As dreamy and dramatic as raw and confrontational, Perfume Genius has just released one of the best albums we’ve heard this year. Breaking the boundaries of genre, (sexual) identity and the comfortable, No Shape transposes fluidity to a contemporary musical masterpiece. Glamcult sat down with the art-pop provocateur for an openhearted conversation.
When we get together with Mike Hadreas in Amsterdam, the introspective artist better known as Perfume Genius has just minutes before released the first video from his fourth record. “Have you seen it?” he asks excitedly. “Let’s watch it together!” Grabbing his iPhone, we watch the singer-songwriter move through a dream-like theatrical landscape, a pink-coloured fairy tale that lacks the spotlessness that normally makes a fairy tale a fairy tale. Much like his new album cover—shot by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin—a strong sense of drama and fantasy surrounds the artist’s fresh new output. It’s soft and innocent at first hearing, not nearly as raw and petite as the songs that made Perfume Genius famous. But look or listen again, and again, and the innocence comes peeling off ruthlessly. The utopian landscape becomes an illusion; the background in front of which the artist poses turns out to be a painting; and the anthemic pop songs turn out to be witchcraft—staged as church music. Today, Perfume Genius reveals music that’s incredibly layered, and needs more than just a few listens to come to grips with. So we sit down, dress down and dissect.
It’s been three years and counting since Perfume Genius released Too Bright, his acclaimed third album. An extensive period of global touring followed, with zero breathing space for the singer to sit down and write. “When I write I like to be melodramatic about it,” he laughs. “I just need to sort of obsess over it.” This means that No Shape, the record that’s soon to be released, was born just half a year ago. Rather than first writing lyrics around piano melodies, this time Perfume Genius used composition and structure as his starting points, resulting in dense pop productions and unexpected instrumentations, conjured up in collaboration with his producer. “We reached for things that we wouldn’t normally have reached for,” he explains. “I had written a lot of things that were dark and disturbing, but those songs felt comfortable and easy because I’m used to doing them. Then I wrote Slip Away, which is pretty anthemic and a bit poppy. I had to push myself to do it; it was kind of manic. So that’s the way I went about all the songs on this album; I wanted them to be recorded with different instruments that weren’t so traditional. They’re pop songs but fucked up, you know?”
Listening to the grand and off-kilter sound of Perfume Genius’s new record, comparison to Kate Bush is unavoidable—not just in terms of going beyond the set perimeters of pop music, but also because of its mix of vulnerability, ambiguity and poetic grandeur. When we ask what the album title, No Shape, refers to, various options bubble to the surface. “It could mean a few different things,” Hadreas thinks aloud. “I sort of write a lot about wanting to transcend my body; I feel kind of stuck in my body and limited by it, as well as stuck in my brain and the same thinking patterns which I can’t seem to break—the feeling that I’m stuck as a human. So I kind of always try to find a way to leave without leaving. But I also like how this can mean that there are no rules for some sort of shape you are supposed to fit in. The way you talk, write or look—there’s no real rules.” Whereas the artist’s previous albums dealt with topics such as sexuality, gender, the body, depression and violence in a much more literal sense, No Shape is just as heavily about breaking out of boxes and the body—be it in a more abstract manner or an overarching sense of (unlimited) possibility and queerness.
