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What's Up Magazine

Notes from the Road: Blake Mills

Jun 20, 2012 05:04PM ● By Anonymous

Now, Mills is finally touring in support of his own music: his debut solo album Break Mirrors.

What’s Up? chatted with Mills to get his thoughts about his upcoming gigs.

Q: You’re about to embark upon one of the most highly anticipated tours of the summer. How do you get ready for something like this?

A: We spent a lot of time working on Fiona’s set. I don’t know if this would be the same if I weren’t so busy, but in this case my preferred method is procrastination and not dealing with the inevitable. Instead I kind of see what is mentally available to me when I get up there on stage, and try to figure out how her crowd gets entertained.

People are so anxious to see her that if you put anyone up on stage the majority of the audience is just going to wonder “Who is this guy, and where’s Fiona?” So, I just have to keep people interested for 3 or 40 minutes, and then get out of there.

Q: How did the partnership with Fiona Apple come about?
A: I was working on a record with Sarah Watkins, and they’re close. Fiona came in to sing a track on the record, and I was producing the record it. We had kind of been in the same place same at the same time a few times before, like when I was sitting in with Sarah at Largo, but this was the first time we got to hang.

I think she wrote me a note afterward saying she loved what we were doing and the sound of what was going on over there, that she had made this record, and that she wanted to throw me in the mix or recruit me for her live shows. It was just a pretty natural luck of the draw sort of thing. Right place, right time.

Watch a video of Blake Mills performing "Hey Lover" below.

Q: How would you describe your music in relation to hers?
A: Her back catalog is pretty frantic sounding, to me. Her music is really sophisticated, and I would say in comparison to that stuff my stuff might be a little boring. Her new record is stripped down to the point where it’s still sophisticated, but the presentation is a lot barer.

So, my stuff is a little more similar to her new record, but I don’t think it approaches the worldliness that her music has had since Day 1. A lot of my songs are about ages 5-22, and the stuff I experienced in that time might not add up to the stuff that she went through. So, more than a musical different, maybe it’s just a cultural or geographical one. On the other hand, the set that I do is mainly just me and my guitar, so the sound is going to be a lot different from even the way she made her record

Q: You recently toured with Lucinda Williams. What are some of the differences or similarities between the two women?
A: A good friend of mine once had a great way of describing some of the artists he works with:
With crazy talent comes a fair amount of crazy.

It’s funny because things are said about both of those artists as people and before you meet them, you have this fear built up about how crazy they’re gonna be. And both of them ended up being completely pleasant hangs. Lucinda was like my mom, it was very disarming.

People like Lucinda and Fiona go through life surrounded by people like they need handlers, but they don’t.  They’re totally normal, down to earth (I know that’s an overused phrase, but they are!). If you have something on your mind about the show or not the show, for example, it doesn’t feel uncomfortable to throw it out there.

They both also have pre-show am “Am I gonna be good? Am I gonna be good?” worries. I’ve never seen either of them, in rehearsal or sound check, utter something that was under the quality of their show. The quality is naturally there.

The last little run we did with Fiona, for example, she was making up a melody for the last couple verses of one of her songs, and the melody sounded like it 100 years old. It was a completely classic melody that you’ve heard for years. She’s just so in the moment that it’s pretty inspiring.

Q: This is your first debut solo album, but you’re not new to the industry. As a session guitarist, what were some of your career highlights? What made you want to leave all that and go out on your own?
A: In the past, whenever session stuff came kind of it wasn’t really the plan. In high school, being a session musician is a horror story. You hear things like, “if you don’t do this now, you could end up being a session musician.” So, my band toured for a few years, mostly as an opening band. But, I wasn’t really cut out for the pace of touring and the pressures of being expected to write. It’s like being handed the microphone over and over again, and everyone asks you “Speak! Speak!” I didn’t have enough to say to crank out album after album.

So, I had to figure something else out. I started getting called into playing on friends’ record. That turned into the records of friends of friends, and then it blossomed into pretty steady work.

Along the way, that transition from being the guy who had to make the artist’s statement to the guy who had to interpret others’ helped me grow up as a person and musician, and become more agreeable and objective. So, I’m taking that back to the process of songwriting, singing, and making solo records. I’m trying to be a little more grounded, and use the experience that I’ve had in making records with other people. It’s been nothing but beneficial. The songwriting has even helped me in sessions because I think songwriters respond to parts that I come up with. They’ll say things like “it’s great, you don’t play like a session guy—you take chances.”

Q: Would you ever want to go back to producing? Or are you going to focus solely on your performance career for a while?
A: I’m not taking anything off the fire. This is certainly not a departure. The plan is to add this on top, and continue doing everything.

 I don’t think my songwriting will benefit from stopping the production, the session work, or the touring. As much as I feel like I’m not cut out for the 200-days-a-year touring circuit, I think if I’m behind closed doors for too long behind scenes, I think the record-making suffers. The idea is to just keep be prolific in each area so that I can afford to pick and choose stuff that I want to do, and not to gig for money. I just want to be proud of what I’m working on.

Q: You’ve had a busy year already. What’s next on your radar?
A: I want to build a studio so that I can be even busier. I want to have a place where I can produce records and write and record my own records. Having a home base to work out of would increase my productivity 10 fold. Right now, if an opportunity to make a record comes up, I just call around and see what studios are available. I just kinda wanna have my own space

Working on soundtracks for film would be amazing, and so would co-writing. There are a lot friends who for years have been saying, “Oh we gbotta so something together.” So to have a place to make good on that would be pretty profound for somebody like me.

So that’s my goal or the next year. And then, along the way, just see what comes down the line.

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