Perfume Genius On Why He Needed 'The Drama of Being Isolated' to Write 'No Shape'
Perfume Genius has the voice of what very well might be an angel’s (he even has a song called “Gay Angels” on his 2010 debut Learning), he knows his way around a keyboard and his style, which is at times boyish, at times feminine and at other times entirely genderless, is undeniably his own. All of his strengths come together on his fourth album, No Shape, out today (May 5) on Matador.
The album is Seattle based solo-artist Mike Hadreas’ most developed to date, as illustrated on opening track “Otherside.” The song starts off true-to-form, with an arrangement that sees Hadreas’ vocals float over a lone piano, though at the 1:10 mark listeners are hit with an unexpected and awakening sonic burst of chimes and choral-like harmonies.
“When I was writing I didn’t want all [the songs] to be based on the piano, but that’s the only instrument I can play -- that and synths,” Hadreas tells Billboard. “I wanted [the songs] to be centered on guitar or whatever else we could do in the studio, so I wrote with that mind.”
Hadreas explains that he can't just write in between tours, and rather needs a lengthy stretch of time “where I can have the drama of being isolated.” He wrote No Shape in the room next to his bedroom at home (while 13 songs appear on the tracklist, he wrote about 30), which has nothing more than a piano, a bunch of clothes and a rowing machine in it. “To be honest, there’s nothing inspiring in there,” he says. “Besides me.”
That drama is heard not only in the vulnerable lyrics -- such as when he pleads, “Don't look back, I want to break free/ If you'll never see 'em coming/ You'll never have to hide,” on “Slip Away” or when he wistfully raises rhetorical questions like “How long must we live right/ Before we don't even have to try?” on “Valley” -- but in the production as well. In order to provide the proper canvas for his lyrical dramas, Hadreas enlisted producer Blake Mills (Alabama Shakes, John Legend, Conor Oberst), who he calls “technically brilliant.” The singer-songwriter says that upon being sent the album's demos, Mills "wrote pages of notes, and was really connected to the spirit of the songs.”
Considering the more barren approach Hadreas has taken in the past, primarily on his first two albums -- his third, 2014’s Too Bright, dipped its toes in thicker production, best heard on his fiercely anthemic breakout hit “Queen” -- he says he had to push himself in the studio, and learned the importance of stepping back. “There were times where [Mills] would get inspired and I’d have no idea what he was doing, but I would wait a half-hour and it would all click.”
Aside from Mills, Hadreas’ boyfriend Alan Wyffels also contributed in the studio to the album’s inherent magic (the two met through mutual friends) as he plays Wurlitzer and piano on a few songs, and also sings on “Die 4 You” and “Wreath.” Outside of the studio, though, his partner's influence proves even stronger; the album’s closing track, “Alan,” is of course a dedication and appreciation of sorts to Wyffels. “I played it for him right after I had written it, but I didn’t tell him I was going to name it after him,” Hadreas confesses. “The song is about us, so it’s partly his song, too. We’re around each other 24 hours a day, but we don’t ever sit down and just say, ‘You’re amazing.’”
Hadreas hopes that same sense of value and worthiness radiates onto his live audience -- a message he feels is especially important considering recent political and cultural events. “A lot of people I know never felt safe, and for sure, 100 percent, do not now,” he says. “I feel like my shows have always been a place where people can wear and be and seem however they want, and it’s a heartening event.”
Compared to his previous three albums, No Shape takes a more personal approach, which comes from Hadreas' conscious effort to live in the moment. "I’m always 20 minutes ahead of myself in my head," he says. "But being present," -- as he so clearly is on the album -- "it’s beautiful when it happens."