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Perfume Genius channels trauma from being bullied into inspiration for his music

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Mike Hadreas, better known by his stage name Perfume Genius, performs at The Broad on Friday, June 24.
Courtesy of Matador Records
Mike Hadreas, better known by his stage name Perfume Genius, performs at The Broad on Saturday, June 25.

The Seattle based artist Mike Hadreas will be performing at The Broad's Nonobject(ive): Summer Happenings event on Friday, June 24.

Seattle-based musician Mike Hadreas, better known by his stage name, Perfume Genius is not afraid to express his queer identity in his music.

In his lyrics, he addresses issues that young gay men face, and he wears high heels and women’s clothing in his music videos.

When Hadreas joined us on The Frame, he talked about the challenges and bullying he faced while defining his identity, and how he's able to constantly learn from his own songs.

Interview Highlights:

The opening line of "Hood" is "You would never call me baby / If you knew me truly." What was the mood in which you were writing this song, and how specific do you want to get in terms of what you're referring to?

Oh, you know. [laughs] I wrote most of that album when I was in a new relationship and had fallen in love and stuff, but that comes with its own weird set of insecurities coming to light. I know what it's like to be depressed and alone, as awful as that is [laughs].

I understand what's going on, but to be depressed with someone else that was new? That song's about how I could feel the love from my boyfriend, but I felt like he still didn't fully know me. And if he did, he would feel differently.

How much of that idea of who you are is formed by other people as opposed to your own self?

Oh god, too much. [laughs] It depends on when you learn that you're different, if you are, and I learned that pretty quick. Then you become pretty self-aware, I started becoming more aware of how I was holding myself, what I sounded like when I talked — I could get made fun of, beat up, whatever. Essentially, all the things I write about are all the things I was made fun of for in high school. People think it's badass when I wear heels on stage, but they didn't think that in middle school.

What happened when people were bullying you?

All kinds of things happened — slammed against a Pepsi machine, I remember that vividly. But it was not as physical; I got a letter signed from the heterosexual population of my high school once, telling me that if I didn't stop "sucking d**k," that they wouldn't treat me like a human being. [laughs] That was a pretty clear letter, and just weird stuff like that?

What does the school do when you show them a letter like that or say that you're getting harassed?

They don't do anything, and I realized really quickly that I could get out of class if I printed these letters out and showed them to the police or the teacher or whatever, but as far as anything serious beyond looking the other way when I don't come to school, nothing really happened.

I think, like a lot of people, adolescence is hard and you're trying to figure out who you are as a person. But as you're trying to figure those things out and become your true self, is there a parallel development in becoming your true self as an artist?

I think so. I didn't go to college, I don't have a degree, so my music, if I want it to sustain me, I need to make money. A lot of people are not going to purchase music from a dude wearing heels and stuff like that when he's singing, so I do think about those things. In the beginning of writing, I start thinking, Maybe I should try to write something that will be on "Grey's Anatomy." [laughs]

Some sort of ballad over the end titles?

Yeah, I mean, I just think about it. But I always end up making something really not commercial, and strange, and even more alienating to basic people. [laughs]

Alienating to basic people — that could be the title of your next album. [laughs] I want to play another song, this one's from your last album and it's called "Queen." There's a confidence, a pride, and a self-awareness in this song that's really remarkable. It's basically telling other people, "This is who I am, and if you don't like it, get out of the way."

Yeah. It's a projection too, but the more I sing it, the more I keep some of it for my actual self as opposed to me on stage.

Meaning you can actually learn from your own songs?

Yeah! My music is like that for me. I try to make songs that are difficult for me to sing or hard to do live, or maybe the lyrics still make me uncomfortable, but eventually it all becomes second nature. Then it becomes more for other people.

 Perfume Genius will be performing at The Broad museum this Saturday for an event titled “Nonobjective: Summer Happenings.

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