Photo by John Lok / Seattle Times
Note: What doesn’t come across in Perfume Genius’ dark, stark songs or my article is his sense of humor. For the record, the interview for this piece included unexpected and enjoyable forays into such unserious topics as Garth Brooks’ forgotten alter-ego Chris Gaines, and that period in 1990 when Bo Jackson knew everything, according to a Nike ad campaign.
“Mr. Peterson” by Perfume Genius
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“Gay Angels” by Perfume Genius
Pity the singer-songwriter who tries to be shockingly confessional in 2010.
Remarkably, with harrowing tales of abuse and molestation that never once stoop to the level of general Twitter/Facebook oversharing, 28-year-old Seattle piano man Perfume Genius (Mike Hadreas) pulls off the feat on his debut album “Learning.”
His shaky-voiced, soft-fingered piano pop is some of the most hard-core music in Seattle right now, if you count “emotionally hard-core,” and possesses the too-close heat of art that was profoundly therapeutic for the artist to make.
“This desperation, this ball of fear I’ve always had: it’s another way to get it out,” he says.
“Learning” stands up to repeated listens because it’s edited and pared down to essentials that evoke more than they reveal, and like a Hitchcock movie, that just makes everything scarier.
Perfume Genius kicks off an American/European tour at the Crocodile Sept. 22.
The concert will be the last chance for Seattle to get to know one of its musicians who’s already more famous outside the city than in, and about to become more so.
Where other Seattle-area acts self-promote and toil endlessly around town in a real/imagined hierarchical farm system, hoping for a break — with many a dream ending in signing to famed downtown independent label Sub Pop, Perfume Genius was picked up by UK label Turnstile Records in 2009 and then New York City Sub Pop-equivalent Matador Records the same year. Much of his success is based on nothing more than word of mouth and a few streaming songs posted online at myspace.com/kewlmagik.
He says he feels like a jerk talking about his rise, and knows on the surface it might seem he achieved his friends’ dreams — many of whom are musicians — with none of their efforts. But that’s not right.
The song-stories on “Learning” (released June 2010) draw from a school of hard knocks at least as tough as getting ignored at open mics and stapling posters to telephone poles.
They’re autobiographical, inspired by a backlog of pain and suffering that goes back to Hadreas’ childhood in Kenmore, extends into his adolescence in Edmonds, and arcs into a substance-saturated post-adolescence in Brooklyn.
After three years in New York City, he got clean and moved back to the Northwest in 2006. In a creative fit of self-imposed earnestness,”Learning” bubbled up and poured out.
“Sometimes I don’t know if I’m exploiting a situation or am trying to be balanced and trying to find a bit of healing in it,” he says.
“Now that I know other people are going to listen to it, I’m thinking about that more. It’s been strange that it’s more public. I guess I never thought anybody would care enough to be offended.”
After sketching out “Learning,” Hadreas relapsed and lost a year.
Then he got clean again, and when he finished detoxing for a second time, the labels came calling.
He had a choice: Continue with the music, or …
He chose music, and is now living in that same earnest zone that made “Learning” possible, renting a place in Capitol Hill.
A recovering LiveJournal addict who spent years pouring crazed emotions online to no developmental return, Hadreas is wiser. His lyrics now resonate because of artful withholding and intentional attempts at universality, and he believes the effect they have on himself and others is karmically commensurate with how they came into the world.
But shock value is still part of the equation. Especially on “Mr. Peterson,” a song about a high-school teacher who makes sexual comments about Hadreas’ body, sees him after school, lets him do drugs in his truck, gives him a tape of British post-punk band Joy Division — and then, jumps off a building. The story is shocking in that its central relationship hints at statutory rape and ends in suicide. But it is softened by the closing lyric, where Hadreas takes it all very seriously, addresses the deceased Mr. Peterson with love in his heart, and admits he really can’t call it, final-resting-place-wise:
“I know you were ready to go / I hope there’s room for you up above / Or down below.”
The non-judgment puts the song in a gray area, which ends up making it even more unsettling.