Discover Multitalented Blake Mills–Opening for Fiona Apple

Sep 11th, 2012 in Music

Blake Mills is a multi-talented, Venice Beach-based singer-songwriter, studio session and touring band guitarist, and producer who is making serious inroads in virtually all facets of the music industry.  His debut album is entitled Break Mirrors, and it is on heavy rotation on the Lefort jukebox.  The album is highly recommended for those that want to hear subtly-inventive music endowed with well-crafted, heart-rending lyrics and accomplished production.  Mills has skills well beyond his 25 years, having begun playing guitar at the age of 10.  Mills then forged a band (Simon Dawes) with Taylor Goldsmith (of Dawes) while attending Malibu High School.  From there he began playing in studio sessions and opening for or touring with the likes of Lucinda Williams, Conor Oberst, Band of Horses, Cass McCombs and Dawes.  He’s also become a producer for fellow musicians such as Jesca Hoop, Sara Watkins, Dawes and Haim, among others.  Mills will be opening for Fiona Apple tomorrow night at the Santa Barbara Bowl, and then will be playing in Ms. Apple’s band during her set.  Make sure to be there in case he brings Fiona or Jackson Browne out on stage to help him with a song or two.   Or Jackson might just show up to reclaim his Telecaster borrowed by Mills.  We caught up with him via phone while he was on break from the Fiona Apple tour.

TLR:  Your career seems to really be picking up steam on all fronts, and now you’re between legs of the Fiona Apple tour and back home for a break. Good to be home?

Blake Mills:  Well, let’s see, I finished last night at 5:30am and got home and got a little rest. So I’m doing alright. Being on tour and out of town, a lot of studio work piles up so when I get home there’s not a whole lot of time off. With so much going on, it’s hard to say no, that I need to take a break and get some sleep.

TLR:  Sounds a bit like the old Warren Zevon adage, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” huh?

Blake Mills: Exactly.

TLR:  We’ve really enjoyed getting to know your various talents and your debut album (Break Mirrors), which may be getting to be past-history for you given that it was released initially in late 2010.

Blake Mills: Well things have a funny way of repeating themselves, and a lot of topics on that record seem to come back around when you least suspect it.

TLR:  How’s the Fiona Apple tour been going as an opening act and band member?

Blake Mills:  That’s been an interesting dynamic. The dynamic of the opener is oft-times to woo or capture the audience’s attention and sometimes it’s a real steeply-uphill battle.

TLR: We’re amongst those that make sure to catch opening acts, and have seen the difficulties of being an opener play out, and particularly at larger venues.

Blake Mills: It can be difficult. For me to try and fill up 45 minutes with material from the album, which is by its nature somewhat mellow, the odds are somewhat against it at times. Add to that the challenge of some venues that have been designed with bars inside the venue, where you’re watching people who are making drinks and people who are drinking and chatting. With that level of chatter, as the opener you may think “It’s just me,” but then the headliner steps out and gets the same treatment.

TLR: The Santa Barbara Bowl should be good venue for you and Fiona.

Blake Mills: Yeah, Santa Barbara’s incredible. I’ve had the pleasure of playing at the Bowl a couple of times. I came through in the band I was in, Simon Dawes [formed in high school with Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes)], in 2006. We were straight out of high school and on tour opening for Maroon 5. That was interesting in itself, being somewhat prematurely hurtled into the opener spotlight and learning a lot of lessons that I’m still experiencing. But it’s a different game each time.  Worst-case scenario you get to sharpen your methods to quell the chatter. You can try a little jab here and there to see if they’ll come around for you.

TLR: Speaking of jabs, tell us how you came to be such a dynamic guitar player? We read that you picked up the instrument at a young age. So what was your first guitar and what drove you to play it?

Blake Mills: It was a Fender Squire Stratocaster. I bypassed starting with acoustic and went straight to the electric because I really wanted to emulate players that I was seeing on MTV. I was profoundly obsessed with Nirvana at the time, along with some others of that era like Soundgarden, Hole and Metallica. The guitar was just a vehicle to try to be like my heroes at that age.

TLR:  What’s your favorite guitar on tour with you right now?

Blake Mills:  Right now I’ve got this Fender Telecaster on loan from Jackson Browne.  I suspect there are songs inside of his guitar. Perhaps songs that weren’t good enough for him, but they’re good enough for me!  If they’re in there, I’m gonna find ’em.

