IN THIS PHOTO: Héloïse Letissier (Christine and the Queens)/PHOTO CREDIT: Alex Lake
Part Eight: Christine and the Queens
THE latest part of my Modern Heroines feature…
PHOTO CREDIT: Mehdi Lacoste
is tricky, because the woman behind Christine and the Queens is Héloïse Adelaïde Letissier - she has also been known as Chris. Right now, Chris is a new persona; a reinvention that pushes forward the work from one of the most innovative and consistently brilliant artists in music. There are these artists who produce albums that are impossible to fault; I think Christine and the Queens’ creator is someone who will continue to release world-class records. For the purposes of marking a modern heroine, I will use the words ‘Christine and the Queens’, rather than Héloïse Adelaïde Letissier. One might say it is a bit early to tip Christine and the Queens as a potential icon. Recently, she was handed the Q Icon gong and was quite surprised when interviewed on the red carpet. Christine and the Queens has won more than the Q Icon award this year, and she continues to get stronger and more amazing. I have so much admiration for Letissier, and her musical guise of Christine and the Queens is not only producing staggering music; she is also breaking down barriers when it comes to gender and sexuality. This is why, in a way, I was unsure whether to choose Letissier in a feature exclusively about female artists, as Letissier is a fluid and gender-neutral artist in many ways. She rallies against sexism and exclusion – and has faced it a lot -, but I feel she is such an empowering artist for so many women and is also helping shift the narrative when it comes to women in music.
Not only is Christine and the Queens an amazing artist, she is also one cool mother*cker! Listen to her speak and she is so wise, articulate and funny. Christine and the Queens embodies the image of an age-old heroine but is so modern and forward-thinking. One has that artist who speaks as loudly to men as she does women. Christine and the Queens is an artist who is often asked about her sexuality and how she identifies. Even in 2019, there is this fascination with and confusion over a queer artist and the sexual spectrum. I guess there is a way to go until there is this ready acceptance, but Christine and the Queens is giving voice and power to those in the shadows; artists and fans on the L.G.B.T.Q.I.A.+ spectrum who feel they are misunderstood and overlooked. The heroine also continues to provide this powerful and evocative music, proving that women in modern music cannot be ignored and seen as a minority. Also, through the use of French and English lyrics, Letissier is adding something much-needed and unconventional. Not many non-English-speaking artists sing in their own language. I think artists like Christine and the Queens and Rosalía (a Spanish singer and songwriter) are vital and helping make music more bilingual, colourful and interesting. Born in 1988, Letissier was raised in a creative and academic household. Her father taught English at the University of Nantes, whilst her mother taught Latin and French at the local middle school.
Her parents’ careers meant that the budding songwriter was exposed to literature and recommended classic writers. With exposure to great works and intellectual conversation, the mind of the child was being nourished and informed. I am always fascinated seeing how these influential artists start life and whether you can see the musical seeds being planted from a very young age. Letissier studied Theatre and was inspired by local drag artists/musicians when she visited London in 2010. When performing early in her career, these drag artists accompanied Letissier – she soon became Christine and the Queens. If the ‘Queens’ were her backing band, maybe the definition has changed now. Perhaps it is a less physical thing; maybe a wide spectrum that reaches to queer artists and female queens through the world. After releasing her debut E.P., Miséricorde, in 2011, she put out another the following year. There were some minor hits on the E.P.s but, like any hungry and blossoming artist, her best days were still ahead. Although Christine and the Queens was being celebrated in her native France and in countries like the U.S. and U.K., it was the 2015 single, Tilted, that truly opened eyes and horizons. It was released from her first English E.P., Saint Claude, but touring of the song meant that it soon took on a life of its own.
