A bright light in the days of quarantine and social isolation, Perfume Genius's fifth studio album Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is a celebratory ode to the closeness of others. Mike Hadreas, the musician behind the Perfume Genius moniker, penned songs fresh off a collaborative music and dance project titled The Sun Still Burns Here.
A traditionally solitary artist, Hadreas spent nearly a year developing lyrics and movement alongside Seattle-based choreographer Kate Wallich, and her dance company The YC, for a run of evening-length performances in late 2019. The warmth and tenderness gained from such an intimate project seeps through the seams of his latest release.
Set My Heart On Fire Immediately sonically explores the peaks and valleys of love, sex and the body, weaving together celebratory dance pop, country-tinged guitars, and gritty ballads. Hadreas’ at-times delicate, at-times powerful vocals find home once again with the production of Grammy-nominated Blake Mills, who also produced 2017’s No Shape.
Movement not only inspired the lyrics of the new record, but the visual elements as well. The currently released music videos for singles “Describe” and “On The Floor” feature primal choreography executed in the dust of the desert. Press photos see Hadreas contorting his body while emoting grace and calm.
In a Skype conversation from mutual self-quarantine, KEXP caught up with Hadreas about the communal, physical and emotional inspirations of his latest work.
Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is out Friday, May 15 on Matador Records.
KEXP: I know you have a new record coming out on May 15, and you recently collaborated with Seattle-based choreographer Kate Wallich on this live music and dance project titled The Sun Still Burns Here. You wrote all new music for the piece, developing songs alongside the dancers, working with them for almost a year. How did that collaborative work inspire the pieces you penned for Set My Heart On Fire Immediately?
Mike Hadreas: Traditionally, all my music is written alone. Like I'm in my room, by myself, trying to get somewhere else. Trying to transcend something or figure something out. But it's very solitary. And I don't know if I made up that that's what I need, or if that really is what I need to write. But apparently it isn't the only vital ingredient.
When I was working with Kate and with the dancers, I felt that magic of creation in that other place, that kind of supernatural, magical thing that I get to by myself. But I felt that with people, and I felt that in a hyper present physical way. I watched her and the dancers write with their bodies and while moving. And I was like, they're doing what I do...but just this different...it's this different way of looking, and seeing, and being.
It was very healing for me, and it was very liberating. I think it informed a lot of what the music is about, and just how I'm feeling in general. I wanted with this music, that even if the idea I was dealing with, or wrestling with, was abstract...I wanted to make the lyrics and the energy funnel into something real and tangible and write a story about it, even if the story doesn't exist yet. I will make a scene for this feeling to live in, or I'll make something really hyper-physical, hyper-present for it to be in. So if it wasn't directly a memory or directly about something specifically that happened to me then...then I made it, I made it something.
You talked about that hyper-physicality and it seems like dance is an incredibly important part of the creative aesthetic for this new record, both in the music video for "Describe," where The YC dance company joined you, and then you're also performing solo choreography for the video of "On the Floor." Can you talk more about how movement informed the lyrics and music for the writing process of this record?
I mean, I realized that it was a portal. Being really in my body is a very foreign idea, as like a transcendent thing to me. I thought...I wanted to be uploaded, like my consciousness, be uploaded onto the Internet. I want to be in some alien void where I'm a formless wisp of smoke floating around. That's how I thought I was gonna get out. I didn't think that I could go really fully in, and then that somehow would give me “out” energy. That's what happened.
Beyond that, just shaking me up creatively, it shook up what I thought I wanted in my life. I thought what I wanted was to nest, and to be detached, and just create a really cozy place for me to hide in. And I'm realizing now that I want to be around people, and I want to be around weird people, and I want to be around people that do weird shit. And I want to just roll around in the dirt, and make stuff, and be happy, and have that be shared. So I'm covered in dirt in almost every picture and almost every moving image for the album so far.
A lot of this is fueled by my desire and what I want. And it always has been. Maybe now I'm just enjoying it more, and that feels very foreign to me, too. Working has always felt kind of uncomfortable for me, and I thought that discomfort had to be there in order for it to be good. But now I'm realizing it can be there, and I can find some joy in it, too. Because it wasn't easy for me to do all this dance. It required a lot of intimacy and stuff that I don't have any formal training with, or any knowledge of. And so I wasn't comfortable, but I was enjoying it.
You've said in previous interviews that music sometimes feels good for you when it makes you uncomfortable to write or perform, or requires more of you in that current moment. Did you have that experience with that discomfort, pushing yourself with writing Set My Heart On Fire Immediately?
Yeah, I always try to get my stuff there. You know when I write, I write a lot of music that doesn't end up on the record. And it's usually because the easiest stuff for me to make is the stuff that I just leave on my hard drive.
I've realized that it can be in tandem with confidence, and with command too. It doesn't have to be fully, ‘I'm just experimenting and throwing myself out there.’ I can make a container where I'm doing that but there's an edge, and I feel confident enough that I can create that edge and container and keep elements of wildness, experimentation, but not forget everything that I've done or have it be fully...I can keep this confidence.
