Silk Rhodes: The Cosmonauts of Soul

Published November 26, 2014

ABOVE: MICHAEL COLLINS AND SASHA DESREE. PHOTO COURTESY OF THEO JEMISON.

With Michael Collins in charge of production and Sasha Desree’s vocals, the duo known as Silk Rhodes creates a soundscape filled with swelling instrumentation, handclaps, and moments of minimalist grooving. Capturing the multiple facets of soul music, they fuse together elements of psychedelic rock, funk, and slicker sounds reminiscent of soul’s heyday in the early ’70s. 

The Baltimore-based pair began writing songs while traveling and at home; when they found inspiration (or dropped a tab of acid), song writing became their emotional outlet. This Tuesday, Collins and Desree will release their self-titled debut album, Silk Rhodes, with cover art that reflects their drug-infused writing process: a stark close-up photograph of a girl’s chin, mouth, and neck with a proudly outstretched tongue on which a small white square baring the band’s name sits.

The 12-song album features tracks like “Laurie’s Machine,” where one hears multiple voicemails being left for the mysterious Laurie with brief snippets of information providing a glimpse into her life over a stripped down soundtrack, as well as “Face 2 Face,” which is all sparkle and boogie, and “Pains,” a hauntingly evocative combination of a slower pace and strong vocals.

Before the release of the album, we spoke with Collins about everything from the birth of Silk Rhodes to the duo recording their first track together after splitting a tab of acid and crooning to the streets of Baltimore.

J.L. SIRISUK: Where are you now?

MICHAEL COLLINS: I’m back and forth between L.A. and Oakland. Right now I’m living in Oakland.

SIRISUK: And you’re originally from Baltimore?

COLLINS: I’m from Boston and Sasha is from New York. I lived in Baltimore for seven years and in the middle of that time I met Sasha because we went on tour together under two different names. After the tour we started hanging out and he moved in with me in Baltimore. I feel like Baltimore was the birthplace of the music that we made together.

SIRISUK: I heard that you and Sasha used to record music in a car.

COLLINS: Right around the time that he moved in with me, I got this car, this Honda CR-V. I also got this vocal transformer pedal that could do a lot of different things—it could do auto-tune, harmonization, and looping. Back in those days, I was running a cassette label, so I put a cassette player in the car because I actually didn’t have one. I would drive around and make a loop of the feedback in the car, because when you auto-tune feedback, it doesn’t sound shrill anymore. Sasha would sing over it and I would drive him around. He would croon to all the people on the street in Baltimore. It kind of became our pastime. We would sing at people, sometimes people would come up to the car and we would drive them around and then they would start making loops. We would drive up at a stoplight and there would be an older Baltimore mom at the stoplight. She would turn and Sasha would be hanging out the window singing beautiful falsetto lyrics to her.

My thing in the last couple of years has just been working with melody and Sasha is a classically trained singer, probably one of the best singers I’ve ever known. He has a background in singing and a lot of the music that he has loved over the years is a lot of modern soul. In a way, the project came from a place where I was starting to work with melody and really inspired by neo-soul, and then we kind of mixed. We both liked different types of soul music and we fused all of or influences together. He likes a lot of really funky modern soul and I like a lot of velvety, harmony group soul.

SIRISUK:  What was that moment when the two of you decided you wanted to collaborate?

COLLINS: It was one night when we split a hit of acid when we lived in this house in Baltimore called The Tribal House. We set up all of our music stuff on the porch at, like, 8pm and then started to make this song that would become “Face 2 Face.” Sasha just played bass from the keyboard and we were both sitting there on the porch. It’s not like we were listening to any funk or Michael Jackson or something, it just came from us tripping on this porch. It felt like we were naturally coalescing our ideas without thinking about it. I think we have really learned a lot from each other. I think a lot of people find someone else that’s trying to do something similar to them, so they say, “Oh we should start a band,” which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. It’s almost like two people trying to have one brain. I think that when people collaborate they should be expanding rather than consolidating.

