CHRISTINE AND THE QUEENS
The joys of headlining Glastonbury and the release of a new album have been tempered by personal loss and a painful break- up. The past year has been a sometimes- uncomfortable rollercoaster ride for Christine and the Queens
There is no denying our Artist Award- winner has that certain je ne sais quoi
As life changing circumstances go, they don’t come much more intense than the past 12 months have been for Christine and the Queens. The incredible highs of releasing her sophomore album, Chris, came with headlining slots at Glastonbury and Coachella. But the ecstasy of those moments has been tempered by the heart- rending low of the death of her mother six months ago. Along with this rollercoaster, she also ended an 18- month- long relationship with a person with whom she was intensely in love, but for her own well- being could no longer be with.
What has remained a constant through this upheaval is a determination to continue telling her story, one inextricably linked to both her personal and professional evolution. Christine and the Queens’ first album was bookmarked by the now- famous story of a fateful night several years ago when she came across a group of drag queens in a Soho club. The queens took a broken and lonely Chris, real name Héloïse Letissier, under their wings and helped shine in a light on a new way of being. The experience heavily infl uenced her highly acclaimed 2014 debut album Chaleur humaine ( Human Heat) and gave Chris a platform to discuss her pansexuality, a word that, at the time, was somewhat alien to the mainstream media.
One year since the release of her second album, we meet Chris, 31, in an East London studio for her Attitude photoshoot. She’s tiny IRL, but her presence unsurprisingly takes over the entire room. What surprises me most is her wit, set off against a smile that could illuminate the darkest of hearts. When we sit down for the interview, her words bounce out poetically, accented in her native French, of course, and she’s happy to share her feelings about a year that would have pushed lesser beings to breaking point.
“It’s an ideal place to be, to have that,” she says of receiving the Artist gong, supported by Jaguar, at the Attitude Awards 2019. “Because to me, embracing my queerness sparks my life as an artist. I think before that, I was kind of in shackles mentally.
“So it’s deeply connected, and the art that still inspires me, it’s deeply queer. I decided to embrace the freakiness at some point and I became an artist. So it’s kind of all linked deeply for me.”
Her queerness is not something that she’s prepared to park in search of mainstream hits. “I think it’s going to shape my work for ever. It’s good to always come back to where it comes from, and it comes from the fringes. So I wouldn’t be an artist without the queer community, the queer art. It opened my eyes. I’m deeply humbled and I have to give back to that community because I’m born out of it. I was birthed by drag queens, for God’s sake.”
“THE ART THAT IN SPIRES ME IS DEEPLY QUEER”
“SCHOOL WAS A NIGHTMARE. I SPENT MY WHOLE TEENAGE YEARS BEING SAD”
Cliff: A year of Chris.
Chris: An exhausting, hectic, vulnerable, very raw year.
Exposing, I guess.
Yeah, yeah. The record is so much about finding existence in chaos, and exploring further and taking risks, and bare skin against bare skin. Seeing what is working or not, but staying fierce in it, and I’ve been hungry. Then the year was precisely about that. I was like, “I can’t believe I’m living in my own record. It’s exhausting.” It’s been quite interesting.
What have been the highs from this year?
Lots related to live performances. Headlining Glastonbury was a fucking high. I was high, actually. Emotionally high. I don’t really remember all of it. We felt super. I was reeling with electricity because I was like, “I have to be worth it.” I remembered the first Glastonbury I did. That was super- emotional. It was the day after [ the] Brexit [ referendum]. I was like, “Hey guys, it’s a mess, but I’m here from France, and I love you still.” Another intense moment this year was shooting the Doesn’t Matter video. I love that track and it was deeply emotional for me. I thought, “Oh, I’m reaching a stage where I’m super- raw, doing exactly what I want to do, on the parking lot being super- emotional.” I was like, “That’s a wonderful job I have.”
And your mother passed away this year.
I did the first Coachella. I was in LA when I had the phone call. It was surreal. I couldn’t do the second Coachella. At some point I was in a manic phase. A few days after I was like, “I have to do it because it’s for her. She wants me on stage.” People were like, “Even if you want to do it, you won’t be able to do it.” When I went back on stage, it was actually in the Florence + the Machine tour, and she was superlovely with me. The first gigs became kind of cathartic. It’s really weird, [ one night on the tour] all of a sudden, it started to snow in May. It’s cheesy, but I was like, “Mom?” I was quite emotional. It was a moment where I was quite down and I thought, “I don’t even know what I’m doing now. I shouldn’t be back on stage now. It’s too early. I’m broken. It’s too complicated. I can’t handle that shit any more.” Then it started snowing. It may be super- stupid, but it felt like a sign. I became more spiritual after that. Before that [ gig], I doubted myself. I was like: “Should I just stop for a second or be silent?” And actually that happening at that moment connected me back to that first spark of pure light that was the idea of Christine in my life. Because when I created Christine and the Queens, in a way I was mourning something, too. I spent my whole teenage years being sad. Then Christine was like, “You have to let go of that impossible perfection you crave as a young woman, and you have to just own everything.” So it was the end of a mourning that became a light, and this year was the same. I remembered that and I was like: “You have to just never forget that.” Then everything else seems like bullshit. The accolades and the nods. It was a dark time, but at the same time it kind of reconnected me. Immediately after, I was like, “I have to write new music.” I’m going to release something really soon, I’m working on it right now. I like when the music is a snapshot of how you feel.
