Mike Hadreas has always felt like an outsider. The Seattle based singer-songwriter has said that he would often feel a hundred pointing fingers for simply walking down the street; for simply being, 'different'. 2010's Learning and 2012's Put Your Back N 2 It were filled with a fragile shame and self-consciousness that were so beautifully executed yet woefully sad; forever searching for acceptance. He found that acceptance in the success of both records but his live shows of lowered stares and shy, embarrassed smiles still spoke volumes about his confidence. Too Bright has changed all that.
It's an album of acceptance; an album of encompassing conviction and of self-reliance. “Don't you know you're Queen? / Yet even flower bloom at my feet” he declares as he stamps upon the papier-mâché shrimp of 'macho' business men. He is unapologetic and fearless; resonating a new-found love for himself. There are moments of shrieking realisation on 'My Body' and moments of gentle reflection on 'Don't Let Them In'. "I don't need your love / I don't need you to understand / I need you to listen,” he utters on the final track, with Hadreas telling the world what he has wanted to say 'All Along'.
Meeting him in an empty trailer in the Polish town of Katowice, Hadreas stands in an all-black jumpsuit with his trademark red lips and nails. Smoking a cigarette and clutching a bottle of Diet Coke, he's incredibly charismatic, often making witty and satirical remarks at any given moment. But there's also this sense of unfathomable professionalism; of Hadreas having this incredibly clear vision of what this new record has meant in terms of self-growth as a songwriter and as a person.
'Stream Too Bright'
Tell me a little bit about Too Bright - did you intend to do something so different or did it just happen?
I didn't originally. Originally I went about writing the same as I always had - maybe just a little bit of a step up, y'know? But it wasn't working for some reason, the way I normally do things. I mean, I wrote a bunch of songs and they were kind of nice and I was trying to write very universally and things that would be successful [laughs]. I don't know... Just because I'm getting older and this is the only thing I've got going on I wanted to be an adult and make something that people would like and would enable me to continue on doing this; maybe stay in nicer hotels! [laughs].
The songs were okay and they were heartfelt but they just weren't very personal, which I suppose was my original intention - to make it universal - but for some reason when that was the intention, it became less moving or something. They just weren't as inspired in the specific way that I like to be; there's no like, bravery or conviction. So, I just switched how I do things - I stopped writing on the piano and I would usually write lyrics out all the way and then play music to accompany them and I stopped doing that. I started just singing over noise and distorting my vocals and distorting my piano and improvising more freely; everything else just followed suit.
You've said previously that you wanted to hide your voice with your last two records but I think with 'Too Bright' you're using your voice as an instrument more than ever before. Do you agree? Would you say that you're more confident?
It's like a double-edged thing; it's more nerve-wracking but I'm more confident at the same time. That was kind of intentional too - I always wanted to push it up a step and just push it forward, just because I've gotten more comfortable sharing the things that I've shared the last two times. I need to do something else and I think I needed to do that more musically than ever this time instead of just subject mattered stuff, I think the music needed to be important - you needed to hear it in my voice, y'know? I just let myself go. I moved into a new house, so I wasn't sharing any walls with anybody. So I started singing in voices, like screaming and all kinds of crazy stuff because no one's going to complain and my boyfriend was at work and sometimes he would come home and I would be in a Diet Coke manic fervour and just be like 'ger--ah--fee---argh!' and singing in goblin voices [laughs] He would be like, 'Are you okay?' He asked that a lot and he knew when to leave me alone for a little bit. I was kind of trying to work myself into a state a lot more than I usually do; my other music is a lot more patient and not that this music isn't thoughtful... [laughs] This one's a little more wild. I still have songs that are like my old songs but there are some that are definitely different.
Do you feel like your last two records are very much in the past? Do you still enjoy playing them?
Oh, I like them still. In a way, it's sort of comforting to play them just because I know how to do all that! With this new approach, I really have no idea what I'm doing [laughs] Which is good, I think? On stage, usually emoting was enough, just like, inviting people to listen to me play as if I was playing in my bedroom, which was okay but this is more - even when we were recording it and writing it - it was much more of a performance.
Did you feel more confident approaching the new album because of the previous success of the last two records? I mean, everyone loves you now...
If I thought about it like that, I would! But you know, I just think of it as pressure just because people wrote about it and I knew people were going to listen to it, you know you have to give it to your label and stuff and that can be really paralyzing at first. I think in general I worry a lot about how I seem and how I carry myself and everything, so that can translate into the record; creatively it's the same. Eventually, I go full circle like, 'Fuck you! I'm going to do whatever the fuck I want' and that's kind of what happened.
