As an in-demand session guitarist who's appeared on records by stars like Neil Diamond and Pink, Blake Mills has worked in some of the most prestigious recording studios in Los Angeles. Yet to lay down vocals for his striking new solo album, the 27-year-old made use of a different environment: his car.
"When you think about the science, it makes a lot of sense," Mills said recently. "The angle of the windshield is pretty drastic, so all the sound goes there and stays there; you don't have any echo. And the cloth seats?" He laughed. "The Prius is a total sound chamber."
It's also a place of intimacy, especially at 2 or 3 in the morning, which is when Mills said he would drive to the beach with a microphone and a laptop and record his songs. And it's that hushed, close-up quality — rather than the grandstanding associated with many guitar gods — that defines "Heigh Ho," released Tuesday by Verve Records.
Mills' second album under his own name (following "Break Mirrors" in 2010), the new record blankets stark confessions about romance gone wrong with layers of atmospheric instrumentation: gauzy keyboards, swirling strings, hypnotic percussion and, of course, Mills' guitar work, which pulls from folk, country and jazz. Fiona Apple, who recruited Mills for a tour last year, contributes vocals to two songs, including "Don't Tell Our Friends About Me," a lover's apology that climaxes with an explicit exclamation that's all the more affecting for how quietly Mills delivers it.
"Blake's musicality is limitless," said Rick Rubin, one of several top-tier producers who calls on him regularly. "He happens to be a breathtaking guitar player, but his real talent lies in what he chooses to play and how."
Mills began honing his style while growing up in Malibu, where he and his friend Taylor Goldsmith formed a punk-inflected rock group called Simon Dawes. It put out an album and opened for Maroon 5, but Mills quit in 2007, leaving Goldsmith to carry on with other players as Dawes. (The split was amicable: Goldsmith's brother Griffin appears on "Heigh Ho.")
Soon Mills was touring as a sideman to artists such as Jenny Lewis and Julian Casablancas as well as recording with the likes of Kid Rock and Weezer. Yet even as his skills — and his renown — grew, Mills found himself increasingly uninspired by what he called "the classic -isms" of electric guitar: speed, volume and dexterity.
"I just get a little bored by impressive guitar playing," he said, curled on a couch one afternoon at Sunset Sound, the well-known Hollywood studio. Mills had just returned to L.A. from Nashville, where he'd been producing the upcoming album by Alabama Shakes; now he was in town preparing for a U.S. tour scheduled to stop Thursday night at the El Rey Theatre. "What thrills me is something that exceeds the normal parameters, a sense of creativity shining through."
For "Heigh Ho," he assembled a dream team of players who he felt were equipped with that creativity — established session pros including drummer Jim Keltner, keyboardist Jon Brion and bassists Don Was and Mike Elizondo — and let them loose on his songs during sessions at Ocean Way, another long-running recording complex on Sunset Boulevard.
"He was like, 'Just do what you feel,'" said Elizondo, who's also produced records by Apple and Gary Clark Jr. "When you were doing something that was exciting him, he'd let you know and then you'd refine it. As a musician, that freedom to explore is exhilarating."
Robert Smith, general manager at Verve, said the result — which balances handsome roots-pop tunes like "Seven" and "If I'm Unworthy" with deeply textured instrumentals such as "Shed Your Head" — isn't easily classifiable. One comparison point for Mills, he said, is Randy Newman, whose complex arrangements "go way outside the boundaries of the typical singer-songwriter."
But Smith insisted he's not worried about "Heigh Ho" taking its time to connect with listeners. "We're in the Blake Mills business, not the individual Blake Mills album business," he said, going on to describe Verve's deal with the guitarist as one that encompasses Mills' work as an artist, songwriter and producer.
"He's going to be at the center of so many things as they develop," Smith said.
At least that's the plan. At Sunset Sound, Mills said that after having spent the last seven years as the guy behind the guy he has mixed feelings about pursuing fame as a frontman — particularly in an age when artists are expected to express themselves not just in their music but on social media.
"Sometimes with that I feel like it's opening the fridge for food even if you're not hungry," he said. Considering the road show that will put his name on the marquee every night, he said, "It's going to be an interesting few months." Then he had an idea.
"I might have to take the Twitter and Instagram apps off my phone. Just go dark."
Where: El Rey Theatre, 5515 Wilshire Blvd.
Where: 9 p.m. Thursday