Perfume Genius – the highly personal life and times of Michael Hadreas

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.”

Released on February 20th through Organ/Turnstile, Hadreas’s second album comprises much of the same haunting imagery as the last, but it’s got a happier side too. ‘Normal Song’ is about realising certain bad experiences aren’t your fault. “No violence, no matter how bad, can darken the heart,” he sings breathily over a simple, plucked guitar line, and ‘Take Me Home’ even has triumphant drums pushing along a proud piano riff, despite it being both about selling yourself for drugs and giving up everything for another person through fear of loneliness.

“My circumstances have gotten a lot better in the last couple of years,” Hadreas begins on the subject of the new album, but he pauses as soon as the words have left his mouth and quickly turns his gaze towards the door. “But I didn’t really catch up all the way with that,” he says. “I was still kind of a mess. For the first album I was just making it to make it, but I was thinking more about who was going to hear [the second one], who I was writing it for, and it wasn’t just me. I guess it’s still sad, but I feel like there’s a lot more hope to it, a lot more forward movement instead of thinking about things that’d already happened.”

At this point, Hadreas has got his life on track and intends to keep it that way. “I’m trying to stay healthy now,” he clarifies, “and other people are doing the same thing. You don’t normally feel like that. A lot of the time you feel like you’re the only one who has your specific brand of problems, but I’ve learned that’s not true. I wanted to write with that in mind and not write about a singular experience.”

He mentions that after ‘Learning’ was released he got lots of fan letters telling him about similar incidents. “I get pretty intense ones sometimes, but that makes everything worthwhile,” he muses. “Whatever nervousness I have or fear about whatever I’m doing, it makes me get over it pretty quickly. Makes me feel like I’ve got purpose.”

In terms of his fans’ devotion for him, people leave covers of songs on his Facebook page, draw pictures of him – “the thought of someone shading my upper lip is awesome” – and one guy even stalked him in the bushes. “We played a show in Hamburg,” he giggles. “After I got out I was having a cigarette,” he giggles some more, unable to tell the whole story without numerous pauses for laughter, “outside the club and I noticed there was this guy in the bushes taking pictures of me. Oh, he’s probably going to read this. He wasn’t creepy,” he backtracks. “I don’t think he was trying to be creepy, but I thought it was weird. I would have taken a picture hugging him or kissing him on the cheek or something really cool if he wanted me to, but I guess he just wanted to be in that bush.”

Another person he counts among his big fans is his mum, whose basement Hadreas recorded ‘Learning’ in. “I went to art school and I’d always make these really bloody violent things and my mum would always ask me, ‘Why can’t you make something nice?’ so I did, I wrote her a nice song. I’m proud of it too.” The song he’s talking about is ‘Dark Parts’, which is about how strong his mother is and how important she is to him, all set to a swift piano. “It was a really good moment when I played that song for her,” he chokes and looks at the ceiling for a moment. “Yeah,” he continues softly, “it was exactly what I wanted to have happen. What I had hoped she would feel from it.”

As well as his mum, Hadreas has a song about his long-term boyfriend, Alan, who he met in AA and who also sings and performs live with him, which is the title track of the record. “We were playing music before we got together,” Hadreas explains. “So I played him that song and he didn’t know it was about him and I had him sing the harmony. Eventually I told him. It was cheesy and romantic,” he grins. When they finish the next mammoth tour, the pair of them plan to get a dog and name her Susan. “Or Melissa, or Jackie, some kind of really middle-aged woman-sounding name.” And what about when he’s back on tour? Because he’s already pointed out that he has a bigger fan base in Europe. “I’ve thought about this,” he anticipates. “I think I can leave her with my mum and maybe even have play dates set up beforehand so they can get to know each other.”

Hadreas’s gentle and unassuming nature must definitely have helped him garner so much interest from overseas (he was originally signed to UK indie label Transgressive). He even recorded the majority of the second album in Bristol and Worcestershire while working with producer Drew Morgan, but his label wanted some more upbeat numbers, so Hadreas had to record yet more tracks back home in Seattle. “The album was kinda slow,” he states. “I mean, I think [the label] knew it was going to be slow because it’s me, but I too wanted to break it up a bit because if you have slow, repetitive songs and put too many of those in a row, they lose impact. But it’s fun for me to try to write something poppy and louder but have it be about something weird. I don’t usually think, ‘Oh, this would be good with drums on it’, it’s always just me and the keyboard being really serious.”

With regards to the future, however, Hadreas isn’t even thinking about what direction he’ll take, but he has been writing a little new material. “It’s still so close to the other album that it’s not that drastic of a change, but it’s a little more soft-rock. I’m on a really weird soft-rock/Bonnie Raitt kinda thing,” he blushes. “But other people seem to be doing that too. Isn’t it weird to have soft-rock and Bonnie Raitt trending in music? Maybe that’ll all go away, but it’s fun just to play in my house.”

For now, Perfume Genius is headed out on tour across America and Canada until late April, but we’ve been assured that he will return to the UK some time in the spring, so keep your eyes and ears peeled, because this is one man you shouldn’t just believe the hype over, you need to witness the Genius for yourself.