Michael Milosh was making an album in Berlin, one that he “ultimately hated and threw away,” when he felt destiny tugging him in another direction. “It made me decide to make a very different record,” he admits. He was missing the visceral emotional quality of live strings, woodwinds, and organ. Also sensing a growing disdain for the techno and electronica scenes in Berlin, he packed his bags and headed to Los Angeles.
“There’s a destiny that always steps in. I think I was just destined to go to LA, so all these things pulled me there,” the musician, known as Rhye, tells American Songwriter over a phone call last month. A budding new romance with Geneviève Medow-Jenkins, an accomplished creative consultant, film director, and co-founder of Secular Sabbath, drew him to the City of Angels, and there his creative spark was reignited.
Rhye’s new record Home finds him reengaging with organic instrumentation, marrying lush stringwork with disco, psych-rock, and jazz inflections. Along the way, Milosh infuses joy and exuberance in between moments of sharp introspection, a juxtaposition allowing himself to bulldoze the senses and give the listener a full-bodied experience. “I doubled down on this idea we’re going to get through it and eventually we’ll be able to do live shows again,” he remarks, pulling on the notion we all deserve “room to dance and [to] have fun,” even these days.
In many ways, his life has been a pretty charmed one. Milosh issued his debut record, Woman, in 2013, and it set off a whirlwind of success, launching a career that has taken him all over the globe. He’s a nomad by nature, perhaps down to his very DNA, galavanting across Thailand, The Netherlands, and Toronto, and yet, in 2019, he felt a tug to plant roots in a way he never expected. So, Milosh and Medow-Jenkins bought a secluded house out in Topanga, a serene countryside nestled against the Santa Monica Mountains within Topanga Canyon, a bohemian melting pot that has nurtured the careers of musicians like Woody Guthrie and countless visual artists, including George Herms, through the decades.
“It’s a really interesting enclave. We live at the top of the mountain. You don’t really see tons of light. There’s a light ordinance, so you can actually see stars and feel the effects of the moon,” Milosh observes. “There’s not a lot of helicopters or air traffic. You get quiet, and it’s perfect if you’re an artist.” He’s still within 10 minutes of the beach, with easy access to the city, if he needs. “Having trees all around you up on a mountain is very inspiring.”
Home began as an experiment to create just to see where his muse took him. Out of an arsenal of 35 songs, he set about designing the record’s stylistic template, opting for soothing, ethereal textures to further elevate his brooding, deeply-probing lyrics. “It’s one of those records where I wasn’t trying to fit it into a mold,” he says. From sweltering string sections, brassy horn blasts, and a Gregorian-style choir, a 60-piece ensemble called the Danish National Girls’ Choir, Molish found himself mixing and genre-melting in an exciting new way.
“Holy,” a co-write with Ben Schwier, is among the record’s most electrifying, a smoldering tune re-tooling the idea of purity in a more sexual context. “Don’t be holy for me / Don’t be so good / You’re in my head,” he pleads over Wurlitzer, piano, and a trombone’s smokey rumble. The choir then sweeps in like a specter in the background, punctuating the song’s raw intensity.
The day of recording, way back in November 2019, felt like “time had stopped,” muses Molish. “The fear for me with this song is that, lyrically, it’s a very sexually-charged song. The whole concept is: don’t be too good. I wanted to make sure they were OK with the context of the song. I always want to be cognizant of other people.”
“Fire” seems to land within a similar sultry soundscape. “Give me your tongue baby, show me words / Sing me a song babe, kill me right,” he sings in hushed tone. Even though strings swell and ache in the arrangement, there is a fragility in both the lyrics and performance.
At the time, Milosh had been working on a score for a film and found himself “jumping back and forth” between pursuits. Once he had the sticky piano line, he knew it was in need of a thumping beat, even if faint and unobtrusive, to guide the way. “It had this presence to it. I started listening to it that night in my car, driving around the mountaintops in Malibu. I like writing a song and going on a drive after and making sure I like it in a context outside the studio. There’s a feeling to this song. It feels like the right kind of dark.”
