When a sudden change occurs, a few feelings bubble up: fear, brought forth by the possibility of failure; confusion, like why or how did this happen, exactly; anger because being pulled from routine is, decidedly, not great; or optimism, where the future looks, and likely, is brighter due to that sudden shift. To remain static, is to remain, in a word, boring. So change is necessary, but it’s hard. In music, change can incapacitate or motivate you; to innovate, adapt with the culture or remain someplace safe, all while navigating personal triumphs and lows. Over the past five years, Mike Milosh from Rhye, the alt-R&B project, has had his fair share of changes and adapted; coming back with this project with an immense amount of hope.
Tucked into a pew at Toronto’s Church of the Redeemer, where Milosh used to perform on cello for recitals as a child, he laughs and becomes pensive when I ask if he thinks Blood, Rhye’s sophomore album released this week, is his comeback. “I don’t think of it as a comeback. I guess I think about things differently than people perceive.” Which is true: Milosh seems quiet in person but he’s engaging, ready to gently battle back any perceptions we (media, his audience, etc.) have about his work. He continues: “I’ve been touring the world, playing tons of concerts. It doesn’t feel like a comeback. I didn’t retire and then come back. I’ve been going on this pace that I’m on. I also don’t let people dictate the pace that I’m on. I go with what feels right for me.”
Rhye’s buzz reached a critical point in 2013 with the release of their astonishingly beautiful debut Woman. That record sounds like a sticky, humid summer’s day just after a thunderstorm; evocative, sensual, and calming. Woman is a tribute to love—and Milosh’s then wife—and it is very much a record of its time. Broadly, it’s part of the alt, electro-R&B shift in music; the imprints of which we can see often today in the likes of Syd, Frank Ocean, and Charlotte Day Wilson, to name a few who dabble in genre-blending and innovation. (Milosh didn’t generate the shift, he just excelled at it.) Personally, that debut record represents a very different life for Milosh, too, who went through a divorce with not only his wife at the time, but his label.
Milosh spent the better part of two years working on Blood, which he says, plainly, was a matter of circumstance. “[It] was kind of put upon me. That wasn’t by choice. I had to buy out the option to do the second record and that took a year of negotiating with a lawyer and that took a large amount of money so I had to play a bunch of shows to make the money to buy it out,” he says. “Once I bought it out, I started on the record.” From there, the album, which he adamantly tells me is not a concept record, began to take a shape. While on the road (Milosh and his band performed 476 times over the span of four years in New York, Montreal, Berlin, to name a few), he would write songs, using the same equipment wherever he traveled so it would sonically still fit together and wouldn’t be so piece-y.
In-between his debut and legal battle for his art, his marriage dissolved. “Break-ups are difficult, there’s nothing easy about a break-up,” he says plainly. Milosh’s feelings about his marriage, that he does speak kindly of, very briefly, are on the album. Blood’s first song “Waste” is dedicated to that experience (and its the only song about it.) He sings earnestly on “Waste,” that “we’re goin’ through some changes” over some gentle percussion. There’s no animosity on the track, one that is tender and sad all at once. It’s mourning the loss of a relationship but it’s almost beyond grief. It sits in a place of familiarity; a dialogue one can only have with themself. “Some people have thought that I thought the relationship is a waste but that’s not what that song is about,” Milosh explains. “It’s saying it’s a waste I wasn’t able to do more to prevent that. Or, you know, this thing is going this one direction and there’s nothing you can do. I’m saying it’s waste that I’m powerless, you know?”
From there, Blood dips up and down, curving around the bends of a new relationship, a new love, and the moments that occur as it unfolds. It’s inherently optimistic, he tells me. “It’s a story of two years of my life, essentially. It’s these journal entries and moments. I don’t think it’s a sad record though, actually, which I think so many people do. But I think it’s a joyous record. I think people connect sonically with melancholy but to me that’s not sad. It’s more an expression of beauty to me than it is a sadness.” The strength of Rhye is how Milosh’s very personal experiences transcend any limitation tied to that. Through composition, arrangement, and meticulously crafted lyrics that sound so effortless upon listening, he manages to make us sit in those feelings. It’s exceedingly powerful to elicit such a profound feeling. Milosh says he channels it; channels a sensation or mood and the calmness that goes with it, allowing himself and his listeners to expand within that space to feel whatever we’re going to feel.
It’s an album to dance to—like on “Count to Five” and “Taste” with its slinky bass line—and one to bring close to your heart, to your perceptions and subjections, with “Please,” an apology track that is, likely, one of the most Canadian things he could do. Humour aside, Milosh taps into how important it is to release stubbornness and acknowledge your partner’s feelings, something he says is gratifying. The album hits a peak, thematically, with “Phoenix,” where he sings over funky guitars, “this love has a hold on me,” speaking to his current relationship, his current perception of his own happiness. As the chorus builds, it sounds like a climax—breathy with a sweet release.
Where there is anything sexual or sensual on the record, it’s mutual. The cover art for Blood is a photograph of his partner and collaborator, Genevieve, nude, drying off in the sun in Iceland. Milosh is firm on his stance that any notion of sexuality or sex on the album is not objectification. Given the current conversations about and around women, and women specifically in entertainment, that distinction is important. “I hope the one thing men take away from my record is that it’s not about objectification, it’s about honouring each other,” he says. “Love is mutual, not to be hypersexualized. When I am sexual in my lyrics, it’s sex is an act of love, it’s not coming from another place.”
Blood is an exploration of a new self, one still steeped in warmth. “The [album] cover represents what the album represents to me this willingness to be present; to move on into the future and not hold on to the past. There’s a lot personal triumphs on this record,” Milosh says. To see, in the face of change, a brighter now and an even more luminous possible future is a radical act.
Sarah MacDonald is greatness in living form who also resides in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter.