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Perfume Genius Taught Himself To Be Happier, Immediately

On April 30, 2020

Mike Hadreas has been feeling crazy — and not just because of quarantine. The 38-year-old songwriter has been making viscerally personal, and increasingly theatrical, art-pop under the name Perfume Genius for a decade now. Whereas early records like 2010’s Learning and 2012’s Put Your Back N 2 It were somewhat lofi piano-pop, the albums that followed — particularly 2017’s Grammy-nominated No Shape — became sonically grander, though no less intimate in their explorations of love, trauma, sexuality, and triumph.

Given how intensely emotional his lyrics are, and how eccentric of a performer he can be in a live setting, it would be reasonable for an onlooker to assume Hadreas is similarly outlandish in his day-to-day. But that actually isn’t the case, or at least it wasn’t before he began writing for this fifth full-length, Set My Heart On Fire, Immediately.

“I’m not super emotional, really,” Hadreas tells Vinyl, Me Please in early April. “I don’t really feel that crazy a lot. I feel people would think I do, and I certainly act that way. But that’s more me having fun. As far as actually feeling things, I usually feel pretty centered. But I don’t feel that way right now. I feel like I’m off-center and kind of emotional; I don’t know what it’s all about, and I just feel like I’m shifting.”

Musically, the album is imbued with that manic energy, stepping between textural indie-pop, Elvis-like balladry, plush shoegaze, Xiu Xiu-esque experimental pop, and straight-up funk. It’s been a while since Hadreas stuck to one cohesive style, but here he doesn’t just dip his toes — he fully dunks into a myriad of genres without ever sounding like an imposter. It feels like a musical turning point in the Perfume Genius catalog, and that watershed mentality is also present in the record’s lyrics.

The heavenly opener “Whole Life” begins with the line,“Half of my whole life is gone / Let it drift and wash away.” The idea of accepting his past as just that, the past, is something he was thinking about during the writing process.

“The older I get the more of these different versions of myself feel farther away, and I’m less informed by them, they almost feel like different people in some ways. And even though I have that distance, intellectually and even emotionally, they’re still kind of formed by them. I still look at the world or look at men or look at myself the way I did when I was 10 or 14. The world is changed, and I’m different; I don’t need to keep those specific fears.”

“People tell you that you fundamentally can’t change,” he continues. “Or that your circumstances can and maybe you can live against your instincts a little bit better, but that you can’t change. And I just don’t think that’s true. My life is so different now than it was 10 years ago and I didn’t plan for it and I had no idea, so I don’t see why that can’t just happen again and go in a completely different direction.”

We talked to Hadreas about confronting those feelings on Set My Heart On Fire, Immediately, learning how to actually become happier, and the indescribable fantasy world he’s taught himself to inhabit. Our conversation has been condensed for clarity.

VMP: Was there anything you knew you wanted to do going into this record? Either musically or lyrically.

Mike Hadreas: Lyrically, I wanted the songs to feel really physical and very present and it to be about something tangible, even if all the ideas I was wrestling [with] felt abstract or confusing or messy. I wanted to not just talk about them as ideas, I wanted to funnel them into a body or a story. I missed that about the way I used to write lyrics. They had a lot more names in them and places, and then as I went on the lyrics got more impressionistic and talking about the edges of things. Which felt valuable, too … But now I just want to harmonize all of that.

The title of the record is Set My Heart On Fire, Immediately. I really like the emphasis of adding “immediately.” Why’d you land on that phrasing?

It’s because I figured out there are ways that I could be happier. That I could actually be happier, not the idea of it or reaching toward it or finding it by myself. It can be shared, and I can be here when it’s happening. I always feel like it’s this thing that I have to get some kind of transcendence and get out of something in order to be where I need to be.

And I realized I can be here and be in this body and be with these people and I can have some more warmth to it. And once I realized that, I wanted that to be permanent and sustained and be in full euphoria and have all that good stuff right away. I didn’t want to have it portioned out to me.

I hear you say the title of the album in that song “Leave,” which is one of my favorite songs on the album. I love the way your vocals are mixed in the first half, and then the second half becomes this wild swirl of strings and animal noises and muffled vocals. Can you break down what you did with that song musically, and then tell me why that’s the one you inserted the title into?

Well, a lot of these ideas that I’m talking about are really fantastical; they require a lot of fantasy. And I kind of realized that I like it, I want to be in that fantasy forever, and I get in this kind of trance-like state when I’m writing and now when I’m dancing, and I can get there through listening to music or outside with a big hill. I don’t know how to really explain what I’m talking about.

But I found somewhere I could go, and sometimes it’s dark-sided and I like that, too. And I think that song is where I go there, and it’s dark-sided, and I want to stay anyways. But it’s everything at the same time. It’s dark-sided, but the light is really close, and they just kind of worm around each other. I think on that song, I put more of a magnifying glass on a little bit of the darker parts. And it’s a fucking badass first line of a song, and an album title in my opinion (laughs).

Were you accessing this fantasy in previous Perfume Genius albums?

Yes, but it was by myself, and it was in my room. And I think what freaked me out was with the dance performance I did, I was doing that with a group of people, and they were doing it, and it was sustained, and it was leaking into my daily life. And I think that’s what kind of made a big shift for me.

Have any of your collaborators also felt like they were in the same space when they work with you?

I don’t know if they would call it the same thing or think of it the same way, for sure. Maybe not. But we talk about it, and we have language reads for it, for sure. It’s just this energetic, almost like you can feel what’s underneath everything for a second. And it might just be being really hyper-present, it’s really weird like actually looking around can be so trippy.

Like, looking at a chair and actually considering a chair as a chair for a second I’m like, “Woah.” [laughs]. Maybe it’s just because I’ve been in my head for so long that that feels normal. And then to actually connect to the world feels really trippy.

Did those sorts of observations and that presentness have anything to do with you feeling “crazy,” as you said before?

One-hundred percent. Because I just keep veering back and forth between all that stuff; those are all new ways of being or thinking. Just because you have new ideas doesn’t mean the old ones go away. They just have to exist at the same time for a little while which is confusing.

I don’t know, just trying to figure out how to actually change is hard, how to let go of things, is hard. Because usually, the reasons you have the problems you have is because they worked at some point for a while. Different defense mechanisms and coping, I maybe could’ve let go of those a long time ago but you hold onto them.

So trying to be more open — like, truly open — is hard because you actually have to do that, and that’s not always very fun. But it can be fun too and more fun than not. I’m just babbling but that’s what it feels like inside, just, like, blah, blah, blah, blah. That’s what my brain, and my soul feel like right now; they’re just running their mouths talking all kinds of crazy shit, endlessly. And before it was pretty quiet.

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Eli Enis

Eli Enis is a writer and editor who lives in Pittsburgh, cares way too much about music, and drinks way too much seltzer.

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