Perfume Genius is full of feelings
His new album Set My Heart On Fire Immediately sees the musician trying to build bridges between who he used to be and who he finds himself becoming.
Photograph Camille Vivier
Perfume Genius can’t stop humping his sofa. “I'm just rolling around my house all the time,” he says via a Skype video call from his bedroom in Los Angeles, his body curled around itself like the living embodiment of the Gays Can’t Sit Properly meme. “I remember a meeting with my manager and I was just slowly sliding around. But I feel like I've been doing it long enough now that people just know that's what I do. I feel like a little kid. It feels very childlike. I walk over to the couch and lightly hump it while I put on a record.“
At 38 years old, Perfume Genius, the stage name for musician Mike Hadreas, has found himself partaking in a kind of regression therapy. In 2019, he co-directed, co-starred and wrote the music for The Sun Still Burns Here, a collaborative dance project with choreographer Kate Wallich and The YC dance company, which, after debuting in Seattle, travelled to Boston, New York and Minneapolis. It was an experience that opened up the singer’s world.
“It's embarrassing for me to talk to as I think these dancers are going to feel like I'm obsessed with them,” he says with a giggle, “but that whole process of the dance changed how I want my daily life to be, beyond just creatively. Like, what if I was around more people? What if I was more connected to the world in this very simple way? Not just for work or for dance; what if I was just like that more?”
Those who have followed Hadreas’s career from his debut, 2010’s Learning, will know that across the last decade, he has unfurled, both as a songwriter and as a performer. Those first two albums were intimate and delicate, the songs usually centred around a piano and his delicate warble. That changed on 2014’s Too Bright, a record that arrived with a bang with lead single “Queen”. It was the sound of someone staking a claim on the world after years of abjection, a bold stare into the eyes of societal alienation. It was, conceptually, more abstract, too, less focused on lyrical narratives and more on sonic textures. This was followed up by the transcendental No Shape, an attempt to escape temporality and the constraints of the physical with expansive cinematic orchestration and lyrical odes to his partner and collaborator Alan Wyffels.
“When I write my records it's always very isolated,” Hadreas says. “If I'm not actually singing then I'm on a weird Wikipedia page researching some Greek thing where they rip bulls apart.” He laughs: “It's very solitary. It's me following my own thing. It's usually me trying to leave the world in some way without actually leaving it. But with the dance, every part of creation was together and with people. It was in my body with their bodies in the room that we were in. There is still a ton of bizarre research and that supernatural fantasy stuff that I find when I'm alone. I thought for a while that those things sort of cancel each other out, but dancing was a way for me to connect them.”
This mentality, binding reality with fantasy and personal insulation with human proximity, make up the thematic foundations for Hadreas’s new album Set My Heart On Fire Immediately. Ironically, though, the album was written in isolation, “it just wasn't about it,” the singer says with mock insistence. “I knew that I wanted this record to be full of the feelings that I was having.”
“Something has shifted in me,” he continues. “I see portals in different places for feeling. Traditionally, when I go to them or investigate those, it's usually really destructive. Inviting [in] any kind of big feeling or big drama has made me fall apart or made me into a worse person or made me into a glutton in a way that feels very natural to me. But it’s not sustainable. So maybe I could find things that give me this big feeling, make room and containers for that, but those containers not be drugs or all the other shit that it used to mean.”
This shift manifests itself instantly on the record with “Whole Life”, which opens with the lyrics: “Half of my whole life is gone/let it drift and wash away.” However, Hadreas isn’t casting off the past, but rather stepping out of the dark; as he sings: “I once hummed the seasons/now I’m whistling.”
“I missed the way that I used to write at the very beginning,” Hadreas muses. “Those first couple of records; they weren't abstract. I was talking about people and places and, like the dance, it was physical. I was talking about specific rooms and basements. There were more nouns. With this record, even if the feelings that were coming up were abstract or confusing, I tried to funnel them into a story and make a container for them with the song that was very physical or about a specific person. Even if they were made up, I tried to imagine that person, instead of trying to talk about concepts and ideas.”
The album’s specificity is stamped on the baroque and diaristic “Jason”, a song that details a hook-up that Hadreas had in his early twenties. “For me that was one of my most successful casual sexual experiences,” he says laughing. “But if somebody else was describing it, it would look like a massive failure. But it was successful because it resonated and was complicated and strange.”
The song is an example of the in between place that Hadreas has been navigating, exploring the eroticism and surprising tenderness of that experience, while recognising its sadness, rejection and cruelty, too.
“Sometimes a lot of those things are swimming around in those experiences but they're not overt,” Hadreas explains. “But it was very clear to me in that situation what the set up was; we even talked about our dads for an hour and a half before we made out. There was all this weird therapeutic stuff so it wasn't just about this 'thing' that we were going to do with each other. I prefer experiences like that where it's blurry and requires deeper things from you. But ultimately, it still felt empty and sick.”
Hadreas’s music has always traversed the contours of sex and shame, and with the album’s second single, “On the Floor”, he wraps the torture and conflict of queer teenage infatuation in a soundscape of rollicking bass and 80s pop melodies. “When you're young and gay, the thing that you're taught is bad about you is sex. Sex is dirty,” he says, “and who you want to have sex with is dirty before you've even had it yet. You already feel icky and gross. So when you're lusting after someone and you're closeted, it feels like all those things at once.”
With No Shape, Too Bright and now Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, Hadreas has portrayed a vision of a person constantly transitioning, each record reading like mathematical equations he hasn’t quite figured out the answers to. You might call it growth, although that insinuates that what came before wasn’t significant, even if it was destructive. Instead, Hadreas is trying to build bridges between who he used to be and who he finds himself becoming.
“I think when I turned drugs off, I thought I had to live against a lot of my instincts in order to stay healthy and sane,” Hadreas says. “But now I'm thinking that I can stay healthy and sane but still invite more in. What if I did turn in a different direction and shed a whole bunch of this stuff that keeps telling me that I'm not someone who can actually go in that direction. But there's also magic to all that pain and being on the outside that I cultivated at the same time, too. That is important to me. So how do I connect to the world but also keep all this stuff that is valuable to me that came from being apart from it?”
The answer is not necessarily something arrived at on Set My Heart On Fire Immediately. Even the album’s title, Hadreas says, evokes the all or nothing mentality he feels as an addict. But the synapses between his past and present are starting to reconnect to form an entirely new organism. That journey itself is worth documenting.
In a flurry of movement, Hadreas starts rolling around his bed, disappearing off camera for a second. When he returns, he says he was looking for his charger as his laptop is about to die. It’s in the other room so he’ll have to sign off soon. But first, in the biography sent out ahead of this interview, he said that with Set Myself On Fire Immediately that he wanted to create “something warm, thoughtful and comforting”. Does he feel he succeeded?
“Yeah, I do,” he says, before taking a pause. “But to me comforting and warm are just feelings of difference. I don't care if it's worse, as that can be comforting to me. When I listened to music when I was young, I wasn't looking for it to make me feel better. I wanted to feel less lonely in how I was feeling and hear someone sing how I felt. It didn't make me feel better, but there was a warmth to that companionship. I do feel that with all these songs: there's warmth, but not because I left any shit out. There's warmth because it's allowed. There's permission to have those things be together and not be figured out. It’s warm because it's acknowledged.”
- Perfume Genius