Blake Mills isn't a household name, but like classic sidemen of lore (David Lindley, Ry Cooder, Leon Russell), he's makes an impact wherever he shows up.
As a guitarist in Fiona Apple's band (he's performing with her on Tuesday, September 18, at Mesa Arts Center), Lucinda Williams, Cass McCombs, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, Katey Segal, Conor Oberst, Julian Casablancas, and more, Mills has turned heads with his guitar prowess. But he'll be opening Apple's shows on her upcoming tour as a solo act, as well, performing songs form his 2010 record, Break Mirrors.
The songs ought to earn him as much notice. The record is remarkable, balancing folksy balladry with hard-edged pop, acoustic guitar murmurings against electric guitar ravers. Mills' voice is strong and clear -- possessing an ease and confidence that shines on through the songs.
We spoke with Mills about songcraft, his influences, and Fleetwood Mac.
Up on the Sun: You've worked as a session musician, sideman, and producer. What influenced your decision to get on the other side of the process as a songwriter? Blake Mills: Writing songs has always just been something I've done. I started in the sort of professional music world playing in bands and writing, but I've always been moved by songs. Part of being a musician is just trying to pass that on; it's just part of the game. When you write a song and someone goes "Ah, I know that feeling. I've been there." [Songwriting is] driven by the same thing that inspires me to put a record on. When somebody nails something that you've gone through, you get this weird light that goes off in your head, like, "That's exactly what it is, and you put it into words." That's really the gist of it.
Break Mirrors came out in 2010, but the live performances vary greatly from the versions on the record.
All the performances of those songs have had lives of their own, intense and special. It depends on who's around. It depends on what we've been listening to, or who I'm opening for, who I'm playing with. It's fun; it feels a little like a puzzle. If you're going to tell a joke over and over again, you tell if different ways each time. You lead up the punch line differently, but the punch line always stays the same.What kind of difference in headspace does writing your own songs require, versus playing someone else's tune?
When you're playing guitar for somebody else's tune, you're kind of reacting. You're reacting to things that they're giving you. When you're writing, you're processing, trying to understand things, thoughts, and feelings and process them into music and melodies. It's a bit of a different translation process. But they're both trying to interpret something. There are similarities, but for the most part it's a bit of a different thinking cap."It'll All Work" out is a really great song. It's a very funny. You read that title and you expect a saccharin, sweet ditty. I can't help but think about somebody like Warren Zevon, who has that same sardonic tone. Who are some of your lyrical influences?
I think my strongest influences are my friends, who talk like that. They deal with stuff, hardships, in that way, taking everything with a grain of salt. They see the absurdity and humor in things that are depraved, or sad, or hopeless. It's a lens through which a lot of people interpret the world. When you're surrounded by it you sort of have to throw your hands up and say, 'This is ridiculous, almost to a comic extent." I love Zevon, and this group from Australia, The Drones, [featuring Gareth Liddiard] who's a great lyricist. A lot of the great Leonard Cohen stuff is funny, but if I try and use them as influences, I find myself using their devices and it feels like I'm trying to write a country song or a Leonard Cohen song. So it's important for me to try and experience [subjects] in the real world context, or a conversational context, because it's easy to bring that into the songs.
Your bio mentions that you did some work with Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. What did you work on?
It's a track that he did for the Fleetwood Mac tribute record that just came out [Just Say That You Want Me]. It was a song from the Peter Green-era song called "Oh Well." He had mentioned to a mutual friend of ours, Matt Sweeny, who co-produced it, [saying] that he always thought that song would sound really good slowed down. So we took the opportunity to take it really, really slow. We sent it to Billy and he lit up over it, and he came down and played over it and sang, and made it sound really creepy and cool.
That's one of the few songs on the record that isn't from the Buckingham/Nicks period.
The story of that band is one of the best rock 'n' roll stories of all time. The legacy and empire of that band is pretty fascinating. It's every rock 'n' roll story rolled into one. That was a really fun project.Does your work draw from that same Laurel Canyon/Fleetwood Mac sound? It seems like it's just something in the air in Los Angeles.
I think so. It's always something people pick up on, rather than something that I try and fit into the music. It was never the intention to do that. I'm not even totally clear what that sound is.
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As far at the Fleetwood Mac influence, "Wintersong" is a shameless, beer-in-the-air tribute to the Buckingham era. Without a doubt. But a lot of the other influences [on the record], the folky sound of it, were never intended. It wasn't like there was a game plan of what to make it sound like. It was really an experiment in self-production, recording and songwriting. Now, the performances have come so far away from what a lot of them sound like on that record, I [feel like I've] learned something about what not to put on a record, and what to put on one, and how to boil a song down to its bare necessities.
Blake Mills is scheduled to perform Tuesday, September 18, at Mesa Arts Center.