A spookier kind of darkness swirls throughout “Need a Lover,” the set’s most stripped-down moment that crawls under the skin. “I knew it needed to be a reprieve from rhythm and drums,” Milosh stresses. Written with Joel Shearer, who also plays guitar, the moodier number was born out of a “really strong, organic” relationship between the two songwriters. “We finished this song in like three hours. Time investment doesn’t equal a positive result sometimes. It’s a simple song, but it says everything that needs to be said. I didn’t want to overbear it or be too dominant with the strings. So, I kept it with cello, lower register, nothing too powerful.”
Perched on the opposite end of the musical spectrum, “Hold You Down,” written with Nate Mercereau, and DJ Stanfill, slides along a funk-style groove, biting and gooey. “We just took a really big swing and went for it,” he says, noting the song was initially shelved for a few months. When he revisited, Milosh began fleshing out the vocals and other instruments.
“The way I do vocals is I’ll throw out these mumbles and melodies, and I don’t worry about the words. I went back and came up with a different melody for it. The original song was three minutes longer,” he explains. “It became apparent a choir would be really cool on it, too.”
The choir doesn’t show up until the second half, adding a necessary emotional and musical crescendo in just the perfect moment. “There’s something about the track that satisfies my producer’s mind. I love the tones I was able to get on it. I really dialed in the distortion.”
Later, “Black Rain” arrives as another striking musical detour, a fusion of classic rock and disco. “Turn around really slow / Feel your hair on my skin / Feel around your fault line,” he sings.
Musically, Miliosh intends the song to be a live show favorite ─ whenever concerts become a thing again, of course. “There are moments we’ve started building out in our live shows where we get people dancing. We’ll do three bangers in row with guitar solos and four on the floor beats. I wanted to carry that on into this record,” he says. “It just felt right to lean into the disco elements. I thought of the song as a bit more classic rock at first, but once I used all the string runs, it plays into disco. The chorus gets a little classic rock with distorted guitar tones.”
“In my mind, there’s a classical element to it, too,” he quickly adds. “The way I use the strings in the chorus doesn’t feel disco to me at some points. Then, it flirts back with disco.”
Rhye is an artful sculptor, and that’s not more evident than with Home, a complete sensory experience from start to finish. Eight years removed from his debut, he takes a moment to reflect upon Woman and its “bedroom record” aesthetic. “It’s very laptop, minimal analog gear. But that was my trying to push into… a lot of woodwinds, harp, organic instrumentals. I love that I was able to get that done on that record,” he offers.
“Where I’ve gone now is I love using synthesizers a little bit more. I paired a specific preamp to every synthesizer I have in my studio, so instead of having a board and using a mix console, I have lots of different preamps and compressors. Everything gets turned on at once. The workflow is very different from that first record.”
“All my keyboard space is away from the computer,” he continues. “I’ve freed my mind from linear thinking. What that’s done is it’s made music have a more organic pattern to it. All music has mathematics within it. Computers will make you think a certain way with chord structures. That’s been my biggest mental evolution.”
Over nearly two years, Milish has, more than anything, “re-learned [that] my internal and external happiness is definitely connected to the ability to make music,” he says. “In a pandemic, you can’t deny yourself that. We’re in a time when people have to spend hours alone or with a couple people at home, and the creative process is the biggest saving grace for me.”
While he doesn’t necessarily struggle with depression or anxiety, he considers it’s likely “because I have music. I would recommend everyone to figure out ways to be creative. I’ve also learned you should be ambitious. This kind of record would normally be very hard to make. Even if this record doesn’t do well, I’m emotionally really satisfied. I love what I was able to create. Don’t do what you’re supposed to do all the time.”
Photo by Emma Marie Jenkinson