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Perfume Genius is on fire and in form on his fifth album

Mike Hadreas, known as Perfume Genius, has crafted a multilayered, multihued sonic dedication to the human body and the very human frailties it is prone to. Heartbreak, physical brokenness and existential sorrow only exist on the surface. Delve deeper into the lyrics and the ecstatic symphony of strings, harpsichord, soaring synths, flute and the ever present piano and only then can you appreciate the poetry.

Hadreas has battled Crohn’s Disease all his life, though until only a couple of months ago, he’d believed he was in remission. Aged 18, he was in and out of hospital for lengthy periods. He hadn’t exercised nor really taken care of his body, he admits, until a few years ago. Aged 38, he looks and sounds more vibrant, healthier and more confident of his voice and aesthetic than he has been over his past four albums. On his fifth, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, Hadreas explores the subjects that have been scrutinised, searched, sullied and sanctified throughout his career: sex, queerness, trust, abuse and the vulnerability of human flesh.

This afternoon, Hadreas appears on my laptop screen from a nondescript loungeroom. He is makeup free, not dressed in glitter or a fishnet tank, certainly not draped suggestively over a motorcycle as press photos depict him. I didn’t expect that, of course, but the glitter-and-stardust, baroque hedonism of his latest album both sonically and visually planted the seed of hope in my mind. Nonetheless, there’s something immediately relatable about a major music star on a couch, in his athleisure wear with the far off barking of dogs that is almost a requirement of any virtual meeting.

At 18, listening to a lot of Cat Power and Low, Hadreas was smoking a lot of cigarettes, trying to cope mentally and physically with the constant hospitalisation, surgeries and medication his illness required. Twenty years later, that experience still resonates through his music and his performances.

Bodies, I say. Let’s talk about them.

“I can say I feel more connected to my body in a real way, not as an idea or a concept, but my actual body as it is,” says Hadreas. “It’s a byproduct of dance and exercise, which is not something I ever used to participate in. I always wanted to exercise to be hotter, but that wasn’t enough. Exercise was enough once I realised it was a war against depression and it felt good.”

Hadreas took part in a live dance performance, The Sun Still Burns Here, in collaboration with YC Dance Company and choreographer Kate Wallich last year. It featured 10 of his new songs played out over 65 minutes on stages in Seattle, New York City, Minneapolis and Boston. In it, Hadreas is both carried and supported at times, while in other moments he is the carrier. Bodies writhe like wild creatures on the stage, but in other moments they exert such graceful, considered movements it seems every gesture has been slowed down and refined to perfection.

“By doing these hyper-present things like lifting people, writhing on metal staircases, these real world situations were enabling me to process things beyond what we were doing. I wanted the music I made to have some of that magic in it. I wanted to write in a way that was less about abstract things, I wanted to make songs that were really physical and present. I wanted to capture feelings in the moment and lyrically to tell a story on this album.”

Hadreas’ aesthetic has evolved over the decades and his five albums. Sinewy muscle, chiselled cheekbones, leather pants and cowboy boots suggest Freddie Mercury in a Bonds ad. Unlike his early days though, he is the director of his image now, rather than a subject purely taking directives.

“Exercise was enough once I realised it was a war against depression and it felt good.”

“I felt like I was being watched in the early days,” he says. “That was a consequence of never performing before and not really having ambitions of doing anything more than making and sharing things. Over time, I brought people into my performance more. It altered my writing too. Now, all the songs I make are for other people in a way. They’re for me too, of course.”

Hadreas wrote the album by himself initially, but his long term partner Alan Wyffels collaborated on the lyrics and the compositions. ‘Braid’ on No Shape, his 2017 album, is one of the most direct love songs that he’s dedicated to Wyffels.

Do you feel safe as a creative, and as a gay man?

“I didn’t feel safe before Trump and I don’t feel safe now,” he responds quickly. “I’m lucky to be safe as a white man. That checks off some heavy boxes for safety, for sure. People like Trump have always existed, but he has emboldened them and made them more brazen in a way. America is a shithole with a lot of violent systems that only keep a small group of people safe.

“Some people ask me if as a queer musician, do I feel like that’s limited my reach or something and I’m sure it has. It’s also given me an audience that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. If you remove anything confrontational or my identity from my music, I wouldn’t like it.”

Hadreas says he “made room” for producer Blake Mills, a repeat collaborator. The Grammy award winning producer has also worked with Alabama Shakes, Fiona Apple and John Legend. “It took a lot of people to make this record. I worked with insane musicians on this record that I grew up listening to, like Matt Chamberlain and Sam Gandel (Vampire Weekend) plays saxophone, Jim Keltner on drums and Robin Moose on string arrangements.

“Beyond creatively how we harmonise, technically Blake is just such an amazing musician. We played a lot of these songs together and tried to capture a performance, aiming for as least amount of takes as possible.”

Right now, Hadreas is listening to Westerman, who has a new album out. “I’ve been listening to Sinead O’Connor a lot, for some reason,” he admits. “I should be reading but now I just watch TV. We watched Ozark and this Bachelor spinoff where couples who are also musicians are testing out their musical chemistry along with their romantic chemistry. It’s awful, I love it.”

Since that sounds like a dangerous cultural chasm to jump into, and since my reality TV knowledge is miniscule, instead I ask about Hadreas’ plans for coming to Australia.

“I don’t have any definite plans in general,” he laughs. “The plans I did have are gone. I just want everyone there to stay well.”

Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is out via Rough Trade Records now.