“Queer is taking the shame and anger and taking it as a fuel for it to be something else,” singer-songwriter says ahead of U.S. tour
“Everything is wonderful,” says Christine and the Queens’ Héloïse Letissier, “but at the same time it’s been intense.” The French singer has just returned from a week of shows, TV appearances (including a talked-up cover of Beyoncé’s “Sorry” on the BBC) and festivals in London, after a whirlwind year that’s seen her duet live onstage with both Elton John and Madonna, the latter of whom even administered a ceremonial spanking to this eccentric, exhilarating pop star in the making.
On the verge of her first major American headlining tour – which kicks off tonight in Chicago – Letissier invites Rolling Stone to her quiet, airy house in Paris to talk about the events that transformed her, irrevocably, into her current alter ego. She’s a bona fide sensation in Europe (the Belgian gold disc of her 2014 debut album, Chaleur Humaine, hangs in the bathroom), and her path to success has already become something of a rock & roll fairy tale – replete with a clutch of kindly British drag queens taking a downcast Letissier into their London home and helping her find her real identity as Christine.
“Christine is just me choosing everything,” says the queer artist, and her genuine delight in her art is what makes Christine so magnetic as a performer. Leading a troupe of identically dressed male dancers onstage, she mixes up Michael Jackson–style dance moves with expressive vogue-ing flourishes, singing lines like, “I’m doing my face with a magic marker/I’m in my right place, don’t be a downer” (“Tilted”). There is, simply, no one quite like her in contemporary pop.
In person, Letissier’s English is not only impeccable, it’s also elegant: She describes Chaleur Humaine as being melancholy “and at the same time luminous.” She is warm and funny; reflecting on her early gigs, she shrugs, “In some cities, I was just this girl singing onstage about having a dick.” She is horrified by Donald Trump’s political success, pulls silly faces often and has a love of awkwardness: “No one is normal,” she tells RS, “but some people are made to feel that they are not.” It’s this phenomenon that she seeks to address via the mighty vehicle of pristine, heartfelt pop.
Letissier spoke to Rolling Stone about the otherworldly appeal of Michael Jackson, why she’s afraid of a Trump victory and what queerness means to her.
You’ve been friends with Elton John since he came to your first London show last year. Was it like a Royal visit?
You’re kind of expecting to be losing your mind and sweating, and it doesn’t happen because he’s really adorable [laughs]. He’s huge but he doesn’t make you feel like he’s huge, you know? I spent two minutes on stage with Madonna [on her Rebel Heart tour in Paris], so it’s not the same thing, but she wants you to know that she’s Madonna, you know?
Madonna spanked you onstage, just as she did with Amy Schumer. Is there a sense of, “By the way, everyone, I am still the Queen?”
Yeah, I think that’s very much about that, but this is why we like her as well, because she’s unapologetic; she’s really in control, and she wants to be this dominatrix character. I love her for that. So she spanked me and I was like … otherwise no one could spank me, but it’s OK because she’s Madonna. [As a kid] I was really [into] Michael Jackson, Prince and Bowie, and Madonna arrived when I was kind of older – around 18. I fell in love with the character, as a woman. I watched In Bed with Madonna [a.k.a. Truth or Dare] and I was like, how is this modern still?
Let’s talk about Christine as a character. She was born when you fled from Paris to London after a terrible breakup.
I was like, I can’t stay there in my flat, crying, with my door shut – I have to do something. So I went to London. You see more diversity [there], and when I came to London, I wanted to feel welcomed somewhere. I used to be afraid to take a bus before, so taking the Eurostar on my own, that was so rock & roll. I was like, “That’s it! I’m over the edge!”
What you were listening to on the Eurostar to London?
Lou Reed, Berlin, trying to match the mood. My face looked like Berlin – people were like, “Oh, she’s not in a good place right now.” [Laughs] But I was searching for joy as well, and to trigger something, so that was me being a bit more alive.
How much did you know about drag when you decided to visit [now-defunct Soho club] Madame Jo Jos?
I always was inspired-slash-fascinated by it, but I never went to queer evenings or stuff like that. I felt, “Now is the time to stop reading about it and just go.”
Were you there sad-drinking on your own?
I was not sad-drinking because I don’t drink alcohol, so it was even creepier than that – I was having no drinks. I was just there! Being really Berlin without any drinks. My face was full of rashes because it responds really well to my emotions [laughs]. So I was having too much makeup to cover the rash. I think that’s probably why at the end of the night [the drag queens] just came up to me, and went, [in London accent] “What’s up, love? You want to talk about it?” And I started to just pour out whatever came up.
The drag queens took you home with them, right?
They did my education! They were like, “Did you see Paris Is Burning, gurl?” [Laughs] We were talking about finding a character because I talked about being a stage director and being in and out of theater. They said that theater can be everywhere – you can just be a character, you can do something else with it.
It’s your “Once upon a time …” fairy tale.
Yeah, I immediately felt like I could write about it: “I’m living something really novel-esque right now.” I’m always writing stories, so I was like, “Finally! I’m in the story, that’s good!”
If Christine is a character, are you Héloïse with your friends?
I could say that I’m Christine all the time basically, because at some point I just chose to embrace everything I was. When I’m onstage I really feel honest and absolutely there. People who really know me, my parents or my friends, were really moved to see Christine because they can see me doing my thing and not shy anymore. So with the friends I know and trust, I’m Christine. With people I don’t really know I’m censoring myself, so sometimes I’m more Héloïse, you know?
You’ve talked about Serge Gainsbourg’s lesser-known alter-ego, Gainsbarre – so that’s who he was being when he told Whitney Houston that he wanted to fuck her, on live television, right?
