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Perfume Genius’ Tortured Journey to Breakthrough LP ‘Too Bright’

Why Seattle songwriter Mike Hadreas scrapped a collection of “nice, soulful music” to make one of 2014’s best, most suprising new albums

Perfume Genius

Perfume Genius

Todd Heisler/NYTimes/Redux

Earlier this year, Mike Hadreas – the 32-year-old behind Perfume Genius – was working on his third album and trying to figure out how to tone down the themes of gay sexual identity that marked his previous releases. No one had specifically suggested this, but Hadreas’ acclaimed LP, 2012’s Put Your Back N 2 It, delved explicitly into the subject, including a music video (for single “Hood”) that showed the delicate, slight-framed singer wrapped lovingly in the arms of burly gay porn actor Arpad Miklos.

Controversy struck when YouTube deleted the video, deferring to its supposed “mature sexual themes,” but the album’s wounded frankness earned Hadreas plenty of critical praise. It also brought up a lot of questions that he quickly got tired of answering – particularly when Miklos (whom Hadreas had only met at the video shoot) died of an apparent suicide a year later. “I was being overly defensive,” Hadreas admits when discussing how he approached his new album, “but people made me feel like if I toned down the subject matter of my last two records, I would stay in nicer hotels or whatever.”

For his latest LP, released September 23rd and titled Too Bright, the Seattle native initially tried for “slightly pumped-up versions” of the vulnerable piano ballads that had been so well-received in the past, but any time he sat down to write them, the inspiration wouldn’t come. “All the music I made as a result of that overthinking was crap,” he says. “There was no confidence in it, no bravery.”

It wasn’t until he experimented with a song called “I’m a Mother,” shifting his normally high, wispy vocals deep down, that he realized the flaw in his initial approach. “That song was infinitely more exciting than any of the other stuff I was working on,” he explains. “It kind of became my mission statement.”

Perfume Genius began in 2007, but until then, Hadreas had never seriously considered a career in music. He’d been living in New York and, as he puts it, “not taking care of myself.” “I wasn’t paying my rent, I wasn’t eating right. I’d moved there for a boy, and even when that didn’t work out, I didn’t leave.” When drugs and alcohol began to feature more prominently in his life, Hadreas made the decision to move back home to try to clean up. A stint in rehab helped him finally kick the addictions, and he now feels it even helped him start making music.

“One day – and it was very sudden and dramatic – I decided to try to make songs,” he says. “It’s always something I wanted to do, but I didn’t think anything I made would compare to what was already out there.” Shortly after finishing his first few tracks, Hadreas made a Myspace page to showcase his work. When a friend of his in the California band Xiu Xiu put Perfume Genius in the band’s Top 8 – “Were you there for Top 8? It’s an honor!” – Hadreas’ music started to rack up more listens, eventually earning him a record deal before he’d ever played live. 

Perfume Genius performing in Brooklyn, New York.

Hadreas now describes recording his first two albums as a “healing experience.” Though it was difficult and nerve-racking for him to be in the studio when he wasn’t entirely confident in his abilities as a musician, he developed more with each session. Ultimately, when it came time to work on Too Bright, he and his longtime boyfriend (also a musician) decided to rent a house, a more peaceful environment where he’d be less likely to “get in his own way.”

“I really thought it was important for me to be responsible and adult about music as a career,” he says. “I was going to make this record full of just nice, soulful music, with maybe two cellos instead of one.” Around the time of the “I’m a Mother” breakthrough, however, Hadreas realized that rather than toning down what he felt people thought he was bad at (“which was apparently being too gay”), he needed to play up what he was good at.

Eels’ John Parish and Portishead‘s Adrien Utley were enlisted as co-producers, and accordingly the finished products shifts from theatrical art-pop one minute to pitch-black electronica the next. Lead single “Queen” – a psychedelic anthem that includes the cheeky kiss-off, “No family is safe when I sashay” – has become the record’s thematic touchstone. “It’s trying to use whatever it is that makes people uncomfortable around me as a sort of power over them,” says Hadreas. The result is the best Perfume Genius record yet.

“After this album, I feel very liberated,” he says. “Now I just want to be able to have music as my career and make enough to do that.

“Maybe there’s a weird-ass commercial they can put me in or something.”

In This Article: Perfume Genius

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