Blake Mills | The Go-To Guy

blakemills sqProducer Rick Rubin has Mills on speed dial.

 

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Somewhere in the seconds between the delicate finger-picking that announces the opening track “Cheers” and the entrance of his introspective and powerful voice, you’ve already decided that you quite like this Blake Mills guy. Currently touring as part of Fiona Apple’s band, he’s also charming new fans each night, warming up the crowd as her opening act. Though he released his debut album Break Mirrors back in 2010, he’s not exactly been standing on a balcony and proclaiming its praises to the world. It would not be a false statement to say that the album has become somewhat of a best-kept secret among music aficionados. Until recently, the album was only available for purchase at a music shop owned by a good friend of Mills. “It’s still in kind of a ‘a not-really-released’ phase,” he says. “There’s no bar code, it isn’t on Amazon, and there’s no real marketing behind it.” Besides being available on iTunes, he humbly relates that, “It’s available at my friend’s shop, and I think he’s almost out, so I need to send more copies there.”

While his atmospheric, folk-tinged music often draws comparisons to legendary artists like the late Elliott Smith, his singular voice and songwriting craftsmanship are no doubt assisted by his “day job” as a go-to-session guitarist for the industry elite. Producer Rick Rubin has Mills on speed dial, and artists ranging from Band of Horses to Kid Rock have called upon him to add his tasteful style to their musical stew.

What was it like working with Kid Rock? “The thing about the Kid Rock sessions was that he had the craziest guitarists, just all kinds of great players,” he relates. “I was thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’ It was a surprising experience, because he sang live with us, every take. He’s a really disarming dude in so many ways. He’s a total philanthropist, a hillbilly, and a rock and roll encyclopedia. Very genuine dude, and I really enjoyed it.” Rock’s Republican stance is well known, so the liberal-minded Mills had to navigate that aspect of the working relationship with care. “The only time I kept my head down was politics, though I sometimes enjoyed talking to him about it. I heard my playing on a track I did with him under a Mitt Romney advertisement. It was my slide guitar part. What can you do? It’s just part of the gig, I guess.”

While hanging out with rock stars may be part of the fun of being a session player, so is hanging out with heroes like famed session drummer Jim Keltner. “Jim Keltner was fantastic; he’s just an amazing drummer. The first session I did with him I was kind of useless because I was star struck” he says. “The last time I worked with him though, I could hang.”

Mills’ adventures in session work also gave the enviable task of working with ZZ Top guitar god Billy Gibbons. “We were working on a track for a Fleetwood Mac tribute record that Matt Sweeney was producing,” Mills recalls. “Billy walked in, plugged in, and we just sat back and watched him get to it. It was much greasier than what Billy was used to, and he had a big smile on his face. He was great.”

In January of this year, Mills was able to make his first national TV appearance as a solo artist on Conan O’Brien’s show. Forgoing a traditional “stand center stage and play to the camera”-type of performance, Mills decided to take the opportunity to do something special, and perhaps a little more representative of his unique perspective. He sat in a wooden chair with his girlfriend, singer Danielle Haim, and childhood buddy, Taylor Goldsmith, sitting in a circle around him as he sang Bob Dylan’s “Heart of Mine.”

“I had covered that song for an Amnesty International benefit CD, and decided to play that on the show” he says. “There are so many lyrics in that song, though; I needed a line of sight with Danielle. I had done a lot of these late-night appearances before, but never as the main artist. So we just tried to make it comfortable and tried to transport ourselves. Our attempt was to make it more informal, and hopefully that enhanced the experience for the audience, as well.”

With the record industry undergoing so many changes over the past few years, I wondered what Mills thought of illegal downloading and the impact it has had in changing the game for independent artists. “I think it both helps and hurts, really,” he says candidly. “You can just go out and grab whole libraries of things, but it can really be at the expense of the artists’ reward structure. For a new, struggling artist, it’s great because it gets their music some exposure. For artists that depend on [music sales] for income, though, it kind of devalues the whole process. Services like iTunes have made it so simple to get…the songs that are available in the marketplace; there’s no reason not to use it.”

As we wrap up the interview, I ask him to name one of his favorite albums, something he continually comes back to again and again. Mills does not hesitate with his response. “Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares. It’s a Bulgarian female choir, a record from the early ’90s. When you find other people who have heard it, it’s like a secret handshake.” | Jim Ousley

You can see Blake Mills opening for Fiona Apple on Saturday, July 14, at the Peabody Opera House in St. Louis. For more information, visit the Peabody website.

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