Perfume Genius: ‘I Am Conjuring a Feeling and Magnifying It’

The singer discusses sex, dancing and Elvis on his new album, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately

Before we listened to Mike Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius’s, new album, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately (released on 15 May), my boyfriend asked me: ‘First, can we watch the video for my favourite song of his? It’s so beautiful and so sad.’ He was talking about ‘Dark Parts’, a single from Perfume Genius’s second album, Put Your Back N 2 It (2012). In it, Hadeas puts his arms around the shoulders of his real-life mother and leads her out of a house to take shelter beneath a cluster of trees. He embraces her, in a tender display of filial devotion, singing: ‘I will take the dark part of your heart into my heart.’ The song is about the sexual abuse his mother suffered as a girl. Dark parts – abuse, by other people and of various substances; loneliness; violence; body dysmorphia; chronic illness; and the difficulties of living as a gay man in a straight world – have been recurrent themes in Hadeas’s trembling, soul-baring song-writing since the release of his first album, Learning (2010), recorded after a stint in rehab, to the sparse accompaniment of a piano in his bedroom.

Set My Heart on Fire Immediately sets these barbed themes – but also those of love, sex, empowerment, self-doubt and self-knowledge – in a lusher, poppier soundworld that is both expansive and controlled, thanks to collaborations with legendary session musicians Pino Palladino and Jim Keltner as well as producer Blake Miller. This is a record that exults in human contact – how we support each other or let one another fall. Hadeas and I spoke from our respective isolation in London and Los Angeles about the new album and releasing it at a moment when most forms of touch feel impossibly distant.

Perfume Genuis, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, 2020, album image. Courtesy: the artist and Matador Records; photograph: Camille Vivier

Amy Sherlock: Congratulations on the new album. It must have been weird to release it in the middle of all of this.

Mike Hadeas: Yeah. It felt good though. It had been finished for a while and it almost seemed like a dream or something: as though it wasn’t real, it was just there in some room by itself. Like me. Now I can feel the energy of everyone outside listening to it.

AS: This is your fifth album. The very first words of the opening song are: ‘Half of my whole life is gone’. Is this a kind of taking-stock record?

MH: In a way. I mean, that sounds kind of dramatic and I hope I’m not halfway there yet! But I was thinking about this idea of moving towards something else and shaking off whatever you need to – or everything, if you feel like it – that happened before.

AS: It certainly feels like your most expansive record, sonically. Were there particular sounds that you were thinking about or influences that seeped in when you were making it?

MH: I am pretty wild with how I listen to music and kind of all over the place in my tastes. On this record, I was thinking a lot about Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison and other dude singers that have written classic ballads. I’m into those songs sonically, but there’s also something very satisfying about the way they wrote and performed them, which feels very foreign to me and strange to inhabit.

AS: On that idea of inhabiting: the album visuals have been much remarked upon. You are on the cover looking very toned with your shirt off; there’s also an image of you wielding a sledgehammer. It’s somewhere between Bruce Springsteen – blue-collar rock star, wielding his guitar – and the guy from the 1990s Diet Coke ads.

MH: I’ll take that!

Perfume Genius, Too Bright, 2014, album cover. Courtesy: the artist and Matador Records

AS: This hyper-masculinity is a very different look to your previous albums. On the cover of your third record, Too Bright [2014], you were much more androgynous.

MH: It’s really satisfying to build a world around a record. It’s fun. Growing up, that’s what I looked for. I loved bringing a record home and feeling like I could experience it beyond just listening to it.

AS: Are the videos part of that? The ‘Describe’ video begins like a frontier film, with you looking tough and windswept on a quad bike in the middle of a great expanse of American West, but when you reach the ranch it’s this kind of queer hippy love cult.

MH: I have never directed a video myself, but my ideas for ‘Describe’ were so 360, down to what I wanted people’s hair to be like, that I thought I could just do it. I had been working with the dance company [Kate Wallich + The YC] for a while and I knew that those relationships would shine through. Sometimes, trying to show that specific idea – a queer, free-love pile of bodies – can seem really hokey or forced but, since we had performed together, I felt that it would work.

AS: There’s a scene where you are fighting – or maybe dancing – with someone in front of a table that’s laid out like a Dutch still life. It’s a very baroque, chiaroscuro mise en scène.

MH: The buffet scene is from a short Pier Paolo Pasolini film called La Ricotta (1963). And I loved the knife fight.

AS: It’s slightly unnerving. You’re not sure if it’s dangerous or if it’s some kind of amorous courting ritual.

MH: That’s why I like it! I think what dancing gave me is a sense of being able to follow my instincts and ideas, even if they’re absurd or potentially harmful. It’s about creating a space in which you can have these blurry relationships with other people, with what’s good and what’s not good – and maybe even have that distinction be gone. It’s really satisfying to not have to talk or to process things in the way that I’m used to.

Perfume Genius, Describe, 2004, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Matador Records

AS: Re-listening to your first albums, Learning and Put Your Back N 2 It, after Set My Heart on Fire, I was really struck by how sparse and fragile they feel. The instrumentation is really stripped back; it feels like listening to a person coming to terms with the darkness of the world, and the darkness in himself. Was the music a space for articulating things that couldn’t be said elsewhere?

