INTERVIEW

The French singer is already huge back home but it’s only now that the rest of the world is waking up to her gender-neutral approach to sincere and unmasked pop music.

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“That’s interesting, right? That’s something I could talk to a shrink about…”

Surrounded by stacked chairs on the first floor of Le Pavillon du Lac – in Paris’ Parc des Buttes-Chaumont – one of France’s most critically-acclaimed artists is laughing as she recalls how she always “hated” her voice growing up. If it’s a surprisingly candid start to an interview, it’s an even more implausible beginning to the career of the singer-songwriter behind multi-platinum-selling bilingual pop project Christine and the Queens.

Born and raised in Nantes, the musical tastes of Héloïse Letissier and her older brother were shaped by their parents. Mixing classical and jazz music with pop and rock, their eclectic record collection included French artists Christophe and Alain Bashung, plus David Bowie and Klaus Nomi. “It was really sometimes daring, the choices they made,” Letissier remembers fondly. “They opened me up to really different artists, and to strong personalities as well. I still don’t know why my parents listened to Klaus Nomi for the first time, but I’m glad they made me discover this really out-of-this-world, extraterrestrial character.”

Letissier was tutored in piano and solfège but she describes her early relationship with music as “ambivalent” at best. “I was surrounding myself with music, but I was sure that I couldn’t make any. Funny, right?” she exclaims, grinning. “I always considered myself a lousy musician before I started to sing. I was studying theatre and music, and the teachers wanted me to have singing lessons – like every other student – and I was just running away from it because I was feeling like my voice was a bit bland and boring.”

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Letissier was 22 before she found courage to sing in public. In 2010, reeling from a romantic break-up and feeling unfulfilled by her studies in Theatre Design, she departed Paris for a three-week sojourn in London. “It was like a weird holiday of a depressed young girl,” she remembers with a wry smile. “I’d been before because of my father, the English teacher, and I always feel more alive in London than I do in Paris. I guess I just wanted to try to find new inspiration, and new reasons to be happy.

“So I had my Time Out in my hands, and I did stuff that I wouldn’t do usually, because I’m an introvert. I was going in the evening to parties and just sitting there alone, waiting for something to happen to me. And this is where I met the Queens, actually, in [now defunct Soho cabaret club] Madame JoJo’s.

“They were doing a number called ‘How To Make Music and Cook At The Same Time’ so it didn’t make any sense, cynically speaking, but the energy was so strong and so liberating that I started thinking about having a character that could overcome what I couldn’t overcome myself.”

The trio befriended Letissier and, having heard her humming, encouraged her to sing. “Weirdly enough, it was so liberating all of a sudden to sing,” she remembers. “Something clicked, and I have to say I still don’t know why. But what’s interesting is I now use [my voice] as an instrument, so I find things within it I probably wouldn’t find if I really loved it, you know? I stretch it – I try to work and make it stronger or thinner.”

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It’s a startling voice – lissom and smooth, with a sensuous huskiness in the lower register – and Letissier explores its range to powerful effect on her full-length debut. Written in Paris, ‘Chaleur Humaine’ was recorded in London with Metronomy-collaborators Ash Workman and Gabriel Stebbing, and Michael Lovett of NZCA Lines, a team she refers to fondly as “La famille, les partenaires du crime” in the liner notes for the album’s original French release.

Having previously tried out with several producers who tried to supplant her musical vision with their own, Letissier was initially wary of Workman. “I was like, ‘I’m not sure this is going to work,’” she recalls, re-enacting the scene, eyeing me suspiciously, arms folded. “I said, ‘I love hip-hop. I love Drake,’ and he was like, ‘Yeah, me too.’ I had really advanced demos with precise sounds, but I didn’t know how to do it, and he was really chilled, and gifted technically. So not all men are like that, but still some are. Being a female in the studio, sometimes, it’s still a problem. But I can’t just be a singer; I come with my whole songs.”

Gender bias was one reason why Letissier decided to “discard femininity” post-adolescence, abandoning her “overly-feminine dresses and heavy make-up” and becoming “obsessed with the idea of having a dick, and being a man.”

“I was tired of being a woman,” she says. “Not physically, but because of what it meant to other people. It’s tougher to be a boss and to be in charge, and to be loud, and to be rude when you’re a woman. It’s like, the stereotypical woman cannot be complex: you have to choose between being the Madonna or the whore. I constantly change my mind, and I think it’s because I don’t see gender as anything but a performance; I see it as something I can play with. It’s not a given to me to be a woman. I still have to recreate what it means everyday, because I’m not sure.”

Letissier confronts these ideas head-on throughout ‘Chaleur Humaine’. Sonically rooted in minimal, propulsive synth-pop, the record is concerned with “self-defining; craving to be loved but afraid of being a monster. The things I’ve been experiencing as a teenager, and as a queer, young female.” Those experiences are directly addressed on ‘iT’, which finds Letissier repeatedly asserting “I’m a man now” over a scuffed hip-hop beat, and vowing, “I’ll rule over all my dead impersonations.” For the LP’s forthcoming UK reissue she enlisted Perfume Genius and Philadelphian rapper Tunji Ige to duet with her – on ‘Jonathan’ and ‘No Harm Is Done’, respectively – because she wanted “a queer one, and a tough one, for it to be a statement.”

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In Christine and the Queens, performance is more than a mere thematic concept: it’s an integral facet of what is, essentially, a multi-disciplinary art project. As a result, even the ballads bubble with kinetic energy. “I know if I’m going to keep the song if I can dance on it,” Letissier confirms. “If it’s not possible, I just dump that song. For me, writing a song is thinking about how I could perform it, how I could film it, how will it look on stage?

“Before I wanted to make music, I wanted to be a stage designer, and pop music for me is the best way to be a stage designer now. Music is contagious and it can be really democratic as well. When I was into theatre, I realised it was always the same people coming to the theatre, because it’s expensive and because of the culture. With music you can bring theatre to people.”

In live shows and promotional films, Letissier performs complex choreography combining elements of ballet, modern dance and mime, inspired by her two biggest inspirations, Pina Bausch and Michael Jackson. Aside from pure aesthetics, dance provides another outlet for Letissier to explore the liminal space between reality and imagination, high art and pop culture, masculinity and femininity, aggression and grace. She describes dance as “a sacred thing for me to do, because it protects me and at the same time it frees me.”

It was the choreography in the video for ‘Saint Claude’ that compelled Madonna to invite Letissier to dance on-stage at her Bercy show in December 2015, or at least direct one of her entourage to do so. “The only time I actually got to meet Madonna was onstage for three minutes, with lots of people watching,” she laughs. “But I was publicly spanked by Madonna, so… and it’s the only time I will be publicly spanked, let me tell you!”

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During our hour together, I find it difficult to reconcile Letissier’s battles with self-confidence with the vivacious, witty individual before me, let alone the idea that an “introvert” would put themselves forward for scrutiny in such a cut-throat industry. “I see what you mean,” she says slowly. “[Writing the album] was about trying to relate to people, for the first time in my life, by being really sincere and unmasked. It was a conscious way of reaching my hand towards someone. What happened after was surprising, because people shook my hand back, and I discovered that I was not doomed to be a loner forever. I could relate to people, and maybe be braver than I thought.

“It’s such a different thing to be on the stage than in life: it’s a delimited place. I’m really shy in everyday life still now. I’m not overly confident because of what happened to me; I’m still struggling with lots of things. But when I’m on the stage the rules change. And I own the rules.”

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