Computer Love: An Interview with Milosh
Milosh’s fourth album, Jetlag, is an exploration of intimacy. Andrew Darley talks to him about his songwriting and the journey he has taken making electronic music.
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In the fall of 2013, Michael Milosh released his fourth record, Jetlag. He has released his concoction of home-spun and nuanced electronic music under the name Milosh since the early 2000’s. His approach encompasses soft vocals, lofty synthesizers and the domestic sounds of everyday life. His name became more prominent in 2013 when he partnered up with fellow musician Robin Hannibal for the R&B-leaning project, Rhye. Their album Woman contained deeply affecting and heartfelt pop songs about intimacy, which featured Michael’s distinguished vocal style. Following the release and tour of the album, the singer-composer felt it was time to return and create a new solo album.
Created and stimulated by a period of his life he spent travelling between Berlin and Los Angeles to be with his then-girlfriend, now-wife, Alexa Nikolas, who features in the album’s music videos and artwork. Jetlag is a musical journal of the time he spent crossing the globe and the life they established together. The pair produced the album together and the music features conversations between the couple and sounds from around their home, which he experimented and tweaked to embellish the album. The record is a natural progression from his previous work, as he sonically grows in maturity and creative assertiveness.
Andrew talked to Michael about the effect Rhye had on his songwriting, the impact of the environment has on his music and the exploration of making electronic music.
When your 2008 album iii came out, you described how you viewed the first three albums connected in the way that each one dealt with the id, ego and superego. Does Jetlag feel like a new chapter?
That’s a good question, no-one has actually asked that. But yes, it’s a totally new place in my mind, a new place in me that wrote this.
Listening to the album, I can hear a snapshot of the dynamic between two people in love. Your wife Alexa features both in the music and visuals for this record. Would you agree that this is an intimate album?
I think people might not get right away that it is an intimate album if they’ve just heard it in a café or something. Once you’ve got headphones on and you become involved with the record there’s a lot of tender elements in there; things that are not right away clear and ideas coming across lyrically. The songs are almost like journal entries; it’s a very personal album for me.
That diary-like quality does come across. I’ve read in places that you moved from Thailand to Los Angeles, I’m wondering if the album was written during that time or upon reflection?
Actually that’s not entirely true. I think that has come out in some articles before. The truth is that I lived in Thailand way back in 2007. I didn’t even know Alexa when I lived in Thailand. I moved back to Montreal. Then I moved to Berlin for a couple of years and met Alexa there. I started the record in Berlin, while she was living in LA. I flew to LA six times while I was making the Rhye record. Everything between me and Alexa happened pretty soon. My record label paid for me to fly back and forth. I was starting Jetlag while I was also writing the Rhye record. I ended up putting it on hold because Rhye got involved with major labels so it felt right to put it on hold and then come back to it later. So I wrote a lot of it in Berlin and a lot of it in LA.
Did the experience of living in LA shape the sound of the record? Like with iii, I can hear Thailand in the subtleties and its nuances.
I don’t think people would get that it sounds like Thailand, unless you’ve been there. I think every place I’ve been to completely influences the music I make. Thailand has a sad quality to it, even though it’s unbelievably beautiful. But then there’s something going on underneath when you live there. The cracks in the walls start to show and you see a society built on sex tourism and a lot of shady things going on. I think those things creeped into the iii record and that’s why there are sad moments on it.
Jetlag is like a hybrid of the vibe that’s in Berlin, which is a very unique thing, and then LA. Everyday is sunny in LA, literally every day. I think there’s been one day of rain in the last two and half years since I’ve been here. My wife talks a lot about how the sun affects your records. I had actually written a whole record in Berlin that I completely scrapped. It was a really grey winter, the songs were really great for me to write on a cathartic level but I didn’t want to put them out into the world. I would say sunshine, environment and culture completely influences a record.
One thing that I loved about the last album was the voice recordings and the way you used them. On a song like ‘Awful Game’ the people’s voices at the end just lift the song right up. You’ve carried that aspect over to this album in a bigger way with snippets of conversations. Did it feel natural to bring these aspects in to shape the scope of the album?