SIRISUK: What are some of the differences you were exposed to during your collaboration that you feel added to your own creative evolution?

COLLINS:  Sasha grew up naturally gifted at music and I didn’t—it was never my thing, it was never my background. My whole music making process is all ideas; I just have a propensity to want to flesh something out that’s in my head. Because Sasha’s such a good vocalist, he’s not really tied down to being a violinist or something. I think the thing that I got out of it the most is working with someone who really understands music on this technical and creative level. I’m kind of like a neurotic composer. I’m not really good at playing any instruments. I hear a lot of music in my head, and that’s my strength. I think in certain moments of our collaboration, Sasha opened me up to loosening up, and I think I also brought a level of cohesion to some of the wild improvisational ideas that he would have.

SIRISUK: It sounds like you both really feed off each other and work very intuitively. What was the process like making this album?

COLLINS: A lot of people I know who have bands, there’s one person who writes the song and then they bring it to the practice space. It’s relatively familiar in a situation that repeats like that. But something that I enjoyed about making music with Sasha is that we’ve both been so transient that there’s no way for us to do that. Driving across the country, we stopped at motels and recorded multiple songs. We recorded another song in somebody’s backyard in L.A., we recorded two songs at the Stones Throw studio, and we recorded more at my parents’ house. Our set up was really mobile. There are certain types of music where the places are as important as the instruments used.

SIRISUK: Each track is so different, but I do feel that you’re exploring all facets of soul music. Even “Laurie’s Machine” is very interesting. It’s minimalist with a focus on people leaving voicemails, there’s a story there.

COLLINS: It has such a narrative. Actually, those tapes we found in a thrift store. There’s this place in Baltimore that’s a free store, everything there is free. It’s called The Book Thing. You know those little cassettes that people used to have in their answering machines? We found some of those there and eventually got it hooked up with one of those answering machines and just recorded a lot. Laurie got some other messages that we had to take out because they were too sad or weird.

SIRISUK:  What would you say about the complete album?

COLLINS: We’re both hopeless romantics, I would say. The whole theme of the album is love songs, but not just to the object of your affection. We’re both a little bit more hopelessly romantic than that. There’s also an element, if you look at the lyrics, where a lot of it is about self-love—how in the past there have been times where we’ve felt like pining after someone, but had to come to a place of wanting to take care of yourself before you put all of your attention into another person. Once you do that, then you can have amazing connections with other people. I think Sasha has taken a lot of inspiration from people like that and I’ve always felt the same way too. I think there’s also a theme through all of the music lyrically, which is like the psychedelia of the real world.

SIRISUK:  I once read that you like the book House of Leaves, a book that captures the psychedelia of life.

COLLINS: I personally do like psychedelics, but they don’t hold a candle to real life and the surreal. The notion that the world that drugs opens you up to is more surreal than the natural world is a foolish one. The lyrics at a certain point in the album delve into connections with other people–the complexity, the surprises, and the deepness of it is inherently a psychedelic experience. A lot of R&B that we really like talks about love in that way. It doesn’t try to put it into a box, you know?

SIRISUK: How long did it take to make this album?

COLLINS: That was probably almost two whole years because of the way that we make music. Actually it’s funny. [laughs] The owner of Stones Throw, Peanut Butter Wolf, he signed us on the excitement of this one song we made called “The Lights.” That song came from what was probably the earliest soul music we made together. I was doing this thing that was an old tradition that I wanted to bring back. People in the ’50s would see an ad in the paper to send in $200 with song lyrics and a band would make a record and send it to you. Around three years ago when Sasha was living with me, I decided to do the same thing. People would send lyrics and $15 plus shipping. We got like 20 orders on the first day so I shut it off. Someone that we’re friends with now bought songs and cassettes for everyone in her family. One of them was for her mom and it’s called “The Lights.”  We made that into a doo-wop/Sam Cooke inspired song and Peanut butter Wolf fought us so hard on releasing it–the only version we had was ripped from the cassette and an mp3 on Gmail–but it has a special quality.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON THE BAND, VISIT THEIR FACEBOOK.