Perfume Genius: ‘There’s dark, violent, sexual stuff in my music – stuff that’s weird to share with your family’

Singer Mike Hadreas talks to Alexandra Pollard about his acclaimed new album ‘Set My Heart on Fire Immediately’, coping with anxiety, and the wild, unhinged feeling of happiness

Tuesday 26 May 2020 06:29
The performer’s fifth record deals in bittersweet, baroque pop
The performer’s fifth record deals in bittersweet, baroque pop

Perfume Genius can sense a wave of depression coming. “I can feel it,” he says, tugging at the brim of his baseball cap. “And I can feel my old ways of dealing with things starting to creep up. So I’m just trying to build wards around me.”

The singer, whose real name is Mike Hadreas, is speaking to me on Zoom from his bedroom in LA. If his words sound anguished, they’re said with the matter-of-factness of someone who offers up his emotions easily and often. Ever since the release of his debut album a decade ago – 2010’s Learning – Hadreas has held a magnifying glass to the uncomfortable parts of himself and found something beautiful there. In the early days, he did so with just his voice – as delicate and vulnerable as gold leaf – and a piano. Over the years, his music has grown increasingly extroverted, orchestral, resplendent. His fifth album Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, which was released this month, is almost too rich to consume in one go.

Like many people, Hadreas is finding lockdown life unsettling. “I mean, I’m scared,” says the 39-year-old. In his cap, checked shirt and white vest, he looks like a boyish trucker. “I’m just sort of frightened about everything. And it wasn’t really allowing me to relax or work. I felt sort of stuck. But I mean, I’ve built wards,” he says again, brightly. Is that working? “I think so! I feel pretty good. And everybody having the music now is making me feel really good. I feel like I can energetically feel other people listening.”

When we speak, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately has been out for a few days. With its saxophones, clavichords and pulsating synths, it’s an album of bittersweet, baroque pop; exultant but grounded. “These 13 tracks are finely wrought works of art that draw as much influence from Purcell and Mozart as they do scuzzy Nineties post-punk,” read The Independent’s five-star review. Hadreas says he wanted to create something that “makes room for feelings. Competing ones, ones that don’t make sense, ones that are overly dramatic.” He likes the idea that the album will give solace to people; that they’ll let it wash over them in the same way he’s been letting Sinead O’Connor’s cover of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”, or Bach’s “Come, Sweet Death”, wash over him.

Still, the opening line – “Half of my whole life is done”, from the hallowed “Whole Life” – is a bleak note to start on. “It doesn’t really feel bleak to me,” says Hadreas. “I guess because this is... the beginning of the rest of my life. I’m never really thinking about where I’m at. I’m always thinking about where I’m gonna go or what’s already happened. I always feel like I’m in this scramble. But there have been times this year when I felt very healthy and vital and clear-headed, and I was aware of it while it was happening. A lot of times, you look back three years later and you’re like, ‘Oh, I was really happy that summer.’ You didn’t feel like it then. But I was feeling strong in the moment. I don’t really feel like that anymore,” he adds with a laugh, “but I know it’s available to me.”

That self-aware contentment was a strange new feeling to him. “I felt kind of wild and unhinged and I didn’t really recognise myself,” he says. “I think what I’m frustrated about is how so much is a choice. Being grateful and hopeful, those are practices. I have to, like, do that. They don’t just happen to me. And then the longer I don’t do it, the guiltier I feel. There’s no reason for me not to make that choice every day, and I somehow still go through my whole day trying to soothe myself when I’m anxious.” What’s wrong with trying to soothe yourself? “I guess because I do that by detaching, playing video games, avoiding, letting my phone die and not turning it on for three days… all these things that are not ultimately soothing, but they feel soothing to me at the time.”

“Describe”, a beautifully elegiac dirge, is about that empty mental state – the kind of depression where you no longer remember what happiness used to feel like. “No bells anymore,” he sings, “Just my stomach rumbling/ Can you describe them for me?” He finds it frustrating when he ends up in that place. “I just get heavy, and emotionally, I feel dulled,” he says. “This dull void. But intellectually, I know that this is some chemical thing. It’s not, like, real. I know that, but I can’t drag myself out, and I’ll look at Alan” – his boyfriend of over a decade – “and see him just walk around the house, and he’s just… I don’t know how to explain what I’m trying to say.” He sighs. “I just don’t like that feeling, when I can’t meet the world where I should. Because of some chemical thing. It’s embarrassing almost.”

There is a Martha Marcy May Marlene aesthetic to the song’s video, which Hadreas directed himself. In one particularly striking image, a man pulls a boulder up a hill with rope. It’s quite Sisyphian, I say. Hadreas’s eyes light up. “My dad just sent me the most intense text message about that. Shall I read it to you?” He leaves his bed to fetch his phone. “Just out of the blue,” he says, returning into view, “a Saturday, at like, 10 at night: ‘The whole video is a Greek myth. The Sisyphus in the background pulling a rock up a hill. The scene with Alan, your masculine other, tied down with ropes and having to break through...’ I won’t read the whole thing. It’s a long text.” Does he often send messages like that? “He does sometimes. He goes deep. I feel like my dad really gets it. I’m really proud of that. Me and my dad are very different but I’m half him. I wouldn’t be able to make any of this music or think about any of this weird s*** without half of his brain in mine. If anyone can read deep into it, it’s definitely my parents. There’s some dark stuff in my music, some sexual stuff, and there’s been some really violent stuff, stuff that’s weird to share with your family – but they can’t be that mad, because they made me! Whatever I did, they did!”

