At 25, Mike Hadreas wrote his first song, Learning. It is delicate and haunting, but for Mike, the vulnerability it unearthed became his superpower. Listen as he shares what led him to music and the song that started it all.
Mike: The music allowed me to kind of be however I wanted. I kind of felt like I was sort of apologizing for myself my whole life and how I was, how I looked, how I seemed. I couldn't even really stop to think about how I would want to do any of those things. Or how do I walk? Or how do I talk? Or anything.
Shirley: Mike Hadreas performs under the name of Perfume Genius. Since his debut album, 2010's Learning, he's been making dividing celestial sounding records with what appears to be great regularity and irritating ease, but Mike was a late start at music who ultimately find his own distinctive voice as a necessity of his own survival. I sat down with him to discuss his evolution as a musician and the specific song that got him started on his critically acclaimed career.
Shirley: The jump is a podcast where I, Shirley Ann Manson, sit down with musicians and talk about the one song that changed everything.
Shirley: Well, how do you do?
Mike: Good. How do you do?
Shirley: I do well, thank you for asking. I'm so thrilled to have you here, as you know, because I stalked you on social media over the years. And your Twitter account, I have to say, is something that uplifts me almost on a daily basis. You're very funny on Twitter.
Mike: Oh, thank you. Twitter is like the one for me. For some reason Instagram, I never have like ideas for it or like an urge.
Shirley: Yeah, you're very good at it, I have to say. It makes me laugh out loud often.
Shirley: It's weird being a musician in this day and age, though. Don't you think?
Mike: Yeah, it's really weird. I mean, I don't have anything to compare it to, but … Shirley: Well, let's talk about a few of the weirdnesses.
Shirley: What do you find weird?
Mike: I guess that I feel, at least, pressure to have a bunch of content all over the place and have it all be like a brand, I guess.
Mike: I'm not very good at that so …
Shirley: I don't know if that's true.
Mike: Well, I'm good at it in, like, capsule form. I'm really into making the world for my record, but then like representing that like on Twitter and stuff, I don't know.
Shirley: So I was asking you when you first came in, I didn't know where you ... I mean, you hailed from Seattle and you're living here in Los Angeles currently.
Shirley: Is this something you expected is to become a famous musician and moved to LA and live out your dreams here?
Mike: Oh, no.
Shirley: What did you expect? Mike: I mean, I didn't start making music until I was 25, and then once I started making it I didn't think this was going to be a career or anything.
Shirley: So what were you doing before you were 25?
Mike: I was working at essentially like a Walmart. I was making keys and mixing paint.
Shirley: But you had no ambitions or desire to be a musician?
Mike: I wanted to be like an artist.
Mike: I thought for a while I was going to be a writer. I went to school for painting, but I thought somehow it would just happen to me without actually doing anything. And what I did do was just like drink for like 15 years.
Shirley: Do you still drink?
Mike: I don't. I went to rehab, and when I got out of rehab and went home and lived with my mom, about a month later I wrote my first song.
Shirley: Which is the song you've chosen to examine today.
Mike: It's called Learning. It's the first song I ever wrote in the name of my first record.
* MUSIC - LEARNING (PERFUME GENIUS) *
Mike: I essentially think I had something to say that other people would want to listen to, potentially, for the first time. I mean, I had grown up writing things and making things, but they were very angsty in a way that I don't think is inspiring at all, just for me. And I don't know what compelled me to download like a music software. I had like a really crappy laptop. And the whole first record is recorded on like a computer microphone from back then. Like a plastic one.
Shirley: In your bedroom at your mom's house?
Shirley: So you'd just come out of rehab and you are attempting to make your first ever songs using your computer and a computer mic, which I think is adorable. So how did it feel when you pressed play?
Mike: Well, like I had built a world. I had gotten something that was in my brain out in the most fully formed, complete way. And it felt like it told a story and the story was weird and it was complicated. I had never sang, sang. I started singing, I figured out where to sing from, and when I heard that I was like, "Oh, check that out."
Mike: When I started putting reverb on a piano and it started giving me a vibe, I was like ... I was just very, I guess, inspired.
* MUSIC - LEARNING (PERFUME GENIUS) *
Mike: But when I heard my voice with reverb on it, and when I started playing piano and I could alter it to make it feel like somewhere else or like it's in a cathedral or in ... that is what jump started writing for me just because I felt like I could instantaneously ... like the mood was there. And then like all my things that I loved, all my ... I guess, are influences now and I could conjure them all into something.
Mike: It was just therapy, really. I had a lot of stuff from like 15 years of avoiding and I had a lot of stuff that I needed to get out.
Shirley: I mean, just listening to you speak it sounds to me more like you sort of approached it as you would like an art exercise as opposed to a musical one.
Shirley: It's almost sort of like painting with sound and exploring.
Mike: For sure. Yeah.
Shirley: So when you came to Learning, which is the song we're sort studying today, what came first, the music or the words? Or the words and the music came together? Or how did you start exploring this particular song?
Mike: I think, especially for the first record, it's mostly the words. Like I would start with a few chords or something and sing a note and then that would conjure the world for me and then I would write out all the lyrics and finish the song.
Shirley: So you didn't have like a notebook or anything like that where you had the lyrics that you'd written previously? You allowed the music to sort of push you? Mike: Yeah. And that whole first record is all like first takes or improvising.
Shirley: Brave! Yeah. And did you feel brave at the time or this was just something you decided you were going to do regardless of how it ended up?
Mike: I felt like that, but I also was, like, immensely proud. I was just crying and crying and crying after I made that first song because a lot of it was just doing something. It was just like committing to actually working and finishing and doing something. And just that I had, like, actually made a thing, you know, was really ... And it was good. I thought it was good.
Shirley: Well, the world thought it was good.
Mike: Well, I had tried to write music my whole life, off and on. And I took piano lessons and I loved ... You know, I'm obsessed with music, so I always wanted to do it, but I never envisioned it. And for some reason, I don't know, it was very spiritual in a way. It felt like something was just like unlocked and suddenly I'm able to talk and explain something that I wasn't able to explain before. Something that I had been carrying around for a long time. And it's not like that the song cleared it up or was like tidy or made it make sense, but at least I had something that showed how I was feeling.
Shirley: What did this lyric ... what was it saying?
Mike: It's kind of about how surviving something is really solitary, how you're not going to get rewarded for it.
Shirley: No, there's no metal at the end.
Mike: No. MUSIC - LEARNING (PERFUME GENIUS)
Mike: It's very personal. All the things that you learn, all the things that you need to do, they're not congratulated, which, not that they need to be, and there's some kind of ... There's kind of an achiness to that and a sadness to that, that I saw in people I loved, and myself, after going through some shit. I wanted to show how untidy that feeling is.
Shirley: And it's an acceptance, in a way, which I feel is really powerful.
Mike: The flip side of it is kind of bleak at the same time because, really, what's the point? But ... Well that's ... I don't know. That's what I struggle with all the time.
Shirley: Of course. We all do.
Mike: I either feel like everything means something or nothing does. And I kind of Veer-
Shirley: Flip between the nihilist and the joyous-
Mike: And that song I feel like kind of is in between because some of the lyrics are more bleak, but the music underneath is warm.
Shirley: So is this song about a specific experience in your life or is it an amalgamation of bad experiences?
Mike: More like a quilt of nasty stuff, and some ... A lot of the songs are a quilt of mine and like my mom and people I loved, journeys I suppose. Shirley: And were you openly gay when you were a kid or closeted, or what's your Story?
Mike: I came out when I was 13, I think, or 14.
Shirley: To your mom?
Mike: To my mom, yeah. And then to my dad I just started ordering like the Advocate and Out and leaving them out, like, on the table. Not that I was fooling anybody from, like, one to 14, but that's when it was official.
Shirley: Does your sexuality, your gender, your identity, does that always come into play when you make music?
Mike: I think it just does by nature. I think as I started making music and other people started listening to it, I started being more pointed about it and deliberate. But it's just ... But also deliberate in a way that was sort of angry because all these adjectives were being attached to me that are just ... That's just who I am.
Mike: Like the music isn't going to be gay because I am.
Mike: I don't have any problem with that, but a lot of other people do. And so I'm going to push it. Shirley: Yeah. You know, have you ever felt that you feel impinged upon as an artist or have you just pushed out?
Mike: I mean, both. Whether it's real or not, it's hard to shake how I was treated growing up. I still think of the world and look at other people that way. It's like shaped me. So sometimes I can be angry for no reason. Everybody, actually, is being nice to me, but I just assume that they're not because they didn't use to be.
Mike: But also things are super fucked up still and have been. So-
Shirley: Still. Do you feel a responsibility to that?
Mike: I do and I like that. That is part of what was so exciting to me about that is that I don't mind. I like that responsibility and it makes me feel really purposeful, and I had never felt purposeful before.
Mike: And I'm mad.
Shirley: Sure. I would be, too.
Mike: And I think part of this song is about ... I think it's a strong song. I think all of those songs people would write about that record, like it was really quiet, and in interviews people would always describe me as really meek and like I was going to cry. And I felt strong that whole time. And I felt strong when it was-
Shirley: You're giving me the goosebumps, actually. Mike: Huh?
Shirley: I'm getting the goosebumps.
Mike: The whole time I was making that record I felt the strongest I had ever felt. But people ... Since it didn't look like, or sound like, what strength is to most people, it was really frustrating to me. And so they would just talk about the emotional content, which is fine, and that's really important to me, but sometimes that is dismissive of the power of it.
Shirley: At what point did you decide that that would be the main song, really, of this collection of work you'd put together?
Mike: I think just essentially because it was the first thing. It very much felt like divine or the opposite of divine. Something as intense-
Mike: Something as intense. Like that song coming to be, it just completely unlocked something in me and changed everything for me. You know?
Mike: Before I was making this music, I was living with my mom and like just playing video games endlessly and just very secluded - very isolated - and like blank almost, you know?
Mike: And everything lined up, and I think it was just born from me taking care of myself for the first time and just letting a little bit of kindness to myself leak in.
Shirley: Are you good at being kind to yourself? Mike: No, but I'm a lot better than it used to be.
Shirley: The music's remarkable and beautiful and fragile and gut-wrenchingly sad, and also jubilant, which is what I love about it.
Mike: Thank you.
Shirley: You know, you walk the walk and talk the talk. It's what you see and I hear in music. You have to be quite powerful to be willing to examine all that. And I'm curious as to where that self resilience has come from.
Mike: You know, I don't know. It's all mixed up. I've felt since I was really little that I was on the outside of everything, and I think when you feel that way, for whatever reason, you develop your own world in your head, but you're very disconnected. And I think the music helped me stay there but connect at the same time, if that makes sense.
Shirley: Yeah, it does.
Mike: Like I felt like I was doing something that could be helpful to other people that was about something, but I was still keeping all the magic that comes from being on the outside. And nobody really chooses to be on the outside. If they do, then they're not truly there.
Mike: You know? Shirley: Yes, I know exactly what you mean.
Mike: But it comes with a lot of magic to it, I think. I guess I've found a way to utilize and have that be sacred, or more sacred, and feel like an important thing to share but still be able to actually talk about something that was worth listening to.
* MUSIC - LEARNING (PERFUME GENIUS) *
Shirley: Well, you know, I'm very sad that I only get to talk to you about one particular song that's stretched back all four of your amazing records, because I am a genuine fan.
Shirley: Your last record I played for an entire year every single day, multiple times.
Mike: Oh, thank you.
Shirley: I thought it was extraordinary. And so I look forward to seeing where you expand to next. You know?
Mike: Me, too.
* MUSIC - LEARNING (PERFUME GENIUS) *
Shirley: Next week on the Jump. Big Boy.
Big Boi: We started producing because we just thought, like, "How dope would it be to create the soundscape to the words of your emotion?" And it turns out like a German chocolate cake. Like, "Mm, goddammit," cake. Yes, ma'am.
Shirley: The Jump is an original series from MailChimp and I'm your host Shirley Manson. It's produced in partnership with Little Everywhere, executive produced by Dann Gallucci, Jane Marie and Hrishikesh Hirway. Original music composed by Hrishikesh Hirway. Subscribe now wherever you get your podcasts.
Shirley Manson talks with musicians about that one song that changed everything.
Perfume Genius discusses his song Learning.
Big Boi discusses his song Git Up, Git Out.
Esperanza Spalding discusses her song I Want It Now.
Courtney Love discusses her song Boys on the Radio.
Karen O discusses her song Maps.
Dave 1 of Chromeo discusses the song 100%
Neko Case discusses the song The Fox Confessor Brings the Flood.