When it comes to the body, it’s not just words that Perfume Genius preaches. Growing up with Crohn’s disease has forcefully showed him the far-reaching limitations of the bodily self. “I think one of the physical areas that I feel the most disconnected to is my physical shell,” he says. “Part of it is that I’m getting older and maybe thinking about how I should pay attention to it, take care of it. Even if it’s just this weird vessel for my thoughts, I need it to be in good shape so that I can keep doing all my music and everything else. And although I feel disconnected from it, I am very invested in taking care of my body through comfort and eating, so it becomes very confusing, to be honest. I’m accepting that I sort of have to deal with it. But even if you do try and take care of yourself, your body can just betray you. I sort of don’t trust it…”
This discrepancy between mind and body, and the mistrust that comes with it, extends directly to another subject that unmistakably runs through Perfume Genius’s young oeuvre: gender and sexuality. Naturally switching to this theme, he states: “I used to think you have to feel a certain way, but I think I don’t. Gender and the body aren’t connected, but I feel the same way about gender as I do about the body; I wake up sometimes feeling a little different about it—I’m always kind of circling around everything, nothing seems to be set. Because of my sexuality and gender… it can make you feel detached, you know, and disassociate from everything. So in a weird way I don’t recognize myself, sometimes.” Coming from an artist whose work so consciously deals with these personal subjects, this might be a surprise. But then again, it’s exactly this honesty that makes Perfume Genius real and relatable. So what happens when, as an artist, he constantly has to have his picture taken, stand on stage in front of endless onlookers, and be confronted with (the image of) himself? “It’s very weird,” he admits, “and it’s not good for your ego! I’m very vain and insecure about how I look. So I end up almost rebelling against myself. Performing and all that stuff is important for me to try and be helpful, showing that you can go against your instincts. So I just kind of say, ‘Fuck you’—to myself, that is: ‘I’m going to do this for a minute anyway, and then I’ll go back to being shy.’”
On No Shape, Perfume Genius’s fascination with escaping the physical can also be heard in church-like influences. In fact, the songs would feel completely justified in a dark and dreamy cathedral, backed by a majestic choir. “I think it’s influenced by spirituality in terms of a kind of magic,” he confirms. “But it’s something I made up. I just take ideas from what I like, for example some spiritual mantra, and then I take it for myself. It’s about the idea that there’s something underneath, some kind of universal energy that connects everything. It reminds me that so much is out of your control—there’s something liberating about that. I think it’s also just more fun if you think of things and live that way; that everything happens for a reason and that destiny or this magical thing exists.” Don’t confuse these thoughts or musical threads for religion, however: “Yeah, I love gospel music and that’s why I make a lot of music that’s inspired by it, but I just don’t feel included in it. I have always sensed that you can really feel the ecstatic part of it. So I try to make music that has that, but it becomes more inclusive. A lot of that shit seems close to witchcraft, even though it’s ‘Jesus stuff’. It’s enchanting and trying to invoke something, and it feels very magical. But a lot of it also involves guilt and blaming—stuff like that I don’t incorporate.”
For those to whom all this sounds much too grave, there is another, much lighter side to Perfume Genius. Where to find it? On Twitter, among other places, where 425k (!) followers pay close attention to the artist’s alter ego as what could be a hilarious comedian—whether he’s (once again) adoring Rihanna or sharing pictures of insanely kitsch toilet seats with ingenious captions. “A lot of eggs follow me!” he laughs, “but I’m happy I’m getting some retweets…” This humorous side of Perfume Genius, however, is just as real as all of the above. “It comes from the same place creatively,” Hadreas explains, his face serious for a second or two. “It’s just a different coping mechanism. My Twitter is like my music: a live journal.” If anything, this journal is definitely just as fascinating as his music. And simultaneously, it’s a huge platform for one of the most authentic queer voices of our generation. It’s proof that the internet is giving more and more minorities space to express themselves fearlessly—and be heard.
When it comes to this, Perfume Genius is hesitant but hopeful. “Sometimes I don’t notice that it’s changed out there; I think the world is still the way it was when I was growing up, when it was definitely not as easy. I don’t know, maybe we need it more today… With how horrible everything is in America, everyone is searching for a community, searching for people to fight with, and realizing that even though everyone’s experiences are different, every oppressed group is fighting the same evil—or stuck in the same evil plain together. So maybe the world feels a little more compassionate; people are looking a lot more outside of their own experiences, willing to listen to someone who doesn’t come from where they come from. I think the internet has helped. I think companies have become more willing to fund and bring out music by non-traditional, non-white, default and basic people because we can now put it up ourselves.” He pauses, and then concludes: “Hopefully progress will be a lot faster than in the past. We are starting to realize that a lot of musicians have stolen ideas from black and queer people, and that maybe now we should be listening to the actual source instead of a blue-eyed version of it. I feel like lately, when I think about it, I’m out in the world more and in touch with a lot more queer musicians. But they’ve certainly always been there.”