I don’t think I really need to introduce Christine & The Queens, or at least if I tried to I wouldn’t be able to really do her justice. For all the things 2016 took from us, giving us Héloïse Letissier and everything she represents was one saving grace. To be catapulted into the limelight can ruin some pop stars, destroyed by insinuations about their looks, their mental state, their status. Christine subverts this – she almost seems pure in the world of pop music. To hear her songs played on Local FM next to Jessie J and Ed Sheeran is both an achievement and a refreshing change.
I first became aware of her around this time last year. A blog was collating a list of possible future hits and I was hypnotised by her style of dancing in the Tilted video. Almost immediately after watching it I’d forgotten all about her and it wasn’t until she popped up on the Graham Norton show a few months later that things started to really get going for her in the UK. We don’t really think of a TV performance being able to make or break an artist in this day and age, and yet Christine’s GN performance led to immediate sales increases and big chatter on my Twitter feed from people who had never seen her before and were as hypnotised as I was the first time I watched her.
I interviewed Christine in the classic regional radio fashion: down an ISDN line connected to a booth in a studio down in London with a watchful producer and engineer close by. No doubt I would have been one of umpteen promotional things she was doing that day (it was the day of her very well received Radio 1 live lounge performance, if I remember rightly) and yet she seemed to give all of herself to me. It was clear she was a genuinely lovely, affable person. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing over whether I had an acceptable French accent (Héloïse gave me the metaphorical thumbs up after I struggled to say the phrase ‘je voudrais un baguette’) we got stuck into the questions. Obviously, I was aware of the job I had to do here. This is an interview for an audience who might not be as aware of Christine as I was prior to it, so we start with the basics.
A lot of people don’t know that you’re actually a solo artist: you’re called Christine & The Queens – the Queens don’t exist but did?
Well they’re still alive, let me reassure you! But, yes, it’s not really a band name. People expect me to perform with Queens (whatever that means!) but it’s actually something that happened to me. I’m talking about drag queens I met in London, six years ago now – oh dear! – when I was searching for inspiration. I didn’t make any music before that and I met drag queens at this club in London called Madame Jojo’s. They were performing a really extravagant musical number and this was the first time I actually had the idea of having a stage character myself and maybe trying to write songs for myself. It was something that happened in my life that felt like a novel – I spent three weeks with them, they showed me incredible movies, they taught me to express myself a bit more, to sing louder, embrace everything I had and since then we’ve never seen each other again. It was so special to me it feels weird to kind of see them again for coffee or something – it was too intense. They’re still around in London, doing their own thing and now I’ve became this tiny French dancing thing.
And what incredible dancing it is! What always gets me about your dancing is an ability to have some kind of centre of gravity I just don’t have! You’re very graceful but you can lean forward, lean back; you do all sorts- how do you do it?
She laughs. I have no idea, I have to be honest with you, it just comes like that. Basically I try to lose balance all the time but for some reason I’m not falling. Dancing has always been some important part of my life and actually I feel really awkward otherwise but when I’m dancing my awkwardness becomes my centre of balance. I don’t know how it works, it’s really mysterious even to me. I kind of need to dance all the time.
Did singing and dancing come late to you or was it part of your childhood?
The dancing part was something I did really early on. I did classical ballet really young and I’ve never stopped dancing since I was 4 years old. The singing part is quite different – before meeting the drag queens I didn’t want to sing, I was totally sure my voice was terrible – I don’t know why. I suppose that’s something interesting because now it’s my job!
I was always afraid and reluctant to sing and I think it was something to do with intimacy because when you sing its really intimate, isn’t it? It comes from within, you’re projecting your voice, you’re being kind of naked and I think at some point in my life I wanted to be exposed and vulnerable and true to myself so singing feels raw and honest, so it came like that.
Do you feel comfortable as yourself or do you see your stage presence as something you yearn for to be able to escape?
Well, Christine is not different from me, it’s just me being unfiltered and uncensored and me forgetting about the norms and social codes and everything. It’s really, really intensely me. I crave being on stage because I get to be myself oddly enough, and it’s off the stage that it sometimes feels like I’m playing a part because I’m quite shy and social interactions can be quite tough for me. I’m actually really honest on stage and easy; I can share easily and then I’m back to my shrinking little self off it.
You’ve spoken a lot about gender, how you view yourself and your sexuality – growing up was that a struggle for you, getting to a stage where you feel comfortable knowing who you are?
