When Mike Hadreas, AKA singer-songwriter Perfume Genius, picks up the phone for our interview, he’s scrambling around backstage at The Black Cat in Washington, DC. His voice sounds jittery. People are audibly moving things in the background. After a few seconds, he goes silent and then giggles. Hadreas informs me he has climbed into a tiny closet in the venue and positioned himself between a weird lamp missing its shade and a broken full-length mirror. “Okay, I’m ready,” he says, and lets out a long exhale.
The past year has been nothing less than a whirlwind for Hadreas. He released his third full-length, Too Bright, to critical acclaim. He spent much of his time on the road touring in support. He became the topic of think pieces on bravery in relation to being openly gay. Hadreas was in the mainstream media’s spotlight, and as he proved in his intense performance of “Queen” on Letterman, that’s not to be labeled “brave”. Hadreas is embracing his gender transgressions the same way anyone who slips on a new coat looks in the mirror and can admit they look great. Embracing your personality, embracing your identity, isn’t “brave”. It’s a step of life that we all go through, regardless of our sexual, gender, or emotional alignment.
“Queen” operates as a reminder of solidarity in the LGBTQ community as well as a “fuck you” to people who believe it’s a rabid disease. “Not only do I know if I toned it down and was less explicit about sexuality in music, people would still think that way. Various groups around the globe have,” Hadreas says. “So I guess for half of them that song is a rebellion against that, and the other half it’s helpful. That’s why I write songs like that. I try to write music I wish I had heard when I was younger, music that I thought would quell some specific loneliness or empower that outsider-y feeling instead of flipping it and making it more, well, destructive.”
In comparison to his last records, Too Bright is a much larger in sound. Intimate piano is now backed by thumping bass and crashing drums. Hadreas growls instead of pouting. There’s screams, distortions, and cries. He’s breaking his own self-imposed barriers. “When I first started writing for this record, I realized I had a lot more limitations and insecurities I thought I had,” he explains. “I thought I could only write in a certain way, sing in a certain range, and play so much on the piano. I couldn’t fit into it. So I started to shake off that bullshit.”
With the vocal experimentations came a bout of personal growth, as well. “I think I forced it,” he says, laughing into his hand. “It’s frustrating my confidence hadn’t grown to the point I wanted it to. I’m way beyond that now after all the experiences I’ve lived through and survived. So I try to make music that will push against that, to magnify parts of myself that I thought were strong and maybe parts of myself I was ashamed of and magnify those to present them in a strong, badass way.”
That’s nothing new. Hadreas has often claimed to be unconfident. Watching him step onstage in a white suit, bright red lipstick, and freshly painted nails, though, and it’s clear there must be something else stirring inside of him. Pouring out your emotions night after night is no cake walk. “It’s weird. I think I almost have this idea of myself that I’m not confident. It’s like a lie I’m telling myself,” he admits. “I’m still very terrified of public speaking, but I can go onstage and play these songs every night. I get excited now.”
Too Bright is stuffed with loud, intense, naked work. It’s brilliant and, in a way, blinding, but it’s certainly not for everyone. “I know if I were less explicit and less intense that maybe my music would have a wider audience. It could be a nice soundtrack to a dinner or something, but I’ve always been more obsessed with music or books that are weirder or more complicated or made me uncomfortable,” he admits. We begin talking about music that pushes the boundaries and art that leaves you hollow. Naturally, French films come up, and he can’t stop laughing.
“I like a lot of French movies because they just end. There’s no resolution and they don’t try to tie anything up. It’s just a woman crying at the end without her face changing or anything, you don’t know why she’s crying, and then they just flash ‘The end’ on screen,” he laughs. He takes a second to catch his breath. “Even though it’s immediately frustrating, I end up thinking about that movie much longer than after I go to see Transformers or whatever.” Lasting effect is arguably art’s most important role, and as such it’s easy to see the parallels between Too Bright and those 30 seconds before the credits start to roll.
As he should. Hadreas whips up numbers that empower every outsider. Your joy is yours and cannot be stripped from you. He’s long believed that, no matter how imbalanced humans are. “It was so easy [growing up] to see how beautiful and wonderful people were even after they told me nasty secrets or horrible things they had done,” he says. “When I go onstage, I don’t feel perfectly balanced. I still carry a bunch of anxieties and weird thoughts in my head about who I am, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be a badass at the same time. You can have all of those things at once—the bad and the good—and neither has to overpower the other one.”
Oftentimes we find ourselves rejecting both the good and bad paths of our future, even if you know it’s advantageous to go down one. The secret to picking is in knowing that it’s always hard. “I have such a hard time putting myself out there, so I usually take the more comfortable route, which, if anybody was looking at it, would think it’s the most uncomfortable one. The route I’m going to take is eating in the dark and pacing around. People would say, ‘Well why on earth would you do that instead of just responding to that email?’ and I’m like, ‘Well, I don’t fucking know!’ Every time you do respond to the email you sit there thinking, ‘Why didn’t I just do that to begin with? It’s so easy! I feel so much better now!’ It’s still really hard, but you do shit anyway,” he explains. “Eventually, if you do it long enough, it becomes a little bit more second nature. The things that make you uncomfortable are different. Things that would have felt really overwhelming three years ago don’t feel that way anymore. That’s because of being straight-up committed to things regardless if I thought I was going to do it right or be good at it. I just do it anyway.”
The fight for equal acceptance and love is not a one man march, but Perfume Genius is certainly a growing modern staple. Ballads about teacher-student love affairs, taxing suicide, and prolonged isolation are quick to get heavy. With his vocal delivery and use of negative space, they get even darker. However, the important thing is becoming an ally. It’s about support. Hadreas is proud to reinforce that each night.
“People are getting behind music now that’s about something,” he says, getting serious. “We can’t let that fade.”