Hadreas has been through a lot in his life, and almost all of it has eventually cropped up in his music. Growing up in the suburbs of Seattle, he was the only openly gay student at his high school – though it was his femininity that people took issue with. He was spat on by the football players. Beaten up, too. For a couple of years, he tried to cultivate a masculinity that felt unnatural to him, as a way of self-protection. But he found it exhausting, so he abandoned the pretence. “Don’t you know your queen?” he demanded on 2014’s “Queen”, a song that refused to be cowed by those who see his existence as a threat. “Cracked, peeling, riddled with disease/ Don’t you know me?” When he was 14, he grew close to a teacher – an experience he immortalised on “Mr Peterson”, though he won’t say how much of the song is true. “He let me smoke weed in his truck,” he sang, his voice tentative, the piano tinny, “if I could convince him I loved him enough.” At 21, he was attacked so viciously by a group of young men that he ended up in hospital – but that same year he found himself in New York City with a queer community around him for the first time. He struggled with drug and alcohol addiction in his early twenties, but in 2010, he met Alan Wyfells, a fellow musician, who went with him to AA meetings. They fell in love. He’s been sober ever since. “Did you notice/ We sleep through the night?” he sang on “Alan”, from his magnificent 2017 album No Shape. “Did you notice, babe/ Everything is alright?”

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That autobiographical tendency continues on Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, which Hadreas wanted to be “more physical and real world and specific about moments and people and places”. “Jason” recalls a fleeting sexual encounter he had when he was 23. “Jason undressed me/ Lying on his sheets/ He did not do the same/ Even his boots were on.” Why did he want to tell that story now? “I was thinking about my relationships,” he explains, “and about moments where my connection was very blurry, and the things that we were giving each other were not traditional or even fully good – but there was still something valuable shared or taken. And that memory has that for me.”

He gazes upwards. “I’ve been thinking about it, though. I doubt he’ll ever hear it, but if he did, I wonder if he would even remember it at all.” There’s another pause. “I think he would remember.” Does he prefer that idea? “Um. No. I don’t think so. I just wonder. I felt differently about that after it happened, and a year later, and now. It was nothing traumatic, it was just something that I put weight on as a totem of the ways that I connect and other people connect. I think I prefer situations like that. I like when it’s strange or tense or when hidden things are shown, even if just for a second. And I like it when it’s complicated and weird. It’s easier. I like it.”

In many ways, those kinds of experiences are specifically queer. Unlike straight people, who grow up inundated by examples of what their life and love and sex could look like, queer people are often left in the dark. “People figure things out and make stuff up in queer relationships,” says Hadreas, “which can be really beautiful, because you can make your own rules and your own map, but it can also be confusing and strange.”

I’m reminded of a line from Celine Sciamma’s 18th century-set lesbian romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire. “Oh!” he cries. “I avoided watching that for a really long time and then I watched it and I was, like, dry heaving for hours.” “Do all lovers feel like they’re inventing something?” asks Adele Haenel’s character before the two women sleep together. They might not have even known that two women could have sex. “It’s better!” says Hadreas. “Honestly, it feels good to think of it as better. If nobody’s really taught you or told you what to bring to a situation, then that can be really liberating. I want myself to be small.” What? He reaches towards the camera. “There we go. When we were talking, I would just look at myself.” He laughs. “I wanted to stop doing that.”

Last time I spoke to Hadreas, around the time of No Shape’s release in 2017, he told me how self-conscious he was about the way he looked. On that album, he had an almost obsessive desire to liberate himself from his own body. He seemed to view it as an inconvenient, malfunctioning vessel for his thoughts and feelings. He wished they could exist without it. “Burn off every trace/ I wanna hover with no shape”, he sang. He doesn’t seem to feel like that now. In fact, “Your Body Changes Everything” feels like a direct riposte to that lyric: “Give me your weight/ I’m solid.”

“It’s very strange writing a song that’s like, ‘My body, your body, I’m holding you’, when in my last record, pretty much the whole time I was just talking about floating around,” he says. The turning point was an avant-garde dance project, The Sun Still Burns Here, which he embarked upon with choreographer Kate Wallich around the same time he was recording his new album. “It was just transcendent,” he says. “I was hyper present, hyper in my body.”

He started to regain some of the impulsive innocence he lost when he became an adult. “So much of my life is trying to get back to how I was when I was like, three,” he says. “Little kids are just running around and then they turn and they run somewhere else. Or they pick something up and then they drop it. They’re just weaving and braiding and doing all this weird stuff and not questioning it or feeling self-conscious at all. That’s so liberating.”

It’s what he aspires to. “I don’t have to feel so on the outside of all this stuff if I just do whatever I want,” he continues. “If I wanna do weird stuff, like go into my closet and roll around for 20 minutes – if that is satisfying to me, on some level that I don’t even understand yet, but it feels like time has slowed down,” he wafts his arms in the air in slow-motion, “I’m just gonna do that. And there’s some therapeutic reward afterwards that I don’t have to process or talk about.” He smiles. “I can make my life as bizarre as I want it to be.”

Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is out now

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