Was that the kind of approach to the 'Queen' video? You said in a statement 'I see faces of blank terror as I walk by. Sometimes from seemingly strong macho dudes - somehow my presence confuses them and ultimately scares them. There is a strange power to it that I've only recently begun to understand and embrace. After many years trying to sort out exactly what they are scared of, most of the time converting the result into personal shame, there are now moments of monstrous pride.' Was there anything that sparked this new approach?
Sometimes it's that extreme but usually it's just little things that kind of remind you that you're different or that at least people think you are. Sometimes they're even well intended but they're just magnifying your difference. I'm just kind of fed up I think and a lot of it is personal because things are getting better and my circumstances are getting better and just across the world, it's easier to be 'me' I suppose. I think I just got frustrated with constantly seeking out reassurance and looking for acceptance everywhere, when I could just give it to myself or just demand it, instead of just hoping at 7/11 that they're not going to judge me - I'm just going to slam my Diet Coke on there and say 'I want that.' Growing up, I was almost apologetic of how little and feminine and weird I was, I would just cower and be like 'Oh, it's just little me buying a soda, sorry'. I was having dinner with someone once and they were running late so they asked me to go and put our name down on the table and it was a kind of fancy place - like, people were really 'cool' there, y'know? - and I was so nervous to do it. I thought they were going to be like, 'Ugh, who's this guy?' Like, what the fuck? Why do I think I'm worth any less than these people? It's exhausting and you eventually get angry that you're doing it to yourself - and I've had it done to me by other people - but that combination made me pissed off and I don't feel like being like that anymore. So this music is me trying to get there. I'm not all the way there but I'm definitely trying.
You've said that you're influenced by hymns and choirs; there's choir-like vocals on 'Fool' and you've played lots of churches... are they all connected?
I think it's just what I respond to. For a long time I exclusively listened to soul music. Growing up, that music was very spiritual to me but it also made me feel uncomfortable because I felt like I didn't belong - I couldn't potentially be involved in the religion that they're talking about. I don't know if it's some weird subconscious thing where it's me trying to like, make music with that same spiritual feeling but for me or for someone like me. And I think it's just a taste thing; I like that sort of intimate approach.
You recorded in Bristol - was there any particular reason that you decided to do it there?
Well, we did the second album there too. That's where Adrian [Portishead] and Ali, the producers, work. I sent my demos to Ali, who's the co-producer on this album and we were there for a while - like a month and a half. We really like it there. It almost reminds us of the North West... like Seattle a little bit. I think if we were going to move to the U.K. we would live there.
Has your live set-up changed with the new record?
I have a full band now. We have a new guitar player – Tom from Los Campesinos - and our drummer has actually been with us for a while, so it's sounding more full.
How does it feel to be somewhat of a frontman now?
It's fun. I'm supposed to have some moves now [laughs] My new music is so confident that I want to come across like that, so I don't want to talk about how nervous I get before I go on stage. It's weird because there's times now where I'm not even singing and so I don't know what to do with myself - there's just an instrumental part and I guess I should dance or something. My whole goal is to really lose it but then that moment always freaks me out. In Tokyo I just started blowing kisses to everybody! Later on in the hotel, my boyfriend said 'Mike, when that part comes on in the song, don't blow kisses to everybody,' and I go 'but why?!' and he says, 'because that's not... y'know!'. He says my fall-back is cutesieness but I can't help it! If I ever get nervous, I just curtsey. Even though I just said all that, I'm still going to do whatever the hell I want. If I want to blow kisses or if I want to look really uncomfortable or if I just do, that's how it's going to be.
Whilst I don't think your music is particularly political, would it be fair to say that your videos such as 'Hood' and 'Queen' are highlighting important LGBT issues?
Is that something that you set out to achieve?
A lot of time, it's just simply not tailoring what I want to say for fear that I'm going to alienate listeners that aren't 100% like me. I mean, I didn't grow up listening to just that sort of music, y'know? I was moved by lots of feminist musicians but I know with certain pictures and videos, when I'm kind of 'pushing' something a little bit and I feel like it's my duty in some way. Even if it's sort of, a little more subversive.
And talking about your imagery, you worked with SSION on the 'Queen' video. Did you specifically ask for him?
