Mike Hadreas didn’t listen to show tunes before he became stuck at home. Lately, though, the musician has started his days quarantining in Los Angeles by listening to Sinead O’Connor’s cover of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” from the musical Evita. “There’s something satisfying to it to me right now, because I’m stuck here but I want to feel some of that energy,” Hadreas says. “Just changing where I’m at into somewhere else. And I can listen to that and … I don’t know what else gives you that.”
This is the same Mike Hadreas who’s balanced intimate reflections on queer life with grand, theatrical pop music and performance art as Perfume Genius for over a decade. The 39-year-old’s flair for the dramatic originally came from listening to performers from Björk to PJ Harvey and watching films in the canon of queer and camp cinema. It’s central on today’s Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, his fifth record, which he made at the same time as The Sun Still Burns Here, an avant-garde dance project that roots Perfume Genius’s fascination with bodies and sex in a more heightened eeriness than any of his past music. Hadreas created and performed The Sun Still Burns with Kate Wallich and her Seattle company The YC along with his partner and longtime collaborator, Alan Wyffels.
The experimental composer John Cage spoke of moving “towards theater” in his work, bringing new and disparate elements together in some sort of harmony. While every Perfume Genius album has built toward the next, you can hear them all in Set My Heart on Fire Immediately: The cinematic pop of No Shape, dense electronics of Too Bright, uncomfortable confessions of Put Your Back N 2 It, wispy vocals of Learning. The genius of Perfume Genius is that every new album feels like Hadreas’ most realized project yet. That’s most true for Set My Heart on Fire, which builds on his musical synthesis with a unified visual aesthetic; the cover and two music videos are pastoral and grimy, a more masculine, new look for the performer. As quarantine has given Hadreas time to think about his postponed live performances, he’s considering how to create an energy similar to O’Connor’s in a world traumatized by a pandemic. “I think it’ll be messy,” he says, “but I mean, things have been messy forever.” Below, Hadreas recounts eight of Set My Heart on Fire Immediately’s varied influences.
Elvis and Roy Orbison
I felt directly influenced in thinking about Elvis and Roy Orbison and these classic crooner guys that wrote these ballads that I’ve been singing and listening to my whole life. I thought, What would my music be if I inhabited that energy? If I sang that way: hypermasculine, swaggery, performative but still very vulnerable and sensitive. That combination is fun for me and felt kind of foreign and very satisfying to adopt on songs like “Whole Life,” “Without You,” and “One More Try.” Also, I just love those songs, and I’ve been carrying them around my whole life. I wanted to [know], what would my music sound like if I sang about the things that I care about and that are important to me but framed them in this most traditional way? Especially when I’m singing about things that don’t feel traditional.
Also, the thing about Elvis is that he’s hot. [Laughs] All he did was just move his hips a little bit, and everybody just lost their minds. It’s the same way with a lot of that music — that anything vaguely controversial or nasty, it was all in between the lines or very, very small gestures towards it, because they couldn’t explicitly talk about anything. And it almost heightened that feeling. I love that.
When I watched Hairspray when I was a kid, all the camp was gone for me. I just watched it like a regular movie. But I think that’s why I’m obsessed with performance and camp, but also seriousness, because they all kind of blend together to me. It’s the same thing with a lot of those ballads and songs, that you maybe could feel it but you didn’t know what it was till later, and you’re like, Oh, that song’s actually about this. Maybe you could feel it energetically. ’Cause I could feel, when I was a kid and watching Hairspray, This makes sense to me. Something about this feels good. I like this movie. [Now] I’m like, Oh, you were a gay child!
The Sun Still Burns Here
What the dance did for me is, it brought this part of me that always felt very solitary and separate into the real world. Being creative and writing, especially writing, has always felt very solitary to me. I go somewhere alone and isolate and try to pull some weird spiritual threads that are buzzing around. Going to that place, and that kind of dream I have to be in to do that, has always felt very solitary. But doing the dance, it felt like writing — I had that feeling, that magical quality to time and space, that always felt like a fantasy. I had it with people, and I had it in a specific room with them, and I had it in my body, not from imagining being in a different one. It became a bridge in my regular life, too, where I was like, What if those things didn’t have to be so separate and I could have more seasoning in each direction from both places?
