Perfume Genius Looks Inward for His Latest Album
Perfume Genius sits down with V to discuss his new music, dancing and the evolution of his alter ego.
Perfume Genius opens his latest album, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, with a breath. As a release of sorts, the motion welcomes us into this journey of self-exploration and hunger for human connection, which, ironically, is something that’s been on hold for some time now. “I hope my music lets people live alongside all the fucked up competing energies and just be easier on themselves,” said Mike Hadreas, the creative force behind the artist. Being easier on himself is a lesson Hadreas has come to learn along the way. Back in high school, Hadreas was bullied intensely for his sexuality and then when he moved to NYC he began using drugs and alcohol to file his feelings away. Leaning heavily on songs during this period, making music is how he would take a breath. Now, he’s trying to do the same for his fans, with his songs serving as a beacon of hope for those facing similar battles. It’s melodramatic, smart, but most of all painfully relatable. While his album does exhibit darker themes, it also has its tender moments, exhibiting the curative properties of love, which is something we could all use a little of right now.
We last spoke to the artist for August’s Thought Leaders issue, and since then he’s been exercising, making music and hanging out. Read below to see what else he’s been up to.
V Magazine: What did you do today?
Perfume Genius: Drank some caffeine, read some news, and went on my exercise bike. That’s it.
VM: That’s fun. Additionally, I want to congratulate you on Set My Heart on Fire Immediately it’s phenomenal everyone at the office is obsessed — How did that feel to release that?
PG: I’m glad that I have a job where I can just give it to people. I don’t have to give it to them in person even though that’s part of my job, but the music that I made and the core thing of what I do I can still share it to everybody even if it couldn’t tour. Also, it’s just nice to feel connected to people and feel like I was doing something in a time where I felt like I was very disconnected and doing nothing.
VM: How long did it take to create this album?
PG: I think of the whole thing as a process even when I’m not writing or when I’m writing and it’s going really poorly like that’s just part of getting to when I feel really inspired and making things. I don’t feel like I could have that without the shitty part.
VM: Not a start and stop, yeah.
PG: I mean I usually end up breaking into what I want to do and then it only takes me like a week or two to write the bulk of them. And maybe there’s one or two left from when I was really struggling but those were ones that were good out of the batch that weren’t. But I just know that now. I’ve been doing it so much that there’s a month or two or where it’s just a struggle to even do anything and then there’s a month or two where you’re doing things but it’s bad and then there’s a week where it’s really good and that’s what ends up being the record.
VM: That’s great. So when you went into making this record did you already have themes you wanted to explore?
PG: I always do and I’m always wrong. Like I always think I’m going to make a country record or dance record and then whenever I sit down and it comes out different. But I always intentionally try to level up in some way — however, I can. With whatever feels the most important because I don’t always really know until I’m doing it and they don’t really understand the themes until after it’s done. Like after the record is out then I will look at all the songs and I’ll be like, ‘Oh shit, I was really on one about this one feeling or trying to figure out this one little problem.’ But I know I wanted to write lyrics the way that I wrote in the beginning of making music so I’m really proud of the lyrics in my first couple of records and I thought about it very differently like I wrote all those before the music and the music was supporting the story and then as they went on it was more like the music was communicating a lot more and then the lyrics were in there but it wasn’t — it become less of a story and more just like feelings and ideas and like concepts instead of like people’s names and streets and stuff and so I wanted to write more where the story had the feeling in it but the lyrics weren’t just the feeling.
VM: Yeah and slightly pivoting. The album title is kind of intense, can you explain where that inspiration came from? How did you ultimately decide on Set My Heart on Fire Immediately?
PG: I like how it held a bunch of things at once. It’s dead serious, but kind of over the top and kind of campy to me because it’s kind of emo. And I like that because a lot of the feeling in the record is like a boat or even if the song is really focused on one feeling there’s another song right after it or before it where nothing matters but then one song says everything does. And the title has both of those — they’re serious and campy, sad but kind of silly. It depends on your mood what I mean like what you ate.
