Perfume Genius’s Latest Album Is His Biggest and Bravest Yet

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“I think I want a juice experience,” Mike Hadreas says to me as he looks over at the rainbow row of juices at the display counter of Café Henrie. “I’ve been trying to eat healthy which is very new for me.” Hadreas is sitting across from me wearing a tan sweater with a large open keyhole in the center, revealing a pale sliver of flesh — casualwear for the artist better known by his stage name Perfume Genius. He grew up with a conflicted relationship with his own body: He was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when he was 12, a chronic inflammatory bowel disease. He was the only openly gay student at his high school in the Seattle suburbs and was regularly bullied — once to the point where he was hospitalized — until he dropped out and moved to New York, where he finally found his tribe, other queer weirdos who made art and music. But it’s also where he fell into alcoholism and drug addiction, and it wasn’t until he moved back to Seattle and had some fits and starts in rehab that he finally got sober. When the waiter comes by to take our order, he gets a charcoal lemonade juice.

Hadreas is 35 now, but he still feels like he’s settling into adulthood and trying to figure out what it means to have a good, sustainable life. He’s sober. He pays his bills on time. He lives in a house in Tacoma, Washington, with his partner, Alan Wyffels, whom he met when he was in therapy. “I’m surprised every time we pay rent,” he says with a bit of wonder. “I’m like, Here’s rent. I’ve got all the money for rent. Let’s pay it. I’ve been doing it for like eight years.”

Whatever shyness he exhibits in person isn’t there in his music — at least not anymore. His fourth album, No Shape, continues the trajectory he began with Too Bright, and is filled with queer rock swagger. He’s more sure of himself, and willing to trust his artistry enough to let something fly and see where it lands. In this way, where his body has failed him, it surprises him too, as he can make music with the sonic daring of songs like “Queen” and the recently released single, “Slip Away.” Over lunch, we talk about how music takes him to a spiritual place, addiction and sobriety, Rihanna, and why he loves to see straight men cry.

When did you start writing your latest album?
I made this almost-pop song called “Slip Away” and it was exciting. Like, I thought about the bridge and the chorus. I’ve never really made anything that I could imagine as a song that was written with a band and we were all playing it together. It didn’t necessarily end up that way on the album; it has elements of it, but for some reason making this sonically uplifting, and my version of “poppier” music felt new. I felt like I could use that in an interesting way and it felt weirdly brave and weirdly more vulnerable than the other stuff I was doing. I felt like I was taking myself seriously as a musician, like I could make this big song with choruses and a bridge, and I knew I was going to end up using a lot of instrumentation. It formed how I thought about writing the rest of the music.

Do you feel like you’ll continue to push towards bigger sounds and more layers?
Yeah. You never know though. You always have this idea of how the next album is going to be and it ends up being so different, and I can be very rebellious too. This album, I knew I was writing an album. That first song I wrote almost had a Springsteen-like thing. So I’m like, Well, why don’t I make this big fucking album that usually dudely dudes make? So I tried to adopt some confidence and swagger of those dudes. I don’t know if that’s natural for them but it at least comes across as inherent to them.

There’s a spiritual quality to your music. Are you religious?
No, I think I’m spiritual, and I’ve always been sort of obsessed with religious music, but felt like it wasn’t really for me, like I was just listening in on something that I wasn’t included in. Same with most religion, to be honest. I’ve met a lot of deeply religious people that are very kind and accepting, but as a whole I didn’t really feel like I could just waltz in there.

So I like the idea of me making music that draws from that or even make my own version of hymns that are more inclusive. I like sacred music and it’s not always religious. But there’s a drama to it, too, that I just like. I like when people are singing about God and death and the Devil and like fucking big shit.

There can be a high camp quality to it.
Yeah, I think so. It depends on your mood. It can be bad. I can be shaking, because I think if I did go to church I easily could be the person where they touch me and I like fall over. I’m into all that.

Have you watched The OA?
Obsessed. I love it, and I cried. I remember when they did the dance in the cafeteria. It’s the first time I cried for that specific a thing in a long time. It was so magical and powerfully hopeful. It’s kind of like what we were talking about: They’re making their own magic. I loved it.