The song made its way to the U.K. in 2016 and Christine and the Queens’ name was becoming more familiar – buoyed by live performances and radio exposure. Christine and the Queens’ Letissier said she did not want to choose to sing all in French or English: having the chance to mix the natural with the universal means that her music sounded pure, intriguing and diverse right from the off. Were she to sing all in French, it might not have translated and been taken to heart so readily. Similarly, if her music lacked the mother tongue, a lot of the beauty, romance and intelligence would have been lost in translation (or not, as it were). It is hard to pin down influences when it comes to Christine and the Queens, but one can tell that David Bowie – in terms of music and image – is important; there is some Kate Bush, Michael Jackson and Soul inspiration. The debut album, Chaleur humaine, was released in 2014 – a couple of years before Tilted became a smash in the U.K. The album came out in the U.S. in 2015, with a lot of the French lyrics worked into English. Not only are the lyrics and music different on Chaleur humaine and Chris, but one can see a radical visual shift from 2014 to 2018. Look at the heroine on the cover of Chaleur humaine and she has long hair, a bunch of flowers and a look that suggests thoughtfulness and pensive consideration. That is not to say Christine and the Queens was a very feminine and commercial artist in 2014; more that changes did occur, and Chris is an album that eliminates gender and changes the narrative. I do love the debut album because, in 2014/2015, it was such a fresh, original and interesting album.
PHOTO CREDIT: Laura Pannack for TIME
Chaleur humaine is full of wonderful moments and, with Letissier providing this incredibly sensuous, moving and diverse voice, one could not help but to fall in love with the music and show full respect to its creator. A lot of critics, when reviewing the album, were new to Christine and the Queens, so did not necessarily have the same frame of references as her fans; not as in-tune to her progress and previous work. That said, there are a load of positive and glowing reviews for Chaleur humaine. This is what AllMusic had to say when they reviewed the album:
“As Chaleur Humaine unfolds, Christine reveals herself as less of a disguise and more of a prism for Létissier's distinctive outlook. She addresses her pansexuality throughout the album, subtly on songs like the aforementioned "Christine" and more directly on "Half Ladies" and "iT," a call-and-response track with the Queens where her backing band sings "She's a man now/And there's nothing we can do." This fluidity extends to the ease with which Létissier blends French traditions with contemporary pop, hip-hop, and R&B. She mixes all of the above on "Paradis Perdus," an interpolation of Kanye West's "Heartless" and Christophe's 1973 hit "Les Paradis Perdus," transforming them into something with its own emotive power. Elsewhere, the band balances the urgency of songs such as "Safe and Holy" and gentler moments like "Nuit 17 à 52" with a grace reflecting Létissier's former life as a dancer. Indeed, Christine and the Queens' emotional and musical agility only makes Chaleur Humaine's heartfelt, thoughtful pop that much richer and rewarding”.
Listen to Chaleur humaine and I think it sounds somehow stronger and more arresting than it did when it was released. Maybe that is just me, but this is an album that keeps unfurling and revealing itself the more you listen. Christine and the Queens was just what the music world needed back in 2014; critics were quick to praise a debut album full of life and passion. Here is what The Guardian wrote when they tackled Chaleur humaine in 2016:
“Chaleur Humaine is a rich and rewarding album that works whichever way you slice it. If you want to take it as an extended musical treatise on queer identity and non-binary sexual orientation, there’s plenty here to keep you occupied. Take, for example, the opening track iT’s declaration of “I’m a man now and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.” (Later in the song, an unconvinced Greek chorus suggest: “She draws her own crotch by herself but she’ll lose because it’s a fake.” Or take Half Ladies’ defiance in the face of abuse: “I’ve found a place of grace … every insult I hear back darkens into a beauty mark,” she sings, before another fantastic chorus – one on which her love of Michael Jackson shines through – sweeps the song along.
If you just want to treat it as a collection of beautifully wrought pop music, then it functions fantastically as that, too. The sound Letissier and her collaborators – sometime Metronomy affiliates Ash Workman and Gabriel Stebbing – have constructed is hugely appealing: a simultaneously intricate and spare lattice of softly glowing electronics and occasional misty hints of R&B and hip-hop, not least on No Harm Is Done, which features the rapper Tunji Ige and piano. The songwriting is perfectly poised, subtle and restrained without being wilfully opaque: it never clobbers you over the head, nor do you have to unpick the songs to find the tunes. There’s a deeply affecting combination of delicacy and force behind her collaboration with Perfume Genius, Jonathan, or Safe and Holy’s combination of pattering hi-hat, piano and marooned sweeps of ravey synth”.