TLR:  Did you take lessons or were you self-taught, and how did you progress so well?

Blake Mills:  I took a few lessons from the store where we bought the guitar, and asked the guy there just to teach me how to play Smells Like Teen Spirit and Come as You Are, and that was enough for me. Things took off from there. My father didn’t play, but he was a massive music fan and always surrounded by music and musicians. So one day a guitar-player friend of my father’s asked me to play at my father’s house at Topanga Beach. So I played him something from Pinkerton, and this guy picked out by ear and explained to me the chord changes and interworkings of the song without having a guitar in front of him. I couldn’t even tune a string without a tuner, and this guy did all of this by ear, and I just thought that was the coolest magic trick ever.  New goals would pop up from different places like that over time.  I just wanted to figure out how to play everything, and that’s still going on. You see or hear somebody do something mysterious on the guitar, and you think “there’s got to be an explanation for that.”  Most often there is an explanation, but sometimes there isn’t.  And those are the kinds of things that keep it beautiful.

TLR:  Since then have particular players influenced you?

Blake Mills:  There have been a lot of players that have influenced me.  But at a certain point after taking the guitar seriously, I lost a lot of interest in other guitar players and started seeking out other instruments and musicians–horn players, piano players, composers, and their chords and string arrangements, and singers especially.  So other stuff would grab me, and it was hard to appreciate other guitar players. Since then that’s fallen away, and I’ve finally been able to listen to another guitar player and think “Oh my God, that’s fantastic, and a really beautiful way of playing the instrument.”  Some of the guys expanding the horizons of the instrument are John Scofield, Jeff Beck and Derek Trucks, and other guys who push the envelope. O thers have defined the envelope, like Ry Cooder, the Cuban player Manuel Govan, and Richie Valens. These guys were the ones that made the rules, not just the guys who pushed them and broke them. There’s a whole history to the instrument, and so many that have done beautiful things with it.  I’m a little late to the party.

TLR:  But it sounds like you’re continuing to be exposed to all the right players at that party.

Blake Mills:  Well there’s just so much. It’s not like some other areas in music where you think “the Golden Years are over.”  We’re still conjuring the period of greatness for the instrument. We’ve had Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn and a lot of other people who aren’t with us any more, but the guitar is still such a young man’s thing.  The electric guitar especially brings out new players that continue to do new things with the instrument that nobody’s ever heard before.  And you can’t say that for every instrument.  It’s not like there’s a new, world-class bouzouki player that everyone has posters of up on their walls. Whereas with the guitar, there are lot of people who have had and still have posters of Hendrix up on their walls.

TLR:  When did you start to get noticed and sought out for studio and tour playing?

Blake Mills:  It was definitely a gradual thing. It’s funny, when you’re in high school and you want to start a band, play shows and be a rock star, you think that if you don’t play your cards right, the worst that can happen is you could end up a lonely, dissatisfied studio musician.  So it was never the goal at first.  But when I was in a band and doing a lot of touring I found that touring was not really in my blood.  I wanted to stay home and be more grounded.

TLR:  We read somewhere that you said that you hate shows. Tell us about that.

Blake Mills:  Well, there’s a few things about shows that I hate. I love to play. Performing is fine, particularly for people who are interested in listening to it.  But there are shows where you just seem like you’re there to provide music in the event that somebody wants to stop talking, pay attention and listen to it.  What’s funny is it’s not like Fiona is not noticing [how the audience is acting during the opening act].  She’s pretty protective of her opening acts, like we’re her babies.  So she’ll watch and develop an opinion about an audience and give accordingly, which is a little bit of poetic justice that I can hang onto.

TLR:  You’re definitely preaching to the choir on this. We’ve shouted down quite a few people at shows in our lives.  It seems like it’s gotten worse, but it’s never been easy. From our perspective, if you want to go to shows, then go and listen to the music. If you want to talk, then go somewhere else so that both you and the music-fans will be happier.

Blake Mills:  It’s a strange dynamic, especially with the kind of songs and music that I write.  One of the reasons I never went out and toured to support the album is because the songs’ subjects don’t make you want to get up on a soapbox, and say “Now, pay attention to me. I want to tell you this story.” I don’t want to get in a room with people I don’t know and say “alright, here are all these things about me.”

