Christine and the Queens on “Chris”

Call Me Chris

Nov 28, 2018 Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern (for Under the Radar) Issue #64 -  Kamasi Washington
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When Héloïse Letissier emerged on the international stage as Christine and the Queens, via a spell-binding dance routine to her breakthrough single "Titled," she  appeared like a pop-star from a bygone-era. Quiet, bookish, and altogether unassuming, the French singer was the sort of artist you could walk past every day and never recognize. The demure persona was not an accident.

"The first record was me trying to escape the male gaze, if I could. Very buttoned-up, quite a neutral way of existing," she says. "But I was failing at it because every comment I was reading under my videos was still 'would I fuck this girl?' rather than focusing on what I had to say."

However, on the extensive promotional campaign for her debut, Chaleur Humaine (re-titled simply Christine and the Queens in America), Letissier started to notice changes, as she grew stronger, both physically and mentally, from hours of performance. The songs on her debut were written from a place of loneliness, wondering in her teenage years where she fit in the world. Four years on, having received widespread acclaim, does she feel the same way? "I'm not sure if I have more of a place in the world, but it is something I care less and less about. I'm more interested in being generous than caring about where I am."

That attitude is clear throughout her new sophomore album Chris, which feels neither retro nor contemporary. Despite knowing there was a potential for pop-crossover after her debut, Letissier has chosen to update late-'80s pop, inspired by the empowerment anthems of Janet Jackson and the goofy productions of Cameo. She also took a greater risk, by striking out her stage name and adopting a new androgynous persona, the hyper-macho Chris, to replace Christine.

"I became really interested in working with a femininity that could revolve around patriarchal, macho codes," she says. Letissier, who has spoken positively about gender fluidity previously (and identifies herself as pansexual), notes she feels almost more feminine with the character. "The idea was to try to make it so obvious that it was just a set of codes we are given because if I try to use the macho-aesthetic as a woman, it's showing how much of it is theatre."

She compares it to the way drag queens over-perform femininity and to Madonna's Blond Ambition tour, an artist who is a frequent reference point in our conversation. "She had pointy, conic breasts for sure, but she also had muscly arms," she says. "It was a way to make everything cohabit. She was trying to subvert by being extremely powerful and extremely feminine."

Chris, the character, acts in a similar way for Letissier, in the sense that she now shows more of her body, albeit in a way which is more traditionally masculine. "When you're extremely macho, you're actually quite close to the aesthetic of homo-eroticism or even femininity because you offer your skin, all your muscles, and you work your hair," she says. The character allowed her to feel comfortable with a more aggressive idea of femininity.

It also helped create Chris the album, a record concerned with female desire, both physical and spiritual, which sees Letissier reaching into more ambitious lyrical territory. On opener "Comme si," she suggests a connection between musician and listener that is like lovers ("When you play me loud baby/We are making love/Now play me once again and let go"). Later, on "Doesn't matter," she reaches out into the abyss to question the point in believing in a higher power.   

The drama of Chris required a retouch of the Christine and the Queens sound, bringing in sharp, cartoonish drum machines and warm analogue synthesizers, many of them from the studio of French duo Air. It is an electronic record, but one without the frostiness associated with the genre. "I wanted to feel like some type of skin and blood was flowing through the music."

The aim was to make a record with even more personality than its predecessor. Her vocals were recorded with minimal studio effects, a way "to be almost naked and totally exposed in the voice," which preserves weird imperfections other artists might try to stamp out. "I was obsessed with becoming more precise and flawed," she says. "There's a sense of trying to desperately be more humanI wanted the multi-faceted depth characters in movies sometimes have, unlike in pop music where you have to choose an energy."

The dramatic aspect of the character is clear in Christine and the Queens live performances and music videos, which appear like vignettes from Broadway musicals and in which she works with the same troupe of dancers. "I wanted to work with dancers as performers and not as decorations," she says. "It's like Chris is the main character and they are interacting with her." One performance, on the British music TV show Later... with Jools Holland, plays out like a scene from West Side Story, opening with a hostile dancer confronting her. "It changes everything from the perspective of a performance because I'm not just a singer surrounded with dancers. There can be tension on stage that is never resolved."

Clear moments of resolution are rare throughout Chris, mainly because the character defies easy explanation. She is pulled together from disparate influences; Peter Pan, Slim Shady, and macho-Madonna are all referenced, along with the films of Peter Greenaway. What ties together these contrasting sources are their grand ambitions, Letissier speaks fondly of work which contains "an excess of poetry." There is also an element of resistance in the ambiguity.

"I think there's something almost like a choice when you decide to present yourself as a complex character being a woman," she says. "You still have to choose if you're a slut or an intellectual or a mom or a wife." Chris lets her be any of these things and more, contrasting with the more clearly-defined Christine. "I think it was a way for me to assert something that is quite tenuous and mysterious."

The looseness of Chris has liberated Letissier, giving her opportunities to be more playful with her persona and comfortable with making a little less sense. Where she used to shy away from the theatre of sexuality and image, she now embraces it. "I have more fun now," she says. "I used to try to remove myself from that system in order to focus on being an author, but I realize now that being an author is also about playing around with those appearances and making the most of them."

While many artists strive to produce the definite document of their talents, Chris feels averse to that idea, existing as one of many possible visions of Christine and the Queens. Letissier says she wasn't interested in preserving what made Chaleur Humaine an international success. In doing so, she has made a startling successor, bursting with risk and ambition. "With Christine, there was a sense of danger because the character was born to allow myself to be a bit freakier. I always remember that when I work." Whoever Chris becomes next is unclear, but we know she won't be who we expect her to be.

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's Issue 64 (August/September/October 2018), which is out now. This is its debut online.]

www.christineandthequeens.com

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