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February 2021

Hearts on Fire: Perfume Genius

A man of many talents, Mike Hadreas isn’t without acclaim, but with his latest album as Perfume Genius, he’s pushing forwards.
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Published: 10:47 am, May 14, 2020Words: Jessica Goodman.
Hearts on Fire: Perfume Genius

A deep breath. A pause. A lingering refrain: "Half of my whole life is gone." What could be heard as a broken-down lament instead asserts itself as a determined cry for something, anything, everything new. So begins the new album from Perfume Genius, a record that revels in the hyper-presence of the moment with a sense of catharsis that's nigh-on physically freewheeling.

"After I wrote that line, I had a decision of, even if it's aspirational, where I want to go," Mike Hadreas reflects. "I love the idea of," he pauses, thinking through his words, "not forgetting, but letting go, of completely shifting and completely changing." Another pause. "Or maybe completely letting go and maybe forgetting." The result is a song – and indeed, a record – that finds hope not through the absence of sadness, but in choosing to move forwards.

"I sometimes feel so informed by everything, disconnected from what I would've chosen or where I would go if the world hadn't got to me," he cautiously conveys. "It's hard to get back to your gut and your instinct when they're so seasoned by everything that's happened to you and everything you've done to yourself. Sometimes I just want to get rid of all of it and see what would happen if I just forgave all of it and let it all go."

Talking from his home on a sunny day in LA, the musician is in high spirits. Admitting he's a little hyped up on caffeine, he talks with an openness and enthusiasm that it's difficult not to get caught up in. "I keep talking about it," he comments. "I'm almost embarrassed," he adds, laughing. "I feel like [people] are going to read all these interviews and be like 'Jesus Christ; this guy is OBSESSED.'"

"I require a bunch of isolation in order to make things; I've only felt safe going there alone"
Mike Hadreas

The conversation topic has turned to dance. Mike Hadreas is certainly no stranger to performance. On stage and in music videos he carries himself with a poise and grace that's enviable – but it had never been something he trained at. Since collaborating with choreographer Kate Wallich and The YC dance company on 'The Sun Still Burns Here' last year, dance has become a part of the way he expresses himself. "It really did change a lot for me, even creatively," he conveys.

"I always think I require a bunch of isolation in order to make things, and to make myself available to whatever they come from. It's always been alone," he expresses. "I've only felt safe going there alone." Songwriting, for him, is an innately personal thing. So it makes sense that the songs he writes come from a private space. Dance, he enthuses, is changing that. "In dance, I was going to that same place but with people, and in a different way, and in a very present and physical way."

"I've always been in my room when I'm writing music," he describes, "flinging myself around and grinding into the walls," he laughs. "There's never been a shortage of that," he assures, "but it's been a solo. I think it's in the music now." And it is. You can feel it. The songs on his new record sprawl, stretch, and spiral, offering an extended hand and an open invitation to sprawl, stretch, spin, shuffle-ball-change, and move with them.

"It started leaking into my daily life and the way I move and the way I look at things," Mike enthuses. "I felt like I was bringing that magic into my life in the actual world, when it used to feel like something that was very alien and then I'd have to access something that comes from outer space." All of this isn't to say his songwriting has lost that quality – far from it, in fact. What dance has done is enable him to connect to and with his creativity in an entirely new way. "It's still far out, and it still has that same supernatural element to it, but it's also hyper-connected."

This sense of connection is something that came to life not just in writing, but in the studio while recording too. "It was a very different experience from the last record in a lot of ways, even though I worked with the same people," Mike reflects. "We wanted everybody to be together and playing and singing together in a more live way, to capture the room and capture the performance and try to see how intact we could keep that and still communicate the spirit of the song."

"Capturing the actual moment of recording," he continues, before pausing, "which I guess is what recording is," he laughs, taking a moment to reorganise his thoughts. "It wasn't like a diary entry, talking about it or narrating it. I sang these songs like I was singing to people and I was singing in the moment for that moment to someone." This way of singing, of writing, makes itself felt through flashes of imagery – a lock on a door, blue jeans discarded on a bedroom floor – that ground the songs in a moment so vivid it's almost as if you can reach out and touch them.

"Even if they were about abstract ideas or feelings, I tried to write [the songs] more in that way," Mike agrees, "and make a story, make a real-world thing out of them, make a more physical presence out of something that feels like it's swimming around in my brain or something that I'm trying to reckon with or deal with.

"That's what I learned in the dance," he continues, "that I can get these things out of me, these things that are trapped or these ideas that I haven't been able to articulate or things that have been confusing..." He trails off in thought for a moment. "It sounds so stupid and simple to say I could just hit something and that helps," he chuckles, then quickly turns earnest, "but it does help. It doesn't feel simple or stupid. It feels like it has the whole weight of everything behind it, just like it does when it's more existential."

"I've always been in my room when I'm writing music, flinging myself around and grinding into the walls"
Mike Hadreas

Writing this way, about people and places and memories and moments, isn't new for Perfume Genius. Mike Hadreas' songwriting has always been open: his sexuality, his struggles with addiction, with Crohn's disease… These parts of his life he sings about, talks about, because they're part of him. "The longer I made music, the more kind of impressionistic it got," he mulls. "I wanted this record to marry that, and be able to harmonise where I started and where I'm at now."

"I think that's what dance did for me too," he continues. "It harmonised those things. It's telling a story in a real way, in a way that's two people: one person holding the other person up, and you can see that, but there's so much behind it." Approaching songwriting in the same way as dance, inviting those energies into a place that has always been solitary, was undoubtedly daunting, but the result is a collection of songs that thrive. Mike admits, "my whole life changed when I sort of lived against my instincts."

"A lot of the reason why I was solitary is because I felt like I had to," he expresses. "I felt like if I let anything else in that it would disrupt me, that I wouldn't be able to make anything, that I wouldn't be able to pay my rent or take care of myself if I let more of the world in, or more people in, or more love in, or more wildness in, that it was going to fuck me up – 'cause classically, it did." With 'Set My Heart On Fire Immediately' he lays waste and lays claim to all of that, an earnest desire to feel and to experience anything and everything making this his most vivid record yet.

"I felt like I had to sacrifice big feelings in order to survive," Mike reflects. "I've been doing that for long enough to know that maybe there are parts of that that work, but in parallel with that, maybe I'd built enough of a centre that I can let more in and still make stuff just the way that I am. Now that I have that idea, I just want all of it right away. I don't want to just gently and patiently add or gather. I would like to just have all of it." 

Taken from the May issue of Dork. Perfume Genius' album 'Set My Heart On Fire Immediately' is out 15th May.

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