Every time there’s a sound from our house on the record is basically because I love recording at home compared to studios. I love being able to make tea, think about things at the kitchen table and then go to my little studio. Alexa was with me for the majority of making the record and we’d always be talking about things and the microphone would just be on. When I decided to use her to drum on the songs, it was a complete joke. It wasn’t a serious thing. But it ended up sounding pretty cool and so I made multiple layers of it. I started editing it and EQing it. It happened very naturally. Another time my dog jumped for the door and the microphone happened to record the sound her collar made; it sounded perfect so I used it.
The lyrics specifically focus on your relationship with Alexa. But do you think the album captures the universal feeling of love?
I hope it does. That’s something I feel pretty strongly about and it crosses over into a lot of things in my life. I don’t think music is supposed to be this egotistical, selfish act that you record yourself for self-validating reasons: “Let’s put myself out there because I’m more important than other people”. I believe the whole point of music is to put your experiences out there to have other people relate to them and as a result they have their own moments with it. I mean, that’s how I look at music that I like from other artists. I like feeling things that sound authentic and having my own kind of thing it. As a result, I’m cautious in my own approach. I write about things that are specific enough that you know what I’m talking about, yet I write way more lyrics than I put in the final songs. I’ll whittle them down to a more simplified version so they’re abstract enough that people can relate to them. If you’re too descriptive, it can pull away from people having their own experience.
I do want to focus on Jetlag but I’m also curious about the success of Rhye. Is it strange being recognized now, even though you have been releasing records for ten years as a solo musician?
It’s not a surprise as I believe it all happens the right way, you know what I mean? On a logistical level, I understand that I’ve put a lot more energy into PRing Rhye. The record label I worked with on my first two records were truly indie in that they just did not have any money so there’s not a lot you can do. A lot of it is just hoping people will hear it.
I find it funny when I read on websites that “Rhye’s Mike Milosh is releasing a record”.
Yeah I know, but I think it’s kind of cool. I know that if I was a listener I think it’d be great to find out that someone had three other records. When I was younger I got into this Funkadelic and Parliament phase. There was something cool about going to used record stores and finding out they had another record and another record. Next thing you know, there’s this huge body of work. There’s something really nice about discovering it that way. Financially, it would have been handy if people knew me earlier but there’s something lovely about it too.
Did the Rhye record make you think about where you wanted to take your solo work next musically?
Definitely. Rhye was an interesting experiment for me because I wanted to be extremely earnest with the songs. I had all these rules and manifestos that I created about its music creation. One of them was that I can only create something if it actually happened to me or if it was as a result of a personal feeling. So everything on the Rhye record was something that happened the night before. I thought it was strong motivator and correct to do that. I’m really trying to personally fight this major label mentality; this commercial “let’s just market a product” approach by getting writers involved and their two cents in because they want it to be a commercial success. I find that whole thing gross.
With Rhye I ensured that I was really earnest but I still wanted to fit the songs into more of a mainstream format; three minute songs with a verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure that I hadn’t done before. It was a great thing to work with classic time structures. But as a result, I didn’t want Jetlag to be like that at all. I wanted it to be something different. So they show different parts of my personality and contextually there’s so much things going on, they happen in similar time but the approach is very different. One is like the ‘ying’ and the other is the ‘yang’ to the body of work.
Do you think of Jetlag as being more fluid?
I have this theory about the way I approached Jetlag. I would start a song based on an emotion and let that guide where I would take the song in terms of the note selection and beats which would then influence the lyrics. I never had any pre-determined idea of what form the song was going to take. I would just start writing and when I felt it needed to go into a break or a bridge or a chorus, that’s when I would do it. I wouldn’t follow strict guidelines and as a result some of the songs on the album are eight minutes long. It’s just what feels right for that song in that moment.
Leading on from that, has your songwriting or the way you approach instruments changed over time?
There has been a natural evolution for sure. The way I approach vocals is more confident. I now know how I want to sing things. I only do about one or two takes for a vocal, where a long time ago I could do about ten takes and worry about it. I became really interested in wave synthesis on this record; sitting down and playing with a synth pattern and really changing it over a couple of hours. Trying to find the right timbre and tone in the synth. There’s a sense of a journey and adventure with electronic music because you’re exploring these instruments that have close to infinite possibilities of sounds. You’ve got so many little nuances if you change one thing it can completely transform the tone of the synth. You feel like you’re an explorer. You feel like you’re uncovering something. That has stayed the same with my records, it’s something I’ll always do.
