What do you do when you’re stuck in a rut? If your answer is something along the lines of “get yourself unstuck”, then you’ll easily relate to Héloïse Letissier’s story. Letissier, creator and embodiment of Christine and the Queens, is a strong example of alchemising hardship into success, making something out of nothing, turning that frown upside-down.
Her back-story is now fairly well-known: depressed and volatile in the aftermath of a painful break-up, the Nantes-born stage direction student came away from Paris to London in search of respite. Ending up forging a bond with the drag-queens in Soho’s Madame JoJo's, their inspiration not only helped in building Letissier’s confidence back up but also planted the first seeds of what then germinated into her artistic stage persona, Christine.
Six years later and Christine and the Queens is, undoubtedly, France’s most successful musical export since Camille and the international cross-over of her intelligent yet easily tapped-into pop has reached North America even before the rest of Europe has caught on. No mean feat, that. Comparing Letissier to Camille may seem like lazy journalism but that ability to package real substance into the confines of a short pop song with equal measure of quirk and aplomb is a quality the two French performers share in abundance.
With her debut album partially re-recorded in English and finally getting released in the UK, the 405 met Letissier at her record label’s office in London to talk about where the boundaries between Héloïse and Christine lie, writing in English, sexuality and dealing with misogyny in the music industry.
Bonjour, Héloïse. Visiting London for promo and live shows must feel like a stark contrast to visiting here in 2010.
How would you describe the difference in your state of mind?
Huge! Well, It's quite emotional for me because when I came here for the first time in 2010 - not my first time in London but, like, when I came here for three weeks in 2010 - it was like a weird small holiday. I was in pieces, searching for something, for inspiration, for something to happen to me, for new energy. I was just so lost, like a lost teenager. But things got a bit better and now I am coming here along with my character, which was born here.
So, essentially, at that time you were here as Héloïse but now you come to London as Christine?
Totally. Because Christine was born here. 6 years ago now. It is less a stage character and more a survival technique. Whenever I'm in trouble, I think: what would Christine do? It's a way of locking my mind and just being more daring. It's not a character that is different to who I am but more of a filtered version of myself. So now I have Christine with me all the time as potential solutions or as a crutch, maybe [laughs]. Here in London, I discovered that I could write music and it was a huge, huge discovery for me. Because before that I had a hard time relating to other people. Now I have songs which speak for me before I even walk into a room. You can't necessarily tell because I talk a lot but I am quite an introvert.
Does the ability to use Christine in various situations happen to you more naturally as the time goes by or do you have to flick an imaginary switch to activate Christine mode, as it were?
Actually, I think that acting and having a character is something which happens to all of us and which we do all the time. With Christine I have found the right character and the right way of presenting myself to the world. But before Christine I had other characters invented, they were just not good. They were just not good for me. They were born because I wanted to please someone else or thought it was a good idea to present myself in a certain way. Having a character is not new for me but Christine felt like the right one. It felt like the one I needed and still need. It is never natural for me to actually be with other people. I am always observing how people present themselves to others, constantly, especially now in the society we are in - we're always acting, in a way, on social media. It's something I am always watching with curiosity. So I don't feel like I have to flick a switch or anything. Different switches flick themselves all the time. I don't behave in the same way with the same people in the same situations. Christine has helped me be more coherent, maybe because it is the right fit. I get to be more - not more like myself, because I don't know what that means - but more composed and coherent.
Isn't that also a function of growing up? We always have a better grasp of who we are as the years go on -
- and the more comfortable we tend to get in our own skins.
Yes and we shed some old skin as well! When you grow older you get to shed some bullshit behind. Christine and my album is like finding things that everybody can experience and relate to. Feeling like a walking question mark is something that can happen to everybody and Christine is an expression of that. But, definitely - yes, maybe being a drama queen is my way of growing up [laughs]. I had to express it with a character but it is something which everybody experiences in different ways.
And in that respect, the lyrics on the album are quite important in conveying what you've been feeling and what you’re trying to say. Would you be ok with people enjoying your songs even if they didn't pay any attention to the lyrics?
