To completely get a handle on what Mike Milosh is out to accomplish with Rhye, it helps to know that he’s into the idea of his art working on more than one level. On the surface, then, the Los Angeles–spawned project’s debut release, Woman, recalls a time when R&B was as sleek and soulful as ’80s Motown, and love was a word that actually meant something. Over the course of a wide-ranging interview that covers everything from the importance of travelling to the evils of 60-hour workweeks to the ongoing troubles in Iraq, it gradually becomes obvious that Milosh sees Rhye as serving some higher purpose.
This is made clear when it’s suggested to the articulate and thoughtful singer that he might make a great punk rocker—not in a mindless smash-the-state-and-burn-all-cop-cars kind of way, but more in the progressive vein of Jello Biafra, Propagandhi, and Anti-Flag. Like those artists, Milosh is of the opinion that the system is broken, and that someone needs to start thinking of how to fix it.
What he’s not convinced of, though, is that getting folks enraged and in a lather is the best way to make the world a better place. “I like making music that doesn’t put people in a state of anger,” says Milosh, reached at home in his adopted city of Los Angeles. “I’m very interested in the idea of what happens to your brain when you are listening to different types of music. There’s something about when you can calm someone down, and make them almost melancholic—I think there’s a lot of self-reflection in that. People start to calmly make choices that are probably the better choices.
“I think that when you push someone into a reactionary state, kind of like what punk does, people are very volatile. You can get people angry, and cause things to happen for sure, but anger to me is not the best of emotions because it’s so one-sided and creates blinders. And that’s my difficulty with punk—as much as I like the political roots of punk, I feel it’s too reactionary. Whereas if you can get people calm, then that can lead to really wise decisions that will benefit the populace at large. I could talk to you for hours about this.”
There is indeed a quiet and refined beauty to Woman, with Milosh front and centre on soul songs that are alternately contemplative and atmospheric (“Open”), classy and urbane (“The Fall”), and almost regal thanks to the sweeping strings (“Woman”). Astonishingly, at a time when the likes of Robin Thicke rule the world, the singer actually sounds like he means it when he croons “Make love to me one more time before you go away.”
Rhye isn’t the first musical endeavour for Milosh. The former Ontarian has released four albums of downtempo electronica under the banner of his last name, the most recent one, 2013’s Jet Lag, coming last fall, just months after the release of Woman.
The way Milosh describes things, Rhye has been a way for him to branch out without saturating the market. That helps explain why the project was initially clouded in secrecy. When the blogosphere fell in love with the online singles “Open” and “The Fall”, promo obscured the faces of both Milosh and his partner in the studio, Robin Hannibal. After Woman turned into a critically respected hit upon its release, the curtain was gradually pulled back to reveal the players involved.
Today, Milosh suggests Rhye is very much his baby, and that the duties of taking things on the road have fallen upon his shoulders, including paying the musicians who back him on-stage. That has required being smart about the project’s touring schedule.
“I’ve been playing tons with Rhye—I just space things out from a financial perspective,” Milosh says. “People think that Rhye is this big collaboration between Robin and I, but Robin is a studio guy that I did the project with, and that’s kind of where it ends. It’s me that’s actually signed to Polydor, not the both of us. I basically foot the bills for everything, which means I’m paying for flights for eight people, and hotels and stuff. And you don’t get paid until after you play, so I can only do four to six gigs in a row before I sort of tap out my financial resources.”
Making that burden seem worthwhile is the fact that Rhye has been embraced as its own thing, separate from Milosh’s solo career.
“I wanted it to be a very different sound because my solo stuff is experimental in a way,” he says. “And it was fun to do the project with Robin, because our tastes really overlapped in our appreciation for older R&B from the ’70s—Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield and stuff like that. And because I’m always interested in electronic music that’s all about messing around with patches and programming synths, I wanted to do something more with strings. My first instrument was cello, and it felt like it was time to do something like that.”
Milosh ultimately hopes he’s giving people a reason to believe that the modern world isn’t entirely about chaos and rage and days when there never seems to be enough time to pack in everything that needs to be done. It’s no accident, then, that Woman is so effortlessly downtempo.
“There is this whole obsession with productivity in the world that we live in, especially in North America. If you look at the rest of the world, and go back to North America, there’s a reason why North Americans have such a high standard of living, because they are so productive. But I want to ask the question ‘At what cost?’ Do you know your kids? Do you have a good relationship with your wife? Do you have strong friendships? Or are you just married to your work?”
As noted, Milosh is a fascinating interview. He’ll argue eloquently that the world would be better off if those with the means to travel would do so, as the singer himself has done by living for extended periods in Thailand and Berlin. Travel, he suggests, helps build empathy for one’s fellow human beings; if Americans were better-travelled, for instance, they might have been outraged at the idea of invading Iraq back in the day, because all people are fundamentally the same.
If Milosh is out to accomplish anything with Rhye, it’s getting folks to slow down and think about what’s important. He believes that music has the power to impact the world in a truly positive way.
“When I sing about experiences that I’ve had, they are actual experiences—I’m not trying to sell records or make a song popular,” he says. “And I think when people click into that, it allows them, on a really base level, to reflect on their situation and their lives and how they are feeling. That’s really important because it creates a culture of unity. I’ve always thought that music is one of the most powerful voices in a culture. I know that when I was young, music completely shaped who I decided to be.”
Rhye plays the Commodore Ballroom on Friday (July 4) as part of the Straight Series.