I know that you also explored, beyond the dance, so many different styles and instruments on this record. There's dance pop, waltz, and some country-tinged steel guitars. I'm curious, is that a part of discomfort, or do you find it freeing to explore new genres, new instruments, new styles of music?
I mean, honestly, I feel more comfortable when all of those things can exist at the same time. Because that's really how I feel. I usually feel like I have to pick one, and that's what is required of me, is to focus and pick one and not have all these competing parallel things exist at the same time. But I would keep them all in my music and that feels natural to me. It feels good.
It all comes from the same place. It all started from my head and then it was all carried out, especially on this record with the same group of musicians in the same room and at the same time. We recorded a lot of these songs more live, and more like a captured performance in a moment than the rest of the records. And so even if the songs maybe are branching off into different sonic ideas it never...it always feels like the root is the same.
You re-teamed up with session musicians who you've worked with in the past, and I know you also worked with your producer, Blake Mills, again, who worked with you on No Shape. Can you tell me more about that collaboration and how you approach time in the studio together?
Well, I knew that I was going to work with Blake, or maybe I just assumed I would because I really wanted to when I was writing. I just really trust...I trust him completely. I trust his ability, I trust his taste. And so when I was writing, I made room for him to play, and had them in mind when I was writing.
I bring pretty fleshed out demos to the studio, but they're just a map. Like, the only thing that I'm sacred about is the idea, and the lyric, and the melody. But as far as how it sounds, that can be created together, and it can be completely different than what I thought.
Like "Describe," I wrote as a pretty bleak, minimal ballad, and it turned into this sludgy, heavy guitar song. But then I kept the lyrics and the vocals just as soft, I didn't really alter those at all. But it enhanced that element of it. I feel like it made Blake's guitar even louder because I was singing softer, and it made my softness even more tender. And that's the kind of thing that I love about working with them, is bringing that kind of harmony that we have together, where we kind of lift each other up and enhance each other's qualities.
I absolutely adore the rhythms, and the guitar, and those twinkling piano accents on the song "Without You." I was wondering if you could tell me more about the story behind that track. It sounds like there are two separate parts, there's the lyrics and your vocals, and then also the production and the musicality of it.
That song, I wrote it to myself. It's about looking in the mirror and for a split second you actually see yourself as you are and are okay with it. Which I mean, maybe some people are always doing that when they look in the mirror, but I definitely am not. So to have that happen is very sustaining for me.
It's happening more, I guess, because I'm taking care of myself and it's happening more now, but it's still usually really brief. But it's enough. That song's about how just a minute of that is enough to carry me through a few months where I don't, just because I know that that's available, or it's there potentially in the future. Or maybe, all that blurriness and confusion around myself and how I look and stuff that...maybe it'll get sorted out at some point. Or maybe it's okay that it's not.
I love that. I'd also love to know the story behind the title of this record, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, because it captures this intense passion in six words. I know you explore it further in the song "Leave." What's the inspiration behind that particular phrase?
Just a greediness. It's just that, once I found out that there's other places for me to go to get what I want, I just want to go there and have that all the time. I'm pretty restless and insatiable as a person, and traditionally that has been a really bad recipe. But recently, I found that I can let some of that wildness in that I thought I had to temper, and some of that desire, and want, I can have that be really big and fiendish, and not have that overtake me. And have there be safe ways, and creative ways, and gentle ways, to soothe that. Once I figured that out I wanted all of them right away.
Looking at that wildness, you mentioned earlier that desire to kind of roll around in the dirt with fun, weird people. You really explored that with the music video for "Describe," which you talked about envisions this “end of the world” scene where there are no boundaries, no rules. However, we're currently living through this global crisis that has us experiencing very strict boundaries and very strict rules, keeping our distance from people. I'm curious how you're currently handling those two very different realities.
It is really definitely strange to be releasing a record that is so much about being with people, and not be able to do that. But...they're not, you know, there's time and there's room. Hopefully everybody will stay safe and healthy.
I have no real answer, it's confusing. But it was confusing before too. I think I just need to remember that things don't go away. I'm so used to this idea that if something good happens, I just put my claws in it and hold it. I don't trust that if I let go, that it's going to come back. And I'm sort of trying to realize that...happiness and warmth, even if I don't feel them, they're still there, somewhere. It'll come back, or I'll find new ways to get it. And so I'm kind of in the middle of it always, trying to adapt to this and figure out how to get the things I need, and do the things I'm supposed to do, and share the things that I've wanted to in a different way than I thought.
Perfume Genius’ Mike Hadreas will be collaborating with Seattle choreographer Kate Wallich on a new contemporary dance and live music performance piece. Set to debut at the Moore Theatre Oct. 4-5, the piece is titled The Sun Still Burns Here.