In the fall of 2012, Mike Milosh released "Open," his first single under the name Rhye, a track that melded hushed chamber pop with a serene electronic pulse. The music was unwaveringly gentle, but surprisingly, it incited a major-label feeding frenzy. "I was not expecting 20 labels to be fighting for it," Milosh remembers, speaking in his hotel room in downtown Manhattan on a frigid January day. "As a joke, this sounds super cocky, but I was like, 'I'll sign with a major label if they give me a million bucks.' And then it was super weird: Polydor basically gave me a million dollars."
This payday turned out to be less of a life-changer than it sounds, partly because most of it was lost to taxes, but also because Milosh doesn't measure his success via the usual metrics. "When I'm working on stuff, I only think it's good if I can get reactions out of people," he explains. "I love watching people listening to the music with headphones – when they hold their breath, when they close their eyes. If people get a little quivery lip, that's good. I'm not thinking, 'This will make a million dollars!'"
For Milosh, these sorts of reactions may also be longer-lasting than a six-figure deal: His relationship with Polydor quickly unravelled. He didn't satisfy the label's first-week sales expectations, went into debt on the first leg of the initial Rhye tour and ended up in a year-long process of buying out his contract so he could exist without Polydor looking over his shoulder. In addition, Robin Hannibal, the ace producer who was initially billed as Milosh's partner in Rhye, left the group. Following all this drama, there are higher stakes surrounding the second Rhye album, Blood, out Friday. "I have a big investment in this project being good," Milosh says.
This tense backstory contrasts with the casual origins of Rhye – and the pillowy ease of their music. Milosh, a music-school graduate with a jazz drumming background and an electroacoustic studies major, put out three electronic albums through the Los Angeles indie Plug Research during the 2000s. He lived the life of an itinerant musician, with stints in Thailand, Holland and Montreal. While temporarily settled in Berlin, he was asked to do a remix for his Plug Research label mates Quadron, a Danish soul duo containing Hannibal and the singer Coco O. What started as a remix project turned into the first three Rhye songs ("Major Minor Love," "The Fall," "Woman") and eventually set off a bidding war.
These songs were velvety and wistful. Over featherweight funk grooves, Milosh sang long, fragile vocal lines, joined frequently by strings and woodwind instruments. Jason Bentley, music director for L.A.'s KCRW, was an early supporter of Rhye. "The music catches that infinite free-fall of really feeling love and passion for someone – when you first come across that, and it's such a precious thing," he says.
Rhye also boosted interest early on by purposefully cultivating anonymity – during a live session for KCRW, Bentley remembers Milosh singing swathed in darkness. "I appreciate artists that are trying to create a mythology," Bentley adds. "I don't think it happens enough or is done well enough. I love that shit. This is style; this is artistic vision."
But Rhye's anonymity soon fell away, and the idea that the group was a partnership vanished soon after – around the time that labels started offering the big bucks. Milosh now describe's Hannibal's role in the first album as just, "a hired guy that helped me." Milosh's name was the only one on the Polydor contract.
In response, Hannibal – who has gone on to produce important recordings for Yuna and DVSN, pushing his sound further into R&B's mainstream – offered his first public statement about his exit from Rhye. "Mike and I formed Rhye together," he said. "We came up with the concept, the name, and the visuals and co-wrote all the music for our debut album, Woman, together in the spare bedroom of my Los Feliz apartment. At the time I had just been signed to Epic Records as a member of the duo Quadron and so was not legally able to sign to another major label, instead signing on as our project's producer with an equal share. I'm very proud of Woman – it will always hold a special place in my heart. I wasn't involved in the making of the second album, but I wish Mike the best of luck."
"I don't want people only crying. You want some dynamics in there." –Mike Milosh
After parting ways with Hannibal, Milosh played 476 shows to raise enough money to both buy out his Polydor deal and fund the next iteration of Rhye. "[Label troubles] motivated me to become a monster tourer," he says. Gig money in hand, Milosh set about making a second Rhye record with a new set of behind-the-scenes players. Blood includes contributions from Nate Mercereau, former guitarist for Sheila E who is also credited on Jay-Z's 4:44 (for six different instruments); Justin Parker, who has written hits for Lana Del Rey and Rihanna; King Henry, who co-produced Beyoncé's "All Night" and Major Lazer's "Cold Water;" and Thomas Bartlett, who has put out well-received albums as Doveman and produced Sufjan Stevens' Carrie & Lowell.
Despite personnel changes, many of the ingredients from the first Rhye album reappear on Blood. "I kind of sing in a way that's more Gregorian; I often feel my music is more classical than it's soul," Milosh says. "But I happen to love rhythm, so it has that sensibility." A few of the new songs, like second single "Count to Five," which has been getting played on some Adult Alternative Album radio stations, are the liveliest to date in the Rhye catalog, verging on danceable. "I don't want people only crying," Milosh says. "You want some dynamics in there."
But tears are OK, too. "When I first recorded ['Stay Safe'], I played it for a friend while driving in Atlanta," the singer remembers. "She started having this really beautiful reaction: She started crying. That's a huge reward when you see you can affect someone like that."
Now that Rhye is out of limbo, Milosh is eager to make up for lost time. "I don't want to wait five years for another album," he says. "I already started the next Rhye record. Why would I stop?"