The Pursuit of Happiness: Perfume Genius Interview
Perfume Genius tells us about trying to feel happiness and rebelling against himself on new album No Shape
Mike Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius, is known to bare his soul in his music but once a tortured soul has expelled all their demons, can they ever achieve real happiness?
'Let all them voices slip away,' sings Hadreas on Slip Away, the lead single from new album No Shape. The track is indicative of Hadreas’ new writing style and, seemingly, his current state of mind. “I was writing more in the moment about how I feel or how I wanted to feel, as opposed to going over old stories of things that have already happened to me,” he says.
Hadreas’ first two albums as Perfume Genius, Learning and Put Your Back N 2 It, introduced us to some of his deepest, darkest secrets: battling drug and alcohol addiction, teenage sexual abuse and struggling with his sexuality, to name a few. But 2014’s Too Bright really felt like Hadreas’ coming out; his departure from lo-fi piano-playing, singer-songwriter to fully fledged queer icon.
Hadreas’ music is heart-wrenchingly honest and on each album, we’ve listened to him processing different issues in his life, with Too Bright feeling like the moment he finally unleashed all that lingering internal anger. Now that he’s shed that skin, on new album No Shape he has been able to explore more positive themes. “I never really get happy, but I'm really trying to,” he says. “There's a lot of rebelling against my own self and my own brain in some of the songs.”
Writing optimistic songs doesn’t come easy to Hadreas, who is more accustomed to drudging up dark moments from his past. “I find it really easy to write something really disturbing,” he says. “Even the happier moments have a dissonant thread underneath but there is something vulnerable about it because you're just admitting that you have no idea what's going on.”
Despite his previous material dealing with darker issues thematically, there has always been an underlying sense of hope in Hadreas’ writing; a desire to reach the light at the end of the tunnel. With his life in a much less tumultuous state nowadays, he had to make a conscious effort to tackle new ground musically and emotionally for his latest effort and it appears he has finally come to terms with his own contentment. “I thought about it all together, not just the emotional content but how to push myself farther in the structure of the songs and the chords that I went to,” he says. “Happy chords for me felt fresh, just to try more major keys.”
While Too Bright had its experimental moments, and toyed with the idea of a bigger sound, No Shape is much more boldly cinematic and epic. Hadreas enlisted Grammy-nominated producer Blake Mills to assist on the songs, taking his music to another level of grandeur. “I kind of let everybody go to town on the songs,” he says. “I knew I was writing these anthemic, stadium songs so I wanted it to have that kind of feeling and I knew working with Blake would take it there.”
Much of Hadreas’ music is created at home. His debut album Learning was recorded in his mum’s house outside of Seattle, following a stint in rehab, and the songs for every album since have been created in his own home. Taking his music from such a personal space into a big studio may have taken some getting used to at first but for No Shape, Hadreas knew he wanted a fuller sound right from the beginning.
“I wrote this album knowing much more than before that that was going to happen,” he says. “I knew that the piano was a placeholder and I wrote the songs knowing that the sound was going to be completely created after the demo.”
Hadreas’ boyfriend Alan Wyffels is the somewhat unsung hero of Perfume Genius. The pair first met during a period when Hadreas had relapsed and Wyffels helped him get sober again. They have now been together eight years and live a very normal, peaceful life together in Tacoma, Washington with their dog. But Wyffels is much more than just Hadreas’ muse, if you could even call him that in the first place.
Wyffels, a classically trained musician, has seen Hadreas through every step of the making of his last three albums – every album apart from Learning – and has lent a helping hand on each one along the way. “I write the music but he's played every single live show with me and he helps figure out how to translate the songs live,” Hadreas tells us. “It's nice to be talking about him more because even though he's been here the whole time, I'm always the one getting my picture taken.”
Sometimes getting your picture taken isn’t so bad though. Hadreas worked with Dutch photography duo Inez and Vinoodh on the artwork for No Shape, which sees him facing away from the camera looking upon a picturesque landscape. “When we were doing all the pictures, I thought for certain we would use the one that was a more traditional portrait and I even had to fight my label after for this one,” he says. “I felt like it fit with the songs, having this warmer energy but then underneath there's always some discomfort.”
Interestingly, Too Bright is the only Perfume Genius album to use a portrait shot on the artwork, while both Learning and Put Your Back N 2 It used images where faces are masked or covered up in one way or another. “I think for [Too Bright] having that picture felt really rebellious. It felt more defiant to be on the cover of that one, the way that it was,” he says.
Hadreas has never shied away from his sexuality and he openly deals with queer issues in his music. “I can't get too mad about constantly talking about my sexuality, because if I didn't want to then I probably shouldn't have made three albums about it,” he says. But that’s not to say you must be queer to identify with his music. The emotions and feelings dealt with in Hadreas’ music are universal, but being labelled a queer artist can create unfair prejudices.
“People are allowed to steal ideas, or to play with the same things that queer people play with, but as long as they're not actually queer then it's seen as subversive and exciting and somehow people can be thrilled by it, but not feel like they need to be uncomfortable and that can be really frustrating,” he says. “Some people think listening to a queer artist means something about their sexuality, and sometimes it does and it can then be a really powerful thing, but you don't have to qualify before you like my music.”
You begin to get a sense that Hadreas really does struggle to allow himself to be happy, but it seems that in many ways, he is also his own worst enemy. Although he makes steps towards a more positive, uplifting sound on No Shape, there are still plenty of cracks to be found underneath the surface and those demons appear to still be there, even if they aren’t as obvious as they once were.
Whether Hadreas will ever be able to reach that light at the end of the tunnel is uncertain, but one thing’s for sure, he’ll never stop trying.