There’s really only one way to listen to Learning, the debut album by Perfume Genius – close the door and shut the curtains, turn off the lights and crawl beneath the duvet, shut your eyes and think about everyone you’ve loved and lost, about all the members of your family who have died, about all the plans and dreams you had as a kid that never came true.

Because it’s that sense of forlorn nostalgia and abject sadness – the lacunae in our lives, rather than the things that make us whole and happy – that pervades its ten brittle, fragile songs. Even in daylight, its haunted and haunting, heartbroken and heartbreaking power is ineluctable.

Unsurprisingly, there’s quite a story behind it. After becoming heavily involved with drink and drugs, Mike Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius, moved back from New York to his mother’s house near Seattle to find himself again. It was there that the ten songs that form his album took shape and were recorded as a cathartic reflection of everything he’d recently been through.

“I was in a better place than I’d been for a while,” he explains. “I think if I was really entrenched in a lot of the things I was going through I wouldn’t do anything. I mean, when you’re that depressed, you don’t get out of bed, let alone write a song. So I guess I was feeling better. I had perspective on everything that had happened to me. I was still really close to all the feelings and everything, but I was able to get out of them long enough to write something clear and authentic.”

As bleak (and beautiful) as the album is, and as difficult as the circumstances were that inspired it, Hadreas is a surprisingly cheery conversationalist. His responses are careful and considered and infused, sporadically, with humour and laughter. In fact, the man talking bears little resemblance to the fragile, tortured soul that haunts his album, who sounds like he’s going to break and fall apart and dissolve into dust at any given moment.

“I’m not all cheery,” he chuckles, “but I do my best. I don’t carry all that shit around with me. I wouldn’t want to fucking hang out with someone who did that all day! But there’s a…I don’t know.” He trails off, either lost for words or lost in thought, not wanting to summon the darkness that has previously claimed him by thinking about it too much.
Still, considering the abject lows he’s been through – and just listening to Learning gives you a clear idea of where they were and what they were like – it seems that Hadreas is doing incredibly well. But does playing the songs live bring back those times and experiences, forcing him to relive them? Or can he play them and enjoy them now?
“I guess it’s a bit of both,” he ponders. “I don’t want to be dramatic and say that I puke or cry and stuff every time I play them, but sometimes that’s true.” He laughs. Clearly, he’s spent a lot of time working things out in his head. He’s aware of the trap he fell into before – the spiralling drink and drug abuse – and is doing his best to avoid it, and concentrate on his music. It is, in a way, a new addiction that serves as therapy for his old ones.

“Drugs are what took me down really quick,” he explains, “but booze was basically my foot in the door to get all that shit. As soon as I have a sip, I’m obsessed with drugs, so eventually I learned to cut out that first drink altogether. It’s only been, like, I don’t know, a year and a half since I started getting my shit together. I’m still learning how to do that, and then on top of that, trying to do this at the same time. I have faith that it’ll all work out, but there are ups and downs. When I wrote all the songs, I was sober, but after that I wasn’t. It didn’t take me long to get back to an even worse point than I’d been in previously. But I’ve been clean for about a year now. And I’ve realised that I’m capable of pretty much anything, just like anyone else. For a long time I thought that I didn’t fit in and that I was incapable of doing things that normal people can. But I’m singing in front of people, you know. I’m able to do that.”

See Patrick Sher’s video of the shoot here

This article was first published in Wonderland #24, November/December 2010

Photography: Daniel King
Words: Mischa Pearlman