By Troy Hasselman, September 11 2019 —
Since the release of the Juno-winning and Polaris Prize- nominated R&B project’s debut album Woman in 2013, Rhye frontman Mike Milosh has kept himself busy through constant touring and his numerous creative interests. The project’s newest release, Spirit came out earlier this year and uses more ambient, piano-focused compositions than previous Rhye releases. The Gauntlet spoke to Milosh from Los Angeles where he is gearing up for a Rhye Canadian tour that will include a stop at Calgary’s Palace Theatre on Sept. 19.
The Gauntlet: The new release, Spirit, came out in May, a little over a year after your last album. Did this project come together in that brief time period or is it ideas you’ve had kicking around for longer?
Mike Milosh: I wrote it fairly quickly, after the last show I did, in November or something like that. The tune with Olafur Arnalds I had done in September and the one with Thomas Bartlett I had also done earlier. It was a response to all of the touring and me just needing to make something that was gentle, and I don’t want to sound cheesy, but something that was easy on my soul, kind of a catharsis from a really hectic year of touring. I was kind of itching to create something again — I love touring but you’re not writing or creating in the same way and I felt I needed to do some work.
G: Collaborators Olafur Arnalds and Thomas Bartlett both make music that mixes elements of ambient and classical music, which I can hear in this project. How big of an influence do your collaborators have on your work? Do you have an idea for a sound and seek out collaborators to make that sound or are you influenced by those around you?
Milosh: It’s a percentage of both of those things. When you’re in a room with someone — even sitting next to someone in a creative environment — they influence you. It’s hard to diagnose exactly what that influence is, but there’s an approach to every person that is slightly different. You still have your core creative self and I’ve got song objectives that I’m trying to reach. There’s a beauty to collaborating with people, you see another version of yourself and see another version of them and come together in this place that feels natural when you’ve got the right collaboration. For example, Olafur Arnalds is a really amazing piano player so I’m acquiescing to his piano prowess in that moment. Part of the beauty of this collaboration is he does chords that I wouldn’t have thought of. Working with Dan Wilson, I’m playing the piano and he’s playing the guitar and it turned out in another way. It’s fluid and every collaboration is different.
G: Your music on record is very tight and composed and your live show is more sprawling and uses a lot of dynamics. You also don’t have a set list and decide on stage what songs to play. How important is spontaneity to your music?
Milosh: It is for me. For example in a year I played 130 shows. If I was playing the same show every night I’d fall in the danger of it becoming a job. That repetition would be a bit boring for me and it would be dangerous creatively for me to get caught in a rut. On stage I make a lot of decisions. For example I’d say ‘Hey, Pat take a solo here,’ and then he will and everyone has to tune into what I’m doing onstage, just being aware of our timeline and wanting to accomplish certain things onstage. I like to have big moments that get kind of psychedelic and weird but I also want to bring it down to sentimental intimate moments that are just vocal so you can create a deep emotion on stage. For me, it’s important. The only thing that prevents it is, for example, this last tour I did a few dates with Feist. We had a new drummer because our drummer couldn’t be on that tour. So with the new drummer I couldn’t take as many risks because they just didn’t know all of the material so we had to be more regimented and by the third show I was like ‘Well we’ve done a lot of rehearsals but I can’t just be spontaneous and pull a song out randomly on people,’ which is more fun.
G: In the five years between your first and second album there aren’t any huge breaks in your touring schedule and you’ve been touring pretty consistently since the second album came out as well. Do you think constantly playing music and performing is important to maintaining creativity?
Milosh: I think there’s a bunch of factors that make it important. One is, I think it’s very important to have that constant feedback from a crowd. Because you can feel really quickly when something doesn’t work. It’s a really bad feeling onstage when you’re trying something and you’re losing the crowd because you’re indulging in a moment and just don’t have that thing that grabs someone. That feedback plays into the studio environment, you take that with you to say ‘Okay, I’ve gotta make sure I’m constantly aware of that.’ Even if it’s kind of a constant awareness it still affects decisions you make in that environment. I also think it’s important to not be locked away in the studio from an emotional wellbeing standpoint. There’s no windows in the studio, it’s a dark environment. It’s definitely another world. It’s important to be out there and see people and get to know people and experience travel and I think there’s a lot of benefits for me as a person who loves to write music. If I don’t have experiences because I’m constantly inwards because I’m always in the studio, I think a creative implosion can happen there. I think it’s dangerous to be doing one thing or the other. It’s important to have a happy balance. It’s also about having time off to do things that are completely unrelated to music as well, explore other art forms like photography and film. I don’t just want to do one thing.
