Blake Mills on his Dawes past, Fiona Apple's depth, and luck

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Fiona Apple back in Minneapolis in July on U.S. tour

Blake Mills is one of those rare musical finds. At 25, he is one of L.A.'s most in-demand session and backing guitarists, and has already worked with Lucinda Williams, Jenny Lewis, Cass McCombs, the Strokes' Julian Casablancas, Norah Jones, Andrew Bird, and Band of Horses, and that's not even half the names. People keep calling him a guitar "virtuoso" -- and mean it.

A listen to his debut record Break Mirrors is all the proof you need. Besides deft guitar playing, Mills offers some refreshing songwriting; his lyrics are honest without being overt. He doesn't sugar-coat or blend in flowery picturesque fiction, and his voice is smooth like quicksand. And now, two years after the release of Break Mirrors, Mills is touring as the opener for and playing with Fiona Apple on her first tour in seven years. Mills took some time to chat with Gimme Noise about songwriting, his previous life with the Simon Dawes band (otherwise known as Dawes, your favorite local band not from Minnesota), and what's next.

Gimme Noise:
You've done pretty well for yourself -- from the venerable artists you've recorded and toured with and now, touring this summer as the opening act for Fiona Apple. This is no carnival ride. If you could pick one word to describe how that makes you feel, what would it be?

Blake Mills:
I guess I just feel incredibly lucky. Just lucky. Everything had a really natural path... It was sort of like, one day I looked up and looked back and it all kind of happened. It doesn't feel like hard work, but when I think about it, it is. It truly is. It's a lot, touring and stuff, and I'm not necessarily a cut-from-the-cloth sort of natural touring musician. I like staying in L.A. and being in studios and doing one-offs and stuff like that, but there's been a lot of touring and it's primarily because of the caliber of musicians I've had the opportunity to play with, so I'm grateful.

You could have gone on in L.A., playing guitar for the big names. What made this the right time to come out as a solo artist?

Well, I feel like rather than taking the needle off one record and flipping it over, I'm just trying to keep all the records playing at one time. The session playing, the records I still get to play on are just incredible... all the opportunities have just been too good to turn down. In a lot of ways, this hasn't been a big career shift. I'm happy if I can keep everything going at once.

That sounds awesome. And ideal. Okay, so, Break Mirrors is your first debut full-length solo record, but it sure doesn't sound like it. It sounds like something you've had in the works for years. The press is raining in and everyone agrees: your guitar playing is untouchable, your lyrics are masterful. How did you get to this place? What are the experiences and drivers that inform your songwriting?

I think the expanses that I've had in the first 22 years, they're not all that different from general human experiences and adolescence and coming of age. Most of the songs are about that. It's a mix of a debut record being the first try, the beginner's try, and cumulative years of living experience and experimentation. Then you have the second record, and that's where you make some kind of statement about what you do in the two or three year period between.

I feel like I had a lot of tools to work with in making Break Mirrors, and now I'm putting a little pressure on myself to figure something out for the release of the second record. I feel like I did a halfway decent job of exploring those sort of biographical topics on the first record, and there's so much more to talk about... Being a singer-songwriter, it can be very inward and introspective, and there's a whole other direction that can be explored, in the outward thing, in sort of simple views of the world.

That leads into my next question. You don't shy away from the personal in your lyrics. It's an honesty that feels a little more heart-breaking than earnestness, and that takes balls, especially on songs like "It'll All Work Out" and "History of My Life." Tell me about the latter, "History of My Life." How did that song happen?

I grew up in Malibu, California, and I was with a band called Simon Dawes. We were touring around, and I experienced a sort of misconception of what people thought when we said that's where we were from, like everyone was rich or something. I think everyone can relate to having some embarrassment or shame about where they came from, especially when you're reading stories about these Kerouac-ian "men's men," and you sort of long for that. I was just speaking to that, and how fulfilling that can be sometimes. I look back and I see a privilege that I had and I also see the bad that I had to deal with, like everyone else, and it's just trying to be fair and accurate to myself.

Break Mirrors was released two years ago, in 2010. Have you recorded anything since then? Is there anything we can look forward to coming up?

I have. I made a record with my friend, Matt Sweeney, and my girlfriend Danielle [of the band HAIM] that we've finished. We're kind of sitting on it, trying to figure out what to do with it. I have another solo record to make. The recording process is special to me. Break Mirrors was recorded over five or six months, but all together probably took three or four weeks in the studio. Sometimes finding that time can be hard... at a certain point I'll just have to say I'm taking two weeks to retreat and record.

Right. So, you mentioned Simon Dawes earlier -- a band you were in six years ago, with Taylor Goldsmith. Your sound back then was quite different, and after releasing a full-length album as Simon Dawes, you left the band, and Simon Dawes became Dawes. I'm asking about this tie-in because in Minneapolis, Dawes is huge. It's no secret what Dawes has been up to in the six years since that reincarnation, but maybe you can fill in the blanks a little for me.... Kind of a 2006 to now.

Sure. We had a relatively amicable split when it happened, and we were a lot younger then, too. We've been friends since, and I've been close to everybody in the band, and more recently we've started to hang out a lot more. It's been a sort of slow return. Singing in a band when we were that young means that the friendships were starting to deteriorate, and now that we aren't working together in that capacity, it's a chance to kind of be friends again. They're home a lot more now, in California, and the desire to do something together is there. We'll see.

Okay. Last question: You've had the opportunity to work with so many great artists. Are there any in particular that have stuck with you or inspired you in a strong way?

I would say that getting to talk about songwriting with Fiona, Lucinda and Cass McCombs has been very enlightening. I mean I love Cass's guitar playing, and I love Lucinda's singing, but Fiona's got this depth... like something you have to connect with. It's the first time I've gotten to play with someone who's that ferocious as both a singer and a player, so there's a kinship there. I mean this is a beginning for me, I haven't known her very long at all, and we're hitting it off. I mean, I was just as surprised as anybody when she asked me to go on tour with her. Now I just like sitting on the bus with her, picking her brain.

Blake Mills opens for Fiona Apple on Monday, July 16 at the Orpheum. 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $44 to $74.

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