VM: Yeah, for sure. So now I want to go into your early interest in music. What was the first time you fell in love with music? I read something about you performing like Gloria Estefan songs —
PG: I was about to mention her. I mean there are different portals. The first portal was definitely like Gloria Estefan. Like I don’t know, it’s like gay before gay. It was just like it was resonating and I hadn’t figured out why [laughs]. The bangles too and then I remember I saw Edward Scissorhands in the theater when I was little and seeing like that world and then hearing that world and feeling it. That felt like a portal to somewhere else. It still feels like that to me when I hear that music, every time I watch that movie. It was just magical in a different way and like a less physical way and then as I got older, music was like my friend and it was a way to hear people that were going through things that I was that I didn’t have anyone around in my actual life. It was just a good companion. Things that like I hadn’t figured it out yet and to hear other people have them figure it out or they have the same ones and it’s you just feel less lonely.
VM: So during this time did you start writing some songs just for yourself?
PG: No, I just listened. I was an obsessive listener. I always wanted to write and sing and stuff. I mean I took piano lessons and I would make little things up on the piano but it didn’t it didn’t do anything for me the way that other art-making things, where they felt like an actual like release. But I don’t know and I have no idea why suddenly music became the thing because I was 25 when I wrote my first song. I just decided I’m gonna try writing a song today and I also had went to rehab. I was really healthy and was still living in my mom’s not doing anything but I had all this energy and I was clear-headed like I had all these experiences I had all this stuff to process and I was able to. I had some perspective on it so I felt like I could actually process and talk about things. And I remember listening to music and feeling suddenly like I could do this like make something like that. It doesn’t have to be this huge complicated like grand thing I can just make something simple but if the story is really important then it will connect. I mean that’s what I’m thinking I was thinking now. It wasn’t that calculated when I was doing it. Also, I had followed through because I was following through in general in my life so I just was like I’m gonna write a song and they didn’t stop when I didn’t like how it sounded or when things weren’t working. I powered through everything and then the end result felt a harmony of all the different ways that I’ve been trying to make things for a long time.
VM: And for those who don’t know — where did the moniker Perfume Genius come from? And is it an alter ego where you pull certain aspects of yourself?
PG: It’s just nonsense. It doesn’t mean anything. I picked it really early before I thought anyone was going to hold me to it and I mean I’m glad in some ways that it’s nonsense. Because if I would have thought about it too hard, it would have been very serious, or very, like overly pretentious in some way that I wasn’t. I wouldn’t be happy with it now, even though now it’s, just truly stupid. I have to live with that. But I actually prefer that in a way, I think of other band names that, if I really think about it, it’s a stupid band name, but I don’t even consider it because I just associate those words with that music, how it makes me feel. So alter ego. Now, yeah. Or at least something that I like, outward-facing coat or something I put on, but in the beginning, it wasn’t. There’s not a big distinction between me on stage and off stage and me writing and not writing. I mean, because I was just doing it, I didn’t know what wasn’t going. I was just to make just so focused on doing it, I didn’t really have what it meant in my head, but now I know what’s going on. And I’m self-aware while I’m on stage, while I’m writing like, ‘Oh, I’m writing right now. Oh, I’m in the studio,’ instead of just doing it. So also, it’s just a crazy routine of like, putting a record out, and then touring for a year and a half, and then I’m home, doing nothing for however long. I have to really compartmentalize and, like go really deep in journaling when I need to. So that I prepare to be nearly external when I have to. It’s not really in my nature, so they become very separate.
VM: So what does this outward coat you put on manifest itself into?
PG: I’m not super extroverted. I pretend like I am. I like mimic it when I’m out. My music, my Twitter everything like feels like I’m actually sharing something that I wouldn’t normally with a bunch of people. So if they’re showing up to talk to me after all that I feel like more confident. But also I do it on purpose. Like I do it because I know other people feel the same way I do. And it would be hopefully cathartic to see someone feel like that but still be on stage still be singing still be throwing themselves around. If I would have thought about all the things I’m doing now 10 years ago, five years ago, I wouldn’t have imagined it so almost like in rebellion against that person or as like a beacon for that person.
