For Mike Hadreas, who for the past decade has recorded and performed under the name Perfume Genius, music has been part of an evolution that’s taken him from obscure cult status to upcoming dates at Red Rocks Amphitheatre and the Hollywood Bowl. He’s also found his way onto numerous publications’ year-end lists, with his most recent studio album Set My Heart on Fire Immediately coming in at No. 4 on The Guardian’s 50 best albums of 2020.
It’s easy to see why. Hadreas’ artistry can justifiably be compared to that of Roy Orbison, whose melodramatic poignance and near-operatic range he shares; to Portishead, whose dreamy trip-hop provided the soundtrack for his teens; and to Mark Hollis, whose latter-day Talk Talk albums conveyed a dark ambiance that surfaces on more than a few Perfume Genius songs.
Hadreas was 6 years old when his family moved from Des Moines to Seattle, where he spent his early years taking piano lessons, studying painting and being in and out of the hospital with Crohn’s disease. Coming out at the age of 15, he was frequently harassed by other students throughout his high school years. “He got beat up by the football players,” his mother recalled in a New York Times profile. “They’d see him and spit on him.”
With Perfume Genius, Hadreas is finally getting the last word, creating a body of work with explicit lyrics and erotic imagery that seems designed to cause discomfort in a homophobic culture. He also took on the role of dancer in choreographer Kate Wallich’s The Sun Still Burns Here, a 2019 collaboration that’s helped him deal with the body dysmorphic disorder that often finds its way into his lyrics.
We checked in with Hadreas recently to talk about life during lockdown, his funereal rendition of the disco classic “I Will Survive,” and using limitations to create a world of his own.
Indy: Tell us about the cover of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” that you just released. Her version was a rousing anthem of empowerment, while you’ve described yours as a little bit “deathbed-y.” How did that all come about?
Perfume Genius: I think it was very heavily influenced by where I was at when I recorded it. It was deep in the lockdown, like in the middle of that, you know? And I didn’t take to lockdowns too well. I wasn’t like thriving creatively, personally, or anything.
Unlike the rest of us?
Well, I mean some people at least were faking it. Or they actually wrote a book or some shit, I don’t know. I was pretty down. And, you know, it’s just a home recording and, when I heard it again recently, it’s very serious. I mean, I’m always very serious when I write music, but there’s always — well, every once in a while — there’s a lightness in it, or something a little cheeky, or a little wink every once in a while. But not really in that cover. [Laughs.]
Looking back over this past year and a half, have there been any changes in habits or perceptions that you expect to take with you moving forward?
I hope so. I think it’s hard for me to know, because I’m an expert at doing the same thing, even if it doesn’t work. But before the pandemic, I was feeling like I was having a midlife crisis, just really wild and vulnerable, and that got worse and worse and worse in the pandemic. But then I kind of came out of it feeling a little more solid than I think I would have otherwise. Not necessarily great, but I feel like I really have a clear picture of where I need improvement. So at least now it’s clear.
You worked with Portishead’s Adrian Utley on your Too Bright album. Was Portishead a big influence for you, either in your early days or now?
Oh, big time. I remember getting their first record — I don’t know how old I was — maybe 13? And it took me a couple listens to get into their world, and then I couldn’t leave it. I was just very obsessed with it. I really love slow motion, just in general, and a lot of their songs gave me that sort of suspended feeling, like something’s messed up with the time. I find that really satisfying. And her [Beth Gibbons’] voice is incredible, very wise and emotional. And just the whole thing; it was really sexy and dark and classic and technical and smooth and all these things all at the same time.
Your voice has also been compared to Roy Orbison’s.
Oh, I love him. And he was definitely a big influence on this last record. And Jim Keltner, who played drums on Set Me On Fire, he played with Roy for a long time. So that was a real honor.
What was it like working with legendary session musicians like Jim Keltner and Pino Palladino?
They were really incredible. You know, I’m not a technician; I can build my own world, but I couldn’t really go into someone else’s the way they’re able to do. Like they were able to fully go into the spirit of the song, both spiritually and technically. There are a lot of times when I want to do something, and either my voice can’t go there or I don’t know how to play well enough. And so I have to, I don’t know, get creative with how I do it, which can lead to cool things. But it would be nice to be like a virtuoso on piano and just fucking go to town, you know? So it was really inspiring to watch people that are so good technically at what they do, but also have a real kind of divine magical quality to it, too.
I read once that your two greatest fascinations are erosion of the body and the curative powers of love. Being in a long-term relationship as you approach the age of 40, do you find those two to be interrelated?
Well, they’re both big ideas, and I think the reason I have so much to say about them is because I never really get it figured out. I’m trying all the time. But one thing I’ve realized is how [our] physical feelings are — which I guess is not revolutionary, but it is, weirdly, to me — that happiness is like a physical feeling. Like you can feel it in your body; it’s not an idea. I think for a long time, with my body, I was having ideas all the time and not really feelings. And I think that’s why the dance, and a lot of the things about this last record, were a little different in relationship with the body — because I was actually inside of it — and not wanting to leave it or have a different one. [Laughs.] And so I’m kind of dedicated now to trying to make it feel good, and make more room in my life to do that.
So are you going to be doing more dance-related projects?
Yeah. Whether people like it or not, I’m definitely going to do it.