Mills’ trip began with Simon Dawes, the young L.A. rock outfit he formed with his childhood pal Taylor Goldsmith. They made an album, Carnivore, and eventually shared stages with some of the biggest bands in America, cranking out a fresh yet classic sound the Los Angeles Times called “exhilarating.”
After his collaboration with Goldsmith ran its course, Mills moved into the next phase of his career, as sideman to the stars. He moved quickly, too: In only a few short years Mills has become one of the most in-demand session guitarists in all of Los Angeles, touring with Cass McCombs, Jenny Lewis, Band of Horses and Julian Casablancas and recording with Weezer, Kid Rock, Jakob Dylan , Andrew Bird, and Jesca Hoop, among others.
“When it comes to playing guitar for other people,” he says, “...a lot of my dreams have already come true.”
Now Mills is taking center stage with a set of tunes that reflect that extraordinary wealth of experience. Recorded in casual bursts between other gigs over the course of much of 2009, Break Mirrors strikes a perfect balance between talent and tastefulness: You won’t miss Mills’ impressive playing—check out the fuzzy slide guitar solo on “Hiroshima,” for starters—but what sticks with you is his songwriting, which hits a bittersweet coming-of-age note.
In “It’ll All Work Out” he analyzes his parents’ marriage and comes to some surprising conclusions, and “History of My Life” ponders the best way to celebrate one’s privileges. (“It’s about a humility that comes with the transition into adulthood,” Mills says with typical thoughtfulness.) Elsewhere, “Cheers” documents a painful breakup, while “Hey Lover” celebrates the healthy relationship Mills is in right now.
“I wrote that song while I was on a tour and showed it to her when I got back home,” he says. “And then we actually ended up singing it together on this record.” With a laugh Mills describes the track as “my first song of having someone after one too many songs of longing.”
“Hey Lover” may only be rivaled by the album's artwork, for which Mills sought the help of acclaimed artist Sage Vaughn; together, the two collaborated in creating a collage that represents each song.
The music on Break Mirrors comes out of a long tradition of mellow Southern California rock. Yet, perhaps thanks to Mills’ work for other artists, the songs also reveal traces of something entirely different.
There’s also a sly sense of humor in much of the material that Mills credits to his time with Ben Bridwell and Ryan Monroe (Band of Horses). “There's a humor in some people's music that is not kitschy,” he explains. “And in some of those cases it ends up uncovering a certain kind of despair.”
The result is a record that feels as expansive as it does intimate, as forward-looking as it is nostalgic. Blake Mills is much more than the session guy, the band member, or the solo artist. Here is the proof.
It'll All Work Out for Blake Mills
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Lucinda Williams's intimate performance set for this week at the Belly Up is already sold out and hi...Lucinda Williams's intimate performance set for this week at the Belly Up is already sold out and highly anticipated. Although many are going to see the legend herself, many music fans are just as excited to see the up-and-coming guitar prodigy Blake Mills, who has been quietly making waves for the last few years as a member of the now defunct Simon Dawes (which later evolved into the LA-based Dawes) and as a touring partner of Cass McCombs, Lucinda Williams, Jenny Lewis, Band of Horses and Julian Casablanca. And that's not to mention Mills' recording work with Weezer, Kid Rock, Jakob Dylan, Norah Jones and Andrew Bird.
Then, Mills released a fantastic debut album in 2010, Break Mirrors. I've been a fan of his for years, yet the Huffington Post recently claimed he was "the First Great Revelation of 2012." Not to play the cool-kid card, but his recent mainstream recognition makes me feel like the indie community is about to lose another best-kept secret. Mills' success is inevitable, however; he's an undisputed guitar-shredding champ and a superb songwriter. Break Mirrors clocks in as one of my favorite records of all time; excuse the hyperbole, but you're just going to have to listen to it to understand. Songs like "Hey Lover" and "It'll All Work Out" have gorgeous undertones of sadness and humor dressed in storytelling that doesn't bother playing around with poetic lyrical devices, instead just showcasing straight singing: "Thank you, Dad, I love you/And I hope you're proud/And I'm sorry that I didn't take the road you laid down, but it'll all work out". He seems to have resurrected the lost art of songwriting, returning it to its traditional folk roots with some really interesting instrumentation that evokes so much range of emotion.
Mills' aloof attitude plays into his mythology well, and the comedic digital collages and album artwork he chooses suggests that he doesn't care much for PR exposure or fitting into the overhyped Pitchfork machine. It's as if he knows something we all don't -- and that's his allure. His extraordinary musical talent will carry him through, and he doesn't need to worry about whether his promo photos look right. So far, it's working. He just appeared on Conan O'Brien to perform a Dylan cover as his contribution to the Amnesty International compilation, along with Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes and Mills' girlfriend LA artist Danielle Haim. Aspiring musicians, take note.
