Concert preview: Perfume Genius makes a different kind of body music on Too Bright

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

On Too Bright, Mike Hadreas’ third full-length released under the Perfume Genius moniker, the Seattle-based singer-songwriter makes repeated references to the human body. Over the course of the album’s 11 tracks he alternately describes it as a prison (“I’m trapped in this body”), a decaying corpse (“I wear my body like a rotted peach”) and a dangerously fragile vessel harboring the most vital of organs (“There’s no safe place for the heart to hang/ When the body’s no good”).

“I didn’t realize until after [recording] how many times I say the word body,” said Hadreas, who visits the Wexner Center for a concert on Monday, March 16, in an early March phone interview. “I’ve talked about a lot of shit in my songs, and I’ve been through a lot in my life, so body stuff is sort of the last thing. As I’m getting older I’m genuinely thinking about my health more. My body is something I should take care of if I want to keep doing this.”

Several months ago the musician even quit smoking, utilizing an electronic cigarette to help wean himself off tobacco (“It’s this steam punk machine with this giant tank I squirt juice into, which is so awful and demoralizing. But it’s better for you than smoking cigarettes, or at least that’s what they say,” he said). The effects have been immediate, and Hadreas said he can already tell he’s breathing better and singing with renewed power.

While health concerns have only recently started to shape his behavior, Hadreas grew up with a unique understanding of the body and the various ways it can fail. As a child, he was misdiagnosed with celiac disease, which, after several difficult years, was finally pinned as Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disorder that can cause severe abdominal pain, among other complications.

“A chronic illness like that gives you a weird relationship with your body, because your body is betraying you and not acting the way you want it to,” he said. “You become detached to it. It’s still something I don’t get. If I could be a floating face that’s something I’d be into. Or just eyes. Or smoke.”

Early on, this learned fragility frequently bled into Hadreas’ music. The first two Perfume Genius albums are dominated by heartrending piano ballads so delicate they threaten to shatter at the slightest touch. With Too Bright, however, the musician branched out, venturing from the buzzing, industrial thrum of the creep-inducing “My Body” to the formless, amoeba-like ambient explorations of “I’m a Mother.”

“Traditionally, I would start out sitting at the piano and write out all the lyrics. But on this album I was experimenting more with instrumentation and how high I could sing and loud I could sing, and those experiments are what shaped the songs,” Hadreas said. “A lot of it is just going for it. I was terrified to sing and scream. I didn’t know if I could write music that way, but I tried anyway. There’s something really freeing and really confidence building about that. Everything in my life that is good came from me forcing myself to be uncomfortable and do things that freak me out.”

Initially, Hadreas attempted to reign in these more experimental urges, investing months writing comparatively tame, pop-oriented songs at the urging of various friends and associates, all of whom felt he could reach a larger audience if he adopted a less explicit, more universal approach.

“I started out originally not trying to lose all my integrity, but maybe just a hint of it, I guess, to make some songs,” he said. “It was very frustrating, and it was months of that, where I really labored over the words and everything. Then one day I just said, ‘Fuck it,’ and flipped everything. I guess it was kind of dramatic, but essentially it was, ‘I’m going to write a song just for me and I’m going to do whatever the hell I want.’ And that one little exercise was infinitely more interesting and exciting than all the other stuff I worked on. So I just scrapped everything and went a different direction.”

This newfound confidence surfaces repeatedly on “Too Bright,” revealing itself in everything from the chest-out declarations of liberated gay anthem “Queen” (“No family’s safe when I sashay”) to the comparatively toned-down musings of the closer “All Along,” where Hadreas sings, “I don't need you to understand/ I need you to listen.”

“And that’s what I want,” he said. “I’m just sick of all the bullshit that blocks me from saying what I want to say and being what I want to be and feeling the way I want to feel.

“Before I released all this music I felt like it could go any direction. I thought people could completely fucking trash it or be really into it. But right before it came out I was like, ‘You know what? I really like these songs, and whatever happens I’m proud of them.’ It was the first time I really felt like that. And that was a really important feeling.”

Luke Gilford photos

Wexner Center for the Arts

8 p.m. Monday, March 16

1871 N. High St., Campus