09/18/2014 07:30 am ET Updated Nov 18, 2014

They Call Musicians 'Artists.' Blake Mills? He Really Is

"I got a new CD today," I said. "Guess who?"

"Josh Ritter," the 12.5-year-old replied.


"Blake Mills," she said.

Right answer. And a funny answer. We laughed and laughed.

Why funny? Because it's completely correct that 12-year-olds should loathe Blake Mills -- he's from a breed unknown to young music fans: a pure artist.

Oh, I'm sure he knows the power of a dollar -- he produced the next Alabama Shakes CD, which should pay a lot of bills -- but the beauty of Blake Mills is that his primary concern is making music that's absolutely authentic to the moment of creation. And then, because he's a genius at the editing console, authentic to the possibilities of production.

Until HEIGH HO, his new CD, he's been so low-profile as to be subliminal. His first CD, Break Mirrors, featured a cover photo that wasn't him. And he was as likely to play in a surf shop as on a stage.

But he's just too good not to get noticed. Eric Clapton called him "the last guitarist I heard that I thought was phenomenal." Fiona Apple showcased him on tour. And now we have a CD released on a real label, with his picture on the cover, even if it's mostly obscured by giant type. Well, he can push/pull all he wants. He can't hide the bottom line: This is magnificent, challenging, adult music, this is what music aspires to -- this is Art.

Mills has a deeply idiosyncratic attitude about words, and the title of the CD is a tell. HEIGH HO first suggests a song from a 1937 Disney movie about Snow White: "Heigh ho, heigh ho, it's off to work we go..." The dictionary definition is all over the map: "used typically to express boredom, weariness, or sadness or sometimes as a cry of encouragement." Meaning, exactly, what?

So when it comes to lyrics, he's not entirely trustworthy on the question of sincerity. In "Don't Tell Your Friends About Me" we find:

"I know I fu--ed up,
I know I fu--ed up,
I know I fu--ed up,
I know I fu--ed up,
I know I fu--ed up
I know I fu--ed up
I know I fu--ed up
I know I fu--ed up"

As sung, that brutally honest repetition is powerful and then some. But in the same song, I find irony:

"You said you just needed some time to adjust
Then here's 48 hours, 3 weeks, and 2 months"

My takeaway: We shouldn't over-think his lyrics. Better to just listen, and listen closely.

Possible proof of my thesis: a song with lyrics printed on the video. Do they make a difference? Not to me.

"The singer/songwriter thing is a lifelong study of one's self and the human experience," Mills has said. "All we're doing is trying to invent words for things that people have felt or might feel at some point. That's the job."

Wouldn't it be fantastic if more musicians felt that way?

[Cross-posted from]