility, not to mention his troubled relationship with his wife and children, Knausgaard’s series can be tough reading.

Describing Knausgaard’s style as anything but mesmerising is a challenge. The everyday and the banal are granted an invigorating new perspective. The writer may spend a page or two describing the act of making a cup of tea, or rolling a cigarette, or listing cleaning products; and yet you read on.

I think that the elements of “real life” that shine through in Knausgaard’s work are responsible for the sheer addictive quality of his writing. I strongly recommend reading Knausgaard’s A Death in the Family, the first book in the series. The follow-up,A Man In Love, was my choice for the alternative summer reading list back in September.

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Knausgaard. / Photograph of The Telegraph

While Knausgaard writes with seriousness and with a fairly cathartic tone, Tillman (or Misty, as I’ll now refer to him) maintains a feeling of parody and aloofness. He, too, writes about his upbringing and present life. Having rejected a strictly religious upbringing, Misty has turned preacher, encouraging the listener to rethink their perspective of humanity.

His critique of religion is most noteworthy throughout his first album, Fear Fun, and his orchestral 2017 release, Pure Comedy. On the latter’s titular track, Misty sings:

‘Comedy, now that’s what I call pure comedy / … / They’re at the centre of everything / And some all-powerful being endowed this horror show with meaning’.

His critique of religion reaches ever further, at times bordering on the offensive.

His chosen name, too, is parodic. On Fear Fun’s ‘Everyman Needs A Companion’, Misty laments the name his parents chose for him:

‘I never liked the name Joshua / I got tired of J.’.

Joshua is a traditional religious name, featuring greatly within the Old Testament. Before adopting the Misty moniker, Josh Tillman released a number of albums under the name J. Tillman, eclipsing his full name.

Misty’s religious critique is one indication of the personal revealing itself through the artist’s work. Another major feature of Misty’s lyrics is his long-term relationship with his wife, Emma Tillman. Two of Misty’s albums, ‘I Love you Honeybear’ and ‘God’s Favourite Customer’ make extensive reference to Emma, and not always positively. This lyric from ‘The Songwriter’ demonstrates Misty’s respect for his wife while simultaneously occupying a more critical perspective:

‘What would it sound like if you were the songwriter

And you made your living off of me?

Would you detail your near-constant consternation,

Or the way my very presence makes your muses up and flee?’

Misty writes about his wife in a similar manner to Knausgaard: unapologetic; occasionally scathing; honest.

Father John Misty / Photograph of Atwood Magazine

I hope that I have been able to indicate similarities between the two individuals, both of whom I greatly respect, and cannot recommend enough. Knausgaard’s series is truly captivating, from a literary standpoint as well as a creative one. Knausgaard details the most intimate processes of life in a manner that is powerful beyond comprehension, including falling in love, childbirth, and writing his own best-selling novel.

Misty is a fantastic and multi-talented artist, whose music demonstrates a multitude of styles, a real blending of genres. His lyrics, too, are hilariously witty. At times, they are crushing. He has much to say on the current outlook of humankind, religion, love and ayahuasca.

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