Blake Mills Interview: 'Mutable Set,' Moving Beyond Guitar - Rolling Stone
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Blake Mills Became a Modern-Day Guitar Hero. That Wasn’t Enough

The young singer-songwriter has collaborated with everyone from Jay Z to Randy Newman, and roamed all over the musical map. His new album finally puts it all together

blake mills

Kourtney Kyung Smith*

Blake Mills, the L.A. guitarist and singer-songwriter who’s worked with A-list artists from John Legend to Ed Sheeran, recently booked his latest high-profile gig. Amazon is putting together a new Reese Witherspoon–produced miniseries called Daisy Jones & the Six, based on the 2019 novel about the rise of a fictional L.A. Seventies rock group, and Mills was asked to bring that band to life.

“Create a band, conjure up their sound, what they’re writing about, and how they play,” is how Mills describes the job.

Most artists, given the same opportunity to put together the Fleetwood Mac–inspired band depicted in the novel, might go for straightforward period-appropriate homage. But Mills felt the need to go deeper.

“There’s an opportunity to subvert and create a guitar personality that could have been present in the Seventies, and wasn’t,” says Mills, who’s recruited friends like Phoebe Bridgers and singer-songwriter Chris Weisman to help with the project. “People just loved guitar at that point. So I’m trying to find an appreciation for the instrument and try to bend it to my will a little bit. Revisionist history.”

Mills, who’s produced adventurously left-of-center albums for artists like Legend, Alabama Shakes, and Perfume Genius, has spent the past decade-plus bending each project he works on to his will. In turn, the 33-year-old has done more just about any of his peers to expand the parameters of what modern, mainstream-adjacent rock, pop, and indie records sound like.

Mills’ résumé is dizzying in its scope and breadth. He is, as Jackson Browne, a friend and a mentor, puts it, “quite a mystery.” In the past half-dozen years, Mills has appeared on quadruple-platinum Sheeran records, played guitar for Randy Newman, served as a session multi-instrumentalist for Andrew Bird and Sarah Bareilles, and produced the Cars 3 soundtrack. He’s surely the only artist as likely to collaborate with Jay Z (on 4:44) as he is to put out an album of avant-garde drum-and-saxophone jazz, as Mills did last year when he released drummer Ted Poor’s instrumental album You Already Know on his own label, New Deal. 

Mills is still primarily known as an ace guitarist, but the inspiration for Mutable Set, his first traditional solo album in six years, came in the form of “Summer All Over,” a simple piano ballad. By the time he finished writing the song — a darkly sweet rendering of climate-crisis dystopia (“Surf is up/And the fish are flopping”) — Mills had found the sound he’d been searching for.

“I thought, ‘OK, I can base other songs on what is happening in this one,’” says Mills. “The song reminded me of ‘Androgynous’ by the Replacements: it felt fully encapsulated.”

Mills’ new record, his fourth, merges his traditional singer-songwriter leanings (imagine “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today”–era Randy Newman) with his experimental tendencies, which came to the fore on his 2018 ambient exploration Look. Some songs, like the gentle balladry of “Money Is the One True God” and “Farsickness” hint at the former; others, like the wordless acoustic set-piece “Mirror Box” indulge the latter. And some, like the pulsing lead single “Vanishing Twin” and the galloping “Eat My Dust,” combine Mills’ dueling propensities into a seamless whole. 

Taken as a whole, Mutable Set simply feels like the freshest iteration of Mills’ ongoing effort to deconstruct the folk, rock, and pop idioms he grew up studying and idolizing. “Blake is much more interested in breaking new ground than in solidifying his own notoriety,” says Jackson Browne. “He has a deep grasp of music that goes well beyond having great guitar chops.”

Mills chalks up his newly integrated approach to the past five years that he’s spent primarily producing and collaborating with other artists. “It’s inspiring to be in such close proximity to people like [Perfume Genius’] Mike Hadreas and Cass McCombs and Lucinda Williams, and you absolutely take what you can [from them],” he says. “It draws certain things out of me that I otherwise wouldn’t have stumbled upon.”

As a teenager growing up in Malibu, Mills became a voracious student of the guitar, subbing in for local bands and forming a high-school band, Simon Dawes, that would eventually become Dawes after Mills’ left. Early in his career, he became a hired-hand guitarist, playing with everyone from Kid Rock to Lucinda Williams, and earning praise from elders like Eric Clapton. But as Mills told Mojo in 2014, he soon moved past the point of getting “a sugar rush taking a ripping guitar solo.”

As the decade progressed, Mills became increasingly known for his penchant for tinkering with the fundamental conventions of whatever genre he happened to be working in. “My favorite musicians are people who have a certain dissatisfaction with the sound of their own instrument,” he said in 2018. “They look outwards and listen primarily to other things and have a certain disdain for the culture surrounding their own instrument.”

(At the time, Mills was talking about saxophonist Sam Gendel, who plays saxophone on nearly every track of Mutable Set. You’d have to read the credits to learn that, as it’s difficult to discern a single traditional saxophone sound on the entire record.) 

In the midst of writing his latest album, Mills reached out to fellow L.A. songwriters in his inner circle of collaborators like Ethan Gruska and Jonathan Rice for help in finishing the material. He settled on Cass McCombs, who ended up co-writing five of the album’s 11 songs.  “His sensibilities worked really well with this type of material,” says Mills. “I could get the sense of whether the idea I had was conveying enough of itself based on whether or not Cass could take it and run with it.”

Mutable Set is the first record Mills has made since becoming one of the most in-demand producers working today (he earned a Producer of the Year Grammy nomination in both 2016 and 2018). He has become an in-house producer of sorts at Sound City, the legendary L.A. studio where everything from After the Gold Rush to Nevermind was recorded. In order to record his latest at Sound City, Mills had to book studio time long in advance, before he had even written most of the record.

“Sadly, you have to turn other offers down,” he says of recording Mutable Set. “But I just felt like it was the right time to do this.”

When Mills played a few songs off his latest album for Jackson Browne earlier this year, Browne was blown away. He’d been getting used to being stunned by every progression Mills took in his career, and Mutable Set was yet another plot twist.

“It was just astounding,” says Browne. “Blake went from just doing stuff on his first album [2010’s Break Mirrors], where it was just him singing and playing being someone who could really carve the rhythm of the slide guitar effortlessly, to then abandoning that and playing these really quiet guitars and singing in an almost inaudible voice [on 2014’s Heigh Ho], but producing it so that it sounded symphonic in its complexity.

“But it’s not straight down the fairway,” he continues. “It doesn’t sound like radio hits. It just sounds like somebody charting new ground every time they do something.”

In This Article: Jackson Browne

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