How Perfume Genius Lives the Sober Life of a Rock Star ‘In Reverse’


“All of a sudden I woke up and wrote a song, which is strange,” acknowledges the man behind the nom de stage Perfume Genius. “It was very dramatic and very sudden. It’s called ‘Learning.’ It’s the first song on my first album. A fun story, I guess.”

Indeed, it’s the rare musician who doesn’t write his first song until he’s 25. It’s rarer still when said artist has birthed three brilliant, critically acclaimed records within five years of that initial tune. The third — 2014’s Too Bright — was certainly the charm, beloved by reviewers from the New Yorker to Time to Pitchfork. The rapid, seemingly effortless rise might be annoying if Mike Hadreas weren’t so humble. And guileless. And self-deprecating. And so fucking talented.

For a record of such sophistication and beauty, its creator is delightfully ingenuous and down-to-earth, even labeling himself “super-awkward, still.” Before the aforementioned musical epiphany, Hadreas was artistic, but in the painting realm, and was partying too hard to create cohesively. At 21, in the early Aughts, he’d followed his heart to Williamsburg: “I actually moved there for a boy, a musician, and he was playing shows a lot, so I was there every practice, every show.” But while NYC offered a creative environment, it wasn’t a necessary component to cultivating his craft. “I could have been living anywhere, considering the kind of activities I was involved with,” he admits.

After a few years, Hadreas left Brooklyn to return to his home state of Washington in order to jettison the drink and drugs. Sobriety allowed his musical self to emerge. “Growing up,” he notes, “I kinda did everything but music, even though that was the kind of art form I was the most obsessive fan about and the thing I wished I could do. It didn’t seem to come easily to me. But for some reason, about five years ago, I followed through and shook off a bunch of insecurities I have about singing and making music and made a song, and I ended up really liking it. I’ve had a manic obsession about writing music ever since then.”

End of story, beginning of career. The singer acknowledges that he leads a rock-star-in-reverse life. “I got sober before I made my first music,” he says. “I ended up going out and using again after that, but I’ve played every single show I ever played sober. Maybe I would have relaxed a little more at some shows [if I’d been drinking]. But at least the moments where I completely let loose and are in the moment, it feels very intense and very real. And the way I used to drink and get high, it would have smoothed over all that. Or it might have been, you know, like a phony moment for me. Some people are really creative when they do drugs, or perform better; I’m not against drugs or drinking. I love both of those things!” He laughs. “I just can’t do them. I’m not good at it. I make nothing when I’m using.”

Too Bright, recorded with Portishead’s Adrian Utley, reassures that Hadreas’s latent talent was no fluke and is ever-growing. His music is confessional, stark and cinematic, his piano spare and lovely. Too Bright‘s “My Body” is like the soundtrack to a dreamy David Lynch–ian dystopia, the chill-inducing orchestral midsection of “Fool” conjuring the “real ancient; a really true feeling coming through in the bullshit. Primal.” The complete result is 33 minutes and 38 seconds of music that’s intimate without being self-indulgent or maudlin.

Hadreas is a big-picture guy, literally: “When I first started making music, I would make videos almost immediately after, on my own, and would already have ideas [for] how they’d look, what the mood would be visually, even while I was writing. I’ve always thought that way. My boyfriend [musical collaborator Alan Wyffels] kinda makes fun of me because I listen to a lot of classical music that sounds like soundtracks. There’s this composer named Max Richter [the German-born, British neoclassical composer of the score for Waltz With Bashir, among others] who I really love. I was actually listening to a lot of his music before I started writing.”

While PJ Harvey and Liz Phair were super-important artists to the pre-musician Hadreas, other influences skew toward the literary. He admits to reading “trash” and watching “shitty” movies when deep in the midst of his own creative process, but that wasn’t always the case. “I used to read more difficult things, and I do notice that when I read good things, I tend to write better,” he says. “I’ve always read poetry and short stories — Raymond Carver, Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro — and I think that’s had an influence on my songwriting.”

With such universal acclaim for Too Bright, the pressure associated with a follow-up could be daunting. But Hadreas has no fear, only eagerness. “I’m actually really excited to write again, because the way I made this album was so different from how I usually work. So many of the limitations I thought I had I kinda got rid of. Before, I thought I had to sort of mine my history and horrible things that happened to me, quietly and softly.” Now, however, “I feel like I can talk about whatever I want to and I can make whatever I want. And that’s really exciting for me.”

Although Too Bright proved to be somewhat cathartic, the songwriter is hardly drained. “I’m sure I’ll probably find something I need to work out,” he laughs. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of that. At least it will be different than it was before.”

That said, Hadreas admits to having “a couple songs” for his fourth album. “They’re kind of in line with the stuff I’ve already done, and if my next album feels like an extension of Too Bright, I would probably put them on. But this album sounded completely different than I originally thought my third album would be. I never really know until I sit down and start to write. I might go completely different; I might make a reggae album,” he concludes with a laugh. “Then I’d just have to throw [the existing songs] out.”

Perfume Genius plays Stage 48 on March 19.

See also:
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