Californian guitarist Blake Mills spent his early twenties as a go-to performer for artists such as Lucinda Williams and Julian Casablanca. His unique approach to the guitar won him considerable acclaim, with Eric Clapton praising Blake as ‘the last guitarist I heard that I thought was phenomenal.’ Upon the release of his second solo album – ‘Heigh Ho’ – with Verve Records, we caught up with Blake as he ended the first leg of his tour.
Blake credits the caliber of jazz singers like Nina Simone with influencing his unorthodox approach to music. Speaking about Ms Simone, Blake explains that ‘her music takes you on an emotional journey, being exposed to that really opened up my ears. Despite having serious musical talent, Blake remains critical of the bandying about of the ‘best guitarist in the world’ epithet – ‘the instrument is approached so often like something academic and merit based’, he says, ‘people approach it like it’s something you can win as if it was a sport’.
Blake set his recording budget from Verve Records to good use, hiring world-class musicians (Don Was, Jim Keltner, Mike Elizondo, Fiona Apple) and engineers (Tony Berg) who could create a sonically unique record. Blake explains that ‘most people when they have a record budget put that into things that they will see back, like an investment. This wasn’t investing in any of those things, this was investing into something that felt honest and sounded beautiful to me.’
Blake harbors considerable fears over sound quality in the modern era. Speaking on the subject of iTunes and the poor quality of sound derived from streaming, Blake comments that ‘if you try and create dynamics or subtlety in a record, there are so many more instances where that will be lost and pushed out and not having those tools forces your hands as a record maker or songwriter to create music that is full of sugar and stimulants – like junk food – things that in moderation are exciting, but when you gorge on them it’s a frenzy. We have a lot of obese music listeners now suffering from what I think is kind of an epidemic.’ Aside from exemplary sound quality, Blake’s album bends genres, which arises from his refusal to settle for a singular style.
Blake comments that ‘there isn’t a song on this record that exemplifies what the other songs sound like.’ This stems from his session musician background: ‘I’ve been in situations too often when I’m working with a producer on a session and I play something I think is well suited and beautiful, and they go “that’s great but can we get it to be less Hawaiian?” You think “uh yeah sure, what other genres are off the table then?”’
Mills’ record title ‘Heigh Ho’ is a nod to the true definition of the term, which is often misunderstood due to its popularization via Disney’s ‘Snow White’. Blake explains that ‘it’s an exclamation or expression of weariness over something you can’t change.’ This rang true to how he feels about releasing music: ‘putting it out to the world comes with a lot of fear and anxiety, so there’s an attachment to the definition of that expression.’ In the next year you can expect to see a return to the road with a band that, for Blake, has made it ‘a magical tour.’
‘Heigh Ho’ is out now on Verve Records.