Perfume Genius's Big, Beautiful Mystery
On 'No Shape,' Mike Hadreas's songwriting takes a more ambitious, poetic turn.
Photo by Yudi Ela
Mike Hadreas never wasted any time introducing himself. On his unflinchingly personal 2010 debut LP as Perfume Genius, Learning, the singer-songwriter immediately went deep, sharing diaristic lyrics and autobiographical details about abuse, loss, and the struggle to gain acceptance from the surrounding world, albeit couched in tape hiss and glowing keyboards. Every successive release has seen him expanding his sonic palette—the baroque instrumentation of 2012's Put Your back N 2 It, Too Bright's laser-guided electronics and threatening atmospheres from 2014—and the topical breadth of his lyrics have widened accordingly, less centered towards explicitly personal fare.
That trend continues on Hadreas's fourth Perfume Genius album, No Shape. Produced by increasingly in-demand studio wizard Blake Mills (Fiona Apple, Alabama Shakes) and featuring a contribution from Santa Monica singer-songwriter Natalie Mering's Weyes Blood alias, the album is the most sonically wide-reaching Perfume Genius album yet, spanning sounds as disparate as skyscraping rock textures, slow-burn trip-hop, airy synth-pop, and Enya. (Yes, Enya.)
"I've thought about artists releasing these big albums, lately—so here's my big album for you," Hadreas explains when talking about the album's expanded scope. We're at a Manhattan hotel bar, and he's sipping a Diet Coke with lemon. He's jetlagged, having flown into town from his home in Seattle for a private No Shape listening session the morning of, but he's no less thoughtful for it. "I wanted to make this big album with these big songs—only, my version of that. When everything started sounding more slick, I got kind of worried—but it's still pretty strange music. The subject matter is weird, and we didn't use regular-ass instruments all the time."
Lyrically, No Shape addresses themes ranging from body image and the rebellion of existence to sexuality and peace in domesticity. The words are often sparse and few between—especially on the stunning and smoldering "Die 4 You," one of three songs in which Mills and Hardeas share a co-write—but they're imbued with poetic meaning that, compared to previous efforts, sometimes seems just out of reach.
As Hadreas explains, that aesthetic distance was intentional—a pulling back, if you will, after previously sharing so much about his life on record, as well as in a thorough FADER profile earlier this year. "It's complicated—if I don't want to be humanized all the time, then I shouldn't tweet about my acne," he says without a trace of annoyance. "I don't want to have everything be about my backstory—he's gay, depressed, and a drug user—but I also write music about that, so I can't be too mad about it. Sometimes it feels unbalanced, though."
That unbalance led Hadreas towards writing lyrics that he describes as more "poetic": retaining the plainspoken simplicity of his earlier work, while ceding the focus to topics not directly pulled from his own life experiences. It's not exactly an attempt to regain a sense of mystery—"I think I already fucked that up by starting the way I did," he notes without regret—but moreso a way to work in a mode opposite to his listeners' expectations. "I wasn't just talking about the edges of my experiences—I just said things that happened. For a while, it felt like I needed to think of big experiences to draw from because that's what people liked—and I felt like I was good at it, too."
But Hadreas's artistic growth often requires embracing unfamiliar territory—and as the 35-year-old singer-songwriter explains, that notion dovetails with what goes into personal growth, as well as the act of questioning your present while facing down your future. "I'm not just talking about things that happened anymore—I'm talking about things that I don't have figured out," he explains. "I have to describe them in another way."
Noisey: Was this record more difficult to write than the previous ones?
Mike Hadreas: A little bit. It's just pressure, you know? I worry less lately, because I know there's going to be a couple of months where I try really hard and nothing good comes out, and that'll eventually lead to whatever's going to happen. I wanted a natural progression from Too Bright—which was dark, electronic, experimental, and a lot of howling.
This record sounds like an empty paradise, to me.
I feel what you mean. Even the cover has that sort of feel—a 2-D utopia. It's very clear that it's fake, but it's still magical and mysterious.
Your stage show has evolved over the years from a simple setup to something a little more elaborate. How do you feel you've grown as a performer?
I thought I was going to be awkward and stay that way. I did good that way for a while, but sometimes I'd get embarrassed about how anxious I was. There's a bunch of people there to see me. I felt ungrateful. I don't think I'm ever not awkward, but hopefully I've morphed into something else.
"I don't think I'm ever not awkward, but hopefully I've morphed into something else."
You're 35, and you've talked about learning to take care of yourself more on the road and in life in general. When you were younger, did you see yourself growing older this way?
I didn't—and I've always looked super young, too. Even when I was 20, I looked like I was 12, so people treated me like I was little. I also was really irresponsible—I kept an extended adolescence going for way too long. Taking care of myself is not instinctual, for me. It feels very weird.
Are you someone who finds it easier to adhere to routine, or do you try to avoid it?
In some ways I like routine, because it gives me something to be nervous about—somewhere to put my anxiety, since I don't manage my time very well. I'm also really resentful and rebellious, and If I have too much routine I just quit everything, so it's a balance.
Too Bright was very specifically about violence against the body, whereas this album sounds like it's making a sort of peace with the notion of self-image.
