Singer-songwriter and guitar virtuoso Blake Mills is one of those artists you might as well get to know now, because there's a good chance you'll be hearing a lot more about him in the coming years. Aside from co-founding (and then leaving) folk-rock outfit Dawes, Mills released his solo debut Break Mirrors to cult acclaim in 2010 and has toured in bands with an eclectic assortment of artists, including Jenny Lewis, Lucinda Williams, Conor Oberst, Julian Casablancas and the singer he's currently supporting, Fiona Apple.
I spoke with Mills before he took the stage backing Apple at Governors Ball 2012. He told me about playing professionally since age 14, how his session work with Kid Rock turned him (unexpectedly) into a fan and why he once felt "really lost" playing with Fiona's band.
How did you get started playing professionally?
It started being a personal hobby that I spent a lot of time doing because it was my only interest, and the people I hung around with, it tended to be their only interest. Since then it's the only thing I’ve been putting any energy into. And I also live in L.A., so I was in the right place at the right time. I started playing when I was 10, and I started touring and playing shows when I was 14. I was around people that were really sweet and they would make a place for me. I was in a band when I was 14 and we opened for Lynyrd Skynyrd on New Year's Eve in Anaheim. And I came up and played slide [guitar]. I surround myself with people that look out for me. I've been lucky enough to get to pick and choose the stuff that I really believe in and enjoy.
Have you ever played sessions with bands or artists you didn't believe in?
There are those. But one time I got a call to do a record with Rick Rubin. It was the first time I got a call from Rick and I was like, "You don’t even have to ask." You just want to do a record with Rick. It turned out it was for Kid Rock. We got in there and the band was amazing. They hired like six guitar players and they were all my favorites. So we get there and we’re sort of all in the same boat, like, "This is going to be one of the ones we plow through and crack jokes about later." But it turned out to be great. Kid Rock came in with songs that he sang incredibly. He sang like f**king Bob Seger. So sometimes you run the risk of writing sh*t off based on previous records or what you know about the person. But if Kid Rock or whoever is calling somebody like me, they want to do something that I would probably enjoy. So I try to give it more of an open mind.
So you're a fan of him now?
Yeah, a fan of him for sure and a fan of the record. He created a quintessential classic rock record [with Born Free in 2010]. And the guy can sing. There are bands like Buckcherry that rebrand classic rock and I don’t know that they improve it. Kid Rock, he’s not trying to improve anything: He’s resonating with something that already exists and I admire that. Especially for a guy that has a history of metal and rap-rock. It’s so unexpected. And the dude is so disarming. You can’t poke holes in it, he’s the real deal.
With all your session work and supporting other artists on tour, do you have time for your own music?
I stay up pretty late. I like writing in the wee hours anyway. But if I devoted all of my time to writing I’d psych myself out on being able to do any of it. I have to make sure I don't fall into the trap of being too comfortable. I’m not necessarily cut out for the road. But I come back because I get to sit with people like Fiona or Lucinda Williams and talk about songwriting on the bus at night. So I come back and have a few more things to throw at the process.
What's your songwriting process like?
It’s amalgamous, it doesn’t really happen the same way. But they all tend to start from a musical idea and then it comes to trying to get it into an actual song or lyric. The melody and the music come easily. But songs are a little trickier because I don’t want to turn it into something I don’t connect with. But I also don’t want to keep doing a singer-songwriter, personal, introspective song over and over. I’m interested in looking at Fiona and Cass McCombs: people really good at writing impersonally. More like, if it’s a love song, it’s more like Chuck Berry or Buddy Holly and less like Dylan. But even Dylan was good at that in certain eras.
So you didn't play guitar on The Idler Wheel... album. Is that weird having to play on songs when you weren't part of the recording process?
It’s more natural to me, but I can understand how it might be weird. This gig was perfect because she said, "It’s so open ended, there’s not a lot of guitar, I want to hear your ideas."
She lets you improvise a lot then.
It’s a conversation. You start recognizing these moments where something worked the other night and you kind of add to it. It’s always a game of listening to what she’s doing. We were doing rehearsals with the band before Fiona was in town and I was really lost. I was like, "This sounds complete to me, this doesn’t need guitar," and then when she got there, it made sense. My role is more of a conversation with her and her intensity.
Do you get a lot of feedback?
It’s all positive, she loves it. She’s great. She responds physically and emotionally in a big way and it’s obvious when it’s really working: It’s intense and we all feel it and she’s happy.
How did you get in touch with Fiona?
Through Sara Watkins, who I made a record with. Sara introduced me to Fiona, Fiona came and sang on the record and we kind of hit it off from there. It was just that L.A. community, like, all of a sudden you show up and there’s Jackson Browne.
How does playing with her differ from other artists?
The biggest difference is that Fiona’s music is so much more angular than the average song. You have to know the structure of how the song is built and where it’s going, because the turns are often left turns. Lucinda’s music is more of a study in classic themes and what she’s able to do with few chords. So that’s the main difference with Lucinda: She’d show me a record and say, "Let’s do this song today" and I’d say, "Yeah totally." I’d never heard the song before but you trust you’ll be able to find your way around it. But with Fiona, you better listen to it, because there’s no way to prepare for what’s coming out of her mind.
Were you familiar with Fiona's music already?
Not at all. I never had that phase. It was never a situation where I listened to it and said, "This isn’t for me," I just never got around to listening to it. The first thing I heard was the new record and I heard that and I flipped out. And it gave me a context to listen to the old stuff. And a lot of the process with this band and this tour has been to bring some of the older stuff into the aesthetic of the new stuff, the stripped-down thing. So that’s been fun, too.
For our take on Fiona Apple's set at Governors Ball 2012, head over here. And definitely check out our photo gallery of Fiona Apple through the years, reaching all the way back to when she was 18 years old.