Blake Mills is busy. The 25-year-old guitar prodigy has worked relentlessly in recent years as an in-demand session and touring musician, collaborating with a wide range of artists — from Lucinda Williams and Danger Mouse to Kid Rock and Julian Casablancas, among many others — nearly all of whom use hyperbolic language to describe his unique talents.
Over the last year Mills has also produced recordings by Dawes, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, Jesca Hoop, Haim and Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins. And now he’s touring with Fiona Apple, both as her guitarist and as her opening act, a set largely culled from his solo debut, Break Mirrors. Recorded a couple years ago in between his other musical endeavors, the album is a lush, Folk-inflected collection that brings to mind everything from Wilco (the jaunty “Hey Lover” would be right at home on Summer Teeth) to Elliott Smith (“Hiroshima” sounds like a long-lost gem from XO).
CityBeat recently touched base with Mills, who was speaking by cell phone from Phoenix.
How’s the tour going so far?
Each show is kind of different; each show is sort of its own story. Fiona is so emotionally raw (that) the songs kind of take on a life of their own from night to night. It’s been interesting to see her process.
You’ve worked with an interesting array of people, artists who work in a variety of genres and who have vastly different degrees of experience. What did you take from them when it came time to write and record your own material?
Oh, man, everything. I spent a year with Lucinda (Williams) on the road and almost every night I was on the bus talking to her about writing and recording and what it was like when she was making records when there was no genre called Alternative Country. That’s definitely one of the reasons what I wanted to keep everything going all at once — the session stuff and the collaborative work and a little touring and writing and doing solo stuff — because each one makes me want to do the other. Producing somebody just makes me want to go and be an accompanist, a guitarist for somebody. And then that makes you want to write, and writing makes me want to be back out on the road and perform other people’s songs. It feeds the creative animal. It’s sort of this wheel of fortune — of good fortune.
Did you always know you wanted to put out your own stuff?
Not really. I’ve written since I started doing music professionally, but as far as doing anything with the stuff that I write, there wasn’t really a plan for it. I thought the record would be kind of like a calling card — almost like a business card — to get to people I either wanted to co-write with or produce or something that could sort of travel ahead of me and perhaps reach somebody to help to get a foot in the door. The point of it was a little different than what most records are set up to be, and I’m kind of happy about that because the record is so revealingly autobiographical that I would feel weird about turning it into a commodity and self-advertise for it and promote it.
I was playing the record for some friends the other night and someone asked if it was Wilco. Your voice does sound a bit like Jeff Tweedy’s and your guitar playing is similar to Nels Cline’s.
That’s a great compliment. Those guys are fantastic at taking traditionally put-together songs and making pretty exploratory recordings with them. I feel like that’s what I’m trying to do with the record. To your point, on Twitter somebody said it was like listening to Jeff Tweedy and Nels Cline if they were one person, which was kind of funny.
As a musician who has grown up in the age of the Internet, I’m curious how you think it has impacted music both creatively and on the business side.
I think its effects on creating an arena for information to be immediately accessible is obviously one of its strongest pros. It’s just like this giant library, which will help if people know how to use it. On a different side of things, I think it’s really unfortunate that not just music but that creative art and intellectual property have become treated sort of like table water. I know artists that are now like, “I want to make the records available for free.” I was one of those people. … I don’t feel that way anymore. I feel like if someone is going to make enough of a sacrifice in their life to make a record and write songs and go through that, it should either be ignored or it should be listened to and consumed and compensated.
BLAKE MILLS plays with and opens for FIONA APPLE Saturday at the Aronoff Center.