The lo-fi ballads of Perfume Genius (aka Mike Hadreas) have a pinpricking emotional intensity, so it may come as a surprise that his piano is actually a source of comfort. The 30-year-old songwriter, who also plays the synths on his sophomore album Put Your Back N 2 It, feels a rush and relief when he glides his fingers across the keys, the way a smoker might from a drag on a cigarrette. (Hadreas plays with the same regularity as he smokes, too, and uses the piano as a precursor and posterior to other activities.) “It used to be frustrating because I wanted to go to the piano and have some therapeutic thing happen,” says Hadreas. “But something clicked for me a few years ago. When I put my hands on it now, I know what’s going to happen.” The positive reception for Learning, his debut album, might be the source of his new-found confidence, which adds a level of maturity to the songs on Put Your Back N 2 It. Hadreas, who’s played piano since age seven, spoke to us about his five favorite piano albums, his inability to read sheet music, and his affinity for Otis Redding.
1. Sigur Rós, ()
I listened to () when I was living in Brooklyn and I remember having some dramatic moments with it. (I was really, really, really drunk when I lived in Brooklyn.) I like the very first song [“Untitled #1”] because it’s minutes of the same piano loop with little things added gradually. Very little movement happens but I feel a lot. I try to capture that in my songs. My goal is always to make a meditative, simple song.
2. Tori Amos, Under the Pink
I ordered Under the Pink through Columbia House when I was 12 and spent an entire summer waiting for it to come. It’s perfect teenager music because it’s so dramatic and indulgent; I feel guilty whenever I listen to it. Under the Pink made me think it was cool to play the piano. [When I was taking piano lessons,] I bought a book of Tori Amos sheet music but I couldn’t read it so I tried to learn [the songs] by watching my teacher’s hands while she played it. I never learned them, or learned to read sheet music, but I still carried it around all of the time.
3. Max Richter, The Blue Notebook
The solo songs in The Blue Notebook aren’t super innovative but I don’t think that songs have to be difficult to be good. When I was writing [Put Your Back N 2 It], all of the music that I ended up going back to was songs that are simple and sound like they could exist in a bunch of different decades.
4. PJ Harvey, White Chalk
PJ Harvey was one of my main ladies while I was growing up. Piano isn’t the instrument that she uses all of the time so a lot of what she plays [on White Chalk] doesn’t sound quite right or make sense; she doesn’t play straight chords. I think it’s beautiful when songs don’t go where I think they will.
5. Arvo Pärt, “Spiegel im Spiegel”
I like things that sound desperate and “Spiegel im Spiegel” is lonely in a sweet, plaintiff way. There’s large gaps between the notes so you pay attention to every one and it has a pit-in-a-stomach feeling that I always try to sing with or listen for. It can in a gentle way, like someone singing on a mountain. Or, it can happen in a soulful way, when you have to say what you mean right now like Otis Redding. All I listened to when I was writing and recording the new album was Otis Redding ballads. It felt safe to listen to soul because I didn’t want new music to influence my writing. If I’m going to reference something, I’m going to reference soul.