This May, saw the release of ‘No Shape’, the fourth album by Seattle-based musician Perfume Genius - real name Mike Hadreas. It’s a record that demonstrates the full extent of his departure from the fragile, haunted voice of his first two releases, 2010’s ‘Learning’ and 2012’s ‘Put Your Back In 2 It’, and expands upon the bolder cuts on 2014’s ‘Too Bright’. DIY called it an “absolutely flooring record from a once-in-a-generation talent,” and Laura Snapes of Pitchfork declared it “audacious and spectacular” and “a transcendental protest record.” Produced by Blake Mills, known for his work with John Legend and Alabama Shakes, as well as on Laura Marling’s latest LP ‘Semper Femina’, it sees 35-year-old Hadreas emerging from the pain and anger of his previous records and arriving at a place of peace and happiness. As a long-time listener, it’s cathartic and beautiful to behold.
Known for his genderless style, a commanding and (in his words) witchy stage presence, as well as his irreverently comedic Twitter account, Hadreas has collaborated in the past couple of years with artists including Christine And The Queens and Californian singer-songwriter Weyes Blood. Recently on a European tour, we got to catch up with Hadreas over the phone about the ways in which he’s grown as an artist in the eight years he’s been releasing music, how his visuals increasingly reflect his songs, and learning to trust his listeners.
"...I’m a deviant, or bad, or something icky, or unnatural. I think sometimes I like to play with all that stuff – being spiritual and having a magic to all that icky-ness, being really powerful and witchy, being on the outside and [developing] my own ancient reason for being here the way that I am, or writing hymns and stuff."
COUP DE MAIN: Many critics have called 'No Shape' their favourite album of the year so far. What is your approach to reviews? Do you let yourself have a peek at them, or ignore them altogether?
PERFUME GENIUS: Oh, I read them. Eventually I stop, but in the beginning of the album cycle, I kind of read everything. Even a bad review, if it’s written really well, tends to not bother me. And a well-written good review can be really moving. I write the music, but then when I have to talk about it, sometimes I don’t feel super articulate, I don’t feel like I do the songs justice. I can’t really explain everything I meant. But sometimes I’ll read a review and they’ll really connect to it and they explain all those things that I couldn’t do after the song was finished, and it’s really moving sometimes.
CDM: You recorded parts of your last couple of albums in England during the Winter, but ‘No Shape’ was recorded in Los Angeles. Do external factors like climate have any impact on your process?
PG: I think so. You don’t always know when it’s happening, but looking back on it, yeah. ‘Put Your Back In 2 It’, we recorded in the English countryside in Winter, on a farm, for half of it, and I feel like that seasoned the songs, for sure. We recorded this in L.A. It was a little more open and there were people coming in and out. It was a little more social, and it was nice out throughout. There was something a little more free about it, a little more collaborative. I was into it.
CDM: After the slickness of ‘Too Bright’, the production on this record sounds like it brings back some of the organic nature and unpolished production values of your earlier work, particularly ‘Learning’. We hear you breathe into the mic before the vocals start and the piano pedals creak. Why did you choose to go back towards a sort of rougher recording technique despite the instrumentation on this record being the richest, most textured you’ve ever worked with?
PG: I think some of that is just from learning, from [gaining] confidence. Once I went to the studio, I thought things needed to be very professional and some of those things needed to go. I guess I was just so obsessed with capturing specific moods and so, whatever did that, I wanted to keep it in. Whether it was a mistake or a creak, if it kept the world the way I wanted it to be, I left it. And Blake [Mills] comes from the same place of doing that too, so everybody was on-board to leave a weird vocal squeak or something. It’s like some weird studio magic.
CDM: Your debut album was titled ‘Learning’, and certainly sounds like the voice of a shy, reclusive individual, whereas 'No Shape' is glorious and bold and, for the most part, confident. What would you say you have learned about yourself as a performer or songwriter over the course of your four records?
PG: I guess just that I’m way more capable than I thought I was. I’ve always had this image in my head of how I’m supposed to be. Like, when I get healthy enough, when I get more balanced and stable, then I’ll start making something really amazing. But I just keep upping it, I just keep doing things anyways. Even if I’m afraid or don’t know if I can sing that note or I’m not sure if that song will hold up to this or that, I just go for it anyway, instead of listening to myself so intently. Because sometimes you can lie to yourself. Sometimes you are in a better place and don’t even know it.
CDM: Your voice on this album is very up close and intimate with the listener, whereas on earlier releases it sounded distant, as if on the other side of a room, with heavy reverb. Would you say you’ve built up a trust with your listeners? You’ve always been very honest in your lyrics, but that’s not always been matched in the music.
PG: Yeah, I think so. And in the end, I’m not going to be the one listening to it. <laughs> I used to make it so that my vocals were pleasing to me. I have all my little rules and insecurities and stuff about how I want to sound, but nobody else has those same rules. It’s like when you see a selfie that someone posts where it’s really unflattering, but because their chin looks good and they’re really self-conscious about their chin, that’s the one they picked to post. <laughs> Sometimes it’s kind of jarring for me to hear my voice present and clear, because even when I make my demos, I still put a ton of reverb on it, because that’s just what I do to keep going. But then when I hear it in the studio, it’s so clear and sort of off-putting. But I know now that it’s going to communicate, and that’s what the songs needed, for my voice to be that close. So even if it makes me a little uncomfortable, it doesn’t matter because I’m not going to be the one listening to it.
CDM: You told NPR that when ‘Too Bright’ came out, people questioned the need for songs about queer defiance in songs like ‘Queen’, which relates back to the censoring of your ‘Hood’ video, creating something of a throughline through your albums. You call ‘Slip Away’ “a protest” against the “really horrible things going on right now.” Do you think you’ll always have an urge to write songs that are defiantly queer, regardless of the social climate in which they are released?