TLR:  And the album’s songs are pretty autobiographical and personal.

Blake Mills:  Yes, the album is very revealing and exposing, and the point was never to put that album up like a Bat Signal. It was an album that I made for selfish, therapeutic reasons, and I’m satisfied with just having made it.  I don’t necessarily need to go out and perform it.  But if people want to hear it, then absolutely I’m not going to shut it away and be a hermit about it.  But if you’re going to be an opener for a big artist, that artist’s fan base is not prepared for it.  And I can sympathize.   So I try to present the songs in an appropriate manner.  The album was recorded two years ago and the songs have evolved. After going out on tour and opening solo with Lucinda [Williams], I sort of boiled the album’s songs down to the core so they were easier to digest and a little more straight-forward.  But then when you try to take that to Fiona Apple’s audience, and they’re used to hearing music that’s more sophisticated, you have to figure out a way to make the songs enjoyable for them.  I’ll just keep experimenting. It’s good for me to get in front of an audience so I can glean something new from it.  Sometimes you just go up and play a couple of really slow, mellow songs to see if they’re going to bite, and sometimes they do.

TLR:  Will anyone else be joining you on stage?

Blake Mills:  The other members of Fiona’s band do come out, including Sebastian [Steinberg] on bass and Amy [Wood] on drums. We had Zack Rae on keys on the last leg, and on this leg we’ve got Patrick Warren. They’re all musicians that I’ve played with for a little while, and they’ll come out and join. I just have them come out for as much as they want to, and it’s really great. It really helps fill out the sound and stage, and make it more fun. They’re all unbelievable musicians. If the audience isn’t listening, at least we’ve got each other [laughs].

TLR:  As an example of what you’re talking about, we saw the Out of Town Films video of you and Sebastian on bass on Hey Lover off the album, and that was great to see [check it out immediately below].

Blake MillsSebastian is phenomenal.

TLR:  Getting back to your career trajectory, you went from Simon Dawes to studio session work and to touring and to production.  Has that been a natural progression or have particular people been instrumental in pushing your career forward?

Blake Mills:  There have definitely been people who have looked out for me, shown me how things have been done by others, and people who have turned me on to music I haven’t heard, all of which influences what you want to do. And then I decided that the best way to experience and appease all these styles that I enjoy is to play sessions.  And then I got called in to do something in the studio, and you have no control over what that’s going to be.  At the beginning you sort of take whatever you can get, and you go in and try to figure out a way to play this little Middle Eastern lick that you’ve heard and fallen in love with on somebody’s folk record.  That’s obviously a different practice and experience than songwriting and being in a band.  So in that sense it’s been a natural progression.  As far as particular people who have been instrumental in my career, I met [stalwart producer] Tony Berg when I was in Simon Dawes, and he produced our record.  That relationship has been very, very fruitful and very inspiring.  Tony’s been a mentor in many ways and encouraged me as a songwriter, as a session guitar player and as a producer.  And my manager Jordan [Tappis], who was the head of Simon Dawes’ record label, and others have encouraged me to do whatever I want, whether a record, session playing, or producing.

TLR:  So with Tony Berg as an influence and with your production work on Jesca Hoop’s, Sara Watkin’s and others’ records, how much importance do you place on producing as compared to songwriting or guitar-playing?

Blake Mills:  It’s hard to quantify how much because the reason I got into production in the first place was people heard my album and liked the sound on the album and how I’d recorded the drums or the guitar, all of which I learned starting with Simon Dawes and writing and recording with them.  So production was always part of the process, even when it was something I wasn’t being hired to do. But it’s fun for me.  Somebody can tell me that they’ve got a song and don’t know what to do with it, and I’ll hear it and tell them “here are some different ways you can play the song. You can strip it down or even remove the guitars here, or you can add a guitar solo here.”  It’s just fun to offer options to somebody who is lost and try to help them produce their song.  More than anything it’s deciphering the magic tricks, helping to articulate a sound and helping them to achieve a sound.

TLR:  So along these lines, we watched y0ur IFC video and heard several musicians in the video intimate how strong-willed you are with respect to music.  Out of curiosity, does the following lyric from Hey Lover relate to this issue: “Sometimes I hate trying to be so bold, but nothing else seems to get the story told”?

