FEATURE: Une Belle Âme: The Intoxicating Spirit of Christine and the Queens




Une Belle Âme

IN THIS PHOTO: Christine and the Queens (Héloïse Adelaide Letissier)/PHOTO CREDIT: Alex Lake (www.twoshortdays.com) for GQ

The Intoxicating Spirit of Christine and the Queens


THIS might seem like a feature...

 PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

that is out of the blue or, perhaps, is designed to fulfil personal tastes and affection. In fact, when thinking about Héloïse Adelaide Letissier and her moniker Christine and the Queens, one can never really say enough nice things! She was one of the artists who played Glastonbury over the three-day weekend and played the Other Stage on the Sunday, 30th June. Not only did she look fantastic and put in a commanding performance - but she begged the question as to why there are not more female headliners at Glastonbury. Not only did we have Lizzo and Kylie Minogue whipping up the crowds and owning it but, with Christine and the Queens and Janelle Monáe producing these epic, physical sets, surely it is only a matter of time before we see more female headliners – let’s hope so, anyway! I am a particularly big fan of Letissier because, for one, she is so articulate and passionate when she speaks. I caught her chatting with Matt Everitt at Glastonbury (via BBC Radio 6 Music – I was sat there spying on them!) and, as he said after the interview played out, Letissier is more articulate and intelligent when speaking her second language than most people are in their mother tongue. One listens to Letissier discus her music, her progress and process and it is almost poetic! I promise I am not going into dewy-eyed, wide-smiled adoration: this is a feature that demonstrates and outlines why Christine and the Queens is a force to be reckoned with.

Check out Christine and the Queens on Twitter to see where she is heading next. In terms of bossing, truly moving performances, Christine and the Queens’ Glastonbury set will live long in the memory! Letissier bonded with and charmed her audience but managed to deliver this spellbinding, almost theatrical set that was beautifully choreographed and realised. I think a lot of artists are still beholden to rigidity and a very formulaic way of performing. They expose little in the way of conversation and biography from the stage and one can tell they are running through the motions a lot of the time. In the case of Letissier, she puts her everything into every performance and each time she takes to the stage we get a slightly different take. There is so many nuances in her performances and it makes her/Christine and the Queens a must-see. I will catch her next time she is around London because, as NME outlined in their review of Christine and the Queens at Glastonbury a week ago, this is an experience you cannot afford to miss:

At times, the set breaks with captivating dance routines, first to Travis Scott’s ‘Sicko Mode’, and later to ‘I got 5 on it’ and Janet Jackson’s ‘Nasty’. “I just had to do it!” she says joyfully,  charming the crowd. Reminiscing about her first Glastonbury performance she tells the audience how much she loved it, before adding: “And I’m not even being nice to you! Since then I’ve been bragging about you, actually back in France I was like “Glastonbury!” and they were like “…okay”, I was like I want to call him back but I don’t have his number, and there you are again!”

It’s humbling to see an artist who’s so excited to be playing the festival, and throughout she clearly relishes every second of her time on stage. “Glastonbury! I’m going to say it until you get sick of it…” she tells the crowd.

The staging is more theatrical than that of a festival set, with elegant pyro raining down on Chris, dazzling lights strobing throughout and a rig that elevates her above the stage during an emotional version of ‘Saint Claude’. Further performance highlights come in an emotional cover of David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’, a welcome respite amongst the rest of the high-octane setlist, and an euphoric version of ‘The Stranger’ that ends with an apocalyptic light show”.

The Independent were full of praise when they reviewed Christine and the Queens’ headline slot at All Points East recently:

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”.

Not only is Héloïse Adelaide Letissier one of the finest and most scintillating, natural live performers out there but the music is so engrossing, rich and deep.

My first exposure to Christine and the Queens was back in 2014 with the debut album, Chaleur humaine. The very different-looking lead is on the album cover holding flowers, her hair longer and air of grace and romance lingering in the air. The 2015 edition of the album contains the phenomenal Tilted but, to be honest, the original version of the album is crammed with so much brilliance and life. It is an affirmative and gorgeous album but there is personal revelation and exposure that draws you closer to Letissier. I adore the debut album and think that it is one of the most confident and compelling from the past ten years. The press were keen to heap praise on Chaleur humaine. In my opinion, there was nothing like Christine and the Queens in the music world in 2014: this combination of keen intelligence, sophisticated emotional blends and sensual, sexual mixes that inflame the intellect, body and soul. The Guardian, when reviewing the record, define Chaleur humaine more succinctly:

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.

It’s informed by a sharp musical intelligence – Paradis Perdus takes an exquisitely orchestrated, vaguely Pink Floydish track from a 1973 album by French singer Christophe and Heartless from Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak, identifies a common mood between the two, and melds them together seamlessly – but one that it chooses to wear lightly. You never find yourself in the presence of music that sounds self-consciously clever. Everything flows easily, nothing jars.

“A song is like a virus,” Letissier told an interviewer last year, “everyone can have it.” It’s a lovely sentiment, and Chaleur Humaine bears that line of thinking out: for all the seriousness of the issues the lyrics explore, it always feels like a pleasure rather than hard work. The question of whether it will prove as infectious in the UK as it has on the continent is a tough one: the innate conservatism of mainstream British pop sits pretty uneasily with an artist who clearly thinks pop music can be both an unalloyed pleasure and a conduit for ideas, a means of provoking thought, a world in which you can reinvent yourself at the same time. The question of whether it deserves to be is more easily answered”.

