Perfume Genius Reconciles Past Tragedy & Summons the Supernatural

In the absence of physical connectivity, Mike Hadreas finds a new flame to fuel his strength and healing on new album, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately

For someone with scores of songs about a desperate yearning for connection, you have to imagine quarantine isn’t an especially invigorating time for the eclectic art-pop titan Mike Hadreas, better known as Perfume Genius.

His recent video for the single “Describe” envisions an apocalyptic scenario in a positive and freeing light, as the rules of society fall away and he relocates to a dusty desert property. But for Hadreas, so much of that vision depends on who he’s experiencing it with. “It seems weird to be making songs that are so much about other people and being outside, when what’s going on right now is very in,” he says. “When I’m rolling around in the dirt, I want like seven people there! And that’s not allowed right now.”

Hadreas typically experiences most of his creative outbursts in long periods of solitude, but he explains that the sparks don’t come as easily when the global news is weighing so heavily on him. “There’s this sort of fearful, strange, scary thing underneath everything, but I guess I’m figuring it out. I have been singing a lot, almost in a therapeutic way,” he says. Still, he hopes his music can be healing to himself and others. “I’m sharing something that could be helpful in some ways if people need it.”

“I should bring the music to people, I’m not selling a new kind of mattress or something,” he jokes, then quickly realizes the implication. “Actually, that would be kind of cool. I guess that would be comforting in these times too.”

Hadreas is no stranger to finding healing through his musical endeavours – most of his career has seen him lyrically grappling with some highly personal tales of trauma, mostly revolving around abuse and homophobia he has experienced. For Hadreas, finding the correct state of mind to deal with the harder times means taking a break from being human and getting in touch with the paranormal, something that he says he’s recently made a breakthrough with. “I found that I could reach the portal to the other side, the supernatural and all the magic fields, by being in my actual body and being with actual people in a real-world place,” he says. “That was really new to me.

“I thought I had to think my way out of all the stuff that’s bugging me, and if I wanted to get somewhere else or be something else, I had to dream my way out of it.”

That perfect balance between the human and the supernatural is something Hadreas strives to present in his music and performance style. Hadreas’ vocals are often airy and buried in a grandiose sonic mix, making him sound like a powerful observing force. However, his performances and music videos are often elaborately choreographed, reaching a very intimate and human level.

“My feelings are never fully in one direction, so there’s something satisfying to me about leaving them all in the music. Plus, I just like tricking people.”

The video for “On the Floor,” for example, places Hadreas and another dancer in a wide-open clearing and is shot like a dream sequence. Hadreas wanted to make it seem as if the other dancer might not really be physically present, an unreachable crush.“I wanted it to be wispy and ghostlike, but also really hyper-physical and present,” he says.

It’s far from the only dichotomy Hadreas has been striving to bridge a gap between. He says it has always been a goal of his to jettison listeners from their comfort zone and make them understand what it’s really like to live his experience. As a result, he often presents harrowing themes through a shimmering façade of synth-pop bliss. Of course, as he explains, real-life feelings are equally “messy,” and the songs should reflect that.

“I’ll have some really tragic memory that one day will be soul-crushing, and then the other day I’ll be hysterically laughing about it because it’s so over-the-top. Those don’t really feel far apart,” he says. “My feelings are never fully in one direction, so there’s something satisfying to me about leaving them all in the music. Plus, I just like tricking people,” he laughs.

Hadreas hopes he’s managed to move into a more hopeful place with his recent material, but he knows better than to make any promises. “I think I know now that you don’t need to be in darkness to make something dark,” he says. “I hope I’m moving towards a better place, I really do. I guess that’s just not a guarantee that the music will always sound that way. It’s much easier to convey something twisted than something genuinely heartwarming.”

His songs that are centred around his longtime romance with his keyboardist, Alan Wyffels, hit that mark. Recently, Hadreas has been excited that more LGBTQ+ artists have been joining him in placing pronouns or storytelling in their love songs that make it absolutely clear they’re singing about a same-sex relationship.

“For a long time, everything was just kind of next to queerness. You could have elements of it, but if it fully was gay, that’s too scary. I’ve always felt that when people press play it’s almost like they have to make a decision, like ‘I am listening to a queer artist now, isn’t this interesting,’” he says, putting on a robotic voice.

“There’s still so much power in hearing your experience explicitly, so it’s not like I want it all to be the same,” he says. “I just want some of that barrier to be removed.”

If you’re looking for that kind of power, you can always trust Hadreas to say exactly what’s on his mind, no matter how he’s feeling.

Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is available on May 15 via Matador Records.

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