Published Jun 01, 2017Mike Hadreas was frustrated.
As work began on the followup to Too Bright, his 2014 breakthrough as Perfume Genius, he found himself sitting on a cache of dark and experimental songs. They struck the perfect tone for an artist who's built a career out of making his listeners uncomfortable. The singer and pianist unpacked a youth filled with drugs and depression on his earliest recordings, while Too Bright lashed out at anyone or anything that had ever made him feel lesser, with painful honesty. Yet his new compositions didn't sit right.
"The subject matter was disturbing," he recalls, but "I didn't feel disturbed."
He changed tack. In the past he feared overthinking his music, that the emotion was tied to its spontaneity and sparseness. So for once, he considered how the melody and the chords interacted with one another. He even wrote a bridge. The result was an uplifting celebration of love that was the closest thing to a pop song Hadreas has ever written. "That felt way more exciting to me." The song, "Slip Away," was the key that unlocked what would become No Shape, because it put Hadreas in new and uncomfortable territory.
Discomfort became an overriding theme in the creation of what is, ironically, Perfume Genius's most accessible album to date. "I like being nervous now, being scared," he says. "It means you really care. That you want it to be good." At each turn Hadreas abandoned previous habits and assumptions. His music, once dark and challenging, is now uplifting; once spontaneous, now well considered; once small and spare, now big and grand. "It usually ends up better if I just go for it and move out of my comfort zone," he says. "It's a weird zone to be in, because you never really end up being comfortable."
Forgoing comfort inevitably leads to self-doubt, something to which Hadreas freely admits he was not immune. "I didn't know if I could do it, I didn't know if it would be any good." He struggled with old preconceptions about what a song should or should not be, including his fear of adding "too much" to a recording. "I used to be really protective of the songs," he says. "They were supposed to be these really minimal spare things."
Hadreas says he made a conscious decision to ignore that fear, and instead lean on the instincts that had brought him this far in his career. "I thought, 'I'm smart enough and I'm good enough,'" he says, noting that, with modern studio techniques, if he doesn't like something, he can always just take it off the recording anyway.
Helping buoy that confidence was producer Blake Mills, known for his work with Alabama Shakes and John Legend. Hadreas knew the "soul or spirit" that he wanted his songs to embody, but he didn't know about their overall sound. In Mills, he found a creative partner and kindred spirit with the technical know-how to help him achieve his grand vision. Some songs are stripped down, others built up; none is immediately classifiable. "Neither of us are tied down to it being one overarching genre," he says. In particular he was drawn to Mills' ability to conjure sounds that were familiar and pleasing while simultaneously "fucked up and twisted," Hadreas offers. "He didn't mind having Bulgarian chanting and an electric guitar."
Hadreas's shift to crafting big pop songs was neither creative exercise nor canny career move. Rather, it was an act of extreme hubris. "I just decided to make an album that was so good and big that people didn't have a choice to like it." He wanted his songs to stand on their own, outside the context of his personal life. Hadreas has been extremely open about his experiences as a gay man living in America both on record and in interviews, to the point where it's hard to separate the music from the musician. Now, he wants his songs to stand on their own, outside the context of his personal life. To achieve that he figured he needed the scale of a Bruce Springsteen record, "dudes that give people these albums and everyone goes crazy for them and they don't ever ask them a bunch of questions about their family." To wit: "These are my versions of stadium anthems."
Yet No Shape once again mines Hadreas's life for inspiration — the album's final track, "Alan" is even named after his real life partner and musical collaborator Alan Wyffels. Hadreas says that music that comes from a "super emotional place" is what he looks for in his own listening and he "gets off" on exposing embarrassing thoughts and feelings, like "Run Me Through," on which he explores his attraction to a type of hyper-masculinity. "It's confusing," he admits. "I get resentful about talking about my home life. Well, maybe I shouldn't have made an album about it."
What he realized through his more purposeful attempts at songcraft, though, is that the emotional core of a song isn't necessarily cancelled out by its technical achievements, a realization that was "really badass to me," he says. He could write songs with the intention of capturing people's attention without sacrificing the personal connection that he, or potential listeners, might have. "I'm making these really big pop songs, but they're actually about something people would think is not very dramatic or is a really small moment and I'm dramatizing it or making it more spiritual or magical."
Whereas Too Bright's oft-quoted highlight "Queen" features the confrontational refrain "Don't you know your queen?" No Shape is a record of small moments, many pulled from the comfortable domesticity Hadreas and Wyffels have found together in suburban Seattle. But to Hadreas, lyrics that pull from the love shared by two openly gay men can be just as confrontational. Asked whether his pop-friendly structures are a vessel to Trojan Horse radical ideas into the mainstream, Hadreas answers with a simple, "Hell yeah."