I think why it was so liberating to me in a lot of ways is because it was just for the sake of it. Of course, I was dedicated to being better and physically improving — and I was being taught, so I was learning — but I didn’t have a huge frame of reference for dance or movement at all. When I make a song or sing, I know where my voice fits roughly with my own work or with other people’s or with the things that I love. But with dance, it felt more purely creative in a way that I was just feeling and moving and following my instincts without question. Whether that makes it good or bad, I have no idea. [Laughs] But energetically, I was into it.
She’s singing about sex, and she’s scary. And you were scared of her — she wasn’t scared; you were scared of her. Listening to albums like To Bring You My Love was really empowering. I also grew up with this weird fear of the devil, like literally I was scared of the devil. And she would sing about the devil a lot: about sleeping with him, walking with him, meeting him, laying with him. I was so scandalized by it, but it was also really empowering.
I like that feeling where the air gets cut. Like, the energy in the room just gets cut. You think it’s gonna be some way, but it’s not. Or I love just seasoning the air with something darker and nastier, and I like just staying there for a while. I like doing that at my shows. I’m not sure how much other people do or if it’s even translating. There’s this one song, [“Thing”] that this one guy was like, “I really don’t like this song. I find it really off-putting.” And I just loved that. [Laughs] And I played it every night for like two years, just thinking, Everybody hates this song, and kind of getting off on that idea. I don’t know if that’s scary, but it’s definitely something. It was kind of mean to the person listening. Not a lot of my songs are like that, but that one kind of is.
My first record, [Learning], I kind of just quilted all the songs that I had made by myself at home into a record, and then the second record, [Put Your Back N 2 It], was the first time I’d ever been into a proper studio. Along the way I’ve [realized] there’s so much room to build a whole world around it besides just the songs. And I’m just slowly figuring out how to be more thoughtful with all of it and how to do this in front of everybody. I can tell when I’m onstage and everything fits and you feel like you’re building a vibe and a world that is there before you even get there. That’s very satisfying.
I grew up just obsessed with musicians who could do that. When you’re young and listening to Björk, albums like Homogenic and Vespertine, she’s somewhere else. [Laughs] She is dedicated to following wherever she is all the way and letting that shift and change and be wild and different. Björk is clearly not locked into a mode. It’s very clear that she’s never resting, that she’s always searching and leveling up. Everything about what she’s creating was so intact in my room, in the [Seattle] suburbs, listening to it. I hope to bring some of that, if I can.
The beginning idea for the “On the Floor” video was really influenced by the end of the movie Beau Travail, [Claire Denis’s 1999 film about French soldiers in Djibouti]. There’s this solitary dance scene that’s like, he’s in a club and he seems like he’s dancing to someone, but he’s also alone. It’s kind of cruisy, and it’s in between dance and not dance. That was the idea I wanted for the video: something in between all of those.
There were some movie influences on the “Describe” video, Caravaggio, the Derek Jarman movie [about the painter]. For a lot of “Describe,” I wanted to be almost like Caravaggio paintings or these blooming, gently pulsating tableaus. Huge scenes where each person is in their own world, with their own little thing that they’re paying attention to but everybody’s next to each other. And if you look [at the dancers], Kate’s having a relationship with the rock and Tommy’s [with] a pig. Stuff like that. [Laughs]
You know when dads just stop changing their clothes? They get locked into some time period. I don’t know when that happens, but just the jeans that like, These are the jeans that I’m gonna wear for the rest of my life. This boot cut, this straight leg, this is it for me. I’m sure that that’ll happen to me, and maybe it already has and I don’t know, but I’m just terrified of that. I never want to get locked into some mode.
I just hope that I keep making sure that I keep myself uncomfortable and moving around and shifting around. Me and my boyfriend talk about what’s going to happen when we’re older, what kind of old person I’m going to be. We both think that I’m going to just eventually stop talking and read the paper, and I’m just going to be one of those people that is just like quiet and doesn’t talk. You would think it’d be the opposite. And I kind of hope it is.