When talking with Mike Hadreas, who is best known as the glamorous and emotional artist Perfume Genius, about his early days in music, the word “obsessed” keeps coming up. Hadreas was obsessed when he discovered songs early in his life. Obsessed with dancing and singing, obsessed with hearing songs and hearing them over and over on the radio. Obsessed with his first album purchase, the Edward Scissorhands soundtrack. Obsessed with Madonna’s song, “Like a Prayer”, which was “forbidden” by her parents. He loved the weird, scary, sad vibes of this song. He was obsessed with the haunting, melancholy sensibilities of the songs he loved, even the country character of the film’s soundtrack. Now, many music listeners are obsessed with the music Hadreas makes under his Perfume Genius moniker. And his latest project? The next LP, ugly seasonis due out on June 17.
“I’ve always been obsessed with music,” Hadreas told the American songwriter. “I have a lot of memories attached to music, dancing and singing, becoming obsessed with wanting to hear certain songs on the radio again.”
As he got older, he says, and starting to make his own music as an adult, his sensibility became even more “screwed up”, more “varied” and more nuanced. Namely, Hadreas’ ugly season is all of those things. It’s like entering a museum made of music, seeing sound paintings and sculptures of all kinds of imaginations exhibited on the 10 tracks of the album. Hadreas composed it with choreographer Kate Wallich, as well as musicians Alan Wyffels and Blake Mills. The album, if it can stand on its own as a musical work, also accompanies the dance. Although scoring a stage performance is new to Hadreas, many conversations took place before the song was written.
“I took all of that into the studio with Blake and Alan and we made the album,” he says. “It was important to me that we made a record, and that it was something that could be listened to like any other record. I didn’t want to be [just] ambient, textural. I didn’t mean it to sound [only] as an accompaniment. I wanted it to sound like a record.
The process, he says, has been liberating. There was “no map” for what Hadreas and his team were doing. There was just a “pure feeling” and an “instinct”. Prior to the job, he had very limited (read: essentially none) experience with dance and stage performance of this genre. Yet in her own work, the nimble artist performs physically in her own shows. That’s why, he thinks, Wallich reached out to him — that and the fact that they’re both from the same hometown of Seattle, Washington. The group toured music and performing on stage in 2019 until the COVID-19 pandemic hit and it essentially became illegal to gather. Now, during his current tour, Hadreas performs some of the songs amid a setlist that also includes tracks from his latest release, the 2020 LP, Set my heart on fire immediately (this album’s tour has also been postponed due to COVID-19).
“It looks like me, to me,” Hadreas says of ugly season. “I think about this record [as] part of the big pot of things I do.
When Hadreas makes a new album, he writes a lot of songs. Many of them might not end up on the final product (although he does allow himself to listen to the tracks that arrive on the editing room floor). And when sequencing an album, he adds, he likes to juxtapose experimental songs with more traditional pop songs so that the two “season” each other. Thus, songs that are more accessible affect songs that are more present, and vice versa. It’s a seasoned understanding of music that was born out of an early love, a love that crystallized in many ways with Liz Phair.
“I stole a Rotating magazine groceries,” recalls Hadreas. “I was about 11 or 12 years old. And there was an article about Liz Phair about her stage fright and how controversial her lyrics were. So, I got his file, and I had to close my bedroom door. I was scandalized but also, really, I didn’t know that music could be like that and do that.
Previously, Hadreas had largely just listened to the pop music he encountered on the Top 40 stations on other passive outlets. He hadn’t really looked for any songs, other than the occasional Tim Burton soundtrack. But Phair was “so in control and in power” singing about sex and other more taboo aspects of life that Hadreas was floored. But despite this love affair, he only started making music when he was around 25 years old. He dug up songs, researched them, and indulged in his obsessions. But it wasn’t until he was 25 that he sat down to really write.
“I decided I was going to write a song,” he says. “I had tried a lot to make that decision before. I grew up playing the piano – I had a certain sensitivity but I never really understood how to write a song or sing.
But aided by recording software and a laptop, Hadreas found his voice. He finished a song and, well, it turned out to be the opening track from his 2010 debut album, Learning. Hadreas started uploading songs to MySpace and soon he was getting rave reviews in Fork. Truly, Hadreas has come a long way from a conservative upbringing, bullying in schools for being queer, working as a doorman for a club, and not knowing where he fits in the world, creatively. Now he is a music leader and many others look up to him.
“It’s wild,” he said. “The internet and sharing my music on the internet changed my whole life. It all came from things that I had no intention of doing. I was just doing things that were very close to me and very personal.
Indeed, Hadreas tries to keep these lessons close every day.
“I try to remember that all the time when I do things now,” he says. “There’s more pressure on me, I know people are going to hear it when we release it. It can bother you sometimes. I’m trying to remember the reason all this exists is that I trusted my gut and my instincts, not caring about much else.
It’s his job, he says. And if he remembers, everything else will follow. Yet that doesn’t mean everything or every day is easy. The world is always traumatic, from hate crimes to school shootings. And this dichotomy sometimes gnaws at the artist. When the 40-year-old Des Moines, Iowa-born artist is home, Hadreas says, the world can eat him up, make him anxious, even trapped. But when he’s on tour, life can seem more exciting, full and rich. He is happy on tour and feels happy doing it. The tours help her forget the sadness that can so easily be right outside the door. But that’s the joy of music, especially for Hadreas. What it can do for and for the listener.
“I love that it can slow down time,” Hadreas says. “It can make you feel like you’re somewhere else, somewhere you didn’t know existed until you heard it. It can physically move you and physically transport you. Something about this makes me feel much less alone than before.
Courtesy of Shorefire Media