At 25-years-old a lot of people may have graduated college, started a small business, or married and potentially started a family. Some may have purchased a house, some might still live in their parents’ basement. What most cannot say, however, is that at 25 he or she is one of America’s most desired guitarists, and have played with a string of well-known artists that is longer than most grocery lists.
Blake Mills is a tough one to wrap your head around, a brilliant enigma if you will. It all started when he was around ten and picked up a guitar to play rock music. It continued into Simon Dawes, his high-school band co-founded with Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes), and finds no end today playing and recording with artists like Lucinda Williams, Kid Rock, Jackson Browne, Cass McCombs, and now Fiona Apple; just to name a small handful (seriously). Not only that, but Mills has recently begun a career as a producer.
On the flip side, Mills has also come to realize there is no such thing as a day off. But while he may not enjoy the typical outings of a regular 25-year-old guy, he finds himself grateful for the amazing experiences he has had and the people he has met along the way.
Mills’ 2010 debut album, Break Mirrors, is one hell of a project. There is a certain something about his unique guitar style and honest lyrics that captures listeners in the most delicate way. Gems like “Wintersong” and “It’ll All Work Out” have incredible storytelling power, while tracks like “Hey Lover” rejoice in the happiness he has found through all the bullshit. A lot of new material has come to life since Break Mirrors arrived on the scene, yet most of us haven’t heard much of it yet. He explains, “The other day I played a song I hadn’t played before and was working out the verses. It’s not even necessarily done but I’m kind of woodshedding and experimenting.”
MFR had a pleasant chat with Mills the day after he played the Governor’s Ball with Fiona Apple, and he gave us a little insight to his crazy world. He talked about where his storytelling comes from, some of his favorite artists on the scene, and how he adapts to session work with other artists as opposed to his own creations. You can read his thoughts below.
The story behind Break Mirrors is definitely unique. For your next project, do you plan on holding a formal release, or do you prefer to approach it like you did with Break Mirrors?
I think there are a couple things that carry over, but I’m not setting out to make the second record over again. I would probably do things a little less “garagey.” When I did Break Mirrors it was kind of an experimental haphazard process and the stuff I’m listening to and have been listening to since I made that record hasn’t really been inspired by those kind of records. I will probably go a little more traditional.
The lyrics in Break Mirrors are geared to storytelling more-so than the abstract. Does that come from a certain area, like reading a lot, or life experience?
I don’t read nearly as much as I would like to. The storytelling things, even my favorite players have that quality. I mean there’s not much else, or other purpose, I think, in trying to do this. [The new stuff] may be a little less personal or a little less autobiographical. Break Mirrors is so personal and so revealing. I’ve covered so much ground and I have to come up with new subject matter. That record was about the first 22 years, a lot of crazy shit happens in the first 22 years. From 22 to 25 it’s more about “what I saw on the bus today.”
You are capable of many styles, as shown by the variety of artists you have played with. Is there any style you resort to, or consider your favorite?
The first year or so [when I was young] I was learning Metallica and Soundgarden and Nirvana. Then I met Bob Brozman, a world music dude, and he turned me on to the other cultures and other countries. He was like a mentor for me and I think I resort to that. That sort of grunge rock attitude and the world music harmony keeps me out of trouble.
Do you ever find session work difficult— learning others’ songs and different quirks?
I find it many things, not usually funny or awkward, but it’s like school for me. Most of the people I have had the pleasure to work with have been people that I have learned a lot from in terms of songwriting and playing. Growing up and being in a rock band, you feel like you have to make an artistic statement. Being a session guy there is someone else in the room that matters more than you and they have to be happy and you have to serve that purpose. In a musical and human sense that was very enlightening.
As for new artists, is there anyone you can name as a must-see or must-play with?
One of my favorites is Cass McCombs; he has had an underprivileged career but people that know him are very die hard fans. I think he is one of the strongest writers out there right now. Also, Willie Watson, he is just an incredible singer and great writer as well. He [has] kind of that once-in-100-years voice. When you listen to Hank Williams recording and imagine what his voice sounds like in a room, that’s like Willie. He has this tone that was designed to cut through banjos; he’s doing a solo record soon.
Other than music/guitar, do you have any crazy hobbies?
I haven’t had any hobbies other than this for a long time. I miss out on a lot of fun stuff, but I also get to be a part of a lot of fun stuff. There are certain sacrifices that need to be made, but it’s worth it. I’m in New York with Fiona Apple.
Is there anything you try to see or do in various cities that you hit on tour?
I would say I don’t have a real solid routine in place from city to city, but it is nice to walk. There is so many forms of transportation when touring, and mainly you’re on this bus that is a castle that doesn’t really open up til you get to where you need to go. You don’t get to experience the city unless you start to walk away from the venue. I try to walk, even if it is a two block radius. Sara (Watkins) knows like ever coffee shop in the country. She’ll be able to steer me in the right place. Also, asking the locals; local guitar shops, I wander through and peruse.
What would you say now to yourself at 10-years-old just learning to play guitar?
I would say try to get outside more, get some sun. I spend time around people who would have a few harsher things to say, but [I would say] pay attention to girls and get outside more.
Blake Mills will be opening for and playing guitar alongside Fiona Apple at the Orpheum Theatre on Monday, July 16 2012.
By Laura Yurich
Posted 10 months ago