With Fiona Apple. Fri., June 29, 8 p.m. $35-$50. Ives Concert Park, Western Connecticut State University’s Westside Campus, 43 Lake Ave. Extension, Danbury. (866) 558-4253, ivesconcertpark.com.
When Blake Mills’ debut album Break Mirrors was released in 2010, there was little fanfare and no real plan to speak of. Until recently, Mills was known primarily for his work as a session guitarist in the studio and/or on the road with folks like Jenny Lewis, Julian Casablancas, Cass McCombs, Band of Horses and Lucinda Williams. He recorded the tracks that would become his record when the opportunity arose, in short spurts while he was home on break from various tours. The last time we’d heard songs actually written by him, he was in the short-lived but well-received band Simon Dawes, the precursor to Dawes (we chatted with Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes a few weeks ago and he tipped us off to Mills’ solo stuff).
But now he’s on tour doing double duty, playing his own material opening for Fiona Apple, and then joining Apple on stage to play guitar during her set. The tour arrives at Danbury’s Ives Concert Park this Friday night.
If you’re jaded like me and you think that just about all new music lacks a certain something, then this might just be the album you’ve been waiting for. Rarely do I hear a new record and immediately text and e-mail a handful of friends (with discerning musical tastes) to go have a listen, out of sheer excitement. It’s been years since I’ve done such a thing, in fact, but that’s precisely what’s just happened.
Break Mirrors is easy on the ears, providing an effortless listening experience. It feels instantly familiar, but not derivative of anything in particular. It’s got a gentle California sound, light and carefree, but with thick vibe-y substance. You might hear things reminiscent of Jeff Buckley (the guitar virtuosity) or Van Morrison (“History of My Life” has a “Madam George” feel) or even Neil Young at times (the looseness and some of the melodies, stylistically speaking) but it’s in no way a rehash. The sounds are warm and natural, the performances superb and the lyrics refreshing, contemporary, and edgy, yet somehow timeless. But Mills doesn’t care to get too wrapped up in recording.
“We had this record finished, and I would’ve been perfectly happy to bury it in the backyard right then and there,” says Mills. “But it was something I was happy to have done with those songs. For the longest time, songs would just sort of sit as finished songs, not necessarily recordings, with me. Because I don’t really get around to recording much. I like playing them, and they change over time so much that sometimes the recording process is a little unromantic to me. But it’s nice to have a recorded version for it to even gravitate away from. I can’t say I’m fully against recording, but I try to procrastinate as long as I can.”
The popularity of Break Mirrors has been building slowly and steadily, mostly by word-of-mouth from fans. And as time marches forward, some of those new fans are very influential in the music business. Rick Rubin, for one, now uses Mills as a go-to session guitarist. And Mills has become an in-demand producer in his own right, notably on the latest Sara Watkins album Sun Midnight Sun.
“Considering how thrown together [Break Mirrors] was, the reaction to people wanting to make records that sound like it is really a shock. It’s exciting, but for whatever reason I don’t know if I’d want to make a record that sounds like that again, because it kind of nailed it. It sounds exactly like that. It could be fun to move away from it, but there’s also something that’s kind of endearing that I’m more confident and proud now that other people are like, ‘Dude, it sounds great.’”
And somehow, even Mills isn’t quite sure how, but Eric Clapton has caught wind of his guitar abilities and invited him to the 2013 Crossroads Guitar Festival at Madison Square Garden.
“So I got this e-mail from someone through my manager saying, ‘Mr. Clapton would like to send Mr. Mills a note, is there a suitable mailing address?’ I thought, ‘This is either going to be a great practical joke, or this is going to be fucking crazy,’ you know?”
Weeks went by with no response, leaving Mills itching with curiosity. Finally, just a couple weeks ago, an invitation arrived.
“[My manager] gets this letter a couple of days before I split for tour, at the office, and he takes a photo of it and sends it to me. I can make out the signature on the bottom but the photo of it is so small I can’t read the words. I try to get it larger and larger and enhance it on my phone, and it won’t get big enough. I call him back and try to get him to dictate it over the phone. Then I made him read it again, in an English accent. It was amazing. It may have even been a form letter for all I know, just with [Eric Clapton] signed at the end of it. Maybe he’d never heard of me, but he was just being told, ‘Here’s someone who could fill in the noon to 1:30 time slot.’ Either way, it’s getting framed and that fucking thing is going on my wall.”
Here's a short documentary on Blake: