Mike Milosh doesn’t want to make pop hits; he wants Rhye to mean something to listeners
Westward Music Festival performer Rhye is dedicated to creating music with longevity rather than making a string of pop hits.
Landing a major-label deal is most musicians’ dream. But for Mike Milosh, the man behind Rhye, signing a contract with Polydor weighed him down for several years.
When the act began as a duo, it was courted by majors for months. Rhye’s delicate, sultry compositions stood apart from the aggressive pop and R&B that dominated the 2012 charts—a feature that sparked the feeding frenzy for Milosh’s commitment. When the label released its first LP, named Woman, the next year, however, slow sales led Polydor to bury the project.
After much deliberation, the Toronto-born Milosh refused to let Rhye fade into obscurity. Drawing on a clause in the small print of his contract, he chose to buy his way out of his deal and move on without his musical partner, Robin Hannibal—an endeavour that involved a huge amount of money. Fortunately for Milosh, Polydor had no control over the cash he earned through touring.
“I always kept the touring separate, and treated it as its own business,” he tells the Georgia Straight on the line from a hotel in Tel Aviv. “I was starting to think that maybe I just should have changed my name [rather than buying out the contract], because that would have been way simpler. In the process of deciding what to do, I was playing so many concerts, and pouring energy into the project—the name and everything. I was buying time while I was figuring out how to get the money to buy off this option. Then I had this moment where I said, ‘Yes, I should definitely do this,’ because I’d put so much into it already.”
For nearly five years, Milosh booked tour dates around the world to play songs from Woman—a feat that, in the modern world of the two-year album cycle, is almost unheard-of. It was also a point of validation for the artist. Dedicated to creating music with longevity rather than a string of hits, he found his time on the road offered him a new freedom.
“On one hand, I was surprised, but I also wasn’t,” Milosh says of his ability to continue to sell out venues without releasing new music. “Sometimes I get these feelings in my life that what I’m doing is what I’m supposed to be doing. It just feels right. All the touring I was doing kept feeling right. I kept playing places that were new, and going back to see some familiar places a few times. I went through a few iterations of the band. I think I felt lucky, more than surprised, actually.”
His years on the road served as the inspiration for Rhye’s latest release, the stunning 11-track Blood. Eschewing the electronic production of Woman in favour of live-recorded instruments, the artist was motivated to create an album that mirrored the versatility of his seven-piece band. Guitars, violins, cellos, trombones, synths, and percussion were each put to work in the studio, building tracks that are at once muscular and fragile. Milosh’s androgynous vocals float over the atmospheric melodies, telling tales of love, investigation, and discovery. Aiming for a record where each track embodies a new emotion, he hopes Blood has the ability to connect people across ages and cultures.
“I believe that music—more so than some of the other arts, because we don’t have to speak the same language to get the feeling from the song—is a binding agent,” he says. “I think it brings people together. Cultural exchange in music is probably one of the most beautiful things. Often you get to somehow infiltrate people’s lives in their living rooms or their bedrooms or their houses, and bring people together in tiny moments as well, which is incredible and very beautiful. I could probably go on about it for a long time, but to distill it to something quite simple: if you make music that has a fairly loving and peaceful intention, I have this faith that it translates, and it helps bring people together in a very loving way.”
Over the tumultuous course of Rhye’s existence, Milosh has remained true to his ideals. As dedicated today to producing quality music over quantity as he was during his time with Polydor, the artist doesn’t judge his success by the tickets he sells or the number of times his albums are streamed—although both metrics are excellent. Rather, his dedication to the project is motivated by the response from his listeners.
“Even my manager isn’t really looking at it [album sales],” he says. “I think everyone who is involved with me is understanding that I’m not making music that will pop off. They’re not pop hits. I’m making music that hopefully becomes part of people’s lives for a longer period of time. It’s not about hitting a crazy target. For me, it’s more important to see that people are smiling or crying,
or hugging. I see a lot of people hugging at our shows. That’s a lot more special than a number.” > KATE WILSON
Rhye plays the Vogue Theatre on Saturday (September 15), as part of Westward Music Festival.
Great Lake Swimmers’ Dekker sought something sonically new
Sometimes changing things up isn’t necessary, 2 but that didn’t stop Great Lake Swimmers founder Tony Dekker from doing just that on this year’s The Waves, the Wake.
To listen to the seventh album by the beautifully downbeat Ontario ambient-folk unit is to conclude that the status quo was no longer interesting for the singer-guitarist. Over its 15-year run, Great Lake Swimmers has built a reputation as the kind of band you reach for when the storm clouds are gathering in November and you’re hunkered down in a log cabin near Tofino, 100 Mile House, or the wilds of Cascadia.
In some ways, that still works for The Waves, the Wake, except that Dekker has chosen to swap out acoustic guitars for instruments somewhat outside his comfort zone, including marimba, harmonium, cello, violin, and harp. The results are, as usual, stunning in a way that makes you long for the West Coast rains (or, if you prefer, Ontario snowfalls).
That the sonic recalibrating of Great Lake Swimmers worked out as seamlessly as it did pleases Dekker, mostly because there was a period when he wondered what the hell he was doing.
“When I was writing for the record, I was really feeling a shift in perspective,” the laid-back Ontarian says, on the line from Toronto. “I think part of that had to do with new parenthood and all that comes with that. I was really searching for something new, but what exactly I was searching for I didn’t really know, and I’m still not sure. I do know that I went through this period where I really had to get over this hurdle of having a new perspective on my writing. And while it took me a while to get over that hurdle, once I broke through I feel like I really tapped into something to where the floodgates opened.”
As Dekker hints, he eventually ended up with an embarrassment of riches on The Waves, the Wake, drawing heavily on Toronto musicians outside of his normal circle of collaborators.
“Doing something different on this record definitely took some work, for sure,” he says. “There was a lot of reflection, and a lot of deep thinking. I think that ended up being reflected in the music. With the last couple of albums, we’ve had this more or less regular backing band, even though our members change with every album, if you go back over our seven albums now. With this one, the Toronto music community—and extending beyond that as well—sort of became the backing band as we zeroed in on the instruments we
wanted to use. That opened up a lot of avenues as we got into some really interesting collaborations with different people who were super specialized and skilled at their instruments.”
Recorded in an old church, the record heads for previously uncharted territory right off the top, with “The Talking Wind” marked with wavering flute and soft-focus clarinet, “In a Certain Light” built around back-porch banjo, and “Falling Apart” spotlighting the regal harp-playing of Mary Lattimore. Great Lake Swimmers serves up pop at its most ethereal and ghostly on the marimba-powered “Holding Nothing Back”, dives headfirst into rattling ghost-town country with “Root Systems”, and even plays things straight-ahead with the sunny MOR pop number “Alone but Not Alone”.
Linking The Waves, the Wake to Great Lake Swimmers’ back catalogue is Dekker’s continuing interest in exploring themes of solitude, the power of nature, and how we all feel just a bit better when we find ourselves off the grid—with the bonus of no cell service. It’s no accident that the album kicks off with “I’ve been talking with the wind a lot,” from “The Talking Wind”.
Asked if he wrote The Waves, the Wake somewhere beautiful—like Tofino, 100 Mile House, or the base of Mount Baker—dekker suggests that sometimes getting inside your own head is as important as getting away from it all.
“For this one, it was more about creating mental space than physical space,” he offers. “I can’t say that the record is really tied to a particular place. My journey with this record was more of an internal one than an external one. If that makes sense.” The lyrics—filled with references not only to the wind, but also to waves—hint there were some difficult-to-navigate times, which makes sense given that Dekker wrote the album while he was riding the wonderful, insane roller coaster of having a kid.
“I noticed that waves kept coming up in a lot of the songs, and that there were little bridges in the songs that provided a sort of synchronicity,” he says. “I also feel that wave is a pretty loaded word, as is the wake, and then putting those two words together works on a couple of different levels. Waves, the way I see it, is about pushing towards the future, and wake is the trail behind which you have to navigate. It’s all about trying to find a place in the centre of that, to find a balance between those two things.”
Dekker has done a masterful job of finding that balance on The Waves, the Wake, which has enough connections to the past to satisfy long-time fans of Great Lake Swimmers even while the singer looks to the future and moves forward as an artist.
“Making this record made me realize how much time I used to have,” he relates. “When you don’t have it, you’re like, ‘Remember the days when everything was a little freer?’ But I couldn’t be happier about the way that everything turned out. It’s been a great challenge.” > MIKE USINGER Great Lake Swimmers plays the Imperial on September 21.
Rhye’s Mike Milosh (above) believes that music is a way of bringing people together; Tony Dekker (below) looked inward for Great Lake Swimmers’ latest.