The Los Angeles avant’n’b outfit Rhye was initially swathed in mystique. Listeners speculated about the identity of the androgynous vocalist – Rhye’s ballads ‘Open’ and ‘The Fall’ compared to vintage Sade, the High Priestess of Quiet Storm. But, on dropping 2013’s seductive debut album, Woman, Rhye was revealed to be the super-duo of Michael Milosh – the misgendered male frontman with the otherworldly contralto – and Robin Hannibal. Last year, Rhye – now officially Milosh’s solo vehicle – resurfaced with BLOOD. This month, he’s hitting Australia for a large-scale tour, starting with the Perth Festival and entailing Golden Plains.
In fact, Milosh performed here with Rhye in band mode back in 2015. “I loved it,” he enthuses. “It was the first time I was ever in Australia, so it was very interesting just to see it; witness it. We had a little bit of time, so we got to drive around and check out some countryside as well in Sydney and Melbourne. But this time we’re going to see a lot more places. So, yeah, Australia is a nice place.” He’s a big fan of the Australian breakfast.
Milosh originates from Toronto, Canada – his parents Eastern European migrants. He followed his violinist father by learning the cello, attending a conservatory. Later, Milosh picked up drums, playing in bands, before embracing electronica – and singing earnestly. Meanwhile, he studied visual arts. The polymath even gigged as a professional photographer (and he’s hands-on with Rhye’s striking videos). Milosh was already established in the IDM underground when he united with Hannibal. Indeed, the vocalist/instrumentalist/producer, then residing in Berlin, had issued albums as ‘Milosh’ via California’s Plug Research (sometime home of both Flying Lotus and Bilal). Hannibal, from Copenhagen, Denmark, was also affiliated with the label through the electro-soul combo Quadron, its singer Coco O. He and Milosh began collaborating as bedroom producers on what became Rhye’s headphone R&B. They generated blog buzz in 2012 with singles such as ‘Open’, igniting a bidding war. Rhye went with Polydor – only, on completing Woman, Hannibal split, Quadron having signed exclusively to Sony.
Gradually, Rhye’s full story emerged. The songs on Woman chronicled Milosh’s romance with actor Alexa Nikolas, famed for her role in Nickelodeon’s Zoey 101 (and, latterly, The Walking Dead). As Milosh’s “muse”, she was depicted in the artwork – her neck erotically arched. Alas, post-Woman, Milosh battled his label. He bought out his deal – at huge cost. His marriage to Nikolas broke down. Still, he toured solidly. And these experiences bleed into his sensuously sorrowful music.
In early 2018, Milosh presented Rhye’s BLOOD, behind singles like the acoustically minimalist ‘Please’. Notably, this sophomore carries a greater emphasis on organic instrumentation – with keys, strings, horns, woodwind and drums – and groovier tracks overall. Milosh’s lyrics are about healing from heartache and the rejuvenation of his new relationship with multi-media artist Geneviève Medow Jenkins (she inspired ‘Song For You’, co-penned by Lana Del Rey cohort Justin Parker). “There’s always things that you wish you did differently; when you look back at things,” Milosh reflects. “I just tried to make sure that the album felt very connected to the live show – and that’s why I made a very live record… What it made me do is just look at the way I’m moving into producing and writing in the future. The one thing I really enjoy is being able to make sure that the song connects to something that’s achievable in a live environment as well. I think, because I like playing live so much, it deeply informs the way I look at music.”
In November, Rhye released an impressively curated compilation, BLOOD REMIXED, with “re-imaginations” from cult names: German house DJ/producer Tensnake, Little Dragon, Washed Out and The Weeknd’s longtime cohort Illangelo – not to mention Sydney indie-dance band Mansionair. “I’m in this weird, lucky position in my career where there’s a lot of artists that have a self-interest in working with me in different ways,” Milosh suggests. Some of the remixers are “very good friends” – among them RY X, another Australian, who transformed ‘Waste’ into a glitchy club banger. “I’m not super-precious about my material once I’ve done it. I’m precious about it when making the record. But I was actually very curious to hear how the songs would come back, translated by somebody else.” In late March, Rhye will deliver a piano-based EP.
