In June 2010 an album came out that made the music press crumble at the knees. It was called ‘Learning’ and dealt with uncomfortable issues to do with sex, suicide and paedophilia, but what was most disturbing – besides the haunting soundtrack it was paired with – was that it was all true and played out in chronological order.
The music is uncannily similar to Elliott Smith’s in that it’s raw and heartbreaking with whispery vocals on top of melancholic melodies. And like Smith, Michael Hadreas – the man behind it all who writes under the guise of Perfume Genius – suffered from alcoholism and drug addiction, but unlike the late performer, he came through it alive.
Now he’s about to release the follow-up LP, ‘Put Your Back N 2 It’, and we find ourselves in the back of a taxi with him, darting across east London to a studio for his photo shoot. Wrapped in a big, black fur coat with hairy polka dot boots on, Hadreas leans forwards and in a hushed tone reveals a recurring sex dream he has about his brother before sitting back and laughing it off. It’s surprising just how bubbly and open this petite 28-year-old from Seattle is when you think about the lyrics he writes, such as “Mary, Mary-Belle…all your neighbours know what your mother sells” (‘Look Out, Look Out’) and “tell him mum treats you like a lover / that you have to hide all the mouthwash from her” (‘Write to Your Brother’). He’s really quite a playful guy and as our photographer Elliot fiddles with the lighting around him, Hadreas lets little smiles slip, as though the thought of someone wanting to photograph him is completely embarrassing.
The minute the recorder goes on, though, he becomes serious and starts wringing his hands tensely, turning them over and entwining his fingers in different positions. “I’ve classically avoided everything at all costs. If it was gonna make me even a little bit uncomfortable, I would leave,” he admits, which makes me wonder how he ever got into performing music. “When everything went to shit for me, I gave up on being cool and realised that it’s just not gonna happen for me. Before I ever did something I always used to think, ‘It has to be amazing’. So you get two minutes in, realise it’s not going to be the best thing ever made, and you stop.
“When I almost gave up on that I thought, ‘I’m just gonna see it through even if it’s complete shit’. Actually, committing to something is a lot more freeing than you think. I always think that if I commit I’m going to get tied down or trapped, but usually the opposite happens and when I realised that with music, doors started opening up for me. Just doing it no matter how scared you are. Really simple things too. Like, I used to be nervous about making an appointment at the dentist – having that transaction on the phone – so I would have my friends call and pretend to be me. In fact, one of the jobs I got in New York, I had my boyfriend at the time pretend to be me on the phone with the employer four times and when I had to go in for my final interview I chugged a bunch of beer.” He chuckles at the thought because he got the job, which was at a personal ads company. “People didn’t have scanners at home then and they would send their pictures in the mail and I would scan them and put them in their ad. This was years ago. This is probably awful, but I kept them all too.”
Hadreas has a thing for forgotten photos. The cover of ‘Put Your Back N 2 It’ is from an old yearbook he found. “I have a habit of buying old photo albums. Maybe I shouldn’t…” he pauses, deciding whether he’s given away too much. “I get so paranoid. The guy’s probably 80 now,” he assures himself, “as if he’s going to be investigating, reading this magazine.”