‘I don’t think now is a time to play safe’

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CULTURE - By NEIL MCCORMICK

Be­neath loom­ing tower blocks, be­hind rusted metal se­cu­rity gates, down a scruffy al­ley in a de­cay­ing house in the 19th ar­rondisse­ment of Paris, you can find the pop sen­sa­tion of 2016.

“I’ve been liv­ing here less than a year,” says Héloïse Letissier. “My par­ents still have all my books, so it doesn’t look like I’m read­ing.” The shelves are, in­deed, bereft. Walls are white and bare and the rooms are sparsely fur­nished.

Letissier her­self is wear­ing a very Gal­lic out­fit of black polo neck, leg­gings and flip flops. She has a pair of round glasses perched on her nose and looks more like a stu­dent than a pop star. A bat­tered up­right pi­ano in the liv­ing room of­fers a sole clue to the owner’s oc­cu­pa­tion.

“I needed a space where I can iso­late my­self, and not p*** off the neigh­bours when I am belt­ing out a song at four in the morn­ing,” she says.

Un­der the guise of Chris­tine and the Queens, this pe­tite, in­tense 28-year-old has been brought a beam of pop sun­shine to a spec­tac­u­larly grim year. Al­ready a star in her na­tive coun­try, she be­gan at­tract­ing crit­i­cal plau­dits in Bri­tain in the spring and saw an English-lan­guage ver­sion of her de­but al­bum, Chaleur Hu­maine (“Hu­man Warmth”), climb the charts af­ter a bril­liant set at Glastonbury, dur­ing which she handed out flow­ers to the crowd to mark “our first date”.

The al­bum reached num­ber two in Au­gust and ended up spend­ing 23 weeks in the charts. She started the year with an in­ti­mate show in a Lon- don club, but has ended it play­ing tri­umphant sold-out dates for tens of thou­sands of fans.

“You won’t re­ally be­lieve me if I say I’m shy but I don’t feel at ease in ev­ery­day life, ever,” in­sists Letissier, who has barely stopped talk­ing and laugh­ing since I turned up at her door. “I do think ev­ery­one puts on ar­mour in so­ci­ety, in the way you present your­self and re­late to peo­ple. As Shake­speare says, ‘The world’s a stage’. But it’s weird be­cause when I am on the stage, it feels like I am not wear­ing ar­mour any­more, so it is the other way around. Some artists be­come a crea­ture, put make-up on and trans­form. I wear less make-up on stage and it feels like the only time I can be prop­erly naked and en­joy it.”

This quirk is part of her charm. Letissier, who stud­ied lit­er­a­ture and theatre, per­forms in sim­ple, an­drog­y­nous suits and de­liv­ers her dis­tinc­tive brand of elec­tropop in a cabaret style with off­beat chore­og­ra­phy and quixotic hu­mour. The shows have been com­pared to Seven­ties-era David Bowie and her songs, which ad­dress is­sues of iden­tity, gen­der flu­id­ity and ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis, have been hailed as an an­ti­dote to the “iso­la­tion­ist” cam­paigns of Don­ald Trump and the Brex­i­teers.

She ac­knowl­edges Bowie as one of the ma­jor in­spi­ra­tions for her stage show, along with the theatre di­rec­tor Robert Wilson and set and cos­tume de­signer Es Devlin.

“I al­ways loved min­i­mal­is­tic ver­sions of how you can in­habit the stage,” she says. “How sim­ple and rough it can be to play with al­most noth­ing”.

She is not a fan of the big pro­duc- tion light shows that dom­i­nate pop.

“It seems like they don’t let the peo­ple come to­wards the artist, more that you push some emo­tions on peo­ple and tell them when to get ex­cited.”

Raised in Nantes by two teach­ers, Letissier says she al­ways felt out­side of so­ci­etal norms, partly as a re­sult of iden­ti­fy­ing as bi­sex­ual, or, as she prefers it, pan­sex­ual. “The peo­ple I was fall­ing in love with, the gen­der spec­trum was re­ally broad, so I thought ‘OK I guess I am not tick­ing any box here’.”

A failed love af­fair found her, at 20 years old, de­pressed and sui­ci­dal, wan­der­ing into the Lon­don drag club Madame Jojo’s, where a chance meet­ing changed her life. For one night, the wounded French girl was taken un­der the wing of three Bri­tish drag queens who urged her to sing.

