“It almost feels like a movie,” Mike Hadreas says of performing his often painfully personal early work as Perfume Genius. Those songs spoke of his experiences suffering from physical abuse, drug addiction and alienation as a queer young man growing up in Seattle. The themes on those records gave a voice to not only members of the LGBTIQ community, but more broadly to people anywhere who have experienced alienation. But things have changed for Hadreas. He's gone from a well respected indie artist to playing shows with Talking Heads founder David Byrne on his upcoming world tour.
“I don’t feel like the same person I did when I wrote those songs.”
To achieve the lushly rendered pop of his fourth album No Shape, Hadreas faced a daunting new challenge: how to write happiness, or something resembling it.
“I’ve always come from a darker place when I go into my room to write,” he says. “The first place I start is looking at ickier sides of my spirit, but it just didn’t feel as exciting or inspired as when I lightened up a little bit.
“I started writing songs that were warmer and a little more present, looking at the big picture of what’s going on around me … which is not so dark, you know? I wanted to write songs that were real and kind and thoughtful. Instead of going back to a darkness that’s pretty easy for me to conjure up.”
It was lead single Slip Away, a sweeping anthem with lithe vocal harmonies and a triumphant chorus that proved a watershed moment. “It was melodically super easy to write,” he says. “It had a really familiar, warm, poppy or catchy feeling, unlike anything I’d ever made. When I put lyrics to it I wanted it to have that same immediacy, I wanted it to be about what’s actually around me instead of mining my journals or overthinking things.”
The result was a love song describing a relationship quite different to the ones typically mined on the pop charts. “I’ve been with the same person for nine years – or 10 or eight, I don’t remember,” he ponders aloud of his relationship with longtime bandmate Alan Wyffels. “And usually people don’t write huge anthem-y, epic songs about being with someone after nine years. Usually it’s about the beginning or a really tragic ending. I wanted the songs, the melody, to be epic and big, and I wanted to put that same amount of energy onto our relationship.”
But the thing about writing songs that fill a glaring gap in the wider canon of pop music is that there are a whole lot of people out there waiting to finally hear a song that reflects their own truth and situation. Hadreas is still humbled to find fans around the world who find in his music the same escapism and empathy he once sought in artists such as Bjork and Elliott Smith. “To be honest, it’s kind of overwhelming, it would be overwhelming if it was just two people. You have to kind of detach from it, but I’m going to a new place every day, to a new city with new people [and] I don’t even know how to process it. [So] when I write songs, although they’re really personal, I write them for those people that I see. Maybe it’s too overwhelming to pay attention in the moment, but I keep it with me.”
Whether touring at home in America or in countries like Australia, anthemic tracks such as Slip Away and the defiantly queer Queen take on a new importance in the face of fresh attacks on LGBTIQ communities. “My shows feel a lot different now than they did,” he says of the past year. “They were always very celebratory, but it very much feels like everybody’s purposefully going and making this into a place where everyone can get rid of all that bullshit for an hour. It’s hard to find ways to do that now that don’t feel super avoidant or bad for you.”
Which means onstage at least, Hadreas is holding on to that earlier version of himself and the songs that guy wrote. “I’m still shaped by all of them, I still have complexes and weird ways of thinking that have not changed since I was 13,” he says. “Which is gross and embarrassing but true, and [now] some other people that are watching me are much closer to it. I think when I sing those songs they’re for everybody else now,” he says. “As much as they were therapy for me when I started.”
No Shape is out now
Wed February 28 – Chevron Gardens, Perth Festival
Fri March 2 – The Factory
Tue March 6 – The Zoo
Thu March 8 – The Palais, Adelaide Festival
Fri March 9 – Melbourne Recital Centre