‘I don’t think now is a time to play safe’
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.
French singer Heloise Letissier performs during the 31st Victoires de la Musique, the annual French music awards ceremony.