“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.”
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.”