PG: Yeah, I think so. I mean, the election was horrible, but I knew how fucked up everyone was. I knew there were giant portions of America that were racist and homophobic. I’ve always known that. So of course it was horrible and shocking, but it wasn’t so surreal. Maybe those things will change, but it’s going to change very, very slowly, and I definitely don’t have any hope for seeing any change soon, or right now, for sure. I think I just need that, you know. Even if the world changes, I will never fully catch up. I have too many things ingrained in me, things that happened to me growing up that, for some reason, I can’t shake. I’m still fighting against those things, and I know a lot of my friends and other people are too. So I don’t think I’ll ever stop writing things that are trying to break free from that, or yell at it, or fuck it up.
CDM: The artwork for ‘No Shape’, shot by Inez and Vinoodh, shows trees, and you’re running around in a sort of wilderness in the ‘Slip Away’ music video and you’ve used rose and snake emojis when tweeting about the record. It feels like the Biblical connotations in the lyrics are to do with exaltation and ascension, but the visuals suggest sin and the wild. What are you trying to convey with the aesthetic of this record?
PG: <laughs> Oh, I don’t know, there’s so much that goes into it. I guess, religion and all that, whatever it means – at least some people feel like they have a map. They have a reason for why they’re here, some sort of purpose, to have babies, or whatever, and also a way to be fully, purely good. And I don’t fit into any of that. In some ways, I’m almost the opposite: I’m a deviant, or bad, or something icky, or unnatural. I think sometimes I like to play with all that stuff – being spiritual and having a magic to all that icky-ness, being really powerful and witchy, being on the outside and [developing] my own ancient reason for being here the way that I am, or writing hymns and stuff. But those are definitely way more inclusive. A lot of it’s just drama, too. I feel like I’m on the outside, and if I ever do want to connect, or find a connection, it’s always a spiritual thing, it’s always a spiritual way [that I] do it. It never really feels practical, because my circumstances change all the time, but I always feel sort of the same. God isn’t a religious god to me, it’s more like an idea, like the universe or aliens or something. I kind of just make it up.
CDM: Your style has always been wonderfully unique and classy, and right now you seem to be reflecting your work in your clothes: the PVC pants you’re half in, half out of on the album cover, and the Jacquemus outfit you’ve been wearing on tour show you kind of escaping from confines and restrictions. How important is finding the right style to match your music for live performances?
PG: I think it’s just become more 360. I feel like I can build a world a bit more now and have everything be an extension of whatever I was trying to do when I first started writing, and then you take those ideas and those little seeds somewhere and they turn into something else. With the clothes or whoever I work with on the videos, they end up shifting a little bit, but it’s all born from the same place. It feels more like part of the music than it did before. It used to feel a little more separate, but now it feels like I’m building a whole world for everything to be in, with the videos and the album art and the songs, even the plants that I have onstage now can all be of the same kingdom. It just makes everything much more exciting, and much more easy for me to whip into whatever fever or dramatic little thing I’m trying to get to.
CDM: Your boyfriend Alan Wyffels, who plays in your band and after whom you named the final track on ‘No Shape’, said in an interview that you want to be the musician that a teenage-you would have needed. You’ve been releasing music for nearly a decade now. How do you think a teenage you would have responded differently to hearing ‘Learning’ or ‘No Shape’? Because those two records will have or will be helping different generations of queer teenagers.
PG: I don’t know... When I was young, I was listening to music for different reasons. I listened to some music as [an outlet] for how horrible I felt. I just wanted to hear someone who felt exactly how I did. And so, for this album, I think it’s a little more triumphant. There’s a little more hope in it. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I think that could be helpful, for sure. At least in a more traditional way, that’s definitely more helpful.
CDM: The Royal Shakespeare Company is using some of your music in a new production of Oscar Wilde’s ‘Salome’ with a male lead to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality in the U.K. How did you come to be involved with this production?
PG: Writing back and forward with Owen [Horsley], the director, and hearing his thoughts on how the music would connect with what he was trying to do, I think, was the most inspiring to me. Because I wasn’t really familiar with it, the play, or even Oscar Wilde, beyond just stuff being already in the culture. I’m really excited to see it, I’m hoping we’re going to be in the U.K. at some point so I can see it, because it looks incredible. I’m so excited to hear what they’ve done, because I haven’t really been able to hear it myself, just read about the planning of it and see some of the sheet music, so I can’t wait to see it. And the trailers have been so beautiful.
CDM: The cacophony that bursts through ‘Otherside’ sounds like the exact moment that you liberated yourself from past trauma and pain and coming to terms with happiness. It feels like a moment of joyous catharsis that the previous three records have been working towards. Do you have an idea of where your music will go next?
PG: Oh, I was so wrong last time. I did not expect the album that was going to come out. After ‘Too Bright’, I thought I had an idea of where it was going to go. I thought it was going to be much darker and much more electronic. So I don’t know. To be honest, it’s even more fun to have no idea, because I keep liberating myself from what I think I’m capable of. But I could do something really simple and stripped-down next time, too. We’ll see.
CDM: You last played in New Zealand in 2015. Did you get to see much of the country when you came? Are there any plans for you to come back?
PG: We didn’t really. It was kind of an in-and-out thing. But I hope to more. We toured with Aldous Harding, and we became close with her. And I’ve worked really close with the people who look after us in Australia and New Zealand. I hope next time that we come that we have more time to look around.
Watch the video for 'Die 4 You' below: