On the cover of his most recent album, Mike Hadreas sports an impressively sculpted chest, revealing a man in peak form. Hadreas, who has released five increasingly varied albums as Perfume Genius, says his latest effort — Set My Heart on Fire Immediately — was inspired by the sinewy creations of choreographer Kate Wallich. The record is filled with references to body image issues, particularly Hadreas’ longtime battles and triumphs with Crohn’s Disease, a chronic affliction that can lead to wild weight fluctuations.
If ever there were an album that screamed for a physical experience — a vision that should be absorbed face-to-face in a live setting and within close proximity of others — it was this one. Hadreas spent months planning an immersive live spectacle that could capture the corporeal nature of his album.
And then the pandemic swept in, and that connective, visceral undertaking promised by a live Perfume Genius performance evaporated. Hadreas was devastated.
“I wrote this album because it was becoming very clear to me that I needed healing, and that required me connecting to my actual body and connecting to actual people,” says Hadreas, who will perform Sunday at Stern Grove as part of the free set of concerts returning to San Francisco after a year’s absence. “For so long, I was mainly just living in my head, and I was so excited about sharing a space with people and kind of celebrating that moment. Then the pandemic happened, and basically the exact opposite occurred. I could have worked on continuing that growth, but for me, simply not freaking out was about as much as I could handle.”
Deprived of his opportunity to perform his latest album live, Hadreas started experiencing health problems. His Crohn’s Disease flared up, leaving him bedridden and sick in the middle of a pandemic. All the steps he had taken toward his health and wellbeing dissipated in the quagmire of quarantine and self-isolation. The physical effects soon took their toll mentally — the creative flourishes he experienced during the early days of the pandemic were crushed by the ennui of everyday sickness.
“I felt like I was finally in control of my body and that was incredibly liberating,” Hadreas says. “And then, that was taken away from me. It was scary to be sick and then it was scary to go on medication for that sickness, which made me more at risk for other things.”
As the world emerges from more than a year of endless deaths, lockdowns, and cloistered living conditions, Hadreas can hardly believe that he’s actually set to finally bring his art to the stage. Along with his performance at Stern Grove, he’ll play two shows at the scenic environs of the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur on Thursday and Friday night.
“I know this is going to happen, but I still can’t believe it,” Hadreas says. “This whole year has been about scheduling, cancelling and then rescheduling. I mean, I am going to play live, I know that. But I’m having a hard time fully accepting that.”
Hadreas has now fully recovered from his various bouts of ill-health, and he is more than eager to put the nightmarish year behind him and focus on the long-delayed debut of Set My Heart on Fire, Immediately.
The album, which was named the fourth best release of the year by Consequence of Sound, fifth best by Pitchfork and 15th best by Stereogum (among countless other plaudits), is, to put it bluntly, a fucking masterpiece. At times industrial, new-wave, disco, baroque twee pop, post-rock, and dance music, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is the culmination of a steady and inspiring evolution from an artist who first gained popularity for his stark and austere piano-heavy recordings.
His first two albums, Learning and Put Your Back N 2 It, were barely-there compendiums, full of empty space, haunting melodies and quavering vocals. On his follow-up efforts, Too Bright and No Shape, Hadreas continued to expand and explore his sonic palate, incorporating increasingly more daring and bold tunes while embracing a more confident, self-assured version of himself. His latest record is reminiscent of the great inventive and go-for-broke albums of all time, such as Bright Eyes’ Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois.
Even Hadreas says he has been surprised by his growth as an artist. He’s come a long way from the trembling, soft-spoken balladeer of his early days.
“Before that first album, I had never sung anything in front of anyone — not even my mom,” Hadreas says. “I didn’t think I’d ever be making albums like this. But that original sense of being uncomfortable really pushed me. I always try to rebel against myself. Whenever I feel too at ease with something, I know I need to make changes.”
Whether he’s expressing himself through bold and vampish overtures, or via shrinking, frail gestures, Hadreas has always deftly explored the gray areas between pain and joy, belief and skepticism, love and hate. Set My Heart on Fire Immediately stands an ebullient dancefloor number, “On the Floor,” directly adjacent to “Describe,” a crushing dirge where Hadreas laments about his “stomach grumbling.” Despite their initial impressions, there are moments of beauty and dissonance on both songs, reflecting Hadreas’ ambiguous and emotional approach to song crafting.
“To me, everything kind of exists at the same time — pain and tenderness are not exclusive,” Hadreas says. “I think there is something liberating about knowing that. Because, when you’re having a bad day, that doesn’t mean you couldn’t soon be having a good day as well.”
Hopefully, the bad, sclerotic days of the pandemic are behind Hadreas and he can focus on the good times ahead. Whereas some artists have said the pandemic offered an important opportunity for self-discovery and self-growth, Hadreas is under no illusions that the past year offered him anything other than agony.
“All that time inside just ruined my brain — I felt paralyzed,” Hadreas says. “And now there is suddenly this sense of hope. I want to take advantage of that.”
Perfume Genius with Hand Habits, Thursday and Friday, June 24 and 25, 7:30 p.m., at the Henry Miller Library. $330 – $660; folkyeah.com. Perfume Genius with Madame Gandhi and Honey Mahogany, Sunday, June 27 at Stern Grove. Free with online reservation.
Will Reisman is a contributing writer. @wreisman