As you mentioned that, electronic music has really exploded in the last five years, both in the mainstream and alternative world. At the time electronic music was the underdog and indie bands were the main thing. Do you still get excited when you hear other electronic artists?
In a weird way I think I preferred when electronic was the underdog. I think there’s something cool about going against the grain. Record companies capitalize financially on genres and that’s when things get extremely commercial. There’s all this pressure for music to generate money for people and it can end up influencing what people create if you’re not careful. I’ve appreciated electronic music as the underdog. But the fact that more people have accepted it in that time is really cool.
I think what is happening is that people aren’t identifying themselves as genre-specific individuals anymore. When I younger people were like “I like hip hop” or “I like dance music” or “I like electronica”. There were all these defining categories that people put themselves in. Now when you talk to people about music, they like multiple genres. They don’t identify with genres that were around in the 2000’s and the 1990’s. That’s great because it doesn’t limit people to what they expose themselves to musically. There’s a pro and a con. There’s always black and white.
It’s funny because ten years and going back further than that, electronic music had this stereotype of being cold, almost emotionless sounding. While rock bands were seen as more ‘human music’. But now those indie rock are incorporating synthesizers and drum machines in their music to layer under guitar parts. There has been a big crossover.
I find it interesting that electronic has that cold reputation, just because there’s programmed beats that can be locked into computer BPMs. There’s something fascinating about computer music. What people often forget is that those who make electronic music have been able to do it outside of the confines of, what I see as, sterile recording studios. You cannot connect with studios because they’re just $200,000 rooms that you could not normally afford. You’re doing vocals in a booth that is removed from everything else in the room. There’s an element of studio-recorded music that is just so impersonal. I hear the emotions in electronic music. Every time I’ve worked in a studio there’s the feeling of a ticking clock and you only have a certain amount of hours to get things done. That can be beneficial but I like the home environment better.
Over your career has there been a song that you’ve had to push yourself the most to complete? Or even the one that pushed you the most?
No, I don’t think I work like that. I’m a pretty calm individual with creating. I’m not one of these artists who freaks out, gets wasted and comes back to it. I find it really cathartic writing music, it makes me feel really good. I write music because I like it, not because I have this weird relationship to it. I have some friends who have strange relationships with writing music. It’s almost like torture but they create some really beautiful stuff. I just work on a song until I know it’s done for me. I feel I’m more of an intuitive kind of writer than a logical writer.
This is your fourth solo work, I’m wondering when you listen back or play your earlier music live, do you hear a younger self?
Totally! Especially on the You Make Me Feel record. I think my voice sounds really different and not what it is now. I know I was really shy and I can just hear it on the album. Also, I was deliberately trying to make this lo-fi sounding production but if I was to make it again I would definitely change things. I think it’s great to have this time capsule from that age. I definitely feel a lot different as an artist. It’s the same me, but just older.
Older and wiser! Would you say then that you’ve become more confident as a musician?
Definitely. The best example is when I was going to Thailand, I did a gig on the way in Spain. It was a pretty big festival and it was in this opera theatre. I just went there by myself and did the show. My stomach was destroyed all morning; I was so nervous to go onstage. I was even thinking about how I could fake something so I didn’t have to go on stage. This last year I’ve played in front of 50,000 people and it didn’t make me feel nervous at all. I didn’t even feel the sensation of nerves.
As your lyrics are quite personal, has creating a song ever changed how you felt about a situation or changed your perspective?
Sometimes when you write songs it’s like your subconscious coming out and you can listen back and see they were wiser than you thought. Then there’s the act of listening back to something you did and reflecting. The process of reflection allows you to see something different about a situation. I think that’s why people write journals because there’s something amazing about reflecting on your own emotions.
Since Jetlag concentrates on your relationship and love with Alexa, do you think in years to come it will be like looking at an old photo album for you both?
Totally! 100%. There’s difficulties in that too, having to perform the songs 15 nights in a row and putting yourself into them. It can be hard to get into that headspace because you’re tired from travelling and you’re in a new city. But I think that’s why I do it. I think that’s why I love photography for that same reason. To have the two, it’s like an amazing time capsule; having images of this time and mixing it with music about how I was feeling.
Jetlag is out now on iTunes via Deadly