Yes it was a struggle, but it’s weird because I grew up in a really welcoming and nice family. I didn’t have to come out or battle for my parents to accept me for who I was. Actually my parents accepted me even before I could! I think I internalised a lot, lots of self hatred – growing up being queer was difficult for me but also being a girl as well. As a girl I felt I received silent injunctions all the time; be pretty, be sexy (but not too much) and I couldn’t deal with that and I didn’t know how to deal with that. Christine is a way for me to deal with that as well, I kind of like to think about her and leanings – it’s almost the same thing as being gender neutral. It’s fluid for me, I don’t really see myself as a fixed identity. I kind of like to play with different ones. I think accepting who I am now is just accepting who I am all the time and it feels better like that.
Do you think society is starting to view gender in a different way? I feel like we’ve come a long way in the past few decades.
Yeah true, it’s definitely in the conversation now. We get to see a lot more ways of being a human being. I’m just a bit cautious because I feel like it’s fashionable now and I’m always cautious about what’s fashionable because you know, David Bowie in the 70s was ‘fashionable’ for the same reasons. I just wish it would stop being fashionable and just be normal. I think the next step would be for it to be normal and we could experiment on other things.
Now your album Chaleur Humaine, (she compliments my terrible french accent again) translates as human warmth – do you crave human interaction in anyway?
Well, you know, I think I want to relate still – I’m kind of shy and a loner but in the end I think singing and writing songs is me trying to relate to people still – I think we all need to relate at some point. Even if we like to be alone we don’t want to be totally lonely. The French ‘Chaleur Humaine’ expression is kind of ambiguous and beautiful because of that – it’s kind of abstract, it means something but every French person has a different definition of ‘Chaleur Humaine’ and that’s what’s interesting to me. I wanted to have this word that could suggest how to relate to others but it could be abstract enough for people to project really personal things onto it. I think that is what a pop song is, it’s a kind of vessel that’s sent through radio to many different people. You know, a granny could have a version of this pop song and young people, a version for who they are.
It’s nice to have a French artist in the charts for a change, with some French within the songs – you wrote most of the songs in French before hand and then translated them for the English version of the album. Did you struggle to do any translations, did anything get lost?
Translating is definitely you having to renounce back to being literal to the original – something can be lost but something else gained because English is so different. It wasn’t a struggle as such, it was kind of a cool magic trick for me to have because to be honest with you, some of the songs in French on the original album were initially drafted in English. I like how English sounds, so it’s always interesting for me to write a draft in English and try to find French words that could bounce as well. It’s kind of a back and forth for me, I don’t have anything fixed y’know – I like a pop song to be a work in progress, I like the old fashioned way Michael Jackson would do a song in Spanish and a song in French, it’s always evolving for different people to get what you mean, as well. I think I wanted people to know what I meant – it motivated me.
On that note I feel like ‘doing my face with magic marker’ must be one of the best lyrics of the year – but what does it mean?!
She laughs You know the original French is really weird as well. I’m talking of doing my face with mercurochrome which is something you put on when you hurt yourself to heal and it marks the skin. I was searching for an image that could be really fun or creepy depending on the way you would take the sentence, it’s either really playful because magic marker is related to childhood and the games that a child could play, y’know – or it could be really creepy, like what’s she doing? What’s she doing to her face? Is she out of control? It’s two ways to interpret the song and I think Tilted is ambiguous to me as well, it can be a really playful song if you want it to or it can be about being out of place and depressed – it depends on what your mood is really.
You had a run-in with Madonna very recently, talk me through that.
I still have to talk myself through that as well! Sometimes I don’t really think it happened to me, but yeah, I just received this call two days before her big arena show in Paris and it was like ‘I’m Madonna’s choreographer, do you want to jump on stage with her?’ I was like, ‘is it a joke’ and it was not a joke! I’d never met Madonna before, ever, so the first time I actually saw Madonna she was two inches from my face on stage in front of many, many people. It struck me how in charge Madonna is – you’re basically her objects but it feels good because she’s just dripping with power and I was all “oh wow, I wish I could be this powerful as a woman and as a performer” – it was really inspiring and she’s really witty as well, really clever.
Let’s talk about the new single Saint Claude
It’s actually one of the songs that melts my heart live because I can vividly remember why I wrote it. I wrote it quite quickly after I witnessed something in Paris – quite an upsetting thing. I was on public transport and there was this man, a young man sitting on the bus with an incredible look. Quite extravagant, quite flashy – he was kind of drifting away with words, speaking to himself and we didn’t know if he was on drugs or really happy or totally lost. I thought he was beautiful but then people on the bus slowly started to point at him and mock him. Everyone rejoiced together by mocking him, it was kind of frightening to watch and because I didn’t stand up for him I was really uncomfortable and just decided to get off the bus. I actually got off at this station called Saint Claude, so that’s why it’s called that. It’s basically me trying to write a love letter to that guy and apologising for not standing up. I wish I could have said something but I didn’t so I tried to mend it afterwards with the lyrics.