It’s been almost a year since Seattle-based singer-songwriter Mike Hadreas, who performs under the stage name Perfume Genius, took perhaps the biggest risk of his career to date.
Following two critically-acclaimed albums of down-tempo, piano-centric confessional indie pop -- 2010’s “Learning” and 2012’s “Put Your Back N 2 It” -- Hadreas took a different approach with his latest release, “Too Bright.”
While the songs on “Too Bright” still explore deeply personal themes that often relate back to Hadreas’ gay identity, the production has been turned up several notches. With high-profile collaborators like Adrian Utley (Portishead) and John Parish (PJ Harvey) on board, elements like Suicide-esque synths and Goblin-flavored percussion entered the equation, all topped off with a heavy dose of Freddie Mercury flourish.
The end result is thrilling, particularly when presented in a live context. Hadreas played Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival last weekend was no exception.
Hadreas took the stage and shared that someone had told him to remove his lipstick during his walk to the stage, to which he responded, "No, I could have told him 'no' forever." Then, he launched into the raw, bruising “My Body.” The song sees the singer channelling Harvey at her grittiest, delivering blunt declarations like “I wear my body like a rotted peach / You can have it if you handle the stink,” while strutting across the stage in a style that screams "deal with it.”
While all that might come as a surprise to fans more familiar with Perfume Genius’ quieter, stripped-down songs from his early work, the progression feels natural to Hadreas, who wrote the newer songs with the intention of pushing him beyond what may have felt more comfortable.
It wasn’t immediately easy to translate the new songs onto the stage, Hadreas admitted in an interview backstage.
“I tried to sing notes I’m scared to try to reach and I tried to ‘act as if’ a little bit,” Hadreas told The Huffington Post. “The first couple shows were a little shaky as far as not knowing how to move or if sound was going to come out when I screamed, but now I feel like a lot of those things are second nature to me. But I’m not, like, the super 100-percent confident front man. I phase in and out of bravado.”
The more aggressive approach is also reflected in the videos released for “Too Bright” singles “Queen” and “Grid,” both of which present stirring and disturbing interpretations of the songs’ content. In “Grid,” Hadreas is surrounded by faceless, pulsating bodies wearing silver bodysuits while he admires himself in a hand mirror and opens his legs wide to the pulsating beat. It’s a video so strange Kate Bush would be proud.
He plans to aim higher with more visual projects in the future.
“I love the videos I’ve made but it’d be nice to up it a little more and do something longer-form,” Hadreas explained. “One of my favorite movies of the last five or 10 years is called ‘Dogtooth’ by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos. If I made a movie I would want it to be something like that. Everything’s in there, really disturbing moments, really laugh-out-loud moments and there’s touching moments. I like things that have everything all at once.”
It is perhaps that feeling-all-the-feelings, work-in-progress vibe that makes Hadreas’ music both so unusual and so appealing, particularly to those who relate to feeling like an outsider.
Though Hadreas freely admits he doesn’t have it all figured out yet, he’s happy to be taking his fans along for the journey.
“I keep making the music I do because I feel very purposeful about making things that would be helpful or quell some loneliness in people,” Hadreas said. “I really needed that when I listened to music growing up and even now so I don’t mind that sense of duty.”
Hadreas’ own journey began in the suburbs of Seattle, where he first came out as gay to himself around the age of 12, and to family and friends after that. One singer in particular played a big role as he came to terms with his sexual identity.
“Liz Phair I think was the first music I listened to that really hit that specific note,” Hadreas said. “I heard her music and she unashamedly singing about blow jobs and sexuality, things I hadn’t even had the confidence to Google yet. … I had never heard that word sung or said let alone by a woman and singing it such a powerful, strong way. That was the closest thing I had to hearing my kind of ‘shame’ being told shamelessly.”
He was the only out gay person in his high school and, sick of being tormented, ended up dropping out during his senior year. He eventually wound up in New York City, where he began drinking in excess and doing “a Chinese buffet” of drugs. It wasn’t until after he returned back home to the Seattle area and checked himself into rehab that he wrote his first song, “Learning.”
He posted that song and the others that followed to a Myspace page beginning in 2008 and eventually caught the eye of Matador Records, his musical home ever since.
Though the life of a musician touring the world is not the most conducive to sobriety -- and the majority of artists who end up in rehab do so after their big break, not before -- Hadreas says he “wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“I’m glad I did it backwards because I wouldn’t have made it to my shows or made the second album I think if I was still drinking and doing drugs," he said. "Not everyone is like that, but, for me, personally, nothing came from me -- no music, no going to work on time -- out of doing that.”
Hadreas presses on with his music and, after a marathon of concerts and festival appearances, he’s ready to head home to get back to writing new music, spending time with his mom and his dog and -- one would hope -- maintaining his always-entertaining social media presence, including Twitter commentary on marriage equality, Internet trolls and pop culture.
In addition to having what he calls a Ben Affleck “obsession,” he’s also, it turns out, something of a dedicated Netflix reviewer:
“There was one time I flagged every ‘Brokeback Mountain’ review on Netflix that was negative, I was like ‘not helpful’ and I spent like an hour doing it and I wrote a really serious review about it,” Hadreas said. “It's hard for me not to get really sensitive. I don’t brush things off like that very easily. I think my music kind of gives that [defensiveness] a direction and a point to it, not just directionless anger at something.”