“It was the first time I had sung with hap­pi­ness,” she says. “Some­times at Christ­mas din­ners par­ents want you to sing and you feel it’s aw­ful and you are go­ing to die of shame. I never re­lated it to an en­joy­able ex­pe­ri­ence. But I think some part of me just let go and I dis­cov­ered it can be heal­ing to project your voice. It was a rev­e­la­tion.”

The sec­ond rev­e­la­tion was that she could write songs.

“I dis­cov­ered mu­sic as a lan­guage and hon­estly it felt like dis­cov­er­ing a new way to talk. I re­mem­ber start­ing to fiddle around and write in the raw, like five songs in a day. Ev­ery­thing fell into place.”

The first songs, she re­calls, were “a man­i­festo to my­self. The very first one was called Be Freaky, so I guess you had the main plan of the whole ca­reer.” The third song she ever wrote was her an­them iT, which al­ready has the hall­marks of a pop clas­sic. She de­vel­oped “the Queens” as an imag­i­nary back­ing band, in trib­ute to the drag artists who in­spired her. The char­ac­ter of Chris­tine al­ready ex­isted in sto­ries, plays and po­ems that Letissier was writ­ing. ”It’s just putting a name on an emo­tion. I felt an­gry for months so Chris­tine be­came the man­i­fes­ta­tion of my anger. She’s bold, she’s al­ways too much.”

Yet Chris­tine’s stage per­sona is not an­gry. “No, she’s nice, right?” laughs Letissier. “Leonard Cohen had a great line: ‘I smile when I’m an­gry’. If you do some­thing pos­i­tive [with] your anger, then it be­comes gen­er­ous. I think Chris­tine is a so­lu­tion be­cause I take ev­ery­thing that weighs me down and trans­form it into song. It makes me feel use­ful [and] can re­ally lift my spirit.”

Although gen­der flu­id­ity un­der­scores her char­ac­ter, she iden­ti­fies the pri­mary source of her frus­tra­tion as sim­ply be­ing a woman in so­ci­ety to­day. “[It’s] a pain in the ass, I’m sorry to say. You are con­stantly sur­rounded with in­junc­tions that are con­tra­dic­tory and hyp­o­crit­i­cal. Be your­self but be pretty, be po­lite but not bor­ing, be sex­ual but not a slut. It’s like, ‘Wait! Where do I see my­self in that?’ ” Suc­cess has done lit­tle to as­suage her. “I am even more an­gry, be­cause I re­alise some peo­ple don’t like pow­er­ful women. It’s never-end­ing, isn’t it? So there’s lots of work to be done, still. If we free women, we free men as well. Men can cry and wear skirts! I know this is what you’ve been wait­ing for.”

Although much in de­mand at the mo­ment, Letissier, who has been ro­man­ti­cally linked to French TV pre­sen­ter Océane Rose Marie, is tak­ing a break from tour­ing to start work on her sec­ond al­bum. “I have new songs that I want to belt out. [Chaleur Hu­maine] was my de­but, so for me it feels like a first hand­shake, re­ally mov­ing but some­how awk­ward and a bit moist. I do be­lieve I can shake the hand bet­ter.”

The char­ac­ter of Chris­tine, she in­sists, is not about to un­dergo any rad­i­cal change. “Chris­tine is me, at my bold­est state. I don’t think now is a time to play safe. I feel I should per­sist in my ob­ses­sions, be­cause they do seem to res­onate.”

Fol­low­ing her ex­tra­or­di­nary rise in this strangest of times, she is war­ily con­sid­er­ing the French Pres­i­den­tial elec­tions next year. “Tough times in France right now, and it is only start­ing,” she says. “I think the elec­tions are go­ing to be ter­ri­ble. The Amer­i­cans talked about Trump all the time, so peo­ple kind of got at­tached to him as a char­ac­ter. And we are do­ing the ex­act same thing with [anti-im­mi­gra­tion politi­cian] Marine Le Pen now.

“We are start­ing to talk about her all the time, so maybe in in­ter­views I should talk about al­ter­na­tives, so she is not the only sub­ject of con­ver­sa­tion. As an artist, you can feel help­less. You sing about to­geth­er­ness in mu­sic but noth­ing re­ally changes. The only thing to do is not cen­sor your­self and to prop­erly stand up for what you be­lieve in.”

She jumps up laugh­ing. “It sounds so good, in flip flops, say­ing that,” she says, in­di­cat­ing her footwear. “I do be­lieve in flip flops! I will stand up for them!”

Chaleur Hu­maine (Be­cause) is out now.

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

French singer Heloise Letissier per­forms dur­ing the 31st Vic­toires de la Musique, the an­nual French mu­sic awards cer­e­mony.

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