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“I want to be in the world and in my body”: Perfume Genius on illness, desire and his new album

On his fifth album, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, the American art-pop musician feels more at home in his body than ever before.

 

Mike Hadreas is sitting on his bed in his house in Los Angeles, peering out of the window at the few people who pass by. The American singer cuts a slight figure, dressed in a beige T-shirt with a small hoop in one ear, and is a deep thinker, sometimes taking upwards of ten seconds to answer a question. His voice is soft but suddenly sharpens when he tells a joke – which is often, and usually at his own expense. Periodically, he sips from a can of Coke Zero.

We are speaking over Zoom in mid-March, almost a month into California’s lockdown. We were originally due to meet in person in London, before his press tour was cancelled amid rising fears of international travel during the pandemic. His was my first major work cancellation, but soon became one of many. At the time, Hadreas says, “It felt maybe like we were being overly cautious. But we weren’t. I felt good about making that decision.” Now, like much of the rest of the world, he goes out only for essentials, to the pharmacy or the grocery store.

Hadreas, who is 38 and records art-pop as Perfume Genius, has lived in LA with his partner and musical collaborator Alan Wyffels for two years. (Previously the pair lived in Tacoma, Washington.) LA “is nicer out,” Hadreas says. “I like how strange the city is. All the stereotypes about it are very true, but then there’s this underbelly of haunting, trashy weirdness to it that I’m into.”

“An underbelly of haunting, trashy weirdness” might be a good way to begin to describe Hadreas’s musical output as Perfume Genius, too. Over five albums – the latest of which is Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, out this Friday on Matador – he has pushed at the boundaries of how much of himself is too much to give to a record. He wrote the songs on his intensely personal debut album, Learning (2010), after a stint in rehab (Hadreas only started writing music when he got sober, and has been clean ever since).

 The music that followed confronts the pain of the Crohn’s disease he has lived with since he was a child, and the difficulties of living in this world as a gay man. But Hadreas finds reasons to celebrate, too. He uses male pronouns in his lyrics (something that might sound unremarkable but seems to have tied other queer artists in knots) and revels in the joy of queerness as much as its torments. (“No family is safe / When I sashay” he sang on “Queen”.) Feeling – whether that be deepest misery or wildest rapture – is what Perfume Genius chases. 

This produces music that is deeply felt but inherently danceable too, and has won him a cult following, particularly among queer communities. When I refer to the fact that many of his fans herald him as an icon, Hadreas is the most serious he will be throughout our conversation: “That cuts through everything. I carry that around with me all the time and take it very, very seriously, and very practically, purposefully. I don’t mind that responsibility. I feel glad for it.”

Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is the first Perfume Genius project since a collaborative dance performance, The Sun Still Burns Here, which premiered in Hadreas’s native Seattle in October 2019. Hadreas co-directed the performance with the choreographer Kate Wallich, wrote the music for it (including the singles Eye in the Wall and Pop Song) and performed in it, alongside Wyffels, and Walich’s company, the YC. A ritualistic, sensual piece, it was described by Pitchfork as “a 65-minute modern-dance piece that loosely positions effusive belonging as a potential antidote to pain”, and depicts Hadreas and his dancers clambering over each other’s bodies in a propulsive display of romantic decay.

It also turned Hadreas’s understanding of his artistic approach on its head. Usually, his process is a solitary one: “I go into a room and try to get far out from where I am and how I feel.” This time, other people were involved from the very start. 

By connecting with the dancers, he and Wyffels, who joined Hadreas onstage, “became more involved in our bodies”. Hadreas observed the “hyper-physical, hyper-present” way in which the dance company worked together: “Magic was coming from touch and movement and just cutting through the air. That felt so new and exciting to me. It shook up what I thought writing could be like, even musically.”

Communicating fluently with his body was especially novel for Hadreas because of his long-term experience of Crohn’s, a chronic inflammatory bowel disease which leads to abdominal pain, fatigue and weight loss. He had experienced transcendence through dance before, during his own gigs, but only in a “rebellious way, against myself and my body. I’d throw myself around and smash into things”.

Now, he realises, he doesn’t need to punish himself in order to succeed. “Maybe I can enjoy it, and I’ll still get somewhere, you know? I always feel like everything has to be hard or it’s not good.” The Sun Still Burns Here was only possible, Hadreas says, because “physically I was feeling better. I was in remission for a couple of years”. 

“That’s not the case anymore,” he adds, plainly.

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Hadreas still wrote most of the songs on Set My Heart on Fire Immediately alone, but, he says, the dance experience “changed what I was desiring and what I wanted. I was around a lot of people for a longer period of time and I liked it. I realised that I have a tendency to nest and to hide, and I think I’ll always have and need some of that, to refuel, but I also want to be around people and I want to make things with people and I want to be in the world and in my body. The record is me trying to figure out what that’s like, or what it’s been like.”

The physicality of this album has “a lot to do with feeling healthier, feeling more connected to my body and feeling like I’m outside in the world more”, Hadreas says. That physicality is audible on “Nothing At All”, where his vulnerable vocals are doubled by a grainy bass which anchors the song to earth, and on disco-pop number “On the Floor”, on which he asks: “How long till my body is safe?” over spiralling synths. If 2017’s euphoric No Shape was the sound of Perfume Genius finding some happiness amid his torment, on Set My Heart on Fire Immediately he luxuriates in pain willingly, sitting with it before moving on. It is thoughtful and contemplative, without relinquishing intensity.

There is great theatrical power in the music of Perfume Genius, something I put down to Hadreas’s willingness to contrast hope or jubilation with fear or despair, feelings which often strike out in the form of perfect cadences or dissonance when you were expecting the other. I put this to Hadreas, who considers it slowly, nodding as his reasoning unfurls. “It’s sometimes very counter-intuitive, but ultimately they lift each other up,” he says.

“When they are in parallel, it makes the beautiful parts more beautiful and the sad parts more sad. I have to force myself to do that sometimes, because it’s so satisfying to just resolve on a chord which is exactly where you thought it was going to go. And I do still do that. But putting them together… it feels more real, like you’re in the middle of it but you can see the whole thing. The whole thing is always messier.”

“Leave” is a mesmerising string-led track which takes the album’s title as its first line, muttered almost inaudibly by a drop-pitched Hadreas. He says it is about “wanting to be totally and permanently in fantasy”. It’s about the place he goes when he’s dancing or singing – “a very supernatural, magical place”. Elsewhere, Hadreas looks back on snapshots of real-life memories, as he did on older songs “Mr. Peterson” and “Alan”. The harpsichord-backed “Jason” recalls a sexual encounter he had at the age of 23, framed in sparse, elegant lyrics: “Jason undressed me / Lying on his sheets / He did not do the same / Even his boots were on.” The song is so tender it feels almost like a lullaby. It is, Hadreas says, “very personal but almost fiction. I was imagining an older man close to dying, not able to grasp all of his memories, and having someone close to him hold his hand and tell him about the things that had happened to him.”

Hadreas thinks about ageing a lot. He feels he held on to “that vulnerable feeling you have when you’re young” for a long time – but he doesn’t have it anymore, and that’s a relief. “When I was young, I was very irresponsible and aimless. I had no real interest in planning. I pushed that really heavily for a long time, essentially until I started making music. My whole life blossomed when I got healthy and I committed and was responsible and actually made things, when I took care of myself and my relationships.” For Perfume Genius, health, musical fulfilment and personal contentment come hand in hand.

All our talk of strength and health in the context of Set My Heart on Fire Immediately feels bittersweet now, with Hadreas out of remission and having to live, once again, with the daily pains of long-term illness. This regression has been particularly difficult because he “didn’t get better from any formula”: there is no one thing he can do to feel well again. 

“It reminds me that ultimately, you have no control. I can try to align myself with health. I can try to align my body, be more available to it, but in the end... My body knows now what that’s like and what it can do. Maybe it will be able to go back to that.”

Ellen Peirson-Hagger is the New Statesman’s culture assistant.