It reminded me of your music video “Dark Parts” that you did with your mom where you dance around the fire together. It felt like a communal act of healing, which is sort of how I see the movements in The OA.
Oh, that’s nice to hear. That’s a pretty gutsy show to make, because it’s really risky to go for it that hard. It could become hokey. I’m sure a lot of people just fucking hated that show. I’ve met some of those people, but then there’s people that really love it, like me. I think that’s really ballsy. I was trying to do something a little similar — to make something triumphant or warm. It can be received poorly or you can just not pull it off because it’s much harder than making something dark and disturbing. Even though I’m really into that, it’s in some ways easier to do.

“Dark Parts” [a song about the sexual abuse his mother survived] is about how we absorb the trauma of other people. How do you feel like we hold other people’s trauma?
I think everybody does whether they’re sensitive to it or not. There are times my family, where our problems, they were out, and dealing with them was very clear. But even before that, when I was young I could sense things in my family. I was too young to understand or to process, but I could still sense it. I felt like I started carrying it around with me early. My mom’s very brave and I’m telling the truth about what happened to her. It was a very brave thing even within her family. I guess I shouldn’t go into too many details of it, but surviving is not something people usually get rewarded for. And you don’t necessarily need a reward for it, but I wanted to give my mom one.

There’s so many twisted things that happen when you tell. I think whoever you tell, people see you as the thing you’re telling them, even though it happened to you. Somebody else did it. There’s so many twisted things that you end up carrying around with you. It’s a life’s work, you know what I mean? But it’s like a quiet personal thing. Being so close to my mom, I could feel that. I just start with my own shit I have to carry around and figure out and try to thrive within all of it.

There’s usually a big contrast between the lyrics of your songs and the visuals for your music videos, which can be funnier.
I think it’s a way to lend some levity to the songs that didn’t have it before, and also it’s a way to have both sides be there at the same time. When I’m writing, I’m pretty serious. I wink a little more on this album; it’s a little looser. I think maybe because there’s a lot of love songs. It’s not just a document of horrible things that happened to me in the past. Some of my other songs were just describing experiences that have already happened. These are more about things that are going on in my life right now. When I look at them they are very good, but I just necessarily don’t feel good, so I’m trying to.

I think queer people often feel that life is on the edge. Do you feel like there’s a sense that anything could be taken away? Especially given the current political climate.
I think queer people become self-aware so quick and so focused on how they appear, how they carry themselves, for good reason, because in order to stay safe you need to know everything that’s around you. But I think in parallel growing with that is a bunch of things that get neglected — pure joyous things that are perfectly fine, but you learn to be ashamed of. I think that they morph into dread and they morph into all these locked things on top of, you know, just getting beat up or things actually happening to you. It looms, and it was looming before the election. I was outraged at the election, but I wasn’t in shock, because maybe things were safer [before], but they were never safe.

It jostled people out of this dream state that they were in.
Yeah, it jostled me too, because a lot of things that I was very passionate about and thought about were a lot of things that directly affected me. I just maybe had more than some people to think about, but I think over the last few years I’ve become a lot better at looking beyond my own experiences and reading and listening. I think that that is what’s happening to some people too, hopefully.

Speaking of queerness and performance, I think your work “Queen” addresses that, because it’s joyful and defiant. How did you come to that piece?
A lot of it is when I started playing shows, I gained a lot of confidence and allowed myself to wear whatever I wanted — things that I wouldn’t have worn before I started making music. I painted my nails. I had always wanted to have painted nails, but for some reason I didn’t. I noticed how that changed my experiences outside of the house. I remember being at a gas station and people were actually seemingly afraid of me. I had my nails; I had a big white fur coat — faux fur. I actually kind of got off on them being scared of me. And I felt some weird power in it and I was like, Maybe that’s the flip of all this? What if I just fucking thought of it that way? It’s like weird shift in my brain and it felt very on the edge. It’s not a safe thrill, but it was thrilling. I think you get so sick of trying to change people’s minds or trying to make something that will guide them to acceptance. I was like, I just want to be here. And fuck everybody.

