Roots-Rock Genius Blake Mills Builds His Dream Team

Working with some big names and impressing others, California guitar phenom widens his circle

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WHO: Since Blake Mills was a teenager, the Venice Beach-based guitar slinger has been playing tasteful rock riffs and textures on records by Jenny Lewis, Julian Casablancas, Kid Rock, Jeff Bridges and others. Through the years, he developed his own breezy take on California cool that he showcased on his solo debut, 2010's Break Mirrors, which combined lo-fi folk with smart pop-rock song craft. After a stint touring with Lucinda Williams, Mills became Fiona Apple's guitarist and eventually co-headlined with her on a tour they named Anything We Want. On his second solo record – Heigh Ho, due out September 16 – Mills’s backing band features studio kingpins Don Was, Jon Brion, Mike Elizondo, Rob Moose and Jim Keltner; Apple even stopped by to sing on "Seven" and "Don't Tell Our Friends About Us."

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HIRE AND HIGHER: Mills' Heigh Ho crew mixes friends with artists he admires. When the singer-songwriter realized he had a decent budget to work with, he knew just where he wanted to spend it. "These people that I didn't really well know enough to call a favor on, I just hired 'em," he says, naming drummer Keltner and bassists Was and Elizondo as prime targets. "It was like, 'I'm gonna hire you even if it's just to sit there and gawk at the sound of [Keltner] playing in that studio."

THE BIG APPLE: Mills, now 27, met Apple through pianist and arranger Patrick Warren, a longtime collaborator of the singer's. But he wasn't so keen on accepting the gig when it was first offered to him. "There's not a lot of guitar on her records," he explains. "And when I got around to listening to [2012's The Idler Wheel...], there was no guitar on it at all, so I asked her how she envisioned it going down." Apple explained that the point of a touring band was to hear musicians' reactions to her music and build off of that, and that was the clincher for Mills. "It turned out to be one of the most fun gigs I ever had because I was just getting to play off of her voice every night and the way she would sing songs," he says. "She's a direct inspiration, as a vocalist, to things that I'm playing now and sounds that I'm trying to figure out how to get the guitar to do."

MULTI-TRACK MIND: Mills’s musical inspirations weren't always so catholic. "When I got my first guitar, I was obsessed with Kurt Cobain," he recalls. "All I wanted to learn in guitar lessons were 'Enter Sandman' and 'Come as You Are' and 'Smells Like Teen Spirit.'" Eventually his tastes drifted from grunge, metal and guitar heroes like Joe Satriani to more experimental sounds. He cites soundtracks by Alan Silvestri and Xaviar Cugat and a Derek Trucks bootleg recording as jumping-off points into newer genres. "The instrument that I had come to know felt limiting," Mills says. "So coming up with chord shapes and tunings that I could use to get around it all was the path of least resistance for me, really, just being a lazy teenager."

CROSSED OFF: Mills rarely gets starstruck. But he counts standing next to B.B. King, Eric Clapton and Trucks at the Crossroads Guitar Festival in 2013 as exceptions. Then, earlier this year, Clapton told Rolling Stone he considered Mills the "last guitarist I heard that I thought was phenomenal." "Wasn't that cool?" Mills asks. "It was totally unexpected and unnecessary. Every bit of interaction I've had with him in correspondence, he's been just the quintessential gentleman."

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