G: Spirit almost reminds me of a film soundtrack in certain ways. Is film something that has influenced your work? Would you be interested in doing soundtracks?
Milosh: Film is something that interests me in general in a really big way. I have my own RED camera package for a reason. I do a lot of filming. I direct and shoot and edit most of my own videos. Not that I’m the best at it but I like it, it feels fun. Making music for film is a very natural connection for me, I’m not always doing that. Sometimes I get like, ‘Oh yeah I’m making something that would work really well in a live environment’. Spirit to me is very soundtrack-oriented in a lot of ways. It’s not specifically for film but it’s definitely of that world. It comes from that world of music to accompany an emotion or a scene.
G: Your life has changed a lot since the first Rhye album came out. Do you still relate to the older material or has how you relate to it changed?
Milosh: The way I relate to it changes. The first Rhye record I wrote eight years ago. My life is dramatically different now. Songs don’t lose meaning to me but you start realizing there’s other meanings in the songs. I have this weird connection with my old music where I can feel I can hear that I prophesy a lot of the things that have happened in my life, which is why I try and never put out negative songs or anything that has negative connotations because it often manifests itself at some point in reality. For me, the songs they do change and my relationship to them changes. Also, the live show has changed too. We are augmenting or changing parts or modulating sections or slowing down the tempo. Sometimes I’ll hear the first record and be like ‘Oh that’s how it goes. I’ve changed it so much it’s half-time now.’ I don’t think music is supposed to be exactly how it is when you recorded it. I think you’re supposed to allow your life to influence the way you play it and your relationship with songs can change. Your whole perspective changes on it.
G: Spirit is much more piano focused, will your live show be switched around to reflect this? Will you change the arrangement of your other signs to reflect the focus on the piano in this album?
Milosh: No. For me. If I was to properly do Spirit as a live show I’d do it just as piano and vocals and I’d make it a 40 minute show just in a 40 person venue or something like that. Really quaint, really small, really special. For me a Rhye isn’t just trying to emulate Spirit. It’s one piece of work in a much larger body. The way I approach live shows, it’s not just the album either. Me just doing Spirit and just doing the piano is not what I’m doing. This tour we’re doing in Canada is seven people on stage, it’s guitar and cello — there’s violins. There’s a lot more going on and a lot more dynamics than Spirit has. Spirit feels to me like a record that you listen to by yourself but if I had to do all of those songs I’d recreate the feeling of playing for one individual. For Rhye shows I don’t know how that music would translate to some of the environments Rhye plays. I think it requires a different environment.
G: Has travelling and living in different places around the world had an influence on your creativity?
Milosh: Yeah, 100 percent. I used to feel it had an even bigger impact but then I started to realize at a certain point that my personal relationships really have the biggest impact on my music because they really affect different states of being. Travel has a massive impact on the rhythms of your own life and your views on things. You get to be exposed to all of these different artists especially because we play a lot of festivals I get to hear a lot of different artists that I maybe wouldn’t have the time to search out myself and that kind of falls into things like ‘Oh wow, there are things happening in music that sounds like that. Do I want to do that? Maybe not?’ Sometimes I react against it almost negatively but that also means I was informed in some way. I’ve got this deep disdain for trap beats right now because I keep hearing so much of it and everything I’m doing is personally staying away from that genre because there’s enough trap in the world and there’s enough of those recycled 808 beats that I’m like ‘Eh, I’m definitely not doing that’ so I’m also informed by that as a reaction against it. You definitely have to get out there and partake in things to have a creative identity.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity