It'll All Workout0:00
Traditionally, when bands play late night talk shows, they face the cameras and play towards the audience. Virtually every artist does it the same way. This past January on Conan, in his first nationally televised performance as a solo artist, Blake Mills, rather than adapt to the format, bent it to adapt to him. Seated in a wooden chair with Danielle Haim and childhood pal Taylor Goldsmith circled around him, Mills transformed the grand setting into an intimate living room affair as he dove headfirst into "Heart Of Mine," an 80's Bob Dylan tune Blake covered for a recent Amnesty International benefit. With deftly arranged slices of slide guitar and honeyed harmonies, Mills swallowed the Dylan track and spit out something unequivocally his own.
At 25, the Venice-based musician has already stacked up a career's worth of gigs as a session and touring guitarist, playing with a diverse array of musicians that span from Lucinda Williams to Fiona Apple. Artists of all kinds seek out Mills when they're looking for something extra special. When producers like Rick Rubin need a guitarist, Mills is the first call. His flawless technique, uncanny confidence, and unique interpretation of every piece of music he touches has turned Mills into one of the most in-demand players in the music business. It's not just the notes he plays, it's often the notes he doesn't.
"He's the first virtuoso I've ever met who doesn't let his virtuosity get in the way," explains producer Tony Berg. "It's been ages since there was an instrumentalist in popular music who was as compelling a stylist as he is."
As a guitarist, Mills is in a league of his own. As a songwriter, he's downright intimidating. After cutting his teeth in Simon Dawes, the band he co-founded in high school with Goldsmith, Mills stepped out on his own, recording the highly personal 9- song album, Break Mirrors.
There's something singular about discovering a truly great record before the rest of the world calls it their own. For an ever-increasing number of music fans, that's Break Mirrors. The original intention of the album was to serve as a calling card for Mills to get session work. But despite the low-key nature of its release, friends and fellow musicians began testifying about the strength of the album. Within months, as burned CD's and cassettes were passed around, that small group of fans quickly turned into a mass of believers. By the end of 2011, a handful of web sites and bands were hailing Break Mirrors as one of the year's very best.
Prodigious musicians often fall into the trap of using every opportunity to showcase their talent. On Break Mirrors, Mills does the exact opposite. It's a textbook example of restraint. Mills felt his guitar work was sufficiently featured in other aspects of his career and chose to let the songwriting on Break Mirrors stand on it's own.
As a collaborator, Mills never vies for the spotlight. Instead, he works to elevate the level of play of everyone around him. Over the last five years Mills has accompanied artists such as Fiona Apple, Lucinda Williams, Conor Oberst, Julian Casablancas, Cass McCombs, Band of Horses and Dawes.
In late 2011, after spending back-to-back years on tour and in the studio playing on other people's records, Blake decided it was time to move into the producer's chair. "I've recently enjoyed working in the studio as a producer," says Blake. "It's given me the opportunity to explore concepts that are sometimes broader than just guitar parts."
In less than a year, Mills has produced recordings for ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, Jesca Hoop, Haim, Dawes and Nickel Creek's Sara Watkins.
"One of the cool things about playing with Blake is he brings out something in you," says friend and frequent collaborator Jackson Browne. "[When you play with him] you're immediately contacted on a level that's inspiring."
Blake Mills is often compared to legends like Ry Cooder, Jon Brion, even Beck and Elliott Smith. Flattering as comparisons are, Mills has already carved out his own unique musical identity. There's a real visceral and antagonistic edge to his personality that, when augmented with the elegance of his musicality, yields an uncompromising vision. It's not always easy and it doesn't always end up the way one might expect, but when it comes to Blake Mills one thing is always true: it will be extraordinary.
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