Like Kate Bush adopting a more muscular and expressive sound on Hounds of Love (compared with, say, The Kick Inside), Christine and the Queens became Chris in 2018. The titular album is a bolder revelation and one where we see a marked difference on the cover – from the long-haired heroine holding flowers to the shorter-haired Chris providing a complex look to camera, one can see the changes.

 PHOTO CREDIT: Dustin Condren

I guess, to Letissier, Chris was a new persona; a reinvention who she could base her songs on. Chris is one of 2018’s best-reviewed albums and it is a staggering record. One can feel the changes and the shift in terms of personality but, at its heart, Chris is Letissier taking on new challenges and moving in new directions. The Independent, when reviewing Chris, had this to say:

Letissier makes her vintage synths snap, crackle, pop, fizz, freeze, squelch, shimmer and soar. There’s even a shattered glass effect (on “Stranger”) to complete the Old Skool Electronica bingo card. Treble notes bounce from air-cushioned soles. Bass lines lasso your hips. Chiffon layers of Letissier’s Anglo-French vocals glide around your neck and shoulders and roll them back. It’s ridiculously danceable.

The quirky lyrical pleas for understanding of early hits like “Tilted” has been replaced by the empowered seduction of “Girlfriend”, on which lines “Don’t feel like a girlfriend/ But lover/ Damn, I’d be your lover” simmer over flickering flames of funk-guitar”.

I want to finish up with a couple of interviews – one from late last year and another that is more recent. In the 2018 interview, Letissier talked with The Independent about her sexuality, how she helped (men she dated) deconstruct their own masculinity – she also reacted to the way some journalists perceived her new ‘Chris’ persona:

In her life off stage, Letissier sought love from a multitude of “macho men”. She’s said before that she learned how to be a woman from the drag queens she met. Did she learn anything about masculinity from these men? “I learnt about intricacy,” she says. “[All my life], I had to deconstruct my femininity because of how I felt, and who I loved... but people all deal with that complexity. I deal with it out in the open, because in a way I was forced to, but some people deal with it more secretly, and sometimes it creates wounds that never stop bleeding.”

For some of the men Letissier dated, she was the catalyst they needed to deconstruct their own masculinity. “They were confiding in me about those things they couldn’t deal with. And also I was taking a bit from their masculinity to [put] on my femininity. I feel like a weird composite. It’s one of my kinks to explore that. And the more I explore it, the freer I feel. But even in relationships that were supposed to be ‘woke’, with people who were as queer as I was, there were systems of oppression that were lingering. I’m just learning that actually, nothing is simple.”

More upsetting was the way certain journalists sneered at her new persona. “Sometimes when people interview me, there is a slight smile of like, ‘Oh so now you want to be called Chris?’ And I’m like, ‘How can you make me feel sorry about that? It’s all about reinvention and freedom. Come on, man. It’s playful, man. How come it’s violent enough for you to try to defuse it with mockery?’ It’s also fun. It’s also entertainment. Sometimes I read things and I’m like, ‘Sh*t, I’m not that solemn.

In this second interview, there is a feeling that Letissier feels more at home, focused and safe on the stage compared with her actual life. It is interesting seeing her talk about her styles of performance and the way she is pushing live music:

On her most recent tour, she used her background as a theatre student to present a show that was a long way from standard arena pop dazzle but still visually unforgettable: grand painted landscape backdrops, a gentle snowstorm, falling lines of sand, a surprise balcony appearance, and dancers who eschewed formation routines to tell a story in movement.

“Some people were surprised at the theatricality of it. There were points where they didn’t know whether they should clap. I wanted to invite people in differently. It was an interesting challenge to think of big venues as something fragile. I wanted something really bare and exposed and naked”.

The amazing Héloïse Adelaide Letissier is different things to different people. Whether you associate her with the image and sound of Christine and the Queens’ debut or think her modern-day incarnation if a truer representation, that is the beauty of the artist: she is not restricted and is always looking to explore and evolve. She can captivate and allure in French and is far wiser, sharper and smarter than most native English speakers – a truly inspiring artist who is pushing down boundaries and barriers and delivering something unique and utterly fascinating. Keep a check of Christine and the Queens’ social media channels for tour dates and updates but, right now, the heroine is on a roll. Fresh from two big festival performances in the U.K., I don’t think there is a live performer as spellbinding as Letissier – maybe Lizzo and IDLES would run her close. In any case, Christine and the Queens’ figurehead is an exceptional human and musical package. An accomplished musician, a role model for women and the L.G.B.T.Q.I.A.+ community and, for everyone else, someone who drops the jaw and opens the mind, I felt compelled to salute Letissier. Whether you gravitate towards her earliest work or cannot get enough of Chris’ jewels; whether you adore her sense of boldness or gravitate toward the more vulnerable artist, it is clear Christine and the Queens’ Héloïse Adelaide Letissier is someone…

ADORED and respected around the world.