The guitar is not extinct — not yet anyway. In an age where synth, auto-tune and heavy bass have infiltrated and dominated the music industry, there still exist musicians like Blake Mills, whose emotive sound relies on a delicate balance of strings.
Mills has been floating around the music industry in the company of some of its biggest names, but has kept mostly quiet for the past four years. Now, Mills has reemerged with his second album, Heigh Ho, due out Sept. 16. It features an impressive number of guest musicians— many of whom Mills listened to while he was growing up— while still maintaining his individuality.
Mills has spent much of last year performing with the stellar songstress Fiona Apple, who makes a guest appearances on a couple of his songs and whom he credits with shaping many of his goals for the record.
“The goal going in wasn’t specifically directly musical, but rather one that was centered on making sense of something that’s really honest and not trying to adhere to a genre,” Mills said.
That’s something Mills witnessed firsthand playing with Apple. Her music has a lot of heart, but also a natural diversity and universality.
Mills has worked with a breadth of artists in addition to Apple, from Conor Oberst and Sky Ferreira to Beck, Lucinda Williams, Andrew Bird and Neil Diamond. While his impressive rolodex demonstrates both his skill and his style, many of Mills’ influences on the record were nonmusical.
Mills specifically cites a photography book that features images of deteriorating homes, ballet schools, ballrooms and open spaces shot in Havana, Cuba. He had just visited the country for a work trip, and the experience had a profound effect on him both personally and inspirationally.
“When people are doing scores for film, they’re influenced by pictures and the telling of the story,” Mills said. “There’s something cinematic about that music, and I think there are moments on the record that feel, at least to me, somewhat cinematic.”
Mills is equally inspired by melody, describing the catharsis he feels when he sits down and can play something new without knowing what it is — sound that happens spontaneously without meaning until it is given content or context. But that’s where he also faces difficulty.
Mills described his writing process as laborious and slow, one in which he grapples with finding the right word as he is critical of using any word that he doesn’t truly mean.
“The writing side is almost more like a hobby that I’m fascinated by, but ultimately frustrated with as well,” Mills said.
In the four years since he released his first record, Break Mirrors, Mills has accumulated an arsenal of emotions and feelings — both autobiographical and not — that informed much of his writing. Though Mills was careful to produce a record that he felt was honest, he feared falling into the singer/songwriter trap, in which the whole album becomes a long foray into his life story and his deepest, darkest secrets. It’s a fragile distinction and one that required much examination and introspection, he said.
“I try to write a song structure that isn’t around the weight of each word, but rather the celebration of the fact that there are words being sung,” Mills said. “But it’s hard to do that. When I write, I feel like I’m wandering through a neighborhood that I didn’t grow up in, that I don’t belong in.”
The result is subtle, nuanced emotion. Mills’ songs offer a glimmer of something significant, something to which the listener is not granted full access.
But Mills sheds light on many of the album’s themes with its title. Heigh Ho most typically evokes the jovial working song sung by the septet of dwarves in Disney’s Snow White, but Mills discovered that the phrase’s meaning originated as an exclamation of weariness or boredom of something that can’t be changed, a sentiment that strongly resonated with him.
“It’s exactly the process of making a record and releasing it on a commercial label and all of the uncreative and scary ways that art is digested after you make it,” Mills said. “To me, it totally sums up my feelings about projecting this thing to the world.”
Mills describes the release of his first record as letting a mouse out of a trap, simultaneously setting something free and relinquishing control. With Heigh Ho, Mills was introduced to the interworking of a PR team and a record label.
“I’m trying to keep as much of me in all those areas behind the creative part of it, but it’s a struggle because there are so many hang-ups and traps that can distract you from the creative side,” Mills said. “I’m just kind of learning of it right now and I’m honestly a little scarred by it.”
Mills will perform the second show of his headlining tour at the El Rey this Thursday at 9 p.m.