Presentation & Body Narcissism: A Conversation with Perfume Genius

Mike Hadreas is nervous.

That’s not exactly new for the Tacoma, Washington-based artist, better known by most as Perfume Genius, but this week is a little different. On Friday he’ll have released his fourth studio album, No Shape, and embark on a long tour in support of it. Though, for him, when things get busy is when he can exhale.

“I get really freaked out and worried, and sort of obsessive until everything starts happening and then I’m fine,” he tells me over the phone from his home one Tuesday morning. “I have a lot more time to worry. I just want it all to go so well.”

Much like his music, my conversation with Mike got very deep, very quickly. For anyone, by the fourth album, much of the innocence and naivety is naturally gone. In exchange, success becomes quantifiable and doubt begins to creep in. For Perfume Genius, whose music is built on unsure, anxious rock, it’s fitting that once success and approval is here, old habits would stick around.

“All this worrying is just wiring. It’s a chemical thing. There’s nothing really to be upset about. There’s nothing really to worry about. And when it comes time to do things, I kinda go with my gut and I’m proud of them. It’s just this in between. I don’t know how to just chill out and let myself be.”

With 2014’s release of Too Bright, Perfume Genius skyrocketed to critical acclaim. Metacritic, a critic-aggregator a la Rotten Tomatoes, goes as far as to anoint it with its highly coveted “universal acclaim” label, and for a queer solo singer-songwriter that’s a big deal. For anyone, that’s a big deal. Though through his sound, lyrics, and accompanying visuals, the anxieties that come with dissatisfaction with one’s body, abilities, and own emotions play a huge role in his discography and is beautifully conveyed. Though with No Shape, confidence may be within reach.

Photo by Inez & Vinoodh

Photo by Inez & Vinoodh

“To be honest, I’m not worried about the music at all," he says, assured. Despite his anxieties about the release of No Shape, he’s confident in the album itself, as he should be. The album was produced by none other than Blake Mills. An excellent songwriter in his own right, Mills has found success producing for artists like Alabama Shakes, Jim James, Dawes, and John Legend.  

When listening to the record, and for those familiar with both Perfume Genius’ and Blake Mills’ previous works, it very much sounds abrasive and jarring, but nonetheless a symphonic and melodic experience. It’s a clashing, match-made-in-heaven that elevates Perfume Genius and reaches new heights.

“That was a really exciting thing. He’s just technically really brilliant but also connected to the spirit and, like, the soul of the song. I really trusted that he knew. Even though I wasn’t really attached when I went into the studio what the sound would be, I was very attached to the moods. I just trusted him.”

Even with Mills’ talent and Hadreas’ sensitive songwriting, the anxiousness persists.

"I just want it all to go so well."

“When I don’t have a performance or something to do, where does all the energy go? I don’t know. But I just, like, just look for boots. [Laughs] Maybe if I find the perfect boot, that will help! I don’t know! I need somewhere for all the energy to go.”

Where does Mike find relief? In touring. “I’m excited-I’m sorry- I’m kind of emotional. I’m excited to tour because that gives me like, a routine.” Then, when he’s nervous he just puts all the energy in the show.

Hadreas and the rest of Perfume Genius perform at Terminal West in Atlanta on May 20th. And although he has not spent too much time in Atlanta, he’s excited about the prospect of exploring the city more, especially during the queer comeuppance the town is going through at the moment.

Much like Hadreas, Atlanta strives towards okay-ness, and often times we exceed the mark.  There’s a common goal in creative success of not-so-much New York or LA mega-success but acceptance and contentment in the diverse endeavors its citizens pursue.  

Photo by Inez & Vinoodh

Photo by Inez & Vinoodh

Mike doesn’t do it alone, though. Throughout his career, Hadreas has had partner Alan Wyffels supporting him both on and off stage. They’ve been together eight years. Also supporting him on the tour with is serpentwithfeet, a striking queer, black artist who would be unjustly described if I tried to, so just google them.

One common talking point in Perfume Genius’ music and for queer people in general is the constant struggle with our bodies. It’s no accident WUSSY’s first volume was devoted entirely to the subject.  It’s a universal topic, and No Shape explores the foundation of this discomfort with our bodies.

"Intellectually, I can distance myself from it, but it’s in my bones… When I’m singing and performing, that’s when I can let it go."

“Sometimes I try to think of the root of it. Like, how did this happen to me, that I have all this mess around me? That I feel so detached and weird about such physical shit?” Hadreas ponders. “But I think it’s because around 11 or 12 was when everyone started to look at me different. Everybody started giving me shit for what they decided was like, my femininity or whatever. So became very self-aware, really conscious with how I carried myself, how I appeared to people. My whole life kind of was guided by that. It’s what I needed to do survive.”

“It was a defense, and I think that twisted into this weird body narcissism thing, cause it’s not nice, but it’s like a constant weird awareness that feels pointless and it hasn’t served me well.” While he acknowledges that maybe it’s a less necessary defense mechanism now than when he was growing up, it’s still very hard to shake. “Intellectually, I can distance myself from it, but it’s in my bones… When I’m singing and performing, that’s when I can let it go.”

Perfume Genius is the vehicle in which Hadreas can vent out these complex emotions, and the fans are more so support members of a universal condition everyone faces. Songwriting, performing, fashion, art is meant to connect humans and find commonality in spite of all the issues we face.

Does the freedom that comes with success come with a cost, though? Now that there aren’t bullies and nay-sayers directly interfering with Hadreas’ life and career, does deciding how to dress, act, and present oneself to the world become more of a chore than a survival skill? Does it become a performance once again? He doesn’t think so.

“It’s more for you now,” he retorts. “It becomes more defiant or, you can throw it back at whoever you decide was paying attention that wasn’t before [laughs]. I was thinking people were paying attention to me but sometimes they weren’t. I can use it as fuel now. On a good day.”

Perfume Genius performs at Terminal West May 20th. Tickets are on sale now.
No Shape is now available for streaming and purchase.