My body is an easy place for me to put anxiety. It's hard for me to talk about, and that's why I write about it. I feel trapped in my body. I want to be like like Scarlett Johansson in Lucy, when she unlocks everything within her—I want to do that. I want to be the alien in Arrival—a spitty, infinite-time-loop creature. A lot of the time, I don't really feel like doing what I have to do in my body. I feel limited by my body, like it doesn't really do what I want. I want a lot of things, and those things aren't what my body actually needs.
There's a slightly more peaceful outlook towards sex and love on this album, too.
I'm trying to find a way to actually connect—to feel like I'm actually present with my boyfriend, in the house we live in, in the things we're doing. I just feel so much like bullshit all the time—so guided by some lie I told myself a long time ago about the way I look or how I am as a person. It's locked in there, and I can't shake it. This album is about me trying to figure out how to shake off all this bullshit.
It's exhausting, and the older I get, the more needless it is. It kept me going for a while because I don't think I would've been able to think deeply or be alone with myself 15 years ago. Since I've gotten healthier and made some good decisions, I can be alone with myself more. I don't feel the need to be so avoidant, and I can be uncomfortable.
You started releasing music seven years ago. How do you feel like you've grown as a person since then?
I feel completely different. I don't care as much if people dislike me. I feel a lot more purposeful and proud of the things that I've done. Before, I didn't have anything to show that I was good. Now, I have proof.
What was your greatest fear when you were 25?
It was so detached from anything that I legitimately needed to be worried about. I still feel like I have fears like that—I just made a career of writing about them. At 25, I was drinking and stuff, and it was clear that I needed to not be shitty, not steal, and do nicer things.
When you look back at how you were when you were younger, do you have any regrets?
I don't know, and I think it's kind of cool that I've realized that I'll never really know. I feel like I was sort of an asshole for about a year, but when I think about it now, I didn't realize it at the time. This last year, I've been nicer and gentler with myself and the way that I think about everything, so that feels good—but maybe it also means I'll be a dick again in two years.
"I have all these ideas about how I want to come across, but for whatever reason, I can't really alter my behavior. When it comes to embracing mystery, I should stop fighting against it so much."
Do you ever feel anxious about the way others might perceive or interpret your art?
Yeah, but when I start to make something, that feeling goes away. I have all these ideas about how I want to come across, but for whatever reason, I can't really alter my behavior. When it comes to embracing mystery, I should stop fighting against it so much and just try to be the best at everyone knowing everything about me. Grimes is obviously a fucking weird badass, and I identify with her as being an outsider and a weirdo—but I also buy into all of the fucking glittery epicness she does. I try to think of my art like that.
Do you perceive your audience as having grown with every successive album?
I hope so. The one thing I don't like is that there's this buffer for some people if they listen to a queer musician: that it means something about them to listen to a queer musician, you know what I mean? I'm hoping that people don't need listening to a queer musician to mean something. I think that's gone away a little bit—or maybe I just have way more gay people following me than before.
You're pretty active on Twitter—in the FADER profile, you mentioned wondering if some of the people following you think you're just a comedian.
I'm scared that someone bought me followers, because my number of followers just suddenly started to go up. I've talked to lots of artists who are really good at curating multiple accounts. That just seems so hard to me. It's hard to do that kind of shit when it's hard to pay your bills on time. I don't know how they do it. I'm just not that kind of personality.
A trend this decade is the increasing prevalence of people expressing their opinions publicly, due to the number of venues for those opinions.
Sometimes I feel guilty for not having an opinion—like, "Oh, I must let everyone know about how I feel about this thing." So many other people are so much better at it. I don't want to just rehash all their little words—I want it to be something that I'm actually saying. Sometimes it's hard for me to know whether I'm rehashing or if I'm actually trying to form something myself.
Since you released Too Bright , the mainstreaming of queer culture has gone in a few separate directions—both positive and negative.
People are angrier now. When I first released that album, everybody asked me, "Why are you talking about this stuff? Things are getting better." Now it's less politically cool, though— people are like, "This stuff is so fucked up!"
After Trump was elected, there was a fear that any progress made in the last eight years is going to evaporate in our new political climate.
I've always felt that there were large groups that hated me for a long time, so I knew that [Trump being elected] could've happened. I don't know how to explain it—it's not that I wasn't outraged or fucking furious about it, but, well, fucked up people do fucked up shit.
"Alan" is about your boyfriend, who you've been with for seven years. What have you learned from being in a long-term relationship?
I realized how quickly I can check out and take people for granted—how I expect them to deal with me being not present. There's still certain things that I do that are how I show him that I love him, and he has his own ways of showing me. Those ways very different—he's a lot more romantic, and I'm a lot more practical. I fix his clothes and buy the new thing if he needs it, and he gets the cards and stuff.
I would never have known how I do that stuff because I consider myself a very emotional person—but I also realized that I'm not, in a weird way. I'm very sensitive—I'll cry during every movie or commercial—but when it comes to my own feelings, I don't really think about them that much unless I'm making music. Otherwise, I'm either checked out or laughing because that's how I do regular stuff. I have a hard time talking about my feelings.
Yudi Ela is a photographer based in New York. Check out her website here.
Larry Fitzmaurice is VICE's senior culture editor. Follow him on Twitter.