Mike Milosh would prefer that you know nothing about him. And, for a while, it was an easy task. When he released his debut album for his calming, seductive R&B project Rhye in 2013, keeping bands mysterious was particularly in vogue. Everyone from The Weeknd to Chvrches capitalized on this trend, even if it all seems a bit silly in retrospect. But to hear Milosh discuss it as we get coffee near his apartment in the Arts District of Los Angeles, any mystery around the Rhye project was never meant to be a marketing ploy. He just really wanted everything to be about the music.
“It becomes a gimmick now if I don’t express who I am,” Milosh tells me over the chatter of a busy street on the kind of December California day the rest of the world envies. “The whole point off the top was to not be a gimmick because I didn’t want people to care about me.”
For Milosh, it’s a memory of adoring Dark Side Of The Moon and being disappointed when he later read an interview with Pink Floyd. It’s the same reason he says he wouldn’t want to meet Thom Yorke, even though he adores the songs of Radiohead. Music can be so profoundly affecting that it can easily stand on its own without context. And Rhye’s music is a perfect example of that, so much so that some people couldn’t even tell whether the voice they heard on that first album, Woman, came from a male or female artist, or whether it was crafted in the ‘90s or in the present day. It’s the kind of music that doesn’t need explaining.
On Blood, Rhye’s stunning sophomore album set to be released this week, Milosh delves further into timeless, universal beauty, underscoring and amplifying what he views as music for people of all ages and backgrounds. The melodies are front and center, with songs given plenty of breathing room and each musical flourish carefully considered and necessary. When much of pop music is glossy and maximal, Rhye’s music stands out by making each recorded decision count; a sharpshooter in a world full of carpet bombing.
If you didn’t know who made it or why, Blood should still be easy to enjoy, but it’s also a risk to remain cloaked when success in the music industry is harder than ever. Milosh doesn’t want his preference for the shadows to take away from his songwriting. “If I were to hide myself now,” he says, “that would feel cheesy. I’d feel like I was something fraudulent.”
Five years after his debut album, Rhye is back on a new label (Loma Vista) with a sophomore record that truly needed the gestation time to become fully realized. Sure, he’s more comfortable being a focal point now, and meeting him proves that some of the reasons an artist can be shy of attention from interviewers — they’re boring, they’re not well-spoken, they’re unpredictable — aren’t true at all with Milosh. He’s as sensitive and kind as his music would suggest, completely in tune with the idea of being an artist, and relishing every moment of the creative life he has built for himself.
Speaking also allows Milosh to straighten out some facts about Rhye. Biggest among these, to the point where it’s clearly exhausting to keep talking about, is that Rhye is not a duo. When the project first appeared, it was credited to both Milosh and producer Robin Hannibal. Though those earliest recordings did come from a collaboration between the pair, the truth is that Hannibal was never really a member of Rhye once it left the humble recording spaces that Woman was created.
“We worked on the first record in a studio in Denmark and an apartment in LA, and that was it,” Milosh says. “He took himself out. He had signed an exclusive contract for [his musical endeavor] Quadron with Epic, and he wasn’t even legally allowed to be part of the project. At the time, I just didn’t really care if people called it a duo, even though it really wasn’t a duo. I thought it was kind of humorous and figured people could call it whatever they wanted. But then it really started to build this momentum as this duo, which after a couple years, I started feeling weird about. I had six people on stage and Robin wasn’t one of them.”
These days Rhye is Mike Milosh, though Blood soars as a result of turning Rhye into a touring juggernaut. Whereas the project formed with no real conception of how the songs would exist outside the record, the new album is entirely different, cultivated from Milosh performing with so many musicians on a nightly basis and realizing what works and what doesn’t from audience reactions. It reads like hard work from the outside, but Milosh isn’t afraid to get a little mystical when talking about it, saying that “the world conspired” for him to make this album in the amount of time it took, in the manner that he did.
Part of that was merely logistical. When his label Polydor declined the option on the second record, a tiny clause determined that control would revert back to the small Los Angeles label Innovative Leisure, where he had previously been affiliated. So, Milosh took matters into his own hands and determined that he would buy himself out of the contract. It was the type of situation that could have sunk the project, with Milosh admitting that he considered simply recording under a different name rather than pay the high costs of lawyer fees in addition to the actual buyout. “I’d spent so much time and energy building up the Rhye project,” he says, “that we decided to continue it despite how expensive it was, just to see what happens.” Rhye was forced to play a lot of shows to do so, which turned into a blessing for figuring out just how the project would sound going forward.
“We played 476 concerts,” Milosh says about the time between albums. “The last concert we did was in Jakarta last month. It was crazy — no one tours for four years off the same record, but we just kept getting these really amazing opportunities to play concerts. Everything happened in the time that it was supposed to happen. I don’t know why, but I was sort of forced into this release date.”
The influence of Rhye’s live incarnation leaps off the record. Album opener, “Waste,” is what Milosh considers the bridge between his first and second record, and is the oldest song featured on Blood. Instantly the percussion is organic and smooth, betraying a move away from its past bedroom production. “I’m going through some changes,” Milosh sings, his words mirroring what the song represents musically. The handclaps, in particular, seem destined for big stages, a chance for band unity and audience participation, a portal towards the communion that Rhye’s music openly invites.
