Perfume Genius: 'I've learned not to trust myself'

Porn footage and his mum were two of the inspirations for songs on Mike Hadreas's second album, which, yes, features the same themes of lurid self-loathing as the first. But what does his mother think of it?

'Erm," says Mike Hadreas, and then stares quietly at the table. For a couple of moments, only the afternoon roar of the restaurant fills my recorder. Hadreas, the Seattle-based songwriter better known as Perfume Genius, is here to discuss his new album, Put Your Back N 2 It. I have just asked him about a track named 17, which runs as two and a half minutes of exquisitely told self-hatred set against piano and strings.

He looks up finally and I see his eyes are pinkening, and his mouth looks blurry, and for a moment I think he is going to cry. Instead, he takes a wavery breath and speaks: "No matter how much better I get there's this ickiness, sometimes, that's there," he says. "And so sometimes I just let it bubble up, because if I keep it there it's just going to be this knot. But I think sometimes it's good to take something that feels soulless and gross, and to make it soulful."

Hadreas is 30 now, though the pubescent slightness to his frame makes him appear considerably younger. Two years ago, he released his debut album, Learning. Recorded at his mother's home in Washington, where he was trying to overcome various addictions, it related tales from an apparently difficult decade, songs about substance abuse, the challenge of being accepted as a gay man and a dubious relationship with a teacher, to name but three. All were beautifully, soulfully told, and the record's style and intimacy soon drew comparisons with Sufjan Stevens and Antony and the Johnsons.

Writing a follow-up was, Hadreas admits, something of a challenge. After the completion of his first album he had soon picked up his old relationship with drugs and alcohol. "I guess it wasn't done, though I wanted it to be done," is how he puts it. "You can fool yourself that because you've got your shit together a little bit that next time it's not going to get out of control. Your brain can really convince you to do just a little bit of this or that. And it snowballs. Now it comes up, but I've learned not to trust myself."

To make his second album Hadreas initially thought he would have to replicate the splendid isolation of his mother's house. "That was all I really knew, that I could make music from that place," he says. "So I rented a house to just write in. But I ended up just eating a lot of pizza and playing videogames."

Conceding that second time around might be different, brought him a new approach to the songs, too: "I didn't want to just go through my diary again," he explains. "I wanted to write something more forward-moving, something about things that were going to comfort me now, as opposed to trying to heal up old things."

And so we find songs about suicide, and love, and hope and support, an Edna St Millay Vincent poem set to music, and a track named Awol Marine inspired by some unsettling porn footage Hadreas happened to find. The sound builds on Learning's lo-fi warmth, is still quiet and close, but lusher and richer. "I wanted to do in the recording studio what I would have done at home, but with help," he explains. "I was kind of scared at first that I wouldn't be relaxed enough to do the kind of things I did on the first one – like when I lay on the floor and giggled and put a load of reverb on it. I didn't know with a producer there if I would be able to do that."

In the end, Hadreas relied on piano – an instrument he has played since he was seven. "For me, piano is just where I started, I know where to go with it," he says. "I think about the music, but I think about the words more, so if I can be cosy with the piano while I'm working them out, that helps."

One of the album's most affecting song is its title track, a love song written for his boyfriend Allan. He convinced him to sing on the song with him before he had even told him what it was about. "I'm not sure if he even guessed," Hadreas says, and slides his eyes leftward, to the table where Allan is sitting, waiting. "I'm very emotional anyway, he probably just thought it was another one of my emotional songs." He smiles. "But I just really wanted to write a love song with two men singing."

Another track, Dark Parts, was written as a kind of gift to his mother. It stands brighter, more jovial than its peers, before ending on the quiet yet powerful promise: "I will take the dark parts of your heart into my heart."

"My mom is always asking why can't I make something nice?" He laughs now. "Because I'll make paintings, say, and they're just really bloody and angsty. So I wrote Dark Parts because I wanted to write something nice for her. And that's the one I'm most proud of too. It's about something my Mom's always said, that you're not poisoned by your experiences, they don't break you. So it's a testament to that."

"It's kind of corny," Hadreas adds, "but when I played it to her in the kitchen at her house, it was kind of teary." His eyes brighten, and for a moment I worry he might tear up once more. Instead he works it into a smile. "It was just that I hadn't really been doing much with my life," he says, "and I made something, and I saw she was proud of me."


Laura Barton

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Perfume Genius: Put Your Back N 2 It – review
This second album from Michael Hadreas has intriguing touches that reveal themselves on repeated listens, writes Rebecca Nicholson

Rebecca Nicholson

16, Feb, 2012 @10:12 PM

Article image
Perfume Genius interview – ‘Sometimes I wanna rip everything apart’
From fragile balladeer to confrontational performer, Mike Hadreas’s transformation hails a new era of eclecticism and maturity, writes Tim Jonze

Tim Jonze

19, Sep, 2014 @8:27 AM

Article image
The best albums of 2017, No 5: Perfume Genius – No Shape
Mike Hadreas’ genre-switching fourth album was breathtakingly original, his lyrics of personal pain spiking a shimmeringly sublime score

Kitty Empire

18, Dec, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
Perfume Genius: No Shape review – confident and melodic, with a rich seam of strange
True to turbulent form, Mike Hadreas jams together moments of euphoric pop beauty with disruptive ugliness in an album of uniformly fantastic tunes

Alexis Petridis

04, May, 2017 @2:00 PM

Article image
First sight: Perfume Genius
A 26-year-old bedroom balladeer known as Mike Genius

Tim Jonze

04, Feb, 2010 @11:30 PM

Article image
New band of the day – No 699: Perfume Genius

This bedroom balladeer writes haunting lo-fi lullabies that sound like angsty diary entries sung into a dusty old tape recorder

Paul Lester

07, Jan, 2010 @3:25 PM

Article image
Perfume Genius: Set My Heart on Fire Immediately review I Alexis Petridis's album of the week
Backed by starry session musicians, Mike Hadreas makes wild but confident leaps between styles on this rich, fascinating LP

Alexis Petridis

14, May, 2020 @11:00 AM

Article image
Perfume Genius review – a quiet triumph
Mike Hadreas has added brittle electronics and confrontational lyrics to his unique musical vision, writes Priya Elan

Priya Elan

05, Aug, 2014 @11:33 AM

New music: Perfume Genius – Hood

Michael Cragg: For his new video, Mike Hadreas finds sweet succour in the arms of a gay porn star. Perfect for a plaintive piano ballad …

Michael Cragg

19, Jan, 2012 @11:45 AM

Article image
Perfume Genius review – sweet smell of success
He may be a delicate soul, but Mike Hadreas’s confessional pop is sensual, anthemic and fearless

Kitty Empire

11, Jun, 2017 @8:00 AM