Over the last seven years, Mike Hadreas has become a role model among the queer community in a bold way. Yet as defined as his music is as Perfume Genius, Hadreas can’t help but hesitate to accept his title as an icon for LGBT youth.
“I don’t know, I don’t feel camera-ready a lot,” he says over the phone. “It is weird though: I’ll see a kid pretending not to look at me, but they are, or they’ll whisper. They’re nervous. I remember doing that growing up. It’s a weird feeling because I didn’t think they were regular people, and I guess it’s not good for my ‘brand’ to say I’m a regular person, but I am so it’s a weird to be put in that position.”
The way Hadreas sees it, he’s too open with the world. “I feel like I let it all hang out too much,” he says. But when I point to his Twitter, a fountain overflowing with strings of comedy genius, he finally breaks. “Okay, I’ll take that.”
With his fourth album, No Shape, now under his belt, Hadreas once again molds his moniker into a strong, important, necessary musical act of this generation. He flits between genres. “Die 4 You” twirls into trip-hop and “Slip Away” pounds with anthemic percussive backbeats. There’s a freedom throughout the record. Though he may not have the type of obvious freedoms that he dreams of, Hadreas, feels comfortable, singing with a type of loose catharsis that feels genuine.
The most unexpected example of such comes in “Choir,” a haunting number of chamber strings that move violently while backing vocals coo. Suddenly, his voice enters. He speaks lines of poetry through lo-fi production, giving the illusion of someone voicing over a Carnegie Hall performance. “Before I started the album I thought I was going to do something more Patti Smith-like, in between lyric-heavy and a very passionate driven craziness. It didn’t quite work out like that, but I feel like that song has that,” he says. “I find a weird mood and then run with it. So it was essentially just a really weird day [laughs]. I have a lot of those drone spoken word demonic chortling songs because I like them, but I figured one was enough.”
It’s important to note that distinction. Unlike past records, No Shape was written for him instead of an audience, and it becomes more helpful because of it. Hadreas wrote more immediately to figure out feeling, using these songs as tools to figure out where he’s at in life. He doesn’t have an answer, no one ever does, but he did get closer to understanding where he’s been and why he’s at this point in life. No Shape is Perfume Genius trying to build himself up, trying to build us all up.
“It’s confusing because I don’t have it figured out,” he says. “In a technical way, I didn’t know if this was even interesting. It felt really real for me to leave that all in there, to have the songs be warm, to have a dissonant anxiety underneath, because that’s how I feel. It’s not in either direction, which is frustrating to me because I prefer things to be extreme in one way. I tried to figure out how to have it be muddy and murky while also super dramatic and magical.”
Despite this, he still keeps that solemn piano present, the one heard in “You Won’t B Here” to “Dark Parts” to “No Good.” It makes a connecting thread between his albums even though his sound has grown exponentially over the years. “I suppose you can do all sorts of crazy shit with a piano, but my capabilities are a hymnal thing. So when I go there, I can do something new each time, but it comes from the same world, a place that’s cozy but sad,” he says. “There’s a lot of history to it. That’s what I grew up playing. That’s how I learned to play music. It may not be exciting, but I love it.”
Over the years, Hadreas has taken risks in countless forms. His confidence blossomed as he stood up against abuse, family dynamics, LGBT rights, and identity ownership. It’s there in his music videos. It’s there in his live performances. Watching him strut around in a white suit with a black harness beneath it on Letterman turned 2014’s single “Queen” into an unflinching grasp of queer strength. He appears confident not just with himself, but his body, and how the two position themselves in the world.
But from a young age, Hadreas felt like he was on the outside because of bullying, almost all of which circled around looks. “I ended up being really self-conscious of how I appeared,” he says. “It’s almost like a protection or defense; it morphed into this hyper focus on it. I don’t think it’s even healthy. Intellectually, I don’t care. But I don’t know. It’s become a place where I put a lot of anxiety that I can’t find a place for when I’m not writing.”
It’s surprising to hear him talking about his appearance in this way, but it’s been a deeply-sowed seed for decades. In a recent interview, he explained how he still feels uneasy about how he looks, and that the very thought of worrying about it makes him all the more guilty. But, as is the case for most artists, music and performing are outlets for him to rebel against it. “That’s when it leaves for a second,” he says over the phone, “or I think, ‘Fuck you, I’m going to do this anyway,’ to whatever those voices are. It’s when I fucking shake it off. It’s weird because I’ll go to do a photoshoot and while it does magnify all those things, I can say fuck it and go for it. I don’t know how to explain it.”
It’s a form of picking what to heighten and what to share. In that, it’s a form of physical healing, of inner peace. “The things I’m singing about in the music are things that, growing up, weren’t things people clapped for,” he says. That’s Hadreas’ power: turning the things he got shit for his whole life into the things he builds a career on now. He’s figured out how to make it work.
“Let yourself be uncomfortable. You don’t have to fight against it. You don’t have to wait around until that goes away before you start doing things. You can do things in tandem with it or in the face of it while it’s still there. I don’t feel necessarily prepared or capable,” he says. “I’m in the habit now of doing what I want to anyway. That’s been the secret: committing. All that shame can be such a spiral: you feel bad about it, then you feel bad about feeling bad about it, you feel vain, and then you feel bad for even having the time to sit around the stoop sulking for that long, you know?”
He pauses and then sums it up with an air of satisfaction, not that he found a solution, but that he understands the reasoning behind his insecurities. “We develop all of our complexes for a reason,” he says. “They serve a purpose at some point, and I don’t think feeling guilty about the problems you have does anything.” So, the show goes on, even if he’s left feeling like there’s no single shape to define it. Perhaps it’s better that way. From the outside looking in, it certainly seems like it, and from the inside looking out, it’s starting to seem that way, too.