Me and the Muse: Perfume Genius on his sources of inspiration

Mike Hadreas on the everyday business of songwriting and his earliest musical obsession

Born in the suburbs of Seattle in 1981, where he still lives, Mike Hadreas started making music under the stage name Perfume Genius in 2008. Two years later he released his debut album, Learning. In 2014, his third album Too Bright, which included the anthemic single Queen, brought him international acclaim. Earlier this year, Hadreas released No Shape, described by the Observer’s Kitty Empire as “glorious, inventive, shape-shifting music”. Perfume Genius plays the Roundhouse, London, on 5 November and the Old Market, Hove, 6 November.

I treat writing like a job. I go into my music room in the morning, when my boyfriend [Alan Wyffels] goes to work, and then I work pretty much until he gets home. And then we have dinner and I play him what I made that day. If I like the music I can get really obsessed with it. Usually it’s not good, but part of getting to the good stuff is writing shitty music first, for at least a few weeks.

I try to remember that writer’s block is part of it. It used to be terrifying: I’d feel like I was never going to be able to write again, and that everything I’d done so far was a fluke, but I don’t really panic any more. It’s still really frustrating, but it’s happened almost every single time, and then eventually I’ve made an album again, so far.

When I first started making music I wrote the lyrics first, but now, because the music has got kind of wilder, I’ve flipped it. That means I can be more free with the music – I can sing really crazy melodies or patterns, usually in gibberish, and then fill it in with lyrics.

The first record I bought was the Edward Scissorhands soundtrack. I remember being really obsessed with the movie, and all the campiness sort of went over my head because I was so little – it’s the same with Hairspray. But I would listen to that soundtrack a lot. Before then I was really into Gloria Estefan and a lot of pop music, like the Bangles.

Slip Away was the first song that ended up on the album. It was really poppy and sweet and happy to me, so when I was writing the rest of the songs I wanted a lot of them to be kind of catchy. Because as much as I like experimental music and stuff like that, when I listen to people’s albums I end up liking the pop songs the most.

Mike Hadreas

A few of the songs are about Alan. We’ve been together eight years, but we’ve been on tour and around each other 24 hours a day, so it’s almost like we’ve been together 16 regular relationship years. It’s so easy to take people for granted: it can turn you into not the best person around each other. We never fully fall into that, but I purposefully wanted to be more present, and not take him for granted, so I wrote about that.

I wish my room was nicer, or I had something pretty to describe, but it’s not very tidy. It has a piano and my computer, and a rowing machine, though I haven’t been using it lately. And it’s also my second closet, with all my clothes from tour.

All I do in there is essentially try to freak out. I pace around and work myself up – I think that writing is all talking to myself sometimes. I like singing in voices or singing lower than natural, or really high, or screaming – I just try out a bunch of stuff. I did an Elvis-y low voice that felt really satisfying. It’s also really fun to think about writing an old rock dude stadium anthem.

I think the best mood for writing is a heavy feeling that’s a little bit removed from you. Sometimes I feel very self-indulgent and bratty and ungrateful, and no good music comes out of that. But sometimes I can be really sad or have an excess of feeling yet somehow be able to see the big picture more. If I can be thinking about someone else besides myself, it usually makes the music much better, because I actually have something to say instead of just repeating self-pity. I’ll save that for my diary.

Five records that shaped me

Nina Simone in 1968: ‘I could endlessly watch live videos of her performing’
Nina Simone in 1968: ‘I could endlessly watch live videos of her performing.’
Photograph: Getty Images

Song to the Siren
This Mortal Coil (1983)
I think this is my favourite song – it’s a Tim Buckley cover. My friend played it for me in her car when I was young. It’s so heavy with mood that no matter what I’m doing when I hear it, I’m immediately drawn into the feeling of it.

Spirit of Eden
Talk Talk (1988)
People asked me after the third album if I was influenced by them: I hadn’t heard them but ended up becoming obsessed. I don’t really listen to music like that any more, over and over, like when I was young.

Exile in Guyville
Liz Phair (1993)
This was the first album I got that wasn’t pop, aged 12. I was scandalised: her lyrics are so sexual and forward, things that were secret and shameful to me. To hear someone singing about it in an unapologetic, proud, badass way was the best feeling.

Nina Simone (1967)
This is a really intense love song, almost a spiritual one, and I like it when people go 100% in whatever direction they’re going. And I just love her – I could endlessly watch live videos of her performing.

To Bring You My Love
PJ Harvey (1995)
I was really scared of the devil growing up: I was convinced I was going to be possessed. On this album she talks about the devil – it was scary, but it turned into a powerful thing. She seemed to be magnifying her darkness: playing with it and dancing with it.


Interview by Kathryn Bromwich

The GuardianTramp

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