2020 has been (and continues to be) incredibly tough for all kinds of reasons, but it will go down as a great year for music, if nothing else. Among the many contenders for album of the year is Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, the lush, inviting fifth studio offering by Perfume Genius, a.k.a. Michael Hadreas.
The album is hard to easily categorize. Songs sound, at times, like a riff on contemporary artists like Belle & Sebastian and Twin Shadow, and at others like throwbacks to ‘50s crooners like Roy Orbison. This, Hadreas reveals, was by design: “I wanted the record to sound classic and familiar and warm, but not in a way you could put your finger on.”
As Hadreas prepared for the album’s release back in May, he was poised to spend the rest of the year touring. Of course, what happened instead was that Set My Heart on Fire Immediately dropped in the middle of a global pandemic, and joined the ranks of new music releases that people were enjoying solitarily in quarantine.
“I’m happy to have that portal to other people,” he tells Men’s Health. “It’s weird for me, and I’m sure for everyone else, just because I’m home… Usually when touring, I would put on a very outward-facing part of myself, like ‘OK, I’m out in the world, I’m probably going to be out for a year, I need to let go of my inside-the-house person.’ Maybe those are closer together for other people, but for me they’re not. It’s really weird for me to be home, and then do a live-stream and feel like now I have to be Performer Guy. It’s strange phasing in and out of it. But I’m really happy that I can still conjure up the energy to sing and dance and perform.”
In between the stints where he assumes his more outgoing stage persona, Hadreas says life has been “too chaotic” to work on anything new directly (although an album of remixes featuring Jamie xx is said to be in the works). For the most part, his time indoors has been taken up by practicing a kind of dance-inspired meditation while listening to ambient organ music by the composer Sarah Devachi. “My boyfriend went out of town for two weeks and that’s all I’ve been doing, just rolling around the house,” he says. “Truly, for hours a day. I think I needed some kind of reset. A recalibration.”
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The dance meditation—and the lean physique on display in the album art—is something he took away from The Sun Still Burns Here, a dance piece he collaborated on with choreographer Kate Wallich last year. The act of devising and rehearsing this piece was transformative for Hadreas, who has spoken publicly about living with Chrohn’s disease and who tells Men’s Health he has never felt such a close connection to his own body.
“When I started exercising for the dance piece that I was doing, I just started to actually feel better and enjoy it,” he says. “I also wanted more access to my body in order to do the dance, because I was working with trained dancers who have been doing some sort of physical practice their entire lives, and I just wanted to feel more connected to them, more connected to myself. I never really do anything unless I want to, and once this started becoming something I actually enjoyed, I just felt better and more connected to my body and that’s when it became a daily practice that went beyond doing it for work or one specific dance. I’m used to singing and writing, but I’ve never actually used my body consciously as something that’s going to communicate the things I make. Normally when I dance on stage it’s just thrashing and wailing around, it’s not really considered. This made me really think about what I was doing.”
Since then, Hadreas has discovered an enthusiasm for fitness that he would previously have thought impossible. “There was a lot of meditation, the first part of class was almost emotional, connecting to your body, but then the rest of the day would be repetition, choreography, and conditioning exercises. I liked both of those things. When I was home in between rehearsals, and even now, I have a mix of something that’s more emotional with exercise, with meditation and stretching and stuff, and then wearing heart rate monitors and kind of video-gaming it, thinking of it in a technical way, because that’s fun for me too. I have a Peloton and all these monitors. I do very much enjoy exercising when I separate myself from screens and monitors, but I also like the screens and monitors part, because I like seeing my progress. Sure, I can feel that I’ve progressed, but I also like seeing it.”
The lyrics on Set My Heart on Fire Immediately are physical, visceral even, all hearts and bones and limbs, delivered with an ethereal, almost otherworldly sound. Hadreas explains that collaborating so physically with the dancers, and coming to see his body as his own in a way he never had before, sparked a change in the way he experiences making art.
“I sing about my body all the time, I feel like it’s the thing I’ve written the most about on my records, but it’s always been the idea of a body,” he says. “My creative process was very solitary, just me in a dark room for hours thinking and playing, and I would get to a place that was magical, because I was alone. It was almost an out of body experience, transcending myself and where I was and who I am. But when we were rehearsing and creating the dance, I kept all that magic and transcendence and all these wonderful, almost supernatural-feeling things that happen when I’m writing, and I was experiencing them with other people, and in my actual body. I always thought that the only way to get anywhere magical would be if I left the real world. So it was kind of revolutionary to me to be picking real people up. It was very clinical in a way, like I’m here, you’re there, I’m lifting you up, but then there was a supernatural, energetic thing with the people I was dancing with.”
That otherworldly quality extends to the album’s artwork, which Hadreas collaborated on with Camille Vivier, and which has since evolved into plans for a photography book. “We built a whole world together,” he says. “There there were a lot of archetypes and references, but we had them in a void. Camille’s images always have that. We had a motorcycle, but it wasn’t outside, it was on a soundstage, so it looked void-like and alien.”
Hadreas’ shirtless torso is front and center in the images, as he plays with ideas of hypermasculine Americana (there are shades of David Lynch in the visuals), and he admits that he felt more confident stepping into these outsized roles now that he is more comfortable in his skin.
“I kept the performance stuff that feels fun and dramatic, and allows me to be less anxious because it doesn’t feel like me getting my school picture taken, but I also felt in my body more than usual, and proud of my body more than usual, and I was able to be present. There’s also something very funny to me having muscles; when that started happening I would just laugh, it’s almost campy. I just tried to harness all of those things… Maybe people don’t see any of that. Maybe they just see I’m not wearing a shirt!”
The homoerotic iconography of Herb Ritts and Tom of Finland definitely seem to have been among the influences Hadreas and Vivier blended together for the artwork, which only deepens the queer sensibility of the record (on the track ‘Jason’, Hadreas sings about being undressed by the titular character). As a gay man, Hadreas says it was never initially his intention to make music that would be interpreted as specifically about the queer experience, but that he embraces the opportunity to tell these kinds of stories, especially as Set My Heart on Fire Immediately brings him to a broader musical audience.
“When I started meeting people after shows, I started thinking about the music I make, and the music I listen to, as something I look to for companionship, almost,” he says. “Some sort of mirror to make me feel soothed, or more comfortable. I rarely listen to something that makes me feel better, but there’s something really comforting about hearing my own experience, even if it was bad… And part of it is just that I’m a queer person, so of course the music is going to be like that. I don’t mind the responsibility of queer people listening to it. I want them to be able to feel more of their experience, and maybe some other things too.”
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