A peerless guitarist spills his guts
From the magazine: ISSUE 90, Feb/March 2014
Blake Mills mostly sat. His collaborator, Fiona Apple, bounced on one foot and bowed her legs throughout their performance in New York last fall, but Mills, even as his long bangs bounced when he yanked the neck of his guitar, somehow seemed still. At 28, he’s easily one of America’s finest strummers. Extending the end of his song “Seven,” he fired up a rough-chugging solo before slyly winding down the volume as he played, hushing till the knob surely read zero. Yet still he went on, the audience rapt at the just-barely rattling of a turned-off electric guitar, the instrument sleeping but dreaming fitfully in his hands.
Mills raises hell humbly, touching the spotlight then receding. Growing up in Malibu as something of a prodigy, 14-year-old Mills performed with the Allman Brothers Band and opened for Lynyrd Skynyrd. “A lot of people remember me as the kid who always had his dad with him,” he says, “because I couldn’t get into the venues we played unless he was there with me.” In the decade-plus since, as a touring guitarist and session player, he’s left his mark on the music of Lucinda Williams, Lana Del Rey and a dozen other big-timers. Then in 2010, Mills discreetly released Break Mirrors, his debut solo album, originally only sold at a surf shop near his home in Venice Beach. “The album was full of pretty personal and exposing material,” Mills explains. “It didn’t feel like a record I wanted to advertise. I would’ve been just as happy to finish it and bury it.” More a bullheaded student of music than an aspiring star, he says he made Break Mirrors to experiment with songwriting; as such, its guitar styling emphasizes subtlety and restraint, better underscoring the considered storytelling. Mills writes vignettes for verses, flipping memorable phrases like his father’s striving to keep the checkbook tighter than a duck’s ass going down a water slide, or Mills’ telling a girlfriend he wants to have children and fuckin make the first letters of their first names match.
Despite his initially minor ambitions, something has prodded on Mills’ solo career. This September, his sophomore effort, Heigh Ho, arrives via the label Verve, a fitting home for his era-less blend of country, soul and rock & roll. Guitar features more prominently on this LP than his first, with some tight notes picked dry, others’ drizzling slow, and chords gently creeping, weeping and howling. Once again, Mills’ lyrics bite, often himself the hardest. On “Don’t Tell Our Friends About Me,” he pleads, I know I fucked up at least a dozen times. On “If I Am Not Worthy,” dueling guitar solos crash like tornados kissing, and when Mills opens his mouth, it’s all self-doubt: I’ll wrap you in my arms, babe/ See if I’m strong enough/ But what if I’m unworthy of the power I own over you? For the shy Mills, such visceral songwriting is enabled by his primary gig as a hired-gun guitarist; compartmentalizing soul-baring as a side project keeps him from feeling entirely exposed. It’s a secret to his success of which Mills is well aware. “Sometimes the most beautiful brush strokes are made with thoughtless effort, without premeditation or the pressure to make it work,” he says, a master of precision and craft, even when he thinks it half-assed.