On the song “Just Out of View,” Mills played a Goya Rangemaster, which he calls “an unusual-sounding guitar.” By pushing the pickup switches halfway down, he was able to get a spooky effect. “It’s like tuned reverb—a really cool sound that I just happened to find accidentally.”
Who designs your amps and cabinets?
They’re made by a fella named Austen Hooks. He finds a particular model of these old Bell & Howell film projectors, and he makes amps out of the amplifier section. Most of the reappropriated boutique amps I’ve heard in this category have all had a sound that would be good for something, but everything Austen works on, he has such a good ear that those projector amps are good for everything that I do. They’re really well rounded, and the arc of the note is just exactly what I want it to be. It doesn’t have too much of a nose on it, and it’s not too compressed to where you can’t get it to cut through a mix—it’s just this nice area in between.
So we’ve spent a lot of time going back and forth to shape the sound of the amps, and going through different sets of old speakers for the cabinets he’s building. The speaker configuration, the model, the year—all that has been a journey that we’ve been going through together for the last year-and-a-half or so.
Tell us about your fingerpicking technique. It really comes out with a thick-sounding twang on “Shed Your Head.”
I would say the time that I spent with Bob Brozman was huge in getting me to put down a pick. He would use fingerpicks because he was playing a resonator, but fingerpicks were always cumbersome for me, so I would try to compete with the volume that he was getting by just using my fingers, and my fingernails stood no chance. If they even grew out, I’d break them. Over the last two years, my fingernails have gone back down to a more masculine length [laughs], so I’m using a little more of the flesh again.
Blake Mills covers Lucinda Williams’ “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad” for the Voice Project.
I know you’ve used D’Addario strings for a long time, with a lot of different gauges—but what about some of the different tunings you use?
“Seven” I think is just in open Eb or open B. Most of the slide stuff is in some variation of open E, whether it’s tuned down or not. “If I’m Unworthy” is in open C#. That one is like my second language.
There’s definitely a strange tuning for “Don’t Tell Our Friends About Me”—one that came about because I really wanted this song, which is in Bb, to use the open D string for the third. But then I had to figure out how to use the top two open strings. To get to the nearest notes, I dropped the B string down to Bb and raised the high E string up to F. There’s no familiarity with that tuning. Nothing carries over. It’s a totally different alphabet, but it’s a cool one [laughs], so it’s nice to feel like you’ve invented something on an instrument that’s been around for so long.
You’ve worked for a while now with Fiona Apple. How did you bring her to “Don’t Tell Our Friends About Me”?
That’s probably the oldest song on the record. I actually never had any harmony in mind for it, but when we did a tour last year that was kind of a collaborative show, she had this harmony part for it—and it wasn’t just a harmony. It was like the story of the song changed by having a female perspective and character in the song, and she took that further, and I think it inspired her to write the counterpart lines at the end. She sort of represents the female side of the song, and it changes the meaning of it in a way that was really exciting. It was a song that I’d had for a couple of years, and it was such a refreshing experience to have that come about, and the timing of it was perfect because it was just at the end of the line before we had to wrap the record up.
That one has such a familiar melodic shape with the phrases—that kind of country-and-western shape. I really enjoy singing harmony, almost more than lead, because I just like the sound of my voice as a background voice. But when it came time to do that song, I knew I wanted to do it as a duet. And Fiona’s voice—the quality of her voice, especially after listening to my voice so much—you can really hear what the texture of her instrument does to a song. I think she really elevates it pretty significantly.