Blake Mills:  [Laughs] I suppose it can speak to that thing in me that’s direct and straightforward.  I kind of orbit between being a person who has a really strong opinion about something and somebody who is really open-minded.  The funny thing about that IFC film is that after it came out, people who appeared in the film called to apologize and say how unfair that segment had been given everything else they had said about me.  I told them I understood and not to worry about it.  But it’s been a long road for me to become more agreeable, and a growing experience to do sessions and production where it’s not just about you and your artistic statement. Instead it’s about somebody else–the songwriter your working with, the band that you’re playing with on the record.  You’re pleasing someone else, and that forces you to be more open-minded and put your ego aside.  That’s been a good thing for me to learn in doing this other work, that it’s someone else’s statement and you’re just trying to figure out how to help them articulate it.

TLR:  Getting back to your own “statements” and Break Mirrors, were those songs written over a long or short period of time?

Blake Mills:  They were written at different times.  Some of the songs I had had for a little while before recording them, and some were pretty new at the time.

TLR:  Are you continuing to write songs and will there be another album?

Blake Mills:  I’d love to make another album.  There are definitely more songs and more happening in my life that will yield songs.  It’s somewhat a matter of when to pull the trigger, where you say “OK, this is a good batch, we can make something out of these.”

TLR:  And what percentage of your songwriting is “spontaneous inspiration” versus painstaking attention to crafting a song?

Blake Mills: The music is always spontaneous, and the lyric is always a craft. The music is the language I’m more fluent in than the lyrics.  It’s a little more mysterious how to pull lyrics and grab those phrases.  That’s a more mysterious process to me.  I work with people all the time who are naturals at lyric-writing so I know what that looks like.  That’s not how I’m wired, but I have an appreciation for it.

TLR:  If it’s any consolation, we can tell that you actually craft your lyrics and don’t just “copy-paste a Google search and send it to myself” as you described on Hey Lover.  On the music front, with a couple of well-done exceptions on the album, you seem to share with the Dawes guys the gift of tasteful restraint as opposed to showy histrionics.  Is this a conscious philosophy of yours?

Blake Mills:  There was the era of being impressed by music rather than being moved by it, but my favorite experience has always been carthasis and being emotionally moved by a song, rather than being impressed by a musical performance. That’s what I’m after and what does it for me.

TLR:  And does that philosophy carry over to the stage or do you stretch out a little more?

Blake Mills:  Yes, on stage you’re not trying to impress somebody, but you can stretch out a little bit.  You’re inspired to go for something new because it’s a performance.  Sometimes you’re trying different things to capture the audience’s attention as an opener, and that’s the route you take.  But I never enjoy it.  I feel as if they’re responding to guitar acrobatics and you’re just a little entertainer. And that’s not really what I’m good at.

TLR:  That’s the unfortunate thing since you have a reputation as a skilled guitar-player and with that comes the expectation that you’re going to strut some stuff I suppose.

Blake Mills:  I guess so, but what they don’t know is that my favorite stuff isn’t what’s most impressive, but what’s sentimental.  That’s the kind of playing I try to go after, and I’m getting closer and closer to that as time goes on.  And that may impress somebody, but it may bore somebody else.

TLR:  There are some very well-done and very affecting songs on Break Mirrors, so you’re really making inroads and your mark on that front.  The History of My Life and the Elliot-Smith-ish Hiroshima immediately come to mind as very personal, very great songs [Check them both out immediately below].

History of My Life:

[audio:|titles=09 History Of My Life]


[audio:|titles=04 Hiroshima]

TLR:  We have to ask, was somebody in particular the genesis for the lyric and sentiment in Hiroshima?

Blake Mills:  [Laughs] No, not really. That song’s lines just came from the ominous realization that any good time is a good time before a bad time.   That there’s a constant calm before a storm.  That’s just how things are propelled. And vice-versa.  As bad as things seem right now, you’re actually in the hey day of life before another cataclysm.  The song came out of that realization.

TLR:  Given your participation (with Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top) in the Fleetwood Mac tribute album, we can’t help mentioning that great Fleetwood Mac allusion in your song Wintersong [check it out at 1:58 and after below].  Jesca Hoop does a great Stevie Nicks on that call-and-response section.


