When talking with Mike Hadreas, who is known better as the glamorous, emotive artist Perfume Genius, about his early days with music, the word “obsessed” comes up over and over. Hadreas was obsessed when he discovered songs early in his life. Obsessed with dancing and singing, obsessed with hearing songs and hearing them again and again on the radio. Obsessed with his first album purchase, the Edward Scissorhands soundtrack. Obsessed with the Madonna song, “Like a Prayer,” which was “forbidden” by his parents. He loved that song’s weird, creepy and sad vibes. He was obsessed with the haunting, melancholy sensibilities of the songs he loved, even the campiness of the movie soundtrack. Now, many music listeners are obsessed with the music Hadreas makes under his Perfume Genius moniker. And his latest project? The forthcoming LP, Ugly Season, is slated for release on June 17.
“I’ve always been music-obsessed,” Hadreas tells American Songwriter. “I have a lot of memories attached to music, to dancing and singing, becoming obsessed with wanting to hear certain songs again from the radio.”
As he got older, he says, and as he began making his own music as an adult, his sensibilities got even more “fucked up,” more “varied” and more nuanced. To wit, Hadreas’ Ugly Season (and the accompanying short film, below) is all of those things. It’s like walking into a museum made of music, seeing sonic paintings and sculptures of all sorts of imaginations on display on the album’s 10 tracks. Hadreas composed it with choreographer Kate Wallich, as well as musicians Alan Wyffels and Blake Mills. The album, while it can stand alone as a musical work, also accompanies dance. While scoring a stage performance is new to Hadreas, a great deal of conversation took place before the songwriting.
“I took all 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 want it to sound [only] like accompaniment. I wanted it to sound like a record.”
The process, he says, was liberating. There was “no map” for what Hadreas and his team were doing. There was just a “pure feeling” and “instinct.” Prior to the work, he had very limited (read: essentially none) experience with dance and stage performance of that kind. Yet, in his own work, the lithe artist does perform physically in his own shows. That is why, he thinks, Wallich reached out to him—that and the fact they’re both from the same hometown of Seattle, Washington. The group toured the music and the stage show in 2019 until the COVID-19 pandemic struck and it became essentially illegal to congregate. Now, during his current tour, Hadreas is performing some of the songs amidst a setlist that also includes tracks from his most recent release, the 2020 LP, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately (the tour for that album was also postponed due to COVID-19).
“It sounds like me, to me,” says Hadreas of Ugly Season. “I think of this record [as] part of the big pot of the things that I make.”
When Hadreas is making a new album, he writes a lot of songs. Several of which may not end up on the final product (though he allows himself to listen to the tracks that hit the cutting-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. So, songs that are more accessible touch songs that are more out there, and vice versa. It’s a seasoned understanding of music that was born from an early love—a love that crystalized in many ways with Liz Phair.
“I stole a Spin Magazine from the grocery store,” Hadreas remembers. “I was, like, 11 or 12. And there was an article about Liz Phair in it about her stage fright, and how controversial her lyrics were. So, I got her record, and I had to close my bedroom door. I was scandalized by it but also, really, I didn’t know music could be like that and do that.”
Prior, Hadreas had just been listening to largely the pop music he encountered on Top 40 stations on other passive outlets. He hadn’t really sought out 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 didn’t begin to make music until he was about 25 years old. He’d dug for songs, searched them out, and indulged his obsessions. But it wasn’t until 25 that he sat down to really write.
“I decided that I was going to write a song,” he says. “I had tried to make that decision a lot before. I grew up playing piano—I had some sensibility but I could never really figure out 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 on his debut 2010 LP, Learning. Hadreas began uploading songs to MySpace and soon he was getting stellar reviews in Pitchfork. Truly, Hadreas has come a long way from a conservative upbringing, bullying in schools because he’s queer, working as a door person for a club, and not knowing where he fits in the world, creatively. Now, he’s a leader in music and one many others look to.
“It’s wild,” he says. “The internet and sharing my music on the internet changed my entire life. It was all from things I wasn’t intending. I was just making things very close to me and very personal.”
Indeed, Hadreas tries to keep those lessons close each and every day.
“I try to remember that all the time when making things now,” he says. “There’s more pressure on me, I know people are going to hear it when we put it out. It can mess with you sometimes. I try to remember the whole reason all this exists was I was trusting my gut and instincts, not worrying about much else.”
That’s his job, he says. And if he remembers that, everything else will follow suit. Yet, that doesn’t mean everything or every day is easy. The world is still traumatic, from hate crimes to school shootings. And this dichotomy at times eats at the artist. When the 40-year-old, Des Moines, Iowa-born artist is home, Hadreas says, the world can eat at him, make him feel anxious, even trapped. But when he’s on tour, life can feel more exciting, full, and rich. He is happy on tour, and feels happy doing it. Touring helps him 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 to the listener.
“I love that it can slow down time,” Hadreas says. “It can give you the feeling that you’re somewhere else, that you’re somewhere you didn’t know existed until you heard it. It can physically shift you and physically transport you. Something about that makes me feel a lot less lonely than I did before I had it.”
Photo by Camille Vivier