Each month, Billboard Pride celebrates an LGBTQ act as its Artist of the Month. Our May selection: Perfume Genius.
Aside from an inherent value in authenticity and representation, there’s a bonus to an artistic career spent looking candidly at sadness, deferred fulfillment and uncertain desire. When life plunges everyone into a situation that strains psychological wellness, you might find yourself at least ahead of the pack when it comes to managing.
“People have been reaching out to me for advice,” says Mike Hadreas, whose Perfume Genius musical identity has explored an array of melancholy queer themes via expressive melodies over the course of five albums. The latest, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, arrives in the midst of a pandemic, which he’s spending in quarantine with his partner, Alan (immortalized with a song on his 2017 classic No Shape).
Even if he’d be reluctant to admit it, Hadreas’ thoughts on maintaining mental health carry a little more weight than tips from otherwise happy singers who are suddenly lonely in isolation. After all, he’s been thoughtfully considering and cataloging his own distinct anxieties for some time.
After chatting with Hadreas about everything from songwriting to queer hook-ups, here are five takeaways about life, music and rat memes you might find illuminating.
All About Chemistry
Before delving into Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, Hadreas offered some thoughts on coping in quarantine. “It’s so easy when you’re home all the time to spiral and feel like things are more important than they are,” he admits of isolation. “It’s buzzing around me in my daily life and it’s harder to let it go when you have so much time to swim in it. I’m honestly not doing that great of a job at it right now, but I know it will go away and there’s an end to it.” He’s quick to point out that sometimes, the chemical nature of anxiety can work in one’s favor, though: “Just because you feel some way doesn’t mean it’s permanent — or real even. You can even have a nutritionally balanced meal and suddenly you’re not as sad – it was a chemical formula [problem].”
Music Is a Prescription
“If there’s any constant to my days, it’s listening to music all the time and finding comfort in it or escape or whatever I need,” says Hadreas, who’s been listening to everything from Lhasa de Sela and Jordin Sparks to new tunes like Arca’s “Time” to classics like Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten.” “It’s almost like a little prescription – you dig around, find the right song. Hopefully my songs can do that for somebody’s day.”
Exorcise to Robyn
“Really? I didn’t know that, I like that,” laughs Hadreas when informed that his new single “On the Floor” hit the Triple A Songs chart’s top 40. While its lyrics, which look at the obsessive nature of desire, are no less incisive than those on his darker songs, the music for “On the Floor” is comparatively upbeat and joyful. “I was getting off on the idea of writing a pop song, having a bridge and making it catchy,” he admits. “It’s like a Robyn song – you’re dancing and it’s liberating, but not because you left out any of the sad parts or left out the longing. Some of her songs don’t have resolutions but there’s something satisfying and freeing about it. A little exorcism.” That dichotomy keeps his more accessible moments fresh to him. “That’s what’s fun to me about writing pop music. It’s not like my ideas are super out there, but I can still put queer or subversive ideas inside a package that’s very poppy.”
Embrace the Blurriness of Queer Life
From shirtless hammer wielding to balletic wrestling to chomping a cigar while posturing with a knife, the Set My Heart on Fire Immediately imagery plays around with various masculine signifiers, many of which have coded queer tones historically. Hadreas acknowledges part of his attraction to that stems from his less successful attempts at passing as a straight boy growing up. “I gave up denying I was gay when I was maybe 12,” he recalls, but says he would still try to act in a way that covered it up to protect himself from bullying. Now, he’s reclaiming it. “I like how all of those archetypes I’m playing with feel serious and campy at the same time. Part of it is it makes me feel attractive. I like doing it, I like fighting, I like holding the hammer, it’s satisfying on a personal level and it’s also a wink at the same time,” he says. “It’s satisfying to do in a way I feel I have more control over. Whereas [growing up] it was performative for safety reasons. Like, trying to butch up just to walk down the hall and not get hit. That was not satisfying to perform — and also, I was really bad at it.”
Similar mixed feelings feed into “Jason,” a gentle, affecting account of a real-life hook-up from when he was 23. “I like the blurriness of that memory, how it’s good and bad mixed together. How it was tender and sweet but also kind of empty and meaningless in a way. That’s always kind of next to each other,” he notes. “All kinds of ingredients that are specific to being queer that are both beautiful and confusing.”
Don’t Take Twitter Too Seriously
For as toxic of an environment as Twitter can be, Perfume Genius – who certainly doesn’t have any rose-tinted glasses on when it comes to the world – is able to put the social media platform in refreshing perspective. “I think I’m really serious in my music; I take it very seriously, maybe too seriously sometimes. And the rest of the time I almost am laughing and don’t give a fuck. I try to find the balance,” he says. That applies to his willfully silly Twitter presence, which as of late is focused on answering rat-related questions (“I tried to pivot to snakes for a month, but it’s still rats,” he bemoans) and enjoying deliciously ridiculous accounts such as oatmeal influencer. “She’s really smart and funny and artful in the way she phrases things. I like Twitter because there’s something really poetic about how funny people are. They can bring in so much weird energy to things. I like how silly people are but also be really fucking smart at the same time.”