Ooh, exciting. A single or EP or something?
Maybe a small something, yeah.
It’s not even Chris any more. No?
Yeah. It’s Jack now. No, kidding. It’s not. No.
It must be quite refreshing to establish from the outset that people should not be expecting you to deliver the same thing. Life is not consistent.
It’s even further than that. Identity itself, for me, is a shattered mirror. So being consistent and coherent never appealed to me, even when I was younger. I had lots of different nicknames according to how I felt. Even in my sexuality, I feel I have layers and layers. So, I can’t be just be a solid person; it doesn’t make sense. I understand that relationship to metamorphosis, to chase something unattainable. It’s questioning all the time. I don’t even know if sometimes I feel all the time like a woman. I don’t know what “woman” is. I want to question womanhood. I remember high school as a nightmare for me because everyone defined identity so strictly. Fluidity brings more possibilities and I like that. Nuances. You explore, and thank God you can let go of the idea of ticking a box, which never appealed to me. So, yes, more names, more pronouns, and sub- categories, or whatever. There is poetry also in the multiplications of the names. It gets more intricate, you get more playful.
What was the moment that you said, “Let’s put a line through, Tine and the Queens and do this Chris project”?
I thought of subverting the tiny legacy of the first album quite soon. Actually, when I started to write new songs, I was still on tour with the first one because it was a long tour. It was like 2 ½ years of touring the first one. I almost feel like I’m a novelist and every album is a chapter. I love to react to what happens. I think it’s important. Lots of people were saying, “Are you scared of writing the second album? Do you feel intimidated because the first one went successful unexpectedly?” I was like, “Actually, I’m just rejoicing in the idea.” It’s like you’re subverting what happened because I feel I’m in a different place, and try to be a bit bolder and even more precise. The second album was a way to make sure people properly met me because on the first record, you just write and people gush about it and you’re fresh and young and you used to be nobody. But the second one is about making it a bit more frontal, right?
When did Chris come to the fore?
I was like, “I can’t keep using the Queens for the second one. I can’t.” I was on tour and people were calling me Chris all the time. I was like, “I kind of want to be called Chris for the second album. How can I make it visually compelling in telling the story?” Because it’s all about making it clear. I thought of Basquiat, the painter, who constantly does that. It’s not cancelling the words; it’s emphasising them. But it’s also saying, “No.” If you strike it out, you’re subverting
but you’re not cancelling it. It can be joyous and angry. I was like, “We have a plot.”
Was it frustrating, that need to keep “Christine and the Queens” because it’s the modern world we live in, where you need brand recognition: Instagram, Twitter, and all those kind of things.
On the marketing point, I was just properly damaging the brand. I wanted to do that because I didn’t want to be a brand. It might sound super- cheesy, but I’m more an artist than a brand. Everything I’ve done since the beginning is actually the opposite of me trying to brand myself. It’s raw honesty. So it’s like, this is actually something the Queens would advise me to do. Keep on escaping the easy labels. People from other record labels, they were like, “Oh, we need a Christine and the Queens,” or, “Oh, this is so Christine and the Queens.” I was like, “What does it even mean?” I don’t want to be branded in a package. I’m just exploring. It was a bad marketing decision, which was probably a good artistic decision. Maybe at some point I’ll need to come back into the chicken fillets of the Queens, which is actually probably going to happen. Because Christine and the Queens was born out of a really dark moment, and this year was actually quite dark at some points. Which is beautiful in the way that I found I’m also growing older and I’m evolving.
Was there a desire to escape the narrative of the Queens’ story that dominated the first album?
I wouldn’t though. I need that story. As I was saying, even the striking out could be advice from the Queens. Actually, when I want to be super- daring, I’m like, “Would they like it?” It’s always like, “Yeah, they would probably like that.”
What surprised you most about the past year?
Well, if I’m honest, I was like, “OK, let’s work on the figure of a woman that is excess.” Because I was really interested in how women are always slightly too much, really easily. If you’re too horny, you’re a slut. It’s like women are taught not to be anything excessive. You can’t be too clever, too funny, too anything. So I was like, “I kind of want to be too everything at the same time. This is a cool concept, it’s empowering. Let’s go with it.” What surprised me is that I was shamed for precisely that concept. I was like, “You’re ticking every box of misogyny brewing in the world.” I don’t want to shame France, but especially there. On the first album, people tolerated things because I was not really threatening. I had long hair. I was safe and sexual, but I was not really working on my sexuality aggressively. I was labelled as a marketing construct at some point. I was like, “Do you realise how brave I had to be in 2014, when I had to explain pansexuality on TV, and people were laughing at my face?” I experienced homophobia during the fi rst cycle of my record, but I never talked about it because I wanted the art to be the thing and I wanted to keep on talking about that. I was like, “How can you say now that it’s a marketing thing? I’m risking my art and myself with things I’m saying.”