VM: Yeah, I feel that. I want to pivot briefly — I just watched your described music video and it was so beautiful. Can you take us through the process of creating that video?
PG: I mean all the stuff I’m talking about, it’s very out here. I’m just spiral in my thinking and my feeling is just constant. You know, what I mean? But the dancing it was like, hyper present. It still has big ideas in it big feeling. Because part of it, I like being in my head a lot, because I can get to some really weird places, but I usually get there by myself. And I’m very disconnected from what’s actually going on, but the dancing made me feel really connected to people, really connected to my thoughts, my actual body and the space around me. But I still felt like fantasy, and magic, and transcending all of those things, even if I was really fully in them. And the idea that happiness, or joy — all those things are like actual physical feelings, not ideas. Usually those are like ideas or concepts to me. I don’t know if I really have my feelings as much as they think about that. And when I was dancing I was feeling things and I wasn’t even thinking. I wasn’t even computing, sometimes I would have a feeling I didn’t even know what it was. I think I hadn’t even overthought it yet, because I didn’t know what it was. And I wasn’t alone. Usually being creative and making things, the very seed of it, all the ideas are made by myself. And this was something I made with all these things with other people in the room. So I felt like something to move towards. And the Describe video, all of the dancers in it, were in a dance piece I made the music for with Kate Wallach. She did movement direction for the video too, she is in the video with me. And we had rehearsed for over a year, and had been together. I just had a clear vision for it and so that’s why I ended up directing myself.
VM: What have you been up to since V interviewed you for the Thought Leaders issue back in August?
PG: Oh, God. August. I mean, it was a dark year. For me, there’s a lot of really good things about it. It was sort of anchorless. All over the place. There was some really fun moments. There were some months where I felt like connected to Alan, my boyfriend, and to old friends, who I haddn’t really been talking to you for a while. So we were but we were in touch more — and my family. But also thinking about I mean, everybody was grieving. There’s just massive amounts of grief. So even when I was really close with my mom, and so thinking about, ‘Oh, what if I get her sick?’ Or the election, I mean, protests, there’s a mass amount of things to process and to think about, and it felt really worthwhile to do even though it’s difficult. But there were times where I felt like I was doing a good job at it. And there’s times where I felt really spirally and lost. There’s times to take care of myself and times that I wasn’t but I think everybody was in the same boat and I just tried to be kind to wherever I was, along that line. I still did everything I was supposed to do. I did all the record stuff and I did a good job. I did live streams. And I felt like I set everything aside and just like fully went into that zone. I’m exercising again. That’s cool.
VM: What do you hope your music does for people?
PG: I mean the same thing that music did for me when I was a teenager and still does. It just feels like a catharsis. Either something is being drawn out, or it’s allowed to stay there, but has a little bit of warmth underneath it. Because so much of everything is about, like, if you do this, then your feelings will go away, or this is the rulebook for being better, but it’s almost like all the bad leaves, that’s the goal. But it’s never really worked like that the way. The times that I’ve been the most contented is when I’ve lived alongside all my feelings. I was terrified, but did things influence in that, but that’s a very counterintuitive sometimes in art to do. So I hope my music let’s people live alongside all the fucked up competing energies and just live alongside that in themselves and like, be easier on themselves.
VM: Yeah that’s beautiful. Do you have any plans for the future? Writing, making music, exercising? [laughs]
PG: Yeah, I’m exercising, writing. I’m going to be doing all kinds of stuff. I really do feel like I’m crawling out of a hole. And it’s going to come with its own set of sh*t. Honestly, because just doing anything right now feels like difficult. It’s going to take a while for me to get back to just feeling like regular stuff feels regular. I’ve been singing, I’ve been writing. I know, I can still do it. And I’ve always wanted to make a movie, maybe make something long, longer form, whether that’s all visual or music as well. And I have a whole other record to share. And I have all kinds of projects to do.