[audio:|titles=05 Wintersong]

Blake Mills:  That was a conscious tribute. Yes, Jesca can fulfill many roles. She’s been out on tour with Peter Gabriel and did all the Kate Bush parts for him.  She’s incredible and kind of made that song (Wintersong). The song existed as just the front half for a long time, and it just didn’t feel like a complete statement. So the outro came shortly before we recorded it.  It’s a fun song to sing if you have someone to sing it with you.  Maybe I’ll work something up with Fiona and see if she wants to tackle it.

TLR:  A few musical moments that we particularly like on Break Mirrors are the out-of-the-blue wailing-with-strings segment on Like It’s Something New and the raucous closing-instrumental segment of Under the Underground.  Are those examples of the producer in you taking over matters more?

Blake Mills:  Yes, or just the more idealistic, more adventurous person who gravitated to other instruments than the guitar and  who tries to make the guitar sound like a bunch of different instruments.  When you’re making a record and you have options at your disposal, that’s the time to try different things.

TLR:  With all of your different talents (guitar-playing, songwriting, singing, producing), how do you see your career going forward, and what’s the ultimate goal?

Blake Mills:  This is the goal.  Just to keep all of the plates spinning.  I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing.  And so if I’m ready to make a record, I’ll make a record.  If I can go on tour, then I’ll go on tour.  It’s just a trick to figure out how to keep all the irons in the fire.  It can be exhausting, but it’s a lovely way to kill a day.  I’m getting to fly really close to the sun and get away with it.

TLR: It seems like in that process you’ve been involved with phenomenal people (Conor Oberst, David Rawlings, Jackson Browne, etc.) and all the dots are coming together nicely for you.

Blake Mills: Yes, I’ve admired all the people you mentioned, and I’m amazed by it all.

TLR:   As noted, you’ve played with and for a great many artists/producers, but is there someone you covet playing with that you haven’t?

Blake Mills:   I would love to play with Tom Waits one day.  Between those two guys, Jackson Browne and Tom Waits, that’s enough for the next 40 years.

TLR:  How’d you get everyone to show up at the Mollusk Surf Shop (in Venice Beach) [check out a sample below]?

Blake Mills: It’s just a good time. It’s a great time for people to play without feeling like they’re performing.  It first came about when there were a bunch of guitar players in town, and we were looking for a place to go and play after-hours.  And we just thought of that shop, post-closing.  We started leaving the door unlocked, and people would just wander in to hear music and call their buddies.  I never advertised the shows, and the news just spread through the back channels.  The beauty is you don’t worry if people are going to show up, you don’t worry about how many CDs you sold, and people don’t talk because they feel like they’re in somebody else’s environment.  They’re there to be impressed and enjoy it.  It’s right off the boardwalk so all sorts of people walk in.  It’s fascinating that people will be walking by and you can see them think, “That sounds like Jackson Browne,” and they’ll open up the door of a surf shop, and there’s Jackson Browne.

TLR:  Speaking of Jackson Browne, how did you get together with him?

Blake Mills:  Through Dawes and Benmont Tench, and the Largo crew.

TLRBrowne has had a large presence and history in Santa Barbara, at the Santa Barbara Bowl and on the Central Coast, as a musician and activist.  Do you expect him at the Bowl?

Blake Mills:  We’ll see what he’s up to.  He’s been talking about trying to catch a few of the shows.  If he shows up in Santa Barbara, I might put him to work.  Maybe he can be Jesca/Stevie Nicks on a song.

TLR:  We look forward to it.

As a great departing shot, check out Mills with Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes) and Danielle Haim (of Haim) on Conan performing a cover of Bob Dylan’s Heart of Mind that was included in Amnesty International’s recent Dylan Tribute album.


  • Thanks Lenny! Was great to meet you and watch your boys and Dawes, together with Blake, put on yet another outstanding show in Santa Barbara! As he showed again here last Wednesday, Blake is a formidable songwriter, player and singer, with age-inappropriate musical wisdom.

  • Love your Blog, Kim! It’s knowledgeable, contemporary, unbiased and intelligent…wow, what a novel approach! When it comes to people like Blake Mills…I’m his most ardent fan…you’re attempting to enlighten the listening public to try and grasp the enormity of this young man’s genius. He’s leading the parade of his generation into some uncharted musical territory. I’ve known him since he was ten when he met my sons at my home. He blew my mind then…and he still does…every single time! Thanx for spreading the word. He’s not just a guitar player…genuine originality encompasses sooo much more! Here’s to 2014!! LG


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