That's a really interesting question. For me, lyrics are very important but I can also be that type of person who doesn't pay attention to the lyrics and just focuses on how good the song sounds. For example, the last Rihanna single, it's basically just [starts singing] "Wer, wer, wer, wer, werk". I can like a song without actually connecting to the lyrics at all because it sounds insanely good. I take that into consideration when I am writing, myself. I have scrapped a lot of lyrics that are really beautiful to read - I mean, beautiful for me - but ultimately weren’t sounding that great. And this is why sometimes when I write I shift between French and English during the writing process - some French songs that are on the album were first drafted in English - because English sounds good.
Oh, so you actually started them in English -
Yes. And then I try to find the musicality in French. It has to mean something, of course, but it's like a guideline for it. So this is something I am really attentive to and aware of. Either way, it all starts with the music and the lyrics always come last. The very last part of the process is to actually write lyrics - the top-line has to fit into the song. So, yes, I can be in peace with someone liking one of my songs without paying attention to the lyrics but for me, the cherry on top is when you actually decide to pay attention and you discover something else behind the lyrics. Sometimes you can actually love a song and then be disappointed when you pay attention to the lyrics. For me, the meaning is like the final part of loving a song and it can enhance it, make it even more beautiful. Some French people... my French articulation is not very precise, it's weird, I am stretching syllables. So sometimes people in France think they know the lyrics and they sing along but it is actually different to what I am, in fact, singing [laughs]. I'm fine with that because it means that it sounds good to them!
Thinking about the English incarnation of the album, which song are you happiest with, lyrically?
Well. I am not going to be that original because I am going to talk about the single, but... 'Tilted', because of its story.
And is the story in the English version different to the story you sang on the French original, 'Christine'?
Actually, not really - it's just telling it in a different way. This is also why I love translating, it's a cool mind-trick. I'd rather stick to the meanings, to the main idea, but find a new way to say it. Not just trying to stick to how it sounds.
Can you tell me what it is about?
Of course [smiles]. I don't want to spoil the meaning for everybody because my lyrics are not precise and you can make up your own story but - for me – this is basically a queer song. It is taking something that pains you and makes you feel terrible and doing something about it. It is about depression and feeling like shit all the time. Not being able to stand on your feet. But then weirdly starting to embrace the feeling of being out of place all the time so it is playing the idea, the image, of not standing up properly to the point that it becomes a dance move or something that you can work with. That's the whole point of the character Christine, for me. Embrace the scars and the flaws and the weird posture you might have and just make something out of it. Because you can't hide it. You can't suppress it so just go with it. And so, in the French and English song I was trying to find an image that could indicate both a loss of balance or a dance step. It can become whatever you want. You can read the song in a really positive way or a negative way depending on where you enter it -
- depending on which way you're tilted -
Exactly! It can be really creepy as hell or child-like. It's playful at the same time. The line where I am saying "I'm doing my face with a magic marker" - it can be really creepy if you think about it or it can be really fun, you know? It's a balance I was searching for in the lyrics and I think the song is really uplifting as well. I like songs that you can enter into with your own feeling and make it into something different. I like songs that can actually grow old with you and change their meaning or your perception of them.
You've spoken openly about being queer. How important for you is making a political statement with Christine and the Queens, whether through the music or even outside of that?
The people I look up to the most are people who are not only making music but are also doing something over and above that, like trying to educate on certain issues or by existing differently. That in itself can be something political.
What do you mean by 'existing differently'?
I'm thinking about Grimes, for example. She is existing - the very fact that she exists and tells people that she produces everything herself, that she has hairy legs because she doesn't care and she doesn't have time to shave... it might not seem like much but it really is. It's a statement and by making this statement it becomes political and she uses her Twitter account to tweet about the environment and stuff like that and she uses the platform she has to talk about stuff she believes in. This is something I am inclined towards. I don't want to make pop music that just stands still in the air and dissolves because, as a singer-songwriter, I write from my very specific perspective and I couldn't have written my album as it is if I was, for example, a young black man. Of course, I am writing from where I am and from my own experience, so I feel like it would be cowardly of me to shy away from the truth because I am writing from the point of view of a queer woman. So I have to be there when queer issues arise. And also, because I am privileged. I have privilege to have a voice and be heard and I feel like I should use the impact I have as an artist. As someone who loves music, I like an artist even more if they use their voice for more than just their music. Even if I disagree with what they are saying, I like to think that there is a man or a woman behind a song, that it comes from being a citizen of this world. In France, it is not seen as a good thing to be a pop artist with ideas. Sometimes pop music is seen by some people as... maybe not as shallow but... more on the surface. When I've been vocal about stuff in the past people were tweeting me things like: stay where you belong, you're only an artist.
