Need to Know: Perfume Genius

7.27.2010

By Jason Lamphier

Out: So I want our readers to have a sense of who you are, where you're from, and what kind of music you create. Would you share with me that information first?
Perfume Genius: It hasn't been too long, really -- only a couple of years since I started. I guess the story (if it's a story) is I've kind of had a lot of experiences and things that I couldn't get in context. They were just sort of happening and I wasn't really there. I spent about a year at my mom's, kind of isolated, and somehow everything kind of clicked. All my experiences kind of clicked into one perspective that I never had before. And somehow that translated into making music to try to ease myself into that new way of genuinely looking at my life and experiences.

You were afraid at first to take the plunge and start crafting these songs. Was there a moment when you felt that you were ready to make music? Where did that overwhelming desire come from where you could just set your fears aside and finally make the music.
I don't know if it was really even about music. I kind of just gave up on all the self-absorbed fear that I have -- the insecurity that is my own making. Nobody was really keeping me there but me. And that kind of just broke for me. I didn't care anymore. And with singing -- I've always been really subconscious of my voice and the way I talk. I think music was a lot more personal for me to try to make. I wrote and painted things, but with music I felt it was going to be me whatever happened. Maybe it's because of the voice. If you get caught singing in earnest by anyone, my heart would always sink. I think everybody's does. Even though I wasn't intending to share them with a lot of people, just even recording it and listening back to it was kind of terrifying, but kind of exciting at the same time because I followed through and got over something.

So you call yourself Perfume Genius, which is a curious title, kind of fun, a little gay. What's the origin of Perfume Genius, a moniker for Mike?
Looking back, I wish I would have spent more time developing a moniker or whatever. But I really didn't intend to share them with more people than a few friends, so that's just the phrase that came into my head when I was filling out the MySpace registration [laughs]. With my friend Carolisa we were just watching a movie. So there's no real deep story behind it. If I were to go back I'd probably leave out the word 'genius' out of whatever I was going to call myself. But I kind of stuck with it and I don't mind it. I kind of like it now.

You call yourself Perfume Genius, but you have this album called Learning. So you're recognizing that you still have some growth and you're not quite a genius perhaps. So why the title for the album?
'Learning' is the name of the first song I ever wrote, the first one that I followed through on. When I was arranging all the songs, I wasn't really thinking of an album when I made them. I was just making them to make them. But I kind of compiled them all and arranged them exactly in chronological order of when I wrote them, and that was the very first song, and it seemed appropriate to name the album that too. Even the confidence level when I listen to it -- the singing, just the feel of it and the texture of it funnels out and gets bigger towards the end. I think there's a progression there. I'd like to think so anyway.

So you think it gets more complex toward the end?
A little bit. I think so.

As far as sound is concerned, or content as well?
I think a little of both. I think it gets a little more vague and less direct toward the end. Instead of trying to just say the experience how it actually happened, I'm thinking more of feelings and ideas than just relaying my exact experiences how I remember them.

You write from personal experience, but from reading some of the interviews you've done, you say it's not enough for you to just write about what you've experienced personally. You consider that almost like whining. It has to be a bit more fleshed out then just relating memories. Can you expand on that a bit?
I think it's dangerous to just write how I feel about an experience. That can get really indulgent. It can be good sometimes, but usually I have to throw those away. I try to be just really honest and try to talk about what actually happened and not how I felt about it. I think it becomes more whole and relatable. Even though I wasn't intending to share them with a bunch of people, I was thinking in that way when I was writing them for me to listen to. It's a way to not have what you've been through be so separate from everyone else. That's what kept me from not getting anything done for years. It was therapeutic in that way even if it was going to be personal, although it's on a tiny grand scale.

You recorded at your mother's house on her piano. Was she ever there while you were recording? Did she ever witness some of your recording sessions?
Most of the time when I recorded she was away. But there were times when I was finishing things and stuff when I'd have to go hide in the garage. But it definitely was weird doing this really personal stuff and having my mom be there, being very obviously in my mother's house. But she's an old hippie. She'd probably kill me if I said the 'old' part. She's a hippie. She's a straight-up hippie. So she's okay.

How has she reacted to your music?
Good.

She likes the album?
Yeah.

Have you incorporated her into the album in any way?
There's definitely some of my mom's experiences in the songs. I don't know how that really works. It usually starts with me, but we've been through some similar things.

Let's talk a little bit about the first single, 'Mr. Petersen.' Can you tell our readers a little bit about that song?

PG: Yeah' 'Mr. Petersen' is about' Yeah I don't think I want to actually talk about it.

You don't want to talk about it at all? What the story is?
I think the reason why it's weird to talk about that song in particular is... I made them and didn't go back and listen to them. I didn't envision that I was going to perform it a lot. I was just giving it out. It's sort of strange to go back all the time on that song I suppose, because it's close. It's pretty much the most direct song I've ever written, I think. It's strange to be playing that a lot and go back. I had to relearn all my songs from the album and listen to them to even remember how to play them. It's like that with the content sometimes too'

To have to relive it again?
Yeah.

You also create very interesting music videos for some of your songs based on YouTube clips you've found. How do you decide the videos you're going to pull from YouTube for your music. Can you give our readers one example?
I kind of have a weird bank of YouTube clips that I've amassed. I can of FJASDLKJAS and weird stuff with the volume down and imagine taking them out of context and putting something that really doesn't fit the scene musically. Sometimes I have one of those in mind even when I'm writing a song. After I'm done with the video part I'm ready to make another song usually. Kind of this circle of life, Symba event.

Will you ever have a 'proper' music video of someone recoding you playing music?
I'd like to. I didn't have the opportunity to do that before. I didn't really think that I was into having control over all of it. But now that I'm having more opportunities I'm realizing I like being in control of what it said and how everything is presented. You'd have to really trust someone, but there's a lot of really cool people that I wouldn't mind working with.

I think our readers should know about the song 'Gay Angels.' Can you tell us a little it?
I just think being gay is inherently lonely, at least in the beginning. That song' there's no real words to it. I wish I would have known a long time ago that there are a lot of people that are the same. Not in solidarity or being outcasts, but in a good, healing way. Music has always been like that for a lot of other things for me -- different things I've been through. You feel like you have a partner when you listen to some people. But I've never really gotten that specific sort of feeling -- that loneliness that comes along with feeling different since the beginning. I don't want to say that I accomplished that with that song, but that was my attempt anyways. Even for myself, making that song that I wish I would have listened to.

How much would your say your sexuality factors into your music?
I think the same amount it does in my life. It's a big part of it. You're reminded of it sometimes -- it's just who I am. Definitely I want to never make something where there's an ounce of shame about that. There always is for me, a little bit, and it's bad, but it's inescapable because it's always been drilled into me. So it's kind of a battle to erase that and to not have it be so awful when you feel like that. I want to do that with my music -- not be scared to talk about things because of how they would come across or how they would be presented or what people would say about it. If you play the piano and sing and you're gay people compare you to everyone else that plays the piano and sings and is gay. They're all usually good, because we're good at that. [laughs] But there are other things that are going on.

You play the piano but you've created a unique sound -- very lo-fi but multilayered at times. At the end of the song 'Perry' there's a very strange collection of sounds. Tell me a little about 'Perry.' What are we hearing at the end of it? It's kind of haunting.
'Perry' is kind of like a letter to myself and a lot of other people I went to treatment with. It's a reminder to remember the whole part of something that happens. When you want to act on impulse to follow through on what actually happened to you and what will happen if you do that again. The majority of the time that doesn't work. Even with my self experiences, I've been on my way to something I know is not good for me, and reminding myself, but I do it anyway. I used to play this game where I'd be on the bus going to ' well, some bad stuff ' and I'd go past my house and I'd think about every family member and how it was going to affect them. But I would just keep going. The whales and the screeching are a reminder that unless you have help, it's not going to work.

So does it just represent the impulse to still go out and do it?
Yeah. And you know the desperation that is there.

The album is Learning, and the first song is 'Learning.' It seems like you're evolving as a person and the album has helped a lot. What do you think is the most important thing you've learned in the last year?
I think I've always waited for the right time or for some external thing to get better so that I could get better. All the circumstances have to be right and I have to run around and try to heal all these relationships and all these outside things first, and then I'd be in the perfect space to get better. But it's not how it works, and if I would have learned that a long time ago, I'd be... I don't know. None of this probably would have happened. I'm glad I learned it now rather than never. [I learned] there's a lot of stuff you keep yourself from that's good ' it's not all bad.

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