I will come to Christine and the Queens’ second album, Chris, soon enough, but I wanted to bring in an interview that appeared in The Guardian. Naturally, as Chaleur humaine was unveiled and the songs were shared and dissected, the woman behind Christine and the Queens was thrust into the public eye. Always cool, fascinating and thought-provoking, it was good to hear about Letissier and her early life; how she sees Pop music as a universal thing that is not confined by commercialism, but speaks to those of all ages and sexual orientations:
“Maybe it was the chakras, but if your country’s biggest pop star was eyeballing you in the street, you’d probably smile back. Letissier, 28, is Christine and the Queens, the alter ego that transformed her from a depressed hermit into (whatever she says) a one-woman charisma machine. She broke through in France two years ago with debut album Chaleur Humaine (human warmth) – intimate, groove-heavy synth-pop that suggests Björk producing peak Michael Jackson. This March a semi-translated version scored stellar reviews in the UK. And since then, her live performances have won thousands of fans.
At Glastonbury in June, undeterred by a downpour and post-Brexit misery, Letissier flexed her muscles at the sky, and challenged the weather: “You want to fight, rain?” She won the battle, seamlessly intertwining excerpts from crowdpleasers Pump Up the Jam and Uptown Funk with her original material, while performing her own slippery choreography (a kind of avant-garde mash-up of pop, hip-hop and contemporary dance) with her four-strong troupe of male dancers. She accidentally dropped the mic after her last song but she could have done it on purpose – critics crowned her the act of the festival.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Letissier’s sexuality was never an issue for her parents, although she says she battled some internalised shame. She can trace her queerness back to the age of four while watching Michael Jackson’s Captain EO at EuroDisney. “I remember being excited for the first time, sexually excited. At some point he’s dancing, and he’s opening his jacket, and there is a rainbow shining out of his chest, and I was like, oh!” She laughs. “I know, it’s so queer! My whole life is queer.”
Letissier worries that questioning her identity promotes this individualism. But her lyrics are the antithesis of narcissistic pop, and she wants to be contagious, not admired. She concedes a little. “Lyrics of really huge pop bangers right now make me think about advertising – sentences that could thrill you but are empty in the end. And for that, I don’t really feel like I do belong in the pop realm.” Kendrick Lamar is more her bag. “I didn’t grow up in Compton, I don’t know what he’s really talking about, but because it’s personal – money and love – it strikes universal terms. This is being inclusive. If an old lady can sing my song that comes from a queer young girl’s perspective, this is, for me, pop music at its best. You get to have many realities going on at the same time”.
There was a lot of interest and expectation when Chaleur humaine bloomed and the music made its way around the globe. When talking about the new Christine and the Queens album, Letissier stated that it was a range of moods and textures – from the more sexual to the vulnerable. If Chaleur humaine is more slow-burning and a warm record, Chris is a more instant and red-hot offering. Gone were the long locks and flowers of the debut cover; replaced by a different-looking heroine who was in a new phase. A lot of Chaleur humaine concerns Christine and the Queens’ struggle as a young queer woman; or the way she was perceived and accepted. Chris is that change to a powerful, liberated woman who wants to become less apologetic and embrace her sexual – more lustful, flirty and confident. Again, there was nothing like Chris in 2018 until the album came out! Christine and the Queens helped change Pop on the debut and continued to do so on Chris. As this review of Chris attests, Christine and the Queens was just what Pop music needed in 2018:
“A self-declared pansexual fronting off-kilter songs about queer identity, Letissier washed up at the moment gender fluidity was becoming a significant social issue. For her follow-up, she has raised the ante: the artist formerly known as Christine has become Chris.
Pop has always been a haven for sexual non-conformity, from the camp flamboyance of Little Richard and Mick Jagger to the gender-bending of superstars such as David Bowie, Prince and Lady Gaga. What is interesting about Letissier is that she focuses on the psychologically difficult aspects of growing up as an outsider.
Alongside celebratory anthems of love and desire (Comme Si, Girlfriend, Make Some Sense), Chris tackles body dysmorphia (Goya Soda), bullying (What's-her-face), the threat of physical intimidation (The Walker), prostitution (5 Dollars), sexual self-loathing (Damn – What Must a Woman Do) and suicidal depression (It Doesn't Matter). Yet somehow Letissier invests this angst-ridden material with sweetness and strength, so that every song sounds like an act of upbeat defiance”.
I think Chris is one of 2018’s best albums and one that warrants continued listening. The sophistication of the music sits alongside a simplicity that means the tracks are instant and accessible but there have a lot of layers and different sides. It is hard to pick a standout song, because all of the tracks have their own personality and slot so well together. It is a fantastic album, and I love the way Christine and the Queens progressed and strengthened from that promising debut. It makes me wonder whether a third album will see her change course; just what does she have in store?
I want to source from one more review of Chris, as it did receive passionate praise across the board. NME were keen to have their say, and they remarked on the differences between Chaleur humaine and Chris.
“It’s the shadowy flip-side to its predecessor. 2016’s ‘Chaleur humaine’ was a soft-edged evocation that found ways to simply exist as tilted in a world that prefers straight lines. Bolstered by her growing fame and remarkable rise to the top of pop, ‘Chris’ is an album that flaunts the idea of being a strong, threatening, sexually empowered woman. Flecked with generous amounts of provocative Spanish (it’s fair to say Duolingo won’t teach you a phrase like “para follarse”), ‘Damn (What Must A Woman Do)’ is particularly bold, with gasped whispers punctuating cartoonish, ‘Dangerous’-by-Michael-Jackson production. And ‘Goya Soda’ headily combines spluttering bursts of synth with a flash-lesson in art history, blending Francisco Goya’s twisted, demon-filled paintings with fizzy pop and doomed lust. “As he eats my heart out I’m on my knees,” Chris sings.
Following in the formidable footsteps of Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince, Bowie, and other such icons of creative evolution, Christine and the Queens is clearly striving to be a similar sort of chameleon-like artist, riveted on challenging both herself and her audience. On the evidence of ‘Chris’ – a deft and bogglingly-intelligent record, which somehow sounds blissfully effortless too – she’s earned her own place in the pop icon history books”.
IN THIS PHOTO: Christine and the Queens performing at the Hammersmith Apollo in 2018/PHOTO CREDIT: Gaëlle Beri
This year has been a successful one for Christine and the Queens; comprised of some big tour dates and festival appearances. There was a collaboration with Charli XCX on Gone, and it makes me wonder whether a future album might involve some hook-ups with modern Pop artists. Héloïse Letissier is a hungry artist, and there is nobody out there like her. I mentioned how engaging she is in interviews and the sort of impression she leaves. When speaking with The Fader last year, she was asked about authenticity and how some of Chris’ songs were based on hard experiences when she was young:
“Do you find it difficult to be authentic to yourself while also, presumably, wanting to continue to be successful?
Not really, because first, I don't know how to be successful. (Laughs.) Honestly. Maybe I will never reciprocate what happened with the first album. I have a relationship with writing that is really intimate, and brutally honest, but it's because before writing pop songs I was writing, and am still writing constantly, in journals, short stories, poems. I have this relationship to writing that is an everyday unveiling. But at the same time, I'm in love with what the pop song is, so most of my references for the second record were immediate, catchy pop productions like Cameo, or Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, or Michael Jackson's "Dangerous." And it's about how to mix this relationship I have as a writer that says "I," with this more immediately tasty pop landscape. I kind of don't think it's natural for me to work around that. So it's like, I'm going to do a production inspired by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, but I'm going to talk really simply about feeling depressed.
Actually I'm reading a lot of English writers. For example, I just got a Maggie Nelson —
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
I read that this album was also partly a response to being bullied when you were younger. Do you consider this album a form of revenge?