It’s so great! I’m kind of pissed because I love this idea and I wish I had it before him. Gainsbarre is the self-hatred [Gainsbourg] had and he put it into a character – he’s the ultimate villain. But you can feel like there’s such a sadness behind it, and a melancholy, and a broken man. It’s really powerful. [Eighties Gainsbourg electro album] Love on the Beat is a really queer album, as well, and that was unusual for him because he’s talking about having sex with everyone, including men. I think French people kind of don’t really want to listen to that part [laughs].
How do you feel about being desired, even if it’s not your aim?
I don’t even know if that happens. I always feel like a vector not a person. I feel like sometimes when I’m in trains and people recognize me, what often happens is I’m a vessel for their passions – they talk to me immediately about someone they love, and, “Can you write something for the one I want to seduce?” So I feel like Cupid.
There can be so much projection with performers, it’s true.
I’m fascinated, by that, I can really feel it. I love being a projection, and I love to disappear into people’s minds. They immediately talk about what they’re obsessing about with you, but it’s really much about them, you know? I don’t really feel like I’m absorbing things; I’m just receiving things and bouncing back. I don’t really feel admired; I feel like I’m dissolving into people [laughs]. I love that. My ultimate favorite performer was Michael Jackson. He’s not a human being; he’s more like an energy. And people react to Michael Jackson. It’s like, you watch him, but at some point, he has this quality of being super-present and hyper and real, and I adore this idea.
“My ultimate favorite performer was Michael Jackson. He’s not a human being; he’s more like an energy.”
Can you imagine Michael Jackson off-duty?
Yeah, because I’m a huge fan, I saw shitloads of interviews with him. In interviews he’s really quite fragile – tiny voice. And what excites you is that you wonder, “How is that thing becoming Michael Jackson onstage?” That’s the contrast that’s really fascinating. He’s waiting to become Michael Jackson – you know what I mean?
And it’s not, for example, like Rihanna. I love her – I think she has a macho quality. I accepted at some point that she was someone that was to be admired, and she’s working really well in that. I saw her live, and she was like … [shrugs]. And singing like, “Meh,” not even finishing the sentence. And I was like, “Well, that’s kind of interesting because I think this is why people like her, because she resists.” She could be somewhere else, so this brings desire. But yeah, Rihanna is someone that really is there to be admired, and Michael Jackson was there to make you feel something.
Did Kanye get in touch with you after you recorded a take on “Heartless” [on Chaleur Humaine]?
I mean, I’m basically desperately waving at him with that song! [Laughs] I really love what he’s doing, and that was me obviously noting his influence. Artistically I’m a huge fan of Kanye West; the discography is fucking amazing. I remember listening to Yeezus like that [jaw drops]. Since then no album has shocked me as much as Yeezus. It was a new landscape, a minimal one – it was like climbing a mountain. I love everything he does, even in terms of image and of the shows are really theatrical. So, maybe he doesn’t like [the song].
He’s probably a busy man.
Probably, but then I started to second-guess myself, “Maybe he doesn’t like it – oh God!” It’s interesting how unfiltered he is; it’s just like he doesn’t care. There is a great line in his song that says: “Everything I’m not made me everything I am.” There is this quality with Kanye West, he always goes where people don’t want him to go, and he goes and he stays there. Glastonbury he did it on his own with just shitloads of spots, and he sang really badly “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but that’s Kanye West, you know? I like that kamikaze energy!
What were you like when you were a little kid?
[Laughs] Tiny, even tinier than now! Yeah, tiny, blonde. I don’t know if Iwas funny, but I was always joking and loving to twist my face in weird shapes. And I was always introducing myself saying I was a princess clown, which is kind of an interesting concept, right? I had a really quiet childhood, I was just reading a lot and not having that much friends. But that was not sad; it was just me always wanting to be kind of a loner.
Can you remember the first time you felt music as a physical experience in your body?
I do remember around Christmas when I was quite young, listening to this piece of work by Vivaldi called Stabat Mater. It’s a piece made for a castrato, a guy who has a really high voice. I remember loving the sensation of just dissolving. That still happens to me and I’m always longing after that. It’s beautiful that it’s my job now, but it makes the part when I’m not doing that more difficult sometimes.
You’ve spoken about the joy of performing. But do you feel that passion with writing and producing your music as well?
The longing is to be doing all of it, I think, because I do have the same calm and joy when I do write, because I’m already transforming something. The stage is even more ecstatic because of the physicality of it – because I do love how physical it gets on stage. But writing is mainly writing for the stage, so it’s kind of the same joy you get, because you’re like, “Oh, I’m going to do that, that’s going to be great!”
Did you write little songs when you were a kid?
That’s the funny part – never. I was surrounding myself with music – thanks to mostly my parents because they had really interesting albums at their home like Klaus Nomi. Also Joe Jackson, David Bowie, classical music, jazz, contemporary music: Philip Glass, Steve Reich. So, I think your mental space is widened right away. But never I thought of myself as a musician because I was sure I sucked at piano. I kind of suck now [frowns], but that’s OK. I hated my voice so I never sang.
You hated your voice? Really?
When I was a kid, I was so disappointed. I was listening to Björk records! I never wrote a song; I was writing a lot of stories, poems. Writing with words has been in my life since I can’t remember. It’s kind of breathing; it’s me processing things. Every time I was in love it had to become something in writing.
You produced Chaleur Humaine yourself. When did you became a total studio –
… freak? Well, it used to be quite low-fi before. Songs like “iT” [Chaleur Humