Mike Hadreas has been told he overshares in his music. It’s a credible claim given how much he reveals on his two albums recorded under the name Perfume Genius. The Seattle-based pianist and songwriter bravely sings about his misspent youth, years lost in the throes of substance abuse, recovery, and his initial shame about being gay and finding someone to love him.
“You would never call me
baby/ If you knew me true,” Hadreas sings on “Hood,” a heartbreaking track from his latest record, “Put Your Back N 2 It.”
He likens the stark piano ballads on his debut, 2010’s “Learning” (released on Matador Records), to passages from his diary. For his sophomore release, he subtly added strings and percussion while keeping the piano upfront and the focus on the tremulous ache in his voice. The lyrical content was just as potent as that of his first batch of songs.
“I had problems growing up, but we were the kind of family where it was all out in the open. It didn’t make it any better or any worse, but everything was talked about,” says Hadreas, who brings a band formation of Perfume Genius to Johnny D’s on Sunday. “In a lot of ways, that’s just how I’ve learned to do things. Overprocessing can be just as bad as withholding.”
Q. Do you ever worry that you reveal too much?
A. I worry after the fact. That’s just how I know to make things. It’s how I feel like I’ll be able to connect to other people, by being that personal. Maybe if I grow up a little bit more, I’ll be able to be distant and still make music that I think is important. I made that song about my mom [“Dark Parts”], and I played it for her first before I showed it to anybody, and she was OK with it. I really don’t have a problem sharing secrets or anything embarrassing. I’m done with being embarrassed about that stuff.
Q. Does that oversharing extend to your personal life?
A. I used to be a lot worse, especially when I was drinking. Oh, God. It’s horrifying to think about the times I’d be super high and holding someone hostage and be like, ‘Listen to this, listen to what happened to me!’ I don’t know why people partied with me because it would eventually end up there.
Q. Is anything off limits in your songwriting?
A. [Long pause.] I don’t think so, as long as I’m being earnest and it’s going to be helpful to me or to somebody else. Sometimes I’ll be writing about something, and I’ll realize I don’t need to share it. I’m just reaching for something, and those are the songs I throw away.
Q. Do you use songs to understand what you’re feeling?
A. That’s the main reason why I write most of the time. I’m not very patient with myself or compassionate toward myself in my daily life. When I’m writing about things, I’m a lot quieter and more deliberate and see the big picture. I’m a lot sweeter to myself, and it’s a way to map everything out that I might otherwise avoid.
Q. That kind of honesty must engender a close relationship with your fans.
A. I feel like I get a lot of letters and sometimes some intense meetings with people after a show. It’s pretty awesome. It’s probably the best part.
Q. What do they tell you?
A. Usually people just want to say hi, but then sometimes they’ll share secrets with you. I’d had a lot of people tell me my music has helped them get over something. Really, it’s all them; I’m just the soundtrack to that. People feel lonely in their problems a lot. I know from listening to music growing up that I was always looking for that: [the feeling] that you’re not alone.
Q. Who filled that void for you when you were growing up?
A. PJ Harvey was a big one. I was just listening to her in the van, and she has this song where she says she laid with the devil. I was terrified of the devil when I was little. I think it was some sort of weird gay shame. I put it all straight to the source — I went straight to the devil. I would cry when we drove by churches. And then when I heard that album and she said that she slept with the devil to bring someone her love? Hell yeah! I also liked Liz Phair, just how nasty and sexual she was and completely unapologetic about it. When I was coming to terms with my sexuality, I was very apologetic about it.
Q. Your debut lays bare a lot of personal anguish. Do you think you could have made that record earlier in your life?
A. Sometimes I wish I would have. I wish I hadn’t dropped out of college, burned out, and [expletive] everything up. But I try not to think that way. I wouldn’t have the same things to say. Maybe it would have been different, but I’m glad I’m able to see things the way I can now.