I wouldn't say revenge, actually. I think this album is about embracing all of the emotions a bit more, including anger, but also horniness and extreme sadness. There is a song called "What's Her Face" that addresses the idea that no matter how empowered I get, it doesn't negate the fact that I still remember sitting alone on the bench in high school. And that's actually part of the powerful woman I am now. It's a piece of it. I wouldn't say it's revenge. I'd say it's cathartic. I like to take the stamina from that anger and put it into dancing.
What role will the dancing at your live show play in transmitting these ideals?
Since it's so much an album about interactions and sensuality and otherness, the dancing was really interesting to work on from the beginning, because as I said, I wanted to cast characters with me. It was kind of like searching for the right roles for a movie. I didn't want to do a singer plus dancers to decorate the scenery. I work with a collective that's called La Horde, three French people who work on collective writing and kind of help me cast the team of dancers/characters.
On "Girlfriend" I wanted to work around what does it mean to perform the idea of a man? How can we diffuse it slightly? What does flexing mean at some point? We kind of built choreography around it. For "Doesn't Matter," I knew I had to do a duet with a male dancer. This is why I love Michael Jackson, because he was really clever in that the dance was a second way to sing the song, and you remember the choreography as much as the song”.
Who knows what 2020 holds for Christine and the Queens? I know that there will be rumblings concerning an album, but there are no definite plans or set date. I think we are watching this future icon shape before our very eyes. With music that strong and addictive, people will want to hear from her for many years to come. I do think the modern Pop landscape has changed a lot, and there is quite a bit missing. There is very little fun and pop; I do think that artists like Christine and the Queens are setting an example of what music should be. She will only get stronger and stronger. Q recognised her as an icon and, in this modern scene, I think she fits the bill and deserves that honour – even if she is not quite certain whether it is warranted and what being an icon entails! If you want to see Christine and the Queens bring it to the stage, keep an eye on the official website for the latest news. She (and her band) have played some great festivals and gone down a storm. This is how The Independent assessed her headline turn at All Points East:
“Héloïse Letissier is on fire. Figuratively speaking – the French musician’s headline set at All Points East on Sunday is a writhing masterpiece, confirming her status as one of the most exciting popstars on the planet – but also, very nearly, literally. So abundant are the show’s pyrotechnics, all blazing flares, dense smoke and deafening explosions, that the air is thick with the smell of party poppers, and a small part of the stage seems to have caught alight.
PHOTO CREDIT: Lexie Moreland/WWD
A group of burly men rush on with extinguishers, out of place among the lithe, androgynous dancers surrounding them. But Letissier – AKA Christine and the Queens, though she has cropped it to Chris for this latest phase – continues to sing, dance and contort, either oblivious or unconcerned. The show must go on.
The whiff of danger is in keeping with a somewhat apocalyptic evening. Just as Letissier was due to arrive on stage, a rainstorm erupted. Now, after a few songs from her excellent Eighties funk-inspired second album Chris, it has given way to a dramatic red sky. Whenever the singer steps out onto the walkway that stretches into the crowd, a forceful breeze causes her unbuttoned shirt to billow like a cape.
Letissier, for her part, is a potent performer, thrusting and flirting her way through a set full of sexual tension and premature climaxes – halfway through, a confetti canon showers the air with gold. During the gender-bending anthem “iT” from debut album Chaleur Humaine, she thrashes around on the floor, and then squares up to a female dancer in a display of lust and hostility.
I do think 2020 will be the biggest year for Christine and the Queens in terms of Héloïse Letissier’s success, growth and honours. One would be foolish to rule out a headline slot at a huge festival; maybe there will be a new album out and, on top of all that, the chic and whip-smart heroine will be talking with the press…and generally being awesome! I am a huge fan of hers – as you can tell! – so will be watching closely to see what happens. Whether you want to refer to her as Héloïse Letissier or Christine and the Queens, here is a woman whose energy, passion and spirit…
CANNOT be tamed or predicted.