7 Mar 2019

Canadian soul musician Rhye: songs to seduce

From RNZ Music, 12:00 pm on 7 March 2019

The music of Rhye is seductive soul, an exploration of long-term love that feels almost voyeuristic to listen to. Ahead of their Auckland Festival show, Kirsten Johnstone speaks to the man behind it, Canadian multi-instrumentalist and producer Mike Milosh.


Rhye Photo: Genevieve Medow Jenkins

‘Open’ is one of those sentimental songs that oozes sweet sad sensuality. The airy strings in the beginning are weighted down by horns, while angelic voices coo. Then a mid-tempo groove starts as Milosh gently croons.. “I’m a fool for that shake in your thighs..” It’s an empowering, intimate and gorgeous meditation on love.  

The 2013 song holds a special place in my heart, and a prime spot in my yoga playlist. It’s in Bang! Creator Melody Thomas’ “sexy sex” mix. Apparently it’s also on birthing playlists for women in labour too.

“I’ve been sent a lot of photos of children that have been born [to that song]” Milosh says. Babies have been named Rhye, his music means so much to some. And fans let him know so.

“I’ve been shared some very intimate details by people, and I find it very inspiring, when someone writes me something, and I read it, and it’s beautiful.”

These are intimate, erotic, feminine songs, and there are body fluids and double-entendres all through the lyrics. I’d call it pillow-talk soul. It almost feels as if Milosh’s lover is in this music, an integral part of his process.

The covers of both albums, 2013’s Woman and 2018’s Blood are black and white portraits, of women - the first showing a neck, shoulders, and lips. The second is of Milosh’s girlfriend, goosebumps all over, drying off after a dip in a glacial lake in Iceland. That photo was taken by Milosh himself. 

Back in 2013 he used the word ‘muse’ to describe his (then) wife’s role in his music, but he’s backed away from that concept. “Too cliche” he says and maybe in these post-feminist times, with instances of objectification and sometimes abuse of muses throughout art history, it’s just as well. But he says that his girlfriend, multi-disciplinary artist Geneviève Medow Jenkin does act as his best critic.

“Sometimes she’ll push me, and say like ‘oh, I didn’t believe you when you sang that’ or ‘I didn’t feel it’ and I’ll go back into the studio, and redo a vocal take. But then, out of that frustration, I’ve come back with something better, as a result.”

Rhye - artwork for Blood

Rhye - artwork for Blood Photo: Milosh

He rejects my assumption that all of his songs are about romance and sex, and says that he just writes about what’s going on in his life.

“I’m always inspired to write based on an actual specific event that happens. I’m usually not totally open about what that event is, for me the lyrics are already pretty vulnerable, so I just let them speak for themselves.”

He’s not a storyteller, you won’t hear specificity in his lyrics, but he’s a master at evoking the messy emotions of long-term love.

He released music between 2008-2014 under his name Milosh. While his coo gives it away, the music of Milosh is much more electronic, metallic, and beat-driven. He says that he had a whole album of music just before the Rhye project that he binned he hated it so much.

“Sonically it was bugging my ears, actually I would say it even bothered my head.”  

“Rhye was where I always wanted to end up sonically, but Milosh represents lack of funds to do that.”

He initially teamed up with Danish producer Robin Hannibal (known in New Zealand for his work with Coco Solid as Parallel Dance Ensemble, and their fabulous song Shopping Cart) and they set about making songs that were “natural, and organic”. They focussed on acoustic instruments - the strings that Milosh so meticulously arranges (he’s a trained cellist, though he rarely plays anymore), piano, analogue synths, real drums.

“I wanted to make a record that focussed on the vocal, and didn’t feel so impersonal.”   

And that airy androgynous voice of his feels like he’s whispering sweet nothings in your ears.   

He says that he never thought of himself as a singer, but started singing in his Milosh tracks, and developed “a quiet confidence” with his voice.

“I don’t like it when singers have tones that are very forced, in terms of the air, it hurts my ears and it makes me feel an uncomfortable feeling. And when I sing, I like that feeling of being comforted, and so I use air tone, as opposed to my head voice … I don’t sing super-high, it’s just gentle and soft.”

He’s playing the Auckland Festival with his seven piece band next week. Book the babysitter, it’s a perfect date-night gig.

Rhye plays on March 12 at the Spiegeltent - details and tickets here

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