[PRENATAL SOUL] Many artists build their careers from the face up. Robin Hannibal took the opposite route: He's become an in-demand producer while remaining deliberately faceless. In the past year alone, the Danish musician has worked with some of the hottest members of the hip-hop vanguard, from Kendrick Lamar to Odd Future. He also released a second album of quiet-storm R&B with his own group, Quadron. And he still had time for his most acclaimed project, the enigmatic, androgynously soulful duo Rhye. He's done it all while remaining in the shadows. He isn't touring with Rhye, and obscures himself in press photos. Blame Hannibal's desire for anonymity on his Scandinavian upbringing.
"We were brought up to be humble and reserved, and not so concerned with a product," he says by telephone from London, speaking of his youth in Copenhagen. Hannibal is a bit mystified why people are interested in him at all. After all, his success, he claims, is pretty much an accident. "I haven't had to plan too much," he says. "Everything has just kind of happened."
Even so, Hannibal has made some good moves. After moving to Los Angeles in 2010, for example, he hooked up with Mike Milosh, a Canadian electronic artist and singer. They had a lot in common. Both had moved from Europe to L.A. Both were beginning serious romantic relationships. And both were fans of each other's past work. Indeed, when the two first got together in Hannibal's bedroom, with Hannibal at the piano, Rhye âjust kind of happened.â
"Mike started singing 'Woman' without even noticing it," Hannibal says, referring to what would eventually become the title track of the band's debut album.
The result of their collaboration is what Hannibal calls a "homage to all women." Despite the curvy feminine shoulders that appear on the cover of Woman, Hannibal maintains it's not about using a deceptively feminine aesthetic to attract a fan base. While the image is certainly sexy, it also resembles an ultrasound photo, and the sound of Rhye is similarly intimate, with Milosh's softly crooned vocals floating over Hannibal's arrangement of delicate strings and melodic piano. The music is tied to a genuine feeling of love, Hannibal says.
"I'm telling a very personal story," he says, "not masking it, being direct, honest, pouring emotions out and sharing them. I connect with those brutal emotions in [soul music]."
It's a seemingly contradictory idea, to make such a personal record while attempting to keep the artistic identities behind it shrouded in mystery, but Hannibal maintains that was the best way to do it. Neither he nor Milosh thought the music's "brutal emotions" would land right if they put their names out in front. Of course, once critics picked up the album, the secret was out. But while Milosh is currently touring in support of the album, Hannibal is content to continue enjoying its success from afar.
"We didn't want to put a face to the music," he says. "We didn't want to sell it based on what we were wearing. The idea and concept is always about the love of that music, more than worshiping an artist."
SEE IT: Rhye plays Aladdin Theater, 3017 SE Milwaukie Ave., on Wednesday, Aug. 7. 8 pm. $25. Under 21 permitted with legal guardian.