Perfume Genius is Mike Hadreas, a Seattle songwriter whose jarring 2010 debut album, Learning, was called “an album of rare, redemptive beauty…one of the most uniquely endearing and quietly forceful debut albums of recent years” by Drowned In Sound, and established him as one of the most singular songwriters today. An openly gay man, the 16 second promotional video for his second album, featuring Hadreas and pornographic actor Arpad Miklos embracing each other wearing only underwear, was deemed unsafe for family viewing and bannded by YouTube.
The bulk of Learning sprung from a time of self-imposed isolation in his mother’s suburban home following a period of trauma and self-destruction. The album was actually mastered from second-generation MP3s, as Hadreas had lost the original recordings, and this distant, abraded sound reinforced its harrowing tales and haunting melodies.
“No secret/No matter how nasty/Can poison your voice/Or keep you from joy.” – Perfume Genius, “Normal Song”
Though Learning’s voyeuristic window into Hadreas’s experiences resonated intensely with many people, his new album Put Your Back N 2 It is much more universal, addressing intimacy, power, family, secrecy, and hope not just through his impressionistic lyrics, but the music itself, which is as lush as Learning was stark. It’s a gorgeous soundtrack for anyone trying to keep it together in everyday life, and about moving forward.
“I don’t want it to seem like I’ve been through more than other people,” Hadreas says. “Everyone has stuff. Staying healthy can be more depressing and confusing than being fucked up. But I want to make music that’s honest and hopeful.”
The hypnotic songs on Put Your Back N 2 It are tender and moving, but they are also surreal and grand, recalling at times the universality of lullabies and hymns, faraway folk songs, the dramatic arc of a film score, and the almost spiritual quality suggests a kind of opiated gospel. He cites as a primary influence not one of the indie icons to which he’s sometimes compared (Cat Power, Bon Iver, Thom Yorke), but The Innocence Mission (“not their sound, but their timelessness”).
The following is something about each song on the album, in Hadreas’s own words:
AWOL MARINE: This is from some unedited homemade basement porn I watched, with an old man and some hustlers. You can see or hear them doing drugs off camera. They leave the camera running before and about ten minutes after the "scenes", and I am sort of obsessed with watching the before and after. One guy told the cameraman he was just doing the video to get money for his wife's medicine. Then there is a close up of his face. The old man always explains that he will edit out the guys' faces but he never does. That is the specifics of where it started, but I was also trying to show the desperation, demoralization and soullessness that comes with addiction, and what you’re willing to do to get what you need.
NORMAL SONG: I wrote this for my friends and family that feel like damaged goods after some of their experiences. Even if you didn't have a hand in what happened to you, somehow when you get older the lingering ickiness can feel like your fault. But that’s poison, not true. Heather is not a big nasty secret, my mom is not a big nasty secret, Heather is not the first 25 years of her life, I am not 16 hours at the Sheraton. I just wanted to write a straight up, normal song about it.
NO TEAR: My circumstances have gotten a lot better and sometimes I’m scared that if they go away, I won’t be able to carry on being healthy. There have been three times where I felt like if the music thing tanks, if I end up alone - everything will still be OK. So i wanted to write a song to remind me and also to remind Heather's crazy ass that she doesn't need a man to do right by herself.
17: Almost every gay man I have met has body image issues. They are all tripping! I think it is an easy place for your brain to dump everything. A lot of times you have no idea why you feel so shitty, so you can pick at your face. I named it 17 because of teenagers, who are always tripping and killing themselves. It is basically a gay suicide letter, so...sorry about that. But I was not always interested in listening to anything triumphant when I was a teenager, or even that it gets better. I think that is really valuable but sometimes I wanted to hear that someone felt exactly as grim and bleak as I did, and have it written out for me. That is important too, and not an invitation.
TAKE ME HOME: I wanted to write a pop song about hookerism, so if it was in a commercial or something I could say that song is about hookerism. It’s about that old feeling where you are out of money and options and just combing the streets for anybody that will take you wherever and you will do and be whatever they want and completely annihilate yourself as long as they keep feeding you drugs and you never have to move. Also I was just trying to write about in relationships when you are willing to give up everything and erase yourself for the other person, because you are so scared of being alone.
DIRGE is an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem from 1921.
DARK PARTS: This song is about my mom. I was worried about showing her, but she cried through the whole thing. I wanted to take something from her life that wasn't happy, and turn it in to something triumphant, to remind her how strong and beautiful and loved and important she is. She doesn’t like the last line and says that her dark parts belong to her alone.