Do you carry any scars from your youth that hold you back?
I’m scarred as fuck. But it’s not holding me back. It used to. When I was young, I used to feel monstrous. I had lots of questions because I couldn’t defi ne myself properly. Was I a young man trapped in a woman’s body? I don’t feel I have body dysmorphia. So, I’m a woman but then I don’t relate to women as they are. I had skin rashes out of stress. Even when I loved, sometimes when I fell in love with a man, I sometimes felt attracted to the men as the man I wanted to be but could never be. It was super- intricate. Or I fell in love with a woman and she transitioned. I was exploring nuances right away but when you’re young, nuances are not always the best thing. From that, I keep scars because I got rejected pretty badly. I remember loving a cis man in a really erotic way and I could tell he was into it. Then he shamed me like two days after, in front of his pals, just to be supermanly. I got shamed because I was willing to explore.
Have you ever thought about what it’d be like to have a penis for a day?
Yeah, it’s been one of my big questions. You know what I relate to? I relate to ancient Greek mythological selves that could shapeshift. I relate to that. I feel I identify totally as a woman. I wouldn’t transition. I don’t feel like becoming a man. But I like the idea of shape- shifting. I’m always a bit frustrated that it cannot happen
“I’ M SCAR RED AS FUCK BUT IT’ S NOT HOLDING ME BACK —IT USED TO”
totally. I would even become a tree. Especially sexually, when you have good love- making and you just want to shape- shift for the pleasure of your partner but you can’t. I mean, there are ways…
What question do people always ask you?
“How do we call you?” Because I have lots of options now. So, I’m like, “Call me by my name.” They’re like freaking out. It’s a way of saying, “Who do you want to talk to?” I have to choose all the time, “Hmm… browsing.”
Who’s answering this question?
The more names I have, the more intricate it will be. I’ll be like, “Hmm, Jessica.”
My mood changes so much. Some days I wake up and I feel quite down, other days I’m not so bad, but I feel they could be completely diff erent people because the feelings are so diff erent. I might not have names for them, but they feel like diff erent people. But then I think: “Isn’t that just what everyone’s like?”
When you’re an artistic person exposed like I am, you become a screen. People don’t realise it, but they’re talking to themselves, which is fascinating. You reveal them. People talk to me about what they’re obsessed with, so if they talk about the sex I should have,
they’re thinking of it. The money, they’re thinking of it. People are furious about me not being consistent. I’m always like, “Maybe you should investigate that about yourself.”
When was the last time you were in love?
I just broke up. I’m still in love, but it’s just not working. It’s really adult to leave someone when you’re still in love with them though, but it’s not working. I was like, “Yay, I’m 30 years old.” It’s a special kind of heart- break. I remember being young and having my heart broken, but it was simpler in a way. Now again, there are nuances, but unbearable ones. I have to fight the urge of trying again because I tried so much with that person. But it was super- passionate, and I don’t regret it. But it got to a point where it was corrosive. So, I’m still in love with that person, but it cannot work any more.
That’s the most mature thing you can do, to step away from something before it becomes regrettable.
I was so mature, I was wearing a turtleneck and sipping coff ee. I was like, “I’m such an adult now.” [ Laughs].
For how long were you seeing each other?
We met on a video shoot, so a year- and- a- half. It was intense
What has been the greatest gift that love has given you?
It’s good to see it that way, actually. I just realised something about what I want in my love life, which is important even though if it’s complicated. I want intensity but I want to be respected. I sometimes do confuse intensity with being hurt. I realise I’m intense but I want to be happy at the same time. So if you can’t do that for me, then I have to go. Also, I’m seeing a new shrink. I’m just being a very Parisian 30 year old. Self- respect is so important. I was questioning my teenage scars with that relationship. I was like, “I’m going back into the scars,” and I shouldn’t do that, repeating that over and over again. It’s not healthy.
What’s more important, sex or love?
Oh, my God. I wish I could dissociate the two. I think love, but love can also come with sex. I have a harder time still having sex out of pure hedonism. I have to feel shit to be aroused. Maybe that’s my next exploration; I should talk to my shrink about that. How to dissociate for the good, having just pleasure for yourself. Yeah. It could be an act of self- love and loving someone to have sexual pleasure, just for the sake of it. But, love, I think. Love.
“I’ M STILL IN LOVE WITH THEM BUT IT BECAME SO CORROSIVE”