GROWING UP outside Seattle, Mike Hadreas was bullied because of his sexuality.
"I remember being young and looking to music and looking to books to help," says Hadreas, now 32. "I was in the suburbs and I remember needing all those weirdo women I listened to." Among them were Liz Phair, PJ Harvey, and Sleater-Kinney, whom Hadreas says he's seen in concert 13 times.
"I remember when I was 13, [Phair's] album was kind of a turning point for me," he adds. "I remember listening to her sing so explicitly about sexuality and so confidently about things I thought we were supposed to be ashamed of—or that I was. It was the closest thing I had to comfort that part of me that was feeling weird about all that stuff."
Today, as Perfume Genius, Hadreas' confessional songs offer similar catharsis. Fans send letters and share secrets after shows. Sometimes they approach without a word, tears streaming down their cheeks.
Yet after the success 2012's Put Your Back N 2 It, Perfume Genius' stark but strikingly brilliant second LP, Hadreas toyed with the idea of scrubbing the message. From friends and family to music industry flunkies, people were in his ear, whispering that if he would just ease up on the gay stuff then he could really make it big. For a time, Hadreas entertained the notion. Every day for weeks, in a room with his piano and computer, he toiled.
"I usually get really excited when I'm writing and I feel like I did something brave, or I told a secret, or I even make myself a little uncomfortable," Hadreas says. "That wasn't happening."
"The songs weren't bad," he adds. "They had soul to them—just not a lot of my own."
Eventually, Hadreas snapped. "I just went in one day and said, 'I'm just going to—even if it's stupid or shitty, or weird or crazy—I'm going to do whatever I want."
What emerged was "I'm a Mother," the first song to make Too Bright, Perfume Genius' recently released third LP.
"It's just a weird song," Hadreas says of "I'm a Mother." "But it was really heavy with mood and I felt there's a lot of drama—maybe something spiritual, I don't know. I was really into it. After that I was on a roll. Everything came out."
Among the highlights are "Queen," a powerful, glistening wallop in which Hadreas sneers, tongue in cheek, "No family is safe when I sashay," and "Fool," a remarkable, transfixing composition in which snappy, doo-wop bookends melt into and out of a creeping, spectral aura.
Every bit as heart-rending as Put Your Back N 2 It, Too Bright is a lush, brash, and scabrous new world, one whose volume and force have offered Hadreas a heretofore unexplored avenue as entertainer.
"Before, all I really had to do was emote," he says. "I was just kind of lost behind the piano."
But recently Hadreas has been stepping out front, using his body along with his mic.
"To be honest, it's really weird," Hadreas says of becoming a performer. "But I have been getting super into it."
Despite these newfound, lofty perches of sonics and show, Hadreas' connection to the message—like the one he got from Liz Phair—remains paramount. "I guess it's sort of corny to say," he says, "but that's why I'm doing all this; that's what makes me feel so purposeful."