One can only imagine the number of bold names in Blake Mills’s contacts. As a producer and session and touring musician, he’s worked with Jenny Lewis, Conor Oberst, Kid Rock, Weezer, the Avett Brothers, Norah Jones, Carlene Carter, the Dixie Chicks, Zucchero, Pink, Lana Del Rey, Fiona Apple, Danger Mouse, Sara Watkins, Sky Ferreira, and more. Meanwhile, he’s somehow found the time and energy to make two albums himself, the most recent being Heigh Ho, released September 16 via Record Collection/Verve Records.
Following his full-band performance at Newport Folk on July 26, Mills joined an all-star jam to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s controversial electric performance at the festival, which was led by neo-country act Dawes. Mills was one of the few musicians who got to play Dylan’s Stratocaster from that now-iconic performance, which was on loan to the festival that weekend. “I did ‘Just Like a Woman’ and played the rest of the set with them,” recalls Mills. “By the end of the show there were probably 35 to 40 people onstage. It was incredible. It sounded like such a carnival, and it was a beautiful way to close the festival.”
Two years ago, Mills played Newport as a guest member of Dawes — that band and Mills go back to high school in Los Angeles, when frontman Taylor Goldsmith and Mills formed Simon Dawes, which split and morphed into Dawes sans Mills.
“We were eighteen or nineteen years old and we still had a lot to learn,” says Mills. “The reason for me and them not being in a touring band together was clear, but it took a year for it to fully sink in. Those guys can stay out for 250 days of the year. They absolutely love to do that. For me, that wasn’t the environment I wanted to create in. I learned a lot from staying home and being a session player, and being a more agreeable musician.”
Clearly, the Mills/Dawes relationship is hunky-dory, and when he’s done playing his East Coast shows, the 28-year-old Angeleno will head west for some shows opening for Goldsmith and Co. This friendship, however, nearly didn’t survive that earlier split.
“Breakups don’t happen because things are going well personally. When you’re young in a band you are fighting to be yourself. You constantly define your ideas and think that every decision is to do with your creative psyche. Everything gets so blown out of proportion that it can quickly become toxic on the friendship. When it did, the only thing to do was pull the ripcord. Ultimately, it did preserve the friendships, which have remained, and now we work together on anything we get a chance to, and it just feels refreshing instead of there being a conflict.”
Dawes grew into a successful independent band, and Mills has no regrets about the path he chose. Switching hats between being a session musician, producer, and solo artist suits him. “I enjoy the balance, but I feel I often approach the two things in a similar way, in terms of my responses to stuff,” he says. “The writing is a response to the inspiration. The session or production is essentially the same thing: You’re reacting to someone else’s inspiration as a collaborator. That’s definitely my most comfortable role, getting to collaborate and converse with other artists.”
But even touring is something he’s now more comfortable with, and he finds it helps his studio ears. “Playing live shows is something that has ancillary benefits. When you’re on a stage and moving that much air, you experience something you don’t when you are in a studio. Bands just don’t play that loud [in a studio], and when they do it doesn’t sound good. It’s like if somebody shows you a picture of a room and it’s beautifully decorated and then you are placed in that room, empty, and there’s no furniture in it. You have a better idea of what to do with the room than if you are just thrown into it.”
For all the enjoyment his current shows have given him, since the record came out he’s done much more touring than he normally does, and Mills is now finding himself itching to get back to the studio. “I’ve gotten my fix. The thing I’m looking forward to doing is having more time to write and do something on record I haven’t done before.”
As special as the Newport jam was, it’s one of many cool collaborations he’s enjoyed this year, and Mills is excited about the projects he has lined up: “There’s a lot coming up, and there’s stuff I’ve been doing that is some of the most fulfilling session work I’ve ever done. I’ve just worked with Andrew Bird on his new record, and prior to that I was in the studio with Randy Newman. Really, I’m feeling so enriched and fulfilled.”