How do you feel about your time in New York? Do the years you spent here feel very distant to you?
They were necessary and a lot of fun, for a while. I’m not against drinking; I’m not even against drugs. I just can’t do them anymore. But I met so many people, so many weirdos. I didn’t feel like an outcast as much and drinking helped me loosen up and talk and dance. It was really fun for a while. I just have something in me, [and] eventually it was just about that. Not about friendship. I mean, I’ve been sober for a long time, but that really never goes away. I’m an addictive person. I’m not necessarily very centered; I’m always seeking comfort, seeking something to make me feel different than how I do. It doesn’t even matter if it’s better or worse, I just want to feel different most of the time. I’ve become a little more peaceful, but that’s not fully gone away. That’s how I know I can’t go back and have it be different because drinking works. It quiets that voice in my head. Drugs ramp it up, but you love it. I don’t imagine it’s any different now. I can’t imagine me just having like a drink. I did that all the time: I would have periods of a few months sober and then, I’m just going to have some weird cucumber drink, because that’s, like, adult. That’s like a normal person thing, and it never worked.

What made it stick?
It got bad, but it was still fairly social, and then I got home and I actually went to rehab and then started drinking again, doing drugs again, and eventually I just realized that I was always doing it. I couldn’t fool myself that this was a social experience. Like, I was just in the basement for like three days. It’s very clear, and I also just couldn’t stop. I always ended up that way, no matter what, and in the moment I didn’t care if I ever came out of it. And you wake up and you’re like, How could I be so close to essentially dying and not care? But then I would do that again. So you do that enough and are like, I have to. I have to figure this out. And you can’t figure out by like, I’ll only do a little bit of cocaine, but I’ll do yoga.

Some people fetishize drug use with creativity.
I can see where they’re coming from but I didn’t make anything. I have not written or painted or done a single thing when I was fucked up. Definitely felt like I could, felt like I had a million ideas, but I never committed, never did anything when I was high. That’s the same as how people think you need some sort of depression to be creative, but it’s very different than sadness. I think nothing comes from depression. Depression itself is like a void, but sadness, a lot of things can come from. You can be attentive and still have moments of sadness.

I really like the last lines of “Alan”: “I’m here. It’s weird.” Can you talk about that feeling?
The song’s called “Alan” but it’s about me. It’s thinking about how I’m kind of reliable. If Alan needed my help, I’d be there and vice versa. It’s such a weird thing and neither of us would’ve described ourselves as being reliable, trustworthy, safe people. We’ve had long periods where we were fairly toxic, and have been with each other so long. It’s a really beautiful thing, but still very strange that I’m surprised every time we pay rent. I’m like, Here’s rent. I’ve got all the money for rent. Let’s pay it. I’ve been doing it for like eight years.

I thought a lot about Sylvia Plath, particularly in your earlier work. Was she an influence?
Yeah, I identified with a lot of confessional poetry. I think there are certain groups that hate that kind of poetry and don’t even consider it poetry. And I think it’s actually kind of sexist.

No question.
I identify with it and I understand all the strength and power. There’s this poet named Sharon Olds, I sing one of her songs on the second album. I don’t know a lot about poetry, I just know good things that I like. I read a lot of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton and lots of confessional poetry growing up.

Do you see yourself as writing poetry?
In some ways, I do. I just read trash now, but I used to read a lot of short stories. I just loved short stories and I think of my songs in that way. They have a tendency to be so short. I like how short stories can be perfect because they don’t go on for too long. I was very paranoid about that in my music, like I just want to tell it and then stop. A lot of music felt to me like you tell the story and then you repeat a couple times. I think I do that now but I will just tell like three different ones all in one song.

There’s something very economical about your writing.
I love using really simple language and very few words, but I like being really weirdly, almost mathematical about it — very thoughtful about how they’re placed. Maybe people won’t even notice or it doesn’t come across but I also just feel very smart while I’m doing it. I feel very smart when I make music in a way that I don’t otherwise.

I know you love pop music. Who are you inspired by?
Rihanna, number one. I love Beyoncé too, but Beyoncé to me is like God or something. Rihanna, I don’t really know what it is. I just love her so much. Just how bad she is, but it’s very clear that she’s not a normal person, because she’s Rihanna. As I’ve been doing this, I’ve noticed how differently I feel compared to when I go onstage. I see that in her but she’s just so incredibly, insanely good at it — every single moment, clothes … everything she does. All she really did the whole performance was take her glasses off, and when she took them off, I was shaking. I had to go outside and take a deep breath afterwards. And all she did was take a pair of glasses off. I feel like I’m just trying all the time, and I’m sure she tries but it certainly doesn’t seem like it. That’s just overwhelmingly hot and awesome to me.

