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Perfume Genius: ‘I was told sex was the most shameful part of who I was’

The queer musician reveals how he learned to embrace his sexuality in Attitude's Sex & Sexuality issue.

By Tim Heap

Under the gloriously evocative pseudonym Perfume Genius, Mike Hadreas has been at the forefront of queer music for a decade, evolving from making lo-fi, wistful ballads to gut-punching, rock-tinged anthems (such as ‘Queen’ and recent single ‘Describe’) — all telling of a queer experience that’s simultaneously specific and universal.

Speaking to Attitude for our Sex & Sexuality issue – out now to download and to order globally – ahead of the May release of his fifth album, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately (a title that feels all the more appropriate in these doomsday-esque times), he opens up about feelings of gay shame and how music helped him accept his sexuality.

“I think being queer is just an inherently lonely thing,” he says, speaking to us over the phone from Los Angeles after a planned trip to London was cancelled in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.

Photography: Camille Vivier

“Hopefully, less so now that you can find people online and have some idea that things aren’t always going to be how they are.

“All I did all day was look for something to make me feel less lonely, to find someone that felt similarly, but you’re carrying around so much shame and confusion…”

Hadreas, who in an interview once said he thought he’d grow up to be a woman, found comfort for his burgeoning sexuality in music – particularly Liz Phair’s unapologetic approach to sex.

“Just being 15, you automatically feel like [you’re on the outside], but then you have the added element of being queer and relatively weird,” he says.

“Hearing [Liz Phair] sing about sex, which was basically the core thing everybody told me was the nastiest and most shameful part of who I was, even though I had never had it before – I wasn’t even close, you know?

“But I knew that that’s what everybody thought was wrong with me, and she sang about sex in such an unapologetic, empowered, filthy way, and it really blew my mind when I heard it.”

He adds: “Listening to her music just felt so naughty, but also really powerfully liberating internally.”

The first line of Perfume Genius’s new album is “half of my whole life is gone”, and now 39, that may well be true. But it’s not something that Hadreas is too concerned about.


Photography: Camille Vivier

“Essentially, I really believe that you can completely change,” he explains.

“With that song, ‘Whole Life’, I was just thinking about the idea of, what if I didn’t carry around all this stuff any more? What if I just completely let it go?

“What if I forgave everything and forgave myself? What if I just turned around and started walking in a different direction?

“And I don’t see why you can’t do that. I don’t mean being disrespectful to your past, but just keeping the good and leaving the bad — which is super simple and not revolutionary at all, but it always feels like it.”

Having released his acclaimed debut album, Learning, in 2010, Perfume Genius has helped lay the groundwork for other queer musicians to own their identity and sexuality in their music.

Hadreas says there’s a kind of kinship among them now (he mentions Mykki Blanco, King Princess and serpentwithfeet, in particular), with social media making it easier to distribute material and build a following.

But despite the progress of the last decade, he comments that “Nobody’s dying to give gay and queer people opportunities — unless it’s Pride month or whatever.

“We have to help each other, and champion each other.”

Read the full interview with Perfume Genius in Attitude’s Sex & Sexuality Issue, out now.

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