Mike Hadreas's musical career, under the name Perfume Genius, is happening entirely out of order. Everyone who's watched VH1's Behind the Music knows how it's supposed to go: years of grueling live shows, then someday the big record deal, and then, eventually, rehab. Perfume Genius got it all backward.
A little over two years ago, Hadreas, who'd been living in Seattle, went to rehab and moved back in with his mom in Everett. He'd never really made music before, but living there, he started writing songs on her piano and recording them with the same headset mic he used to play EverQuest and record silly YouTube videos. His MySpace demos attracted the attention of UK label Turnstile Records (and the support of Welsh band Los Campesinos!), which landed him with a major American indie label (as yet unannounced). The two labels are releasing his self-recorded debut, Learning, later this month. To date, he's played only three shows—two in Seattle, and one in New York for the label people.
The full-disclosure part here is supposed to be that I've known Hadreas for a number of years through mutual friends. But the fuller disclosure is maybe that I haven't really known him that well, which feels weird and kind of sad to admit. I didn't know he'd been to rehab when he was living at his mom's, for instance, or what he'd been doing that drove him there. And I had no idea he had this album in him.
In person, Hadreas can be disarmingly comic, even impish. Perfume Genius, by contrast, is heavy and personal, and the songs are painfully spare, bruised ballads—just Hadreas playing a slight melody and a handful of chords and singing in a trembling, porcelain-fragile whisper.
"I have been through some stuff," Hadreas says. "But I don't want to make it seem like I'm doomed or that my life has been some kind of tragedy, because it hasn't been any more than other people's.
"Part of going to rehab is that you're around lots of people who you'd never talk to normally, but you all share the same thing. I've met a lot of people in my life who have had addiction and abuse and stuff, and I wanted to write songs for them."
The songs on Learning feel immediately intimate, and they're largely sung in the first person, though it's not always clear from whose perspective. On "Learning," Hadreas is gently menacing and authoritative: "No one will answer your prayers until you take off that dress/No one will hear all your crying until you take your last breath/But you will learn to mind me/And you will learn to survive me." On "Mr. Peterson," he recounts a disastrous relationship with a teacher: "He let me smoke weed in his truck/If I could convince him I'd loved him enough.../He made me a tape of Joy Division/He told me there was part of him missing/When I was 16/He jumped off a building." The situation is messy, probably more predatory than romantic, but the song feels like a meditation on how people help and hurt each other, and it ends in a kind of ambivalent absolution: "I know you were ready to go/I hope there's room for you up above or down below."
Sometimes, the weight of the words is leavened with oddly upbeat melodies; other times, the mood is uniformly dour. Themes of addiction, religion, and recovery recur. On "Write to Your Brother," Hadreas sings about higher powers and hiding mouthwash. On closing track "Never Did," he sings a familiar refrain: "It's all a part of his plan/It's all in his hands."
"I'm not 'religious,'" he says. "But I needed to think that something else was going on underneath everything else, or there'd be no point for me to continue. And it helped me. I need that in order to not feel so disjointed from everything and everyone else.
"If I was drinking and doing all that, it would all be suicidal shit that I'd write," he continues. "I know it would. And I don't want to write stuff like that."
The songs on Learning are presented in the order in which they were written. No technical or formal progress can be heard in the consistently stark arrangements and raw, lo-fi production, but Hadreas says the recording process was therapeutic as well as educational.
"It was therapeutic in the way that I realized how close everything is together," he says. "All the good and bad things, for everyone. Even though it sounds like I'm talking about all these dramatic things, really it's like an attempt to fit in. Like everything that I've gone through is not so separate from everyone else. You're not alone in it, and that's freeing."
The contrast between Perfume Genius's terminally bleak songs and Hadreas's everyday personality played out in his first-ever live show in March at the Vera Project, opening up for A Sunny Day in Glasgow. Hadreas, backed by boyfriend Alan Wyffels on additional keys and guitar, sang his first couple of songs so quietly as to be almost inaudible. Then he adjusted the mic closer and tested it with a puckered smooching noise, asking, "Can you hear that? That's me kissing it." Singing, he squirmed, sniffled, and flinched at the mic, looking about as comfortable as a pre–Effexor/DeBeers Cat Power (hey, they'd make good labelmates!)—but he made himself heard, and his bipolar stage presence was strangely charismatic.
"I was nervous at the Vera Project," says Hadreas, who will play his next few shows in New York and Europe this July. "But I knew I could mess up and it wouldn't be that big of a deal. I was really, really nervous playing in New York. They put a big spotlight on me. I don't know how I did it. It was weird, but it made me want to play in front of people, which I didn't think I would ever want to do. Now I'm super into it."