At the other end of the line, Perfume Genius falls silent. I hear him sigh demonstratively. “I hope I'm not asking too personal questions,” I apologize. Mike Hadreas laughs nervously. "I don't understand why I talk about feelings I haven't sorted out yet." It's not entirely clear who he's targeting next: “It's good to be open about your feelings, but I'm talking about a big mess right now. People don't like that. I don't like it either, because I don't understand it. Still, it feels good to share.” You'd almost forget we're talking to the artist who channeled his feelings on fifth album Set My Heart on Fire Immediately in a whole new way.
Written bt: Daan Krahmer
Photos: Camille Vivier
Few artists have undergone such a striking metamorphosis in the past decade as Perfume Genius. In 2010, Mike Hadreas debuted as a vulnerable boy; healed from a serious drug addiction, abused by his teacher, rejected because of his sexuality and physically tormented by Crohn's disease. He wrote everything off on Learning (2010) and Put Your Back N 2 It (2012). Lyrically jet black, musically remarkably light. “At the beginning I had strong doubts… When I was just going to perform I saw the piano and that was enough not to do it. The way I tell you now, that's how it felt. Singing, even with my eyes closed, felt insane.”
Hadreas had to write his early albums, before Too Bright (2014) and No Shape (2017) turned Perfume Genius into an alternative pop star. A pop star who dances like most people only dare behind a closed door. “You can use fear as fuel. I give my worst performances when I'm not nervous. I am turning myself inside out to get to the level where I am now. My art gets better when I feel uncomfortable.”
Today we get to know a little about the uncomfortable Perfume Genius. The timing is not optimal. Hadreas was supposed to be in Amsterdam for a press day, but there is tension in the air. Trump is about to announce his travel ban. Slowly it seems that the corona virus is going to disrupt societies worldwide. It's impressive to hear Hadreas struggle in his answers at times, but somehow it's also fitting. Where many stars construct a perfect picture, the career of Perfume Genius is built on doubt. Joy and torment. Commerce and controversy. Those contradictions exist, says Hadreas.
“"Sharing feelings can be helpful. My songs don't solve anything, but maybe it makes people feel a little less alone."“
Within his harmonious songs, Hadreas deliberately seeks controversy. As Perfume Genius, he tries a lot: to the list of performer, visual artist and dancer he adds a video director for his fifth album Set My Heart on Fire Immediately. It is a reaction to the tough masculinity that Hadreas sees everywhere: “I like to look at things where fear and harmony go hand in hand. That doesn't happen very often in tightly directed American films. For this album I tried to create a new world. Something that simultaneously displays hypermasculinity and a dreamy emptiness. A classically old, warm nostalgia is contrasted with extraterrestrial grand gestures. It felt like a strange combination.”
The artwork of Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is an invitation into the new world of Perfume Genius. We see Hadreas as a macho, on a motorcycle, covered in grease and with a hefty sledgehammer in his hands. Grotesque irony, because Hadreas describes himself as anything but that macho. “I've always felt like an outsider. My feminine appearance, my height, how weird I am… As a teenager, in the period when you were very focused on yourself, that was a dramatic feeling. The only thing that made me happy then was music. Music healed feelings that were confusing and scary. Thanks to music I learned that there are people who felt the same as me.” Music thus became Hadreas' earliest school. Now he is doing his part. Through music. “The songs I'm making now are about all the shit that's been done to me in life. I seem hypersensitive and messy… but I write for young people. Sharing feelings can be helpful. My songs don't solve anything, but maybe it makes people feel a little less alone.”
Set My Heart On Fire Immediately has not become a second No Shape. For his biggest pop record to date, Hadreas dives deep into music history. Elvis and Buddy Holly resound in the new pop songs. The lyrics revolve around queer characters and are full of old soreness. Yet Perfume Genius wants to keep dancing, even if it is with a dagger through his heart. “I'm trying, but still I close my eyes” he sings in the irresistibly catchy On The Floor. “Songs can be slow, loud, fast or soft, but you recognize lived feelings immediately. Every time I decide: how am I going to hit? As hard as I can?” After ten years, Hadreas seems to be writing his fragile songs with increasing confidence. But does he feel that himself? “No… I mean… I don't. I wish I did. You know what's crazy? My debut sounded terribly sad, but I felt happy. Now my music is happier, but I feel sadder than ever before. I have some work to do.”
The difference between Mike Hadreas and Perfume Genius becomes clear over the phone. “In my music I try things. Feel how it feels. Some things I feel are uncomfortable for me as a person. I can't talk about it easily, but I can write a song about it. That way I can still share it. Writing songs can be confusing: my music feels very emotional, but as a person I'm not that emotional at all. I can explore emotions, but because songs are limited, emotions don't run wild.”
It brings us back to the thematic macho on Set My Heart On Fire Immediately: “No one is completely emotionally stable. If people claim they are, they're probably living on a lonely mountain, with no other people." Hadreas talks about himself, about his new record, but also about the pandemic that seems to be getting closer and closer: “You know, I'm scared now, but when you're sad, you can also embrace the warm, beautiful things. Emotions go in waves, which is hard to realize when you're in the middle of it. Stressed and sad emotions feel unwanted, but most of the time people just need permission to be who they are. It's okay to be exactly who you are. It's hard. Living is tough. But… everyone shares that.”
Set My Heart On Fire Immediately releases Friday, May 15th on Matador Records and can be ordered here .
Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.