Do you feel like you’re in a place where you feel solid in your body? In your gender performance?
I’m a little more thoughtful about it now, because I never want any of it to be draggy. I love drag but most of the time when I wear women’s clothes it’s just because I think that’s what looks nice. It becomes a decision when I leave the house but it’s not a drag-like thing.

You’re thinking of things in terms of their formal properties rather than just gender.
Yeah, what I have noticed is people are allowed to play with gender or whatever bullshit headline-y thing, as long as they prescribe to a very specific one, and they’re straight. It’s like exciting and hot and edgy as long as it’s a straight man doing it. It’s so bizarre to me. And then when I do it, it’s not play and it’s very natural. I find that very strange.

Well, it’s not giving credit where credit is due to queer people.
I think so too. But I’m still into it when they do it, can’t help myself. Like a straight man in a heel. Super hot to me.

[Laughs.]
It is! Anything where a straight dude is in fishnets — love it. Or when men cry on TV, I almost get excited. I don’t know why. I was watching Big Brother or some awful reality show and this guy that’s pretty attractive started crying, I was like, Ooh, I’m into it.

Do you see silliness in your work?
It comes from the same place as all the music, it’s just a different defense for processing everything. I kind of get off on how unfunny making music is. I get off on how serious the music is. I’m very dramatic about it. It feels more serious and I like that. My daily life is kind of spent making fun of everything, but I need to be able to get it out in a different way and seeing the funny flip side of everything doesn’t always work 100 percent of the time. It works a lot of the time.

Your first album felt like you were writing notes to yourself. Is there a person you have in mind when you’re writing, like a younger version of yourself?
It kind of is, to be honest. There’s this part in your life where you’re clearly guided by what you like. And then, all those videos of kids that have made their outfits out of sheets like that kid dancing to Madonna and voguing. And you know in a couple years, he’s going to be a different person. He’s going to be more tense — maybe carrying himself differently. Everyone’s going to try to get him to tamp down that magic. I think I wanted to see if I can prolong that, if someone heard it that maybe [it would] help prolong the inevitable of going back into crisis mode. I think about that more than anything when I’m writing.

You want to extend the magic of youth and not be bound by all these ideas about how you should act or how you should behave.
Or even being old and trying to take some of that back for yourself. And that’s kind of what I feel like I’m doing, is trying to take back a little bit of this time where I trusted myself and thought of everything in such a magical, kinder way — not without recognizing how horrible everything is outside — but just getting some of that back.

Death hovers in your work, particularly early on. Do you think of it as survivalist music? Does it give you an understanding of how to live in the world?
Yeah, to exist. And I don’t know why that feels like such a struggle to just be, but it does. I say body like a million times in every single album. I got diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when I was 12, so I grew up with this really weird knowledge that my body doesn’t do what you want it to or what you say, and it doesn’t matter how well you take care of it. It can betray you. I’ve had surgeries that essentially removed the disease and then it just comes back. So that combined with the weird self-awareness that we were talking about, I’m almost detached from my face and body, but very very vain and obsessed at the same time. It’s such an easy place to put all my anxieties. If I feel terrible then I can just put it on something physical. It’s so much easier to process. But I mean death — I guess I so badly crave peace, and crave just my brain shutting off all the bullshit that I know I’ve learned or chemical imbalance or whatever. I want to just be. I want to be floating around and have time be circular and be connected to everything. I would like to have some of my memories though, because I want to be aware. But for the most part, I feel limited by my body and brain and I don’t really see that going away without some supernatural stuff like dying or aliens. What else could do it? Ghosts.

Do you think music is a way to transcend the body?
Yeah, that’s the kind of drama that I’m always talking about — why it feels spiritual. It’s this static thing where I really only ever have that feeling when I was using drugs and drinking, but I get it now in a much more sacred and powerful way when I’m making music. Also because I do things that are very surprising. Sometimes the body does bad things that are surprising, but this is like I’m singing notes that I didn’t know I could sing. I’m making something so beautiful. How did that happen? How did I do that?

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Perfume Genius on His Biggest Album, Queerness, and Rihanna