Mike Hadreas is not who you'd expect him to be. It's hard not to approach the Seattle resident, who records as Perfume Genius, very carefully. His debut album, Learning, is a set of skeletal ballads, spotlighting fragile, double-tracked vocals and melodies that sound like they were coaxed from an upright piano on the ocean floor. With their glacial minor chords and eerie keyboard washes, several selections evoke David Lynch soundtracks. (Hadreas is a fan; his childhood babysitter had a bit part on Twin Peaks.) The album's lyrics sketch characters in precarious circumstances; two fatalities occur within the first three songs. There's a nakedness reminiscent of early Cat Power or Daniel Johnston in his delivery, and in promotional photos, Hadreas poses shirtless with nasty-looking bruises and a black eye. Clearly, you think, he must be handled with utmost delicacy.
Instead, Hadreas emerges from his apartment building looking cheerful as he sparks up a Marlboro Light. His countenance mirrors the cloudless day, his blue eyes bright, his milky skin unblemished. He makes small talk about home sewing and neighborhood characters. Only when he halts our interview, conducted at a nearby cafe, to ask if we can finish at his place, does it become apparent that he is still grappling with public scrutiny. He feels more comfortable inviting a stranger into his home than discussing his art in the open. "Serious creativity, with any hint of drama, has always been a private thing," he admits later. "It's weird to be publicly sharing that version of myself that I hid."
The face we show the world is often different from the one staring back at us from the bathroom mirror, and Hadreas recognizes that schism. "I am not morose," he says. On the contrary; for years, he was a hardcore party animal. It was only after reckless behavior landed him in rehab that he started making music. He says acquaintances who knew him before Perfume Genius have been startled by the sensitivity displayed in his music. On the other hand, his new-found audience must accept that his songs are designed to assuage pain, not wallow in it.
"You have to actually feel your feelings before they can go away," Hadreas says. "That seems simple, but I put off certain feelings for so long." Acknowledging them, both in therapy and through songwriting, was a way of finally letting go. "In a lot of the songs, that's what I was doing: the emotions showed up, and I felt them." Rather than obsess relentlessly over those feelings, he channeled them into music: "Now they have a place to go."
Where he didn't expect them to go was into the world at large. That happened by default. While getting clean, the openly gay Hadreas was stuck in Everett, a small city north of Seattle where his mother lives. "Walking around there reinforced that feeling I'm different from everyone else" — a dangerous predicament for anyone in recovery. "I had a lot of people yelling 'Faggot!' at me, so I mostly stayed in." In lieu of chemically induced highs, he drew on his childhood piano lessons and sated his dopamine receptors by creating songs. He recorded them on the headset microphone he used for videogames, and in 2008 began posting demos on MySpace so his friends could hear. The Welsh band Los Campesinos! found the then-unknown artist in cyberspace; its label, Turnstile, issued his debut single, "Mr. Peterson," the following year. When the Matador label rush-released Learning in June, Hadreas had performed live only three times.
Who is the real Mike Hadreas? He's still figuring that one out, even as he works on his next full-length. For now, he's excited to be on the road. Rather than touring leaving him feeling exposed, Hadreas discovered that it provides a sense of purpose. Nor is he a blushing flower after gigs. "People come up to me, and I'm almost as excited and anxious as they are," he says. "But that's probably the best part, because I never expected it." In the world of Perfume Genius, the unexpected often leads to good fortune.