Elsewhere, Rhye attempts more amped-up and propulsive music to date. “Taste” has a low-key kinship to dance music when its musical backing drops away and returns, urging audiences to move along with the song’s intrinsic movements. “Feel Your Weight” and “Count To Five” also feature the potential for big concert moments, extending from R&B into legitimate funk territory. For Milosh, he wanted to create an album that exemplifies what is fun about a live concert experience, with pulsing dynamics sitting comfortably next to quiet and intimate moments. It’s easy to call this a success.
“The amount of touring that I’ve done caused me to rethink how I want to write the songs,” Milosh says, noting that he played live drums on every track and didn’t use midi at all for the record, reflecting his concert practice of performing everything live and not using backing tracks. “I don’t want to be scrambling to figure out how to convert something that uses a lot of soft synths and editing techniques that are used to do some rhymical things. So, I really wanted this record to be a link to the live sound.”
Even beyond the practicality of writing an album that could be translated to Rhye’s live incarnation, the connection between Milosh and Rhye as a live act also run deeper. He’s gained a lot of joy from becoming a road warrior, and the lifestyle has suited Milosh, who relishes the opportunity to see the world and live in various locals. Where most bands hustle between tour stops to avoid spending money on tightly organized tour schedules, Milosh has savored the chance to live the life of a traveling musician, something he was never able to do when recording as a solo artist under the Milosh name. Where he used to spend his time at home writing and recording, now he is able to speak fondly of a week spent in Bali following his Jakarta concert, which he afforded because his flights were built into his performance costs. It’s the savviness of a man who’s been surrounded by music his whole life, and has adopted fairly sustainable ways of making a career out of it.
Mike Milosh was raised in Toronto as the son of a violinist and started playing the cello at age three. He studied the Suzuki method — a philosophy that teaches music in a similar way to how children learn language — from a young age as well, and soon was learning in Canada’s Royal Conservatory. When most children were playing with toys and running around their neighborhood, a young Milosh was pursuing the passions of music, drawing, and swimming. But eventually, he achieved everything he could scholastically and took a hard left turn in his musical upbringing — playing drums in a psychedelic punk band.
Strands of his youthful music experience are still evident in Rhye. Both Woman and Blood are layered with tasteful string arrangements that never strive to be too flashy. And, of course, there is the addition of live drums on this latest record, which are hardly punk or psychedelic but demonstrate the learning of an artist who has lived on both sides of the musical spectrum.
But maybe the most important thing Milosh learned along the way came after he attended university in Montreal for music, a time that he describes as lacking in value. After earning money from starring in some television commercials — a fact he is particularly bashful about — he used his earnings to buy gear. “If I was to teach anything to someone wanting to have a career in music, it would be to give yourself the freedom to experiment with recording yourself,” he says. “Don’t blow tons of money in a recording studio. Buy a couple pieces of gear that will really allow you to hone in on what you want to do.”
This is what allowed him to begin recording as Milosh, a moniker that he used for a decade before Rhye. And while it might be easy to dismiss the earlier work, he is quick to point out that his time releasing music under his own name wasn’t confined to obscurity just because Rhye fans were unaware of it. “I had this weird kind of success with my Milosh records,” he notes. “It was a different kind of contract, so from a financial perspective, I was doing fine. I literally built a house on an island in Thailand with the money I made.”
He’s not bragging when he says this — Milosh is just very aware of the business side of his music. He speaks openly about rejecting $400K to have his music on a car commercial because the vehicle got horrible gas mileage, a decision that was not appreciated by his old label. He is critical of the artist rates from Spotify streams, but praises the platform for taking away the guessing game that used to come with touring — now he knows just how popular he is in various regions. In many ways, Milosh is an open book, a far cry from Rhye’s mysterious beginnings.
Because of his candidness, it isn’t a surprise when he invites me to the rooftop of his apartment building to shoot some photos while the sun drifts below the nearby Los Angeles skyline. Milosh is well aware of the loveliness of the golden hour, and despite his discomfort around having his picture taken, he seems engaged as the possibility in collaborating for something beautiful.
And that’s the biggest takeaway from Blood — that a patient, nuanced exercise in beauty will stand out regardless of where it fits into the music world. On the album’s best song, the quasi-title track “Blood Knows,” Milosh shows how to turn a simmer into a boil, using vocal harmonies to increase intensity without approaching heavy-handedness. Words like “comfort” and “feelings” pop out as signifiers that draw attention to how Milosh wants Rhye to exist, and how the audience reacts to his music.
“I see a lot of people crying at our shows,” he says as a matter of fact. “Not in a cheesy way, but I see people having these really beautiful moments where they are holding their partner and are teary-eyed. I feel really honored that people have that response, and it’s also what I’m looking for. I’m not looking to make party music, I’m not looking to make angry jams. There is enough of all that. The music is essentially cathartic for me because I’m working through some emotions on this record, be it sadness or whatever.”
And it’s as cathartic to hear as it is to make. Like Woman, Blood sounds fluid in time, existing apart from trends or styles, best categorized by the vitality that is possesses. These make Milosh’s hopes for his music intrinsic to the music, the kind of philosophy that is apparent simply by listening. Rhye is interested in writing songs that can soundtrack profound emotional experiences, and that can last long after their moment in the cultural spotlight. For a singer that wants the music stand for itself, the greatest reward is that on Blood, it does.
“I don’t like music that works for six months and then is gone,” Milosh says. “There are a lot of artists, even huge artists, they have that thing where you don’t care about the music 12 months later because it is so rooted in that tiny cultural movement. I’m not really interested in that. The music I like –Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon,” Dark Side Of The Moon — they aren’t rooted in any genre. They’re rooted in themselves. That’s the way I look at music.”