Milosh featured on Bonobo’s 2017 album, Migration, which was nominated for a Grammy. He’s keen to collaborate more, depending on the vibe and scheduling. “If it feels good to work with someone, then that’s what I enjoy doing,” he says. “I don’t do things that don’t feel good or feel awkward or whatever.” Milosh has “the beginnings of a song” with Jungle’s Josh Lloyd-Watson, the pair bonding on a US tour.
Milosh is softly-spoken, but easy-going. Yet Rhye’s music is so personal, and private, that a consumer feels like an intruder or a ghost in the room. Milosh’s performances, too, are emotive – the artist known to cry. Though coming from the anonymous electronic sphere, Milosh is unfazed about exposure. And he is heeding his own self-care. “The music itself is about care. I think that, when you put yourself up in front of people on stage and you sing pretty intimate songs, there’s definitely a lot of courage that comes with it. It’s become kinda second nature to me. Now, I’m not really that worried. I’ve done so many concerts that I feel very confident in getting up in front of people and singing. If I have a bit of an emotional moment, it’s OK. So I feel as a performer I’ve become very comfortable with the fact that the whole point of what I do is to be intimate. What I’m really interested in music is that – and I feel it’s really missing in music… In terms of self-care or anything like that, I don’t have immense emotional breakdowns or something as a result of the work that I’ve created. I’m a pretty even-keel kind of an individual. So, for me, I just try to enjoy travelling and enjoy the opportunities of seeing so many places and cities. Yeah, it’s fun, actually – even if it sounds [like] a serious song or something, I’m still having a good time on stage. I’m not going through emotional turmoil. I’m not nervous about it, getting up on stage. I’m actually thinking this is like a fun thing to do. So I don’t think the music is a catharsis.”
Rhye has been discussed in thinkpieces dissecting the cultural dialectics of the new alt-R&B and an indie hipster audience. However, Milosh regards the project as belonging to the digital age of post-genre aesthetics – old categories obsolete. “People like a lot of different types of music now.” He theorises that hip-hop was pivotal to that shift, its artists sampling across the music spectrum. And, increasingly, studio technology is key. “People of younger generations are just like, ‘Oh, that sounds cool’ – they’re just going for their gut instinct on it.”
Surprisingly, Milosh has consistently played down Rhye’s R&B influence (and admitted to not being familiar with Sade’s discography), while stressing his formative introduction to classical music and Slavic folk traditions. “I love techno, I like minimal music, I like R&B a lot, I like hip-hop – you know, I studied jazz,” he says. “There’s all these different kinda cool genres that I’ve been involved in. The music that I’m creating I personally feel embodies elements from all those genres. I feel like there’s a huge classical element to my music that not everyone clicks into; in the modal textures and the melodies and stuff like that. There’s elements of R&B – or more like an older version of R&B – especially in the tempo and stuff like that. But we’re getting to a space where we’re redefining musical art forms in a way that’s probably not as connected to one specific genre. I don’t have a term for it yet, of where we’re going, but I definitely see all the genres are blending… It’s a really interesting thing. We’re in a transition phase. I don’t think we’re in a final result or anything like that. But I just always see myself as a hybrid of many things.”
Nevertheless, Milosh speaks of a divergence between musicians and media commentators. For him, creating is intuitive – and serendipitous. “Why someone makes music is not connected to why someone criticises music or critiques it. All the artists that I personally know are driven to make music because it’s almost like a compulsion to be creative. It satisfies or quells emotional instability sometimes or something feels good or whatever. But people aren’t making music to be part of one particular genre or one particular style. People are making music because it’s an expression of something much deeper and much more connected to something almost spiritual. It’s an expression of their soul or something. So it doesn’t make sense to think about the critic or someone criticising them, including me. I think that actually would work as a hindrance to the creative flow.”
Rhye kicks off his Australian tour today as a part of the huge Perth Festival, followed by shows in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and a stint at Golden Plains Festival.