perfume genius [2010]

Bottom of the Hill
San Francisco, CA
27 September 2010

Pain makes for beautiful art. Is what I’ve been led to believe. From grief, from loss, an object is born that captures the raw emotion and transforms it into something precious and stunning. The object of this catharsis can become wholly independent, no longer tied to the original emotion.

And then there’s the music of Mike Hadreas, also known as Perfume Genius. Hadreas’ music is a direct manifestation of his own pain (unless his seemingly autobiographical tales are simply masterful storytelling). In simple, stark tones, Hadreas lays bare tales of sadness and grief that transport the listener to his own time and place.

“He let me smoke weed in his truck / If I could convince him I loved him enough”, he sings in “Mr. Peterson”. “He made me a tape of Joy Division / He told me there was a part of him missing / When I was sixteen / He jumped off a building.” It is horrible. It is undeniably poignant.

And so I ventured out late on a Monday night to experience live the music I’d been listening so religiously to over the past weeks. I was excited to see what this young Seattle artist would create in front of an audience, having purportedly recorded his debut album alone with a keyboard.

Sure enough, Perfume Genius was as stark and beautiful live as on the album. Hadreas was joined on stage by Alan Wyffels and two keyboards. An acoustic guitar was used for one song, but otherwise, it was two people, two keyboards and two microphones. Perfectly simple.

It was clear from the very beginning that Hadreas was nervous. Dressed and carrying himself like a 15 year-old boy, Hadreas (26) made very little eye-contact with the audience, glancing over at Wyffels every once in a while, seemingly for support.

But when he opened his mouth to sing the very first song, there was no doubt, no anxiety. His words, delivered in an incredibly articulated manner, were unmistakably clear and powerful. Through an apparently clenched jaw and trembling tics, Hadreas released his haunting voice to a silent room.

Though BOTH was sparsely-filled, it was still amazing, the attention and respect that Hadreas commanded. I have literally never heard BOTH so quiet. It was truly remarkable.

Also remarkable were the gorgeous open harmonies of Hadreas and Wyffels. I must admit, I was hoping for more of these harmonies, based on the album. Whether it was due to ineffective mic setup or a lack of practice time between the two, it seemed like there could have been a lot more. And yet, this was only a minor disappointment. My favorite songs, “Learning”, “Perry” and “Look Out, Look Out” were still delivered with amazing clarity and force. Stunning.

Amongst the soul-cleansing stories and haunting melodies, there was one brief moment of levity, with Hadreas revealing timidly after an early song: “I’m really trying to work on my banter…It’s not going so good”. It was charming and adorable. And true to form for the evening, it was unabashedly honest.

I have no doubt that Perfume Genius will continue to make beautiful music and draw more and more followers in the years to come. His music, his words, his pain are difficult to ignore.