MH: Strangely, I felt kind of removed when I was writing those songs. They are really personal and vulnerable, but I felt at a distance from them. Recording them was part of some kind of acceptance of the big picture. I don’t think I wrote anything good until then because I was too close to my problems and my feelings, but finding music was a way for me to look at what was really going on in my life. It felt like I could see things clearly. That carried through to my daily life a little bit – it was because of my getting healthy and sober and taking care of myself that I was even able to write. The weird thing about the new music is that I don’t feel like that anymore: I feel really close, like I’m still in the middle of all of it.

AS: Does that mean that the songs are less autobiographical now?

MH: They are all based off feelings I have, but I storify them now. I wouldn’t say they are autobiographical. I mean, there are some songs, like ‘Jason’, which are.

AS: I was going to ask about ‘Jason’, purely out of prurience. It’s the most narrative track on the album and, as I understood it, it’s about a straight guy that you have a one-night stand with. He makes you take all of your clothes off while he keeps his on, but then he is the one who ends up weeping. I liked the way it inverts certain preconceptions of the power dynamic in a sexual relationship. Jason keeps his boots on: we have an image of him as the physically powerful one, but it’s quite a superficial kind of power.

MH: I don’t feel like I’m the less powerful one in that situation. Maybe when it’s written out it can seem that way, but I don’t ever really feel like that. When you are the one who feels like you understand more of what’s going on, I think you hold the power. The other person is just falling around and feeling without processing or reflecting. The idea that slamming around is somehow strength is very male to me in a way that’s really gross.

Perfume Genuis, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, 2020, album image. Courtesy: the artist and Matador Records; photograph: Camille Vivier

AS: Sledgehammer logic.

MH: But, even as I’m saying that, I’m also really attracted to it. It’s like when people send me pictures of guys manspreading on the subway: I’m like, ‘that’s awful’, but it’s also really hot! I would just never take up that much space, but those guys seem so comfortable everywhere that they don’t even have to think about it. They seem free of something that I’m not free of, which is why they’re attractive to me even though I hate it.

AS: All tours are obviously on hold for the foreseeable future. Have you been doing any online performances?

MH: We did one official livestream for Pitchfork when the record came out and we’re going to start doing some more. Alan – who we should talk about – has been arranging some of the songs so that we can perform just me and him. We weren’t imagining that people would hear these songs for the first time in such stripped-down versions, but we’re figuring it out.

AS: Alan Wyffels is your long-term boyfriend and also a musician in your band.

MH: Every show that I’ve ever played, we’ve played it together. He’s been in the studio with me for every record.

Perfume Genius, On the Floor, 2020, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Matador Records

AS: If this isn’t too personal a question, when you are writing these songs that are super intimate – about your mental anguish or your past lovers – is it ever strange?

MH: Not anymore. We’ve been together 12 years. In the beginning, he would get upset about the darkness in the songs, but now he knows that I am just conjuring a feeling and magnifying it. I’m trying to blow it up to see if I can feel it so much that it dissipates. It’s not that I’m tortured all the time by everything.

AS: I guess one of the things that happens when you write in this extremely intimate mode is that people feel like they know you. How do you deal with that?

MH: I get it. That’s what I wanted from the music that I grew up listening to, too.

AS: What did you love when you were growing up?

MH: Fiona Apple, Bjork, PJ Harvey.

AS: What do you think of [Apple’s latest album] Fetch the Boltcutters [2020]?

MH: I can’t fully give myself to it. I keep listening to it and then I think: ‘I have to wait to do this.’ All I do all day is talk about my own music and I don’t have any room, it’s too intense. I’m saving it.

AS: When you were starting out, was there a sense that you were carving out a space that didn’t exist? Did you feel a certain responsibility to represent queer identity?

MH: I wasn’t thinking much about that when I first started. And then, once I knew people were going to listen to whatever I made, I started thinking about it. I’m very deliberate about leaving all of my queerness intact in the music as much as possible. I craved that growing up and I still crave that. As a teenager, I watched the worst gay movies – it didn’t matter how terrible the plot was or how bad the acting was. Just to see two men kissing in a movie was enough for it to get an A+.

AS: You have an incredibly devoted following and I think part of that is because you articulate a queer experience that resonates with a lot of people. You have spoken about growing up in a suburb outside of Seattle and being the only openly gay kid in high school; I am sure there are still thousands of queer kids in the suburbs, and elsewhere, who feel as though no one is talking for them or talking to them. There was a song on your first album called ‘Gay Angels’: are you a gay angel?

MH: I hope to be one. When I am writing, I am trying to make music that other people might be helped by in some – whatever – way. I feel good about that: outside of my music, I don’t do things like that very often.

Main Image: Perfume Genuis, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, 2020, album image. Courtesy: the artist and Matador Records; photograph: Camille Vivier

Amy Sherlock is deputy editor of frieze and is based in London, UK.

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