With his third album and its stomping, radically queer first single, Mike Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius, has garnered mass critical acclaim, but as Lisa Connell discovers, his experiences as the only ‘out’ kid at high school not only shaped the musician he would become, they threatened to overcome the man.
“I’m letting loose a little more,” Mike Hadreas, otherwise known as Perfume Genius, tells me over the phone from Minneapolis, where he’s performing as part of a major world tour. The queer singer/songwriter is garnering stellar reviews for his third album, Too Bright, with much being made of the fact that Hadreas seems to have finally come out of his shell.
“I had to shake off the limitations I thought I had musically, and what I thought I could do with my voice and instrumentations, so I think I let go more than I usually do. But as far as the subject matter and what it actually sounds like, I think it’s just a different side of me that I haven’t shown before. All that wildness was always there, but maybe just not presented in the way it is now, so it doesn’t feel like I’ve changed.”
For those not familiar with Perfume Genius, his music is underpinned with lyrical themes of blistering honestly and dark sexuality, juxtaposed with sweet melodies, with songs like ‘Dark Parts’, detailing the sexual abuse his mother experienced, or ‘Mr. Peterson’, telling the story of a teacher who has an affair with a male student and jumps off the roof of a building. The third album is no different in this respect, but there are a few less spoonfuls of sugar to the musical elements.
“With this album, when I was saying something nasty or harsh, I wanted the music to be equally as harsh,” says Hadreas. To this end he enlisted the help of Portishead’s Adrian Utley. “One of the reasons I worked with Adrian is that I knew he could technically take the songs as far in that direction as I wanted them to go,” Hadreas explains. “I knew that from his music that he wouldn’t be afraid to do that mood wise, but he would also know how to technically really nail it.”
And nail it, they did. The New Yorker called Too Bright “one of the most encouraging albums of the moment, in its delivery of exuberant sounds by a spiky, unbiddable performer.”
The lead single from the album is called ‘Queen’, and it’s both a battle cry and rejection of societal homophobia with lyrics like: “No family is safe when I sashay,” and, “Don’t you know your queen?/Cracked, peeling/Riddled with disease.”
“I knew the risk of sharing it as the first single was that people would say it’s was a big gay song and a big gay album,” says Hadreas. “I kind had a ‘fuck you’ attitude about that. I mean that’s kind of what the song is, it’s kind of a ‘fuck you’ in itself. Releasing it as a first song is like a rebellion in some way.
“People where I live, which is fairly liberal, are wondering why I’m pushing this? Why I’m still angry. I needed that song for me personally as much as I needed to put it out there. I had a really hard time shaking it off a lot of the backlash I got for being who I was when I was growing up, not having it make me feel victimised. I don’t want to go about my life feeling frightened or embarrassed by myself, I don’t want to internalise all those things anymore. So this is about reclaiming something. I wrote it with the intention of it being personal but knowing that it could be helpful to other people.”
In the video for the song, directed by the artist Ssion, Hadreas interrupts a boardroom meeting by stomping across the table in high heels. It is a very queer video with gender bending at its aesthetic core. Is this an important element to Perfume Genius’ creative and personal presentation?
“Once I became more comfortable with myself and started allowing myself to dress and do whatever I wanted without over thinking it, I started wearing women’s clothes. I didn’t really find it confusing, but it took me a while to realise I’m just dressing how I want. I’m not pretending to be a woman and I’m not less of a man; it’s just how I like to dress. I like things that I think are pretty or things that’ll look badass and tough, but also it’s a little bit defiant at the same time, even with my nails painted red. I feel some sort of weird power in it but at the same time I know that it could also not go down very well. Like, I’ll go into a rest stop in between big cities in a more conservative part of the US and it turns into a different thing. It’s no longer just something I like; it’s more like a weird statement.”
Hadreas admits he is confused by the consequences of gender bending. “All my feminine qualities and presentation, they are all things that in a perfect world make me feel more powerful, but I’m told that they make me less. So it’s a very confusing and frustrating thing to grow up hearing that, or to grow up being stereotypically feminine. I was never really ashamed of it, even though I was supposed to be. That’s another thing I’m simultaneously angered by and proud of.”
Hadreas experienced a lot of homophobic bullying all through Middle and High school. Looking back, what advice would he give his teenage self?
“There’s just so much,” he says, and is quiet for a moment. “I’d tell myself that ultimately there is nothing wrong with you. I thought for a long time that there was something wrong, something that needed fixing and that somehow I needed to change. None of that shame served any purpose for me. A lot of it is just time. You unfortunately have to wait until you can move to a big city or until you can move somewhere where there are more people like you. I was 20 before I moved and met people that understood me a little bit. Sometimes you just have to wait it out, you know?”
While Hadreas was waiting it out, he sought solace and encouragement in music.
“Liz Phair was the most inspirational to me, hearing her being really explicit about her sexuality and saying things that I didn’t know a woman could say, or that you could make a song about. Hearing someone proudly saying all these things was the closest I had to healing the shame around my budding sexuality. It became this secret sort of obsession, I would turn the music down when I could hear my parents walking close to my room and then a year later I’d be turning it up really loud.
“Liz Phair changed my whole way that I think about music too. And also Sleater Kinney. I think I’ve seen Sleater Kinney 13 times. I think I was 12 when I saw them first. Even back then I could glean from the lyrics, I was aware enough to grasp what was going and I could tell that I needed it. It was weirdly liberating even if I didn’t understand how yet.”
Two years after seeing his first Sleater Kinney concert, Hadreas came out to his family. “It’s sad because I remember the day when I admitted to myself that I was gay, I immediately thought I had Aids. I remember having a dinner with my Mom and my family and I started crying. I was like, ‘I’m gay and I have Aids!’”
At school, Hadreas became the only student who was out as gay. “It was scary,” he says, “but in a way it was less scary than it would been if I’d had to hide it. There was a lot more stress, but it was such a relief to be honest, even if I do have long-standing warped worldview because of how awful and psychopathic teenagers are. Ultimately, I’m so glad I came out when I did.”
The pain and shame that Hadreas suffered during his school days may have contributed to the problem with alcohol he developed later on. Even though he’s sober now, he admits it’s something he’s still dealing with.
“If I didn’t have this music thing, I’m not sure I would still be sober. I miss alcohol in a lot of ways. It soothes over so much of my brain and it gives me a break, even though it makes everything a million times worse.
“After I started making music there’d be a few moments where after I’d listen back to a song I’d made and I’d have that some amount of completeness and wholeness that I would have when I’d get drunk. I don’t know how to explain it. The feeling was more fleeting, briefer, but it was a lot more real and true. So, I feel a sense of duty and purpose that I never had before and that’s I think what keeps me going. Hopefully if I do that long enough and get the personal confidence, if everything is taken away from me I’ll still be healthy. But it’s hard not to kind of put everything on this career.”
The contradiction between the radical courage of Perfume Genius and the self-questioning of Michael Hadreas isn’t something I’d imagined before this interview, and it’s hard to reconcile the two. Hadreas has the same issues.
“Things are kind of confusing sometimes,” he admits. “I’m very proud of the things I make, I go for it and let go, but still in my daily life I’m not quite there. I’ve noticed more and more that when I do my shows and live in the musical side of things, my personal life lives up to it. So the two sides are helping each other.”
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