ALL WATERS: Why are straight women always walking with their hands in the back pocket of their boyfriends’ jeans? Would I do that all the time too if I didn't have to think about it? Alan and I hold hands in specific parts of the city and sometimes outside of those parts. But there is always a little ‘catch’; no matter how much I think the shame and fear is gone, there is always a little something in the back of my mind. I am almost embarrassed sometimes when we are holding hands, and that fucking infuriates me. I can't even imagine that hesitation ever going away, and that makes me very sad.
HOOD: This is about when you feel like if someone really knew you, they would leave. Very revolutionary.
PUT YOUR BACK N 2 IT: I wrote this for Alan before we got together. It’s about how if you show me everything and I really, truly know you, I will never leave. I wanted to write a gay love song with two men singing together. It is also about gay sex. There is not a lot of grace or tenderness in early homo sex sometimes; I wanted to teach Alan that we can still do the right thing and it will be really warm and cool. I wrote it and had Alan sing it with me before he knew it was about him.
FLOATING SPIT: This song is about overdosing and going to the other side, about a few times where I thought I was close to doing that. Who knows if I was or not, but I certainly felt like it. I was also thinking about if the Neverending Story took place in a bathhouse, what that would look or sound like, and what would the creatures would look like? Probably a lot of floating spit.
SISTER SONG: I was imagining someone leaving all the things in someone’s room the same after that person had died, or that they were going to rehab and their family and friends would hold down the fort while they were gone.
Even though he is only in his 20s, the story to date of Mike Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius, has the peculiar twists and turns of a person who has lived several lifetimes, and seen more darkness than most. “I spent my whole life hiding from the things that happened to me, to my family and friends,” Hadreas explains now. “The entirety of all these experiences: abuse, addiction, suicide, all that cool stuff, I couldn’t bear to look at it.”
Now, as Perfume Genius, Hadreas is not only turning an unforgiving mirror on those demons, but making utterly heartbreaking music out of them. How this actually came to pass however, is far from conventional. For a number of years Hadreas admits that he was headed down the path of self-oblivion; as he recalls, “I was running around doing drugs and being fucking insane and getting into some dangerous business.”
At his lowest ebb, and with his lifestyle threatening to overwhelm him entirely, Hadreas made a clean break and moved back into his mother’s house in Washington state. It is in this suburban setting that his self-imposed isolation seemed to tap into a wellspring of dormant creativity. “I have always played the piano but was really embarrassed of my voice, so I never sang. But a few years ago, after spending a long time alone, I suddenly had something to say and my voice didn’t matter.”
The watershed moment came one day when he sat down and wrote 'Learning', which was to be his first song. Hadreas remembers it with piercing clarity. “I wrote it and spent at least a month after that constantly writing for long stretches of time. I don’t know how it happened, but I intuitively could see and feel my experiences for the first time in this really overwhelming and honest state or whatever. I felt like my heart actually broke but in this sort of hopeful, genuine way. Like I could finally rebuild it.”
The song in question is a ghostly shiver, a sparse ballad anchored by the couplet “No one will answer your prayers/ till you take off that dress”. It is simultaneously tender and haunting, and sets the stage for what’s to follow: confessionals so stark and searing that the instinct is almost to flinch, to look away, if not for the lush, heartrending music it’s set to.
February saw the UK release of Perfume Genius’s debut single “Mr. Peterson”, which turned a seemingly innocuous tale of a high school teacher inside out, but with the debut full-length, 'Learning' – entirely written and recorded during the year Hadreas sequestered himself in his mother’s house – the world of Perfume Genius is unveiled. “The songs on the album are the ones I think are the most real,” Hadreas asserts. “And they are about everybody, you know? Even though some of them are directly from my experience - I always had everybody in mind.” Indeed, the record has a universality which renders it oddly accessible despite the intensely personal subject matter.
There is a certain romance to songs like the spectral, swooning “You Won’t B Here” and “When”, and even songs like the yearning “Write To Your Brother”, with its elliptical allusions to a mother treating a son “like a lover”. However, 'Learning' also treads some very dark, tormented places, especially when Hadreas swaps his piano for the doomy organs and layered synths of “Gay Angels” and “No Problem”, sorrowful elegies that could have soundtracked the saddest David Lynch film ever made. “Look Out, Look Out”, meanwhile, is simply harrowing, with Hadreas pleading “Look out, look out, there are murders about”, although it’s unclear as to who he is warning: us or himself.
Ultimately though, 'Learning' ends on a note of sheer beauty with the hymnal atmospherics of “Never Did”, which sounds like he is singing to the heavens, and which crucially resists the thematic trap of casting Perfume Genius as a purveyor of doom and gloom. For as much as 'Learning' is a catalogue of remembered pain and sadness, it is also about what it takes to get through it. Hadreas’s own story is proof of that. And this record is an indelible testament to his strange journey so far.