Landing a major-label deal is most musicians’ dream. But for Mike Milosh, the man behind Rhye, signing a contract with Polydor weighed him down for several years.
When the act began as a duo, it was courted by majors for months. Rhye’s delicate, sultry compositions stood apart from the aggressive pop and R&B that dominated the 2012 charts—a feature that sparked the feeding frenzy for Milosh’s commitment. When the label released its first LP, named Woman, the next year, however, slow sales led Polydor to bury the project.
After much deliberation, the Toronto-born Milosh refused to let Rhye fade into obscurity. Drawing on a clause in the small print of his contract, he chose to buy his way out of his deal and move on without his musical partner, Robin Hannibal—an endeavour that involved a huge amount of money. Fortunately for Milosh, Polydor had no control over the cash he earned through touring.
“I always kept the touring separate, and treated it as its own business,” he tells the Georgia Straight on the line from a hotel in Tel Aviv. “I was starting to think that maybe I just should have changed my name [rather than buying out the contract], because that would have been way simpler. In the process of deciding what to do, I was playing so many concerts, and pouring energy into the project—the name and everything. I was buying time while I was figuring out how to get the money to buy off this option. Then I had this moment where I said, ‘Yes, I should definitely do this,’ because I’d put so much into it already.”
For nearly five years, Milosh booked tour dates around the world to play songs from Woman—a feat that, in the modern world of the two-year album cycle, is almost unheard-of. It was also a point of validation for the artist. Dedicated to creating music with longevity rather than a string of hits, he found his time on the road offered him a new freedom.
“On one hand, I was surprised, but I also wasn’t,” Milosh says of his ability to continue to sell out venues without releasing new music. “Sometimes I get these feelings in my life that what I’m doing is what I’m supposed to be doing. It just feels right. All the touring I was doing kept feeling right. I kept playing places that were new, and going back to see some familiar places a few times. I went through a few iterations of the band. I think I felt lucky, more than surprised, actually.”
His years on the road served as the inspiration for Rhye’s latest release, the stunning 11-track Blood. Eschewing the electronic production of Woman in favour of live-recorded instruments, the artist was motivated to create an album that mirrored the versatility of his seven-piece band. Guitars, violins, cellos, trombones, synths, and percussion were each put to work in the studio, building tracks that are at once muscular and fragile. Milosh’s androgynous vocals float over the atmospheric melodies, telling tales of love, investigation, and discovery. Aiming for a record where each track embodies a new emotion, he hopes Blood has the ability to connect people across ages and cultures.
“I believe that music—more so than some of the other arts, because we don’t have to speak the same language to get the feeling from the song—is a binding agent,” he says. “I think it brings people together. Cultural exchange in music is probably one of the most beautiful things. Often you get to somehow infiltrate people’s lives in their living rooms or their bedrooms or their houses, and bring people together in tiny moments as well, which is incredible and very beautiful. I could probably go on about it for a long time, but to distill it to something quite simple: if you make music that has a fairly loving and peaceful intention, I have this faith that it translates, and it helps bring people together in a very loving way.”
Over the tumultuous course of Rhye’s existence, Milosh has remained true to his ideals. As dedicated today to producing quality music over quantity as he was during his time with Polydor, the artist doesn’t judge his success by the tickets he sells or the number of times his albums are streamed—although both metrics are excellent. Rather, his dedication to the project is motivated by the response from his listeners.
“Even my manager isn’t really looking at it [album sales],” he says. “I think everyone who is involved with me is understanding that I’m not making music that will pop off. They’re not pop hits. I’m making music that hopefully becomes part of people’s lives for a longer period of time. It’s not about hitting a crazy target. For me, it’s more important to see that people are smiling or crying, or hugging. I see a lot of people hugging at our shows. That’s a lot more special than a number.”
Rhye plays the Vogue Theatre on Saturday (September 15), as part of Westward Music Festival.
Follow Kate Wilson on Twitter @KateWilsonSays