March 14 2012 01:34 PM

Songwriter broaches taboo topics with a touch of optimism

Perfume Genius' Mike Hadreas often reflects on his sexuality.
Photo by Angel Ceballos

Mike Hadreas, the man behind Perfume Genius, unexpectedly became the subject of a strange YouTube controversy recently. In advance of his new album, Put Your Back N 2 It, the openly gay singer-songwriter released a video for the song “Hood,” in which porn star Arpad Miklos puts makeup on him and the two end in a shirtless, but nonsexual, embrace.

That two-minute video sparked no objections from the site, but YouTube rejected a 16-second advertisement for the album featuring some brief snippets of footage from the video. The reason? “Promoting mature sexual themes.” Hadreas hasn’t attempted to re-submit the ad yet, but he says he’s a little baffled.

“They didn’t care for [the video] because there are two dudes in it, and they’re pretty close together,” he says by phone from his home in Seattle. “I think it’s ridiculous. I haven’t heard back from them or anything, because I didn’t go directly to YouTube. But it kind of made me think, How could I make something even more upsetting and have it pass through?”

Hadreas may not have anticipated that kerfuffle, but he’s no stranger to taboo issues. In the heartbreaking ballad “Mr. Petersen,” from his first album, 2010’s Learning, he sings about a high-school teacher who commits suicide after having an affair with one of his students. Put Your Back N 2 It also has its moments of discomfort and personal anguish, albeit delivered in more cryptic terms. On “Dark Parts,” a song Hadreas said is about his mother, he sings, “The hands of God are bigger than Grandpa’s eyes / but still he broke the elastic on your waist.”

Hadreas, 30, started Perfume Genius after attending film school at New York University. He eventually dropped out and began an intense period of drug consumption that lasted several months. He eventually retreated to his mother’s house in Washington to get clean and find a new direction. After a few weeks, he began writing and recording songs with little more than a cheap microphone and a piano.

His autobiographical songs often reflect on his sexuality. He subtly addresses his self-consciousness in “All Waters,” the song playing underneath the rejected YouTube clip. And “17,” while written in abstract terms, was sort of intended as Hadreas’ contribution to the “It Gets Better” campaign, a signal to gay teenagers that there are others who share their experience.

But while Put Your Back N 2 It can be somber and uncomfortable, it also shows optimism and hope. Hadreas sounds as inspirational as ever on the gentle opening track, “Normal Song,” as he croons, “No memory, no matter how sad / And no violence, no matter how bad / Can darken the heart, or tear it apart.” Though he tries to find a balance between darker and more hopeful elements, he admits he often tends toward pessimism.

“It’s really important when I’m making music, because I forget to have a balance in my daily life,” he says. “But when I sit down to make something, I don’t want to come from that place. It just feels more real for me to try to be compassionate about the experiences that I’m talking about. Nothing is ever broken 100 percent, even though I feel that it is sometimes.”

In contrast to his stripped-down debut, Hadreas’ latest is the product of a professional studio session with more fleshed-out arrangements featuring instrumentation from producer Drew Morgan and frequent PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish. Initially, Hadreas found it to be a little intimidating and grew concerned that, he says, “it was going to be very business-y, and that they were going to want to slap a bunch of crap on it.” But the sessions helped bring out soul and gospel influences.

“A lot of old soul music that’s really simple but impassioned—I wanted to make music that had that same feel, but with things that I hadn’t heard a song about yet,” he says. “I like to write music that sounds spiritual or classic, but for other weird kids like me.”

In 2010, Hadreas had yet to perform live, and it took him a while to overcome his initial stage fright. But now, with more experience under his belt, he’s gained confidence and is focusing more on his live performance.

“If I have it my way, sometimes I just break everything down to just me singing and piano,” he says. “And you know, I would be fine sitting through 45 minutes of that. But that’s not really fair to other people. So I think more about how to flow back and forth between quiet and loud.… Well, a quiet loud.

“I’m thinking more like a legitimate musician now.”

Perfume Genius plays with Parenthetical Girls and Ko Ko at The Casbah on Friday, March 23.