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“I am feeling an intensity. And if I’m not feeling it, then I want it.”
If the title of Mike Hadreas’ fifth album as Perfume Genius is full of anything, it’s intensity. When we spoke on the phone about six weeks into a nationwide quarantine, he’s more than happy to describe some of the emotional labor that went into this new album, even if his spirits are understandably down. Set My Heart On Fire Immediately opens with the uneasiness of another intense realization: “Half of my whole life is gone,” and unfurls from there, meditations on the slipperiness of life and the pressing power of bodies underlined by squiggly production and zen noodling from Blake Mills, who returns for a second time as a collaborator and producer after connecting with Hadreas on 2017’s, No Shape. (“I just really admire him and I really deeply trust his taste and his ability,” Hadreas says of Mills.)
Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is less a follow up to No Shape — which earned Hadreas his first Grammy nomination in the engineering category — as it is an extension of the musical ideas he was beginning to get in touch with. While his first two albums, 2010’s Learning and 2012’s Put Your Back N2 It established Perfume Genius as an indie force and a critical darling, the arc of 2014’s Too Bright, his 2017 release, and now, this year’s record, clearly portray an artist at the top of his game, pushing toward a clarity of purpose and voice, building toward a pinnacle of sound and movement. The introductory single, “Describe,” channels some of the grunge of Hadreas’ hometown of Seattle, the twitchy follow-up “On The Floor” can manage a subtle nod to J Lo while Mike literally crawls in the dirt for his version.
The music of Perfume Genius is rarely triumphant or celebratory in form, but there is a quiet victory in its steely insistence and sometimes somber revelations. The pretext to that opening lyric? He’s still here, living, not a small accomplishment for an artist who battled and survived traumas like childhood bullying, addiction, and the still-looming dangers of life as a queer man in America. Sharper, and more intense, but without losing any gentleness, this new album gestures toward the physicality and body language that has recently begun to occupy Hadreas more and more. Even if you don’t come to this record for joy, there it is, embedded within the resilience after all. But first, the feelings.
“It’s almost like a greediness for fuller feelings,” he continued, still discussing the proclaimed — and felt — immediacy of the album’s title. “The record is maybe a little more patient or more mature about that idea than I am as a person. That’s how writing is a lot, but there’s an immediacy to all of the songs. And that’s how I want my life to be right now. I want to know what’s going on. I want to feel and understand what I’m feeling. Or, be okay with neither of those things happening. I’m sick of reaching towards something or reaching towards a feeling or projecting. I just want it all soon. Or immediately.”
The album title itself doesn’t show up on the tracklist, though — it’s the opening lyric for another song, “Leave,” a foggy, spellbinding track punctuated by strings and vocals so much lower than Hadreas’ normal range that I assume it’s a voice modulation technique. “I didn’t pitch-shift it or anything, I just sang that like that,” he explains. “It’s weird, but I guess I didn’t really think about it until afterwards because that song comes right after the song “Jason,” which is where I sing the highest note I’ve ever sang.” Nearly halfway through the album and almost functioning as an interlude, the lyrics to “Leave” are layered with whispered tongues and howling. For Hadreas, the song represents the space between songwriting’s intimate immediacy, and the process of taking music out into the world, with all the baggage that necessarily accumulates.
“I wrote that song in my room with the lights off, and I got to someplace that felt supernatural,” he remembered. “The air was really sick and slow, but it was dark-sided. Sometimes I can get to that feeling in a warmer way or in a kinder way. This wasn’t unkind, but it was more swampy or something. It’s equally valuable to me. I will take whatever that feeling is that cuts through. So that song is about, what if I could stay here? What if I could sustain this beyond just in the song or where if I didn’t have to package it. What if I could stay in it?”
Lately, packaging himself and his music has also included an element of dance, perhaps a more welcome extension of the process. Though the physicality of Perfume Genius has always been omnipresent — sway-stepping at the microphone, the destructive, campy choreography of his 2012 hit “Queen,” onstage backbends that defy all understanding of human balance — Hadreas stepped more formally into the world of dance by collaborating with choreographer Kate Wallich in 2019 on the dance-based project The Sun Still Burns Here.
But even that project, he insists, was also studded with bouts of improvisation. The balance between planned movement and spontaneity is still an uneasy one for Hadreas. “I maybe would have one little ass move that I would do in certain songs and stuff but there was no real map to it,” he says of his past stage presence. “I haven’t performed on stage after having done the dance thing. I haven’t done it yet. Maybe I’ll try to point my toes. I’m not sure.”
And the collaborative experience with Wallich directly led to bringing more production into the planned tour behind Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, especially since Perfume Genius was booked to open for Tame Impala, who recently headlined Coachella and have risen to become one of the biggest bands in the world. It wasn’t a small opportunity by any means, but one that has now, obviously, been disrupted by measures taken to halt the spread of COVID-19. For an artist like Perfume Genius, tour cancellations aren’t just impacting his schedule, they’re interrupting the entire scope of his vision for his latest, and most ambitious record.
“The whole record, I was imagining performing it live,” he explained. “It’s about being outside and it’s about connection; it’s about the people, and all the ideas that are formulating around performance, and how I was going to get the music to people beyond just releasing it. It’s hard. That’s how musicians sustain themselves really, touring is how you make money. I’m sure there’s a way for me to perform here, inside. Some people are more natural at pointing the camera at themselves in their house and going. And I can still do that. But I just had different ideas for what it was going to be.”
Instead of getting ready to embark on tour, Hadreas has been — like everyone else — getting online. Though his popularity online has been steadily building for a while, lately, his Twitter presence has been the absurdist comedic break that a lot of people have needed to cut the tension. “I find it comforting that 100,000 people will retweet the same absurd nonsense,” he laughed, when asked about the spike in popularity of his tweets. “That’s really comforting to me. I like just how fucking strange people are, and how Twitter is so fucking weird all over the place. I don’t know how I deal with social media. I just do whatever I want. Then, it became easier to post anything because people were following me. I think that’s bad for me, because I really will post anything. Like with Instagram, now I realize that I can use it in a stranger way. And that feels good. I just post a bunch of monkey videos. Once I realized I could post all those monkeys, then I was into it.”
But whether it is a milestone like Grammy nominations and touring with Tame Impala, or his dedication to tweeting about an enormous blouse, there is a sense of responsibility that comes along with all sides of his existence as Perfume Genius, and that is his ability to provide representation as a queer artist. “If I’m proud of anything, I’m proud of that,” he said. “I feel a very strong sense of responsibility about it, and it cuts through everything. I feel very deliberate in trying to be helpful and essentially I feel like my music might help people. It’s so easy to look at other people and know that they’re just perfectly okay exactly as they are and it’s so hard to do that for yourself. If I ever get bratty about that responsibility, it’s very brief because I don’t have a lot. I don’t carry around a lot of those, so I can have that one. And I like that one. And I feel like I can do some good.”
Set My Heart On FIre Immediately is out today via Matador Records. Get it here.