For those of you lucky enough to snag a ticket to the show, keep your eyes on Blake Mills' set: It's sure to be something special.
Blake Mills: Off the Radar? Or the First Great Revelation of 2012?
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Congratulations. For once, you are hearing about a monster talent before the Kool Kids. That'...Congratulations.
For once, you are hearing about a monster talent before the Kool Kids.
That's because Break Mirrors is close to a secret. Blake Mills recorded his debut CD in a friend's studio in 2009, when he was 22. He released it -- in the summer of 2010 -- on a tiny label and sold it only at Mollusk, a surf shop in Venice, California. The kid on the cover? That's a friend, not Blake. In other words: a very well-kept secret. His CD, as I write, is ranked 320,000 on Amazon; the MP3 is around 25,000.
Blake Mills has played with a few bands and been an opening act for a few others. (Sample message board comment: "That kid burned Charlotte to the ground.") Just before Christmas, he gave a Blake Mills kind of performance -- at Mollusk.
My friend Robert Smith -- a writer and painter of considerable talent who spends his days and the occasional night as a music executive of considerable talent -- pinged me afterwards: "His band was Dawes [a highly regarded Los Angeles group], Benmont Tench [legendary keyboardist, originally with Tom Petty], Jackson Browne [no introduction necessary], his talented girlfriend Danielle Haim and others. Two and a half hours for a handful of friends, family and fans."
Can you see him? Eventually. At some point. Maybe in a while. Until then: videos.
In his videos -- no surprise: they're just as low-key -- you will not see a rock star in the making. You will see something better: mature, impeccable lyrics, dazzling guitar playing, great range.
Bottom line: a major talent, an actual artist, a musician without an upper limit.
But the last thing I want to do here is put Blake Mills on a platform and ask you to worship with me. He's not the new Bob Dylan. Not the next anybody. And that's what is so exciting about him -- without any hype, with no great charisma, without even much in the way of stage presence, he is the immediate future of intelligent music. [To buy the CD from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]
Intelligence suggests seriousness. We'll get to that. Less usually said is that intelligence includes humor -- and on that score, Blake Mills is a delight. Witty. Fun, in an almost pop way. With a sharp eye for absurdity and a welcome interest in sharing it. Start with the title of the CD -- Break Mirrors has no deep meaning, it's what the order-takers at a take-out Chinese restaurant thought his name was. He can be deadly serious about his parents -- "They weren't in love, but they took care of me" -- but he's also, in "It'll All Work Out," droll and affectionate about them. [For the MP3 download, click here.]
Rising talent Blake Mills to open for Fiona Apple at the Tower
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With "The Idler Wheel" being Fiona Apple's first album in seven years, all the fanfare surrounding h...With "The Idler Wheel" being Fiona Apple's first album in seven years, all the fanfare surrounding her tour, which stops at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby June 27, is understandable.
The album, to be released on Tuesday, will bow amid a flurry of positive reviews, from Spin and Rolling Stone to Entertainment Weekly and NPR, and a string of late-night talk appearances, including a slot on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" tonight.
But Apple's guitarist on the tour, 24-year-old Los Angeles native Blake Mills, is deserving of some attention on his own.
The guitar virtuoso, who will open for Apple, as well, has been one of the most in-demand session players in L.A., touring with artists like Cass McCombs, Lucinda Williams, Jenny Lewis and Band of Horses and recording with Weezer, Kid Rock, Jakob Dylan, Rick Rubin, Dangermouse, Norah Jones, Andrew Bird and Jesca Hoop, among others.
His impromptu jam sessions at the Mollusk surf shop in Venice Beach typically draw a “whose who” list of guitar-playing songwriters, including Jackson Browne, Dave Rawlings and Charlie Sexton.
And just last month he was personally invited by Eric Clapton to perform at his highly successful Crossroads Guitar Festival at Madison Square Garden next year to benefit Clapton's drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Antigua. The music icon hailed Mills as "among a group of players whose virtuosity (he's) long admired."
But now Mills is becoming know for more than just his guitar chops. Turns out, he's also a smart and witty songwriter, as those who are discovering his debut CD "Break Mirrors" are learning. Mills released the disc, which he recorded in 2009, on a small label the following year. So quiet and unassuming was the project the image he used on the cover was that of a friend and he sold it only at Mollusk.
It's since been making its way to some significant ears, however, suddenly placing him well above the radar two years after its release. Mills, who used to be in Dawes back when the group was still known as Simon Dawes, is now touring in support of his own music without the assistance of a big marketing push or heavy Internet buzz — proving that good, honest music can still find an audience.
He has a sound that could be classified as roots or folk but he pushes the boundaries of both on "Break Mirrors," a title, incidentally, inspired by the name he was erroneously given by the staff handling his take-out orders at a Chinese restaurant.
There are no upcoming dates at this time.