With the implication that as an artist you shouldn't stray outside making music?
Yes, and I'm like - what's an artist to you? For me, an artist is someone who witnesses things and interacts with them. What's interesting is that these people associate an artist with someone who is disconnected. And for me, the artists that I really admire and respect are the ones who make an impact. It's not about being pretentious but about existing in this very time and doing something about it.
As a queer woman, have you ever encountered homophobia yourself?
Not really. Well, a tiny bit. But it's nothing compared to some of my friends because, I think, on many different levels I am not seen as threatening. I look quite feminine, I am bisexual, so I am not explicitly openly queer to people. I can be on the tube and not be harassed. I know some girls who have shaved heads and look boyish and they get attacked. I come form a family where it was not a problem to be gay, so that helps. I know people who got kicked out of home. So I am privileged in that sense. Some people don't consider gay girls as a threat, they see it as something arousing or sexy. And I'm like, I am not saying this or that to be sexy. It's how I am and how I live. I have experienced a lot of negative treatment as a female but not so much because I am queer.
On that point, there's been a lot in the media recently about how misogyny in the music industry is still very rife. Amber Coffman's Twitter-testimony about Heathcliff Berru was particularly illuminating...
Yes, I read that.
What was your initial reaction to reading about her experience?
First, I was horrified, but then the reaction I had was that I was not surprised. Women are not surprised anymore to hear about harassment because every woman experiences something threatening at some point so we are not even surprised, you know? It's just that women are getting more vocal about it and the real fight is for women not to be ashamed. Because we should not be ashamed of what happens to us, we should be vocal and point fingers. Before that, it was not vocal because shame was there. We shamed women for being maybe too beautiful or too sexy or whatever. So I was not surprised to read that. I'm just glad that it's becoming an actual subject now... that we are talking about it more and more. It started with Björk talking about production, Grimes as well, and Amber talking about sexual harassment - it is starting to actually be a real subject of conversation. But for me, it's only the very beginning of the work. It's making this visible and it's making this exist but we are only at the beginning. Now we actually have to act on it and there's still work to do because patriarchy is still very, very implanted, even sometimes in women, because we are conditioned in that way. It's terrifying. Some people think that because we are operating in the artistic world it's less of a problem but it's the same problem everywhere, even in the music world, because women are still victims of the system everywhere. I was thinking about the singer with the band CHVRCHES [Lauren Mayberry] who was really harassed online constantly, with rape threats. The internet made her exposed - it was even more overwhelming because it was by people she didn't know. Yeah, there's still lots to do. And you know, Christine can be a character that is an answer to the male gaze. With Christine, I didn't want to think about being pretty. It was about inverting the male gaze and bouncing it back to people.
Was that a factor in how you devised your stage persona and attire?
Yes, the suit was more about drawing myself a silhouette that can be neutral and you wouldn't think - is it a female or male character? It can shift and it was more about an energy. I would love to just become an energy and not be categorised, because I am changing my mind all the time [laughs]. But, you know, discussing these issues, talking about gender issues is actually liberating for everybody. Including males. Feminism can free men as well, as long as they engage with it. Stereotypes are killing everybody. If we free women from the perception of what women should be then men can also be anything they like. To be free to choose and change your mind is for everyone's sake.
Turning back to the album, you've lived with the majority of the songs on it for several years now. Are you feeling ready to move on to the next phase and have you started thinking about your next musical project, yet?
Absolutely. I'm into it. I'm actually totally into it. It's going to be an interesting year for me because the album is released here and I am going to tour with it but at the same time it will be a year of diving into the second album and working on it. I've already started writing new songs and I know where I want to go with it. I have mood boards and I'm rubbing my hands together laughing with a creepy face [pulls face] plotting the next thing [laughs]. What's good is that every time I go back to the first album to perform it, first of all, I am not tired of it, which is good because that would be sad. And it confirms everything I want for the second one.
Can you give me any hints as to what you’d like to explore with the second album?
Well, I know the sound I want. So now I am going to search for the right people to work with. Definitely more live. Live drums, guitars, basslines. Lots of sweat involved. And I definitely want it to be more sexual.
Chaleur Humaine by Christine and the Queens is out on 26 February on Because Music.