Yeah. I wrote to him just because I loved his videos and he'd written to me online, with these really great heartfelt messages. So I asked him if he wanted to do a video and then we just started sending really insane ideas back and forth and from that conversation, it kind of patched a weird, dream-like sequence.
It's an incredibly sad yet really empowering video. Was that the idea behind it? Or is it simply open to interpretation?
I think so, yeah. More so than before. Usually, you have a very like concrete idea of what this is about but with this one, it wasn't so much like that - it was more like... moods. And in this video - not that the other one's weren't collaborations - he had a heavier hand in this one than I had previously had before and so I had to let go a little bit. So, some of those things that could be interpreted are a little bit of him too. Why I wanted to work with him was because, all of my influences he understands and he would send me things where I completely know where he's coming from, so I really trusted him. I like that there's a sense of humour but that it's kind of unsettling and that there's parts that are silly and beautiful at the same time. I like when things are combinations like that.
You've been massively open about your past. How much of your past still influences your present?
A little bit. I mean I've quit doing a lot of unhealthy behaviours. I still have the same personality, I just eat more instead of doing drugs [laughs]. I can't control myself. I'm in situations that are supposedly healthier but still, the behaviour is the same. I even keep the same schedule sometimes. But with this album I didn't want to just mime my past with journal entries. If I felt like that was important still I would have but this one is a lot more present and explains how I was feeling at that moment instead of processing what had already gone on.
A lot of people have been touched so personally and emotionally by your music. How does that make you feel?
If I let myself think about it, it's very moving and it's cheesy but it is the most important part of everything I'm doing. I think people connect with music because they simply need to. That's why I'm very serious when I listen to music or watch movies, it's what I want - to really be deeply moved or to really relate to something. I think I try to make music that would have that same quality. A lot of the time when I'm writing, I'll write things that would - if I had heard them now or earlier in my life - would be a comfort to me or would sound like someone saying what I'm thinking that I'm maybe ashamed of or scared of and just hearing someone else say it. It's a very moving thing. It's weird to talk about because I feel like actresses when they're always [puts both hands on cheeks and gushing] going like that, y'know? [laughs] I've had a lot of times where I'm just like, hugging people and we say 'I love you' to each other - like, I'm saying this to people I've just met. I'm also overly emotional, so sometimes I'm not as good at responding as I wish I would be just because it's almost too much. In person I'm better but if something overwhelms me, I have a tendency of just closing off.
So, now the serious question – where did you get your shirt from in the ‘Dark Parts’ video? Everyone wants to know!
Oh, that shirt?! I lost it too. I just got it at a thrift store but I keep seeing people wearing it, so I know it’s out there. It’s not a one of a kind thing [laughs]. I miss that shirt too. I just got it at a charity shop but I think it’s a brand called The Mountain because they also make like, lions wearing headphones with Rasta dreads and stuff but that was just a very chic shirt for them.
And what are your dog’s names? They’re your mum’s right?
Yeah, Brahma – I think he’s the Hindu God of creation… I should know because my mum tells me all the time. And the other one’s called Merlin. But me and my boyfriend have a Chihuahua now! She’s named Wanda after Towanda in ‘Fried Green Tomatoes’. It’s a big commitment – it’s like assigning a heart pact, like ‘I’m going to care about you too much forever. And you’re going to have control over my heart.’ She’s not very well behaved either – she takes after me in the sense that she’s very little but very kinda, bitchy [laughs]. She’s confrontational for sure. But she’s sweet inside and Chihuahua’s are very loyal and they don’t really like anyone else coming into their space but she loves all my friends and she stays up at my moms and she gets along with Brahma and Merlin but outside, she’s a terror! It’s really embarrassing when you just have a little out of control Chihuahua flying off of the leash.
Have you ever hurt anyone when you sashay?
Oh because of the lyric ‘No family is safe when I sashay’?! You know what? I bet I have [laughs].
Do you watch Ru Paul’s drag race?
Do you have a favourite contestant? Mine is Latrice Royale for sure*.
I like her style! I feel like if I would lip-synched, it would be a little bit like that – y’know, just put your hand up and sing it? When she felt it, it was just emanating from her. I love that she’s not doing the splits – they’re always doing the fucking splits! [laughs]. And they always have a splits-off, where you have to hit the floor the hardest; they’re not just gliding into it, they’re like, slamming their tucked crotches into the ground!
Too Bright is out September 22nd via Caroline.