Perfume Genius, At A Turning Point

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Mike Hadreas (aka Perfume Genius) opens his latest album, Set My Heart On Fire, Immediately, with a jarring statement: “Half of my whole life is gone.” The lyric, sung in typical heartbreaking Perfume Genius fashion — as if a feather is floating between falling and bursting into flames — sets the melodic-sullen tone of the artist’s new record. 

But it also sets an intriguing point of demarcation for the artist. What now, one wonders, will Perfume Genius do with the rest of his life at this raw halfway point? The answer has something to do with forgiveness. 

“I had a choice after I wrote that line,” Hadreas says. “I just started singing and that line came out and it’s like, OK, where do you go after that?”

For Hadreas, realizing so much time and experience has passed offered him a new perspective and an opportunity. He could reflect on his life and either let it weigh him down or shed what might waylay him and continue to move forward toward achievement, discovery. 

“I’m excited to lean on the side of hope,” he says. “I know I can change. I’ve proven to myself that my life can drastically change and that I can, too. I have so many things to shake off and leave behind. Why can’t I just do that? Why do I have to be informed by the first half [of my life]? Why do I have to carry around the things I’ve been carrying? I just feel like I can be different now. I can forgive it all. Not in an avoidant way. But, like, it’s OK. I allow that all to have been, but now I’m done with it.” 

Hadreas, 38, didn’t write his first song until he was 25 years old. Prior, he’d grown up painting; he’d later go to school for it. He lived in Seattle. An openly gay man, Hadreas was frequently bullied. It got very violent. He received death threats, and later was attacked by men near his neighborhood home. He dropped out of school and moved to New York City, where he worked at a club in the East Village as a doorman. Trying to find himself and his place, Hadreas sought comfort but rarely got it. He moved back to Seattle and lived with his mother. He began writing songs. And he quickly became obsessed. 

“It was a very dramatic moment,” he says. “Suddenly, it was just happening to me. I don’t know if it had been brewing for a while or if there was some bizarre astrological thing. But one day, I decided I wanted to try writing a song. I downloaded a music program and made one and it ended up being the first song on my first record [2010’s Learning].”

Hadreas’ life began to quiet down and focus. He wrote more music. Hadreas says he had to clear his mind of negative influences to get down to the work of being creative. He had to distance himself from his past and deal with very real feelings of depression. Only then was he able to begin composing songs. 

“I can’t make something for other people unless I have a little bit of distance from it,” he says. “Some of the saddest songs I’ve ever written were when I was the healthiest and most contented. But I never write when I’m depressed and I never wrote when I was high.” 

As Perfume Genius, Hadreas sits in the studio with his machines and recording apparatuses and simply begins to play. At some point in the improvisation, something will stick out in a melody or bass line and the bit of sound will open a window into a new mood or feeling. That’s when Hadreas strikes. He dives into that place and he investigates it thoroughly. From these efforts, his signature dramatic, heart-pouring compositions bleed forth. 

“I write by recording,” he says. “I set myself up and isolate. I put different effects on my voice or whatever instrument I’m using. Then I’ll catch some vibe from it and I’ll explore it. It’s mood building, really. After that is when I pour the story into it with lyrics and everything else.”

Today, the Grammy-nominated Perfume Genius is as well-known for his music as he is for his music videos. The video for his hit song, “Queen,” which has more than 5.3 million views as of this writing, is an elaborate David Lynch-like trip through city streets, public bathrooms and depraved boardroom meetings, complete with plates of oversized shrimp. But that Perfume Genius’ music is dramatic — and at times beautifully off-kilter — has much to do with Hadreas growing up knowing he was different from most of the people around him and that the difference posed a threat. 

“It was hard,” Hadreas says. “There were definitely some scary moments in my life but they weren’t better or worse than any other queer person growing up. Beyond that, it was just knowing that there was something inherent about you that you can’t change that is just part of you that’s threatening and dangerous. That’s really a hard thing to carry around.”

Despite not writing a song until his mid-20s, Hadreas loved music. He was a music nerd, he says. In high school, he often listened to Elliot Smith, taking in the songwriter’s melancholy music in big headphones while walking around town or waiting for the bus. Hadreas also looked to his school teachers for inspiration and comradery. Seeing that they liked some of the same music or books or movies that he did showed Hadreas there was hope for his future. 

“In a way,” he says, “it made me realize that I was going to get out of there. That I was going to get older and be around people who liked the same things that I did and valued the same shit that I did.”

Perfume Genius’ latest record, Set My Heart On Fire, Immediately (out May 15 via Matador Records), benefits from what makes all of his LPs stellar — his delicate voice. But if you ask Hadreas about his singing style, how his voice lilts and bursts and decays in matters of milliseconds, he’ll tell you that’s just the way it comes out. His technique is not effortless, he explains. Instead, it’s hard earned while also being innately organic. 

“I’m sure there’s a way to sing where I don’t feel like I’m pushing it out,” he says, “or where everything has to be dragged out of me or where I don’t have to slam myself against everything to get it out. But I don’t really know what the formula is. I just start singing and that’s how it goes.” 

In many respects, his songs are the sonic equivalent of pillow talk. Listening to them, it feels like your ear is right next to his whispering lips. On “Moonbend,” Hadreas sings in falsetto head voice over a lightly strummed acoustic. The song sounds reminiscent of a medieval dirge for some forgotten band of soldiers. On “Borrowed Light,” his voice flutters over pulsing keyboard echoes. But Hadreas doesn’t just live in one sonic space. He’s also comfortable over big distortions or singing with his bellowing chest voice.

“I feel like you can’t have one without the other,” he says. “You can’t go fully into darkness or light without the flip side. If you write something that’s too sweet, it falls flat. The beauty is gone. I need conflict. I need another side in there. It feels more honest.”

On Set My Heart On Fire, Immediately, Hadreas certainly does deliver a mood rich with dichotomy and pensive spirit. The 13-track record is like a mountain of handmade blankets comprising all textures and colors that subsumes the listener one by one. The bouncy “Without You” and charged “Your Body Changes Everything” stand out as easy crowd favorites. But, more to the point, the record is a collection of songs that offers a space to be whole. It’s a knowing head nod that welcomes despite flaw or fancy. 

“I think these songs are a lot about craving and connection and having those two things exist in tandem,” Hadreas says. “There’s intuition between people and this inescapable force between you and someone. But there’s also this real physical world, too. Those things heighten each other and I love that. It’s like dancing. That transaction between the psychic and the tactile reality.” 

But even understood at creative heights like this, for Hadreas, connection can be hard to come by, navigate and hold onto. Diving deeply into one’s own creative psyche and then offering what comes from it can be challenging and daunting. Truly loving something or someone and offering an honest expression born out of that adoration — well, that can be frightening. Nevertheless, that remains the job of the artist. That remains Hadreas’ duty.

“I think for me, love is this warm trust,” Hadreas says. “It’s this allowance to be exactly who you are in total and have that be OK. But in the beginning of love, there’s this weird explosion. Then it settles down and you renegotiate. It’s hard to let that part in. It can be a very scary thing — it’s why people leave relationships. You don’t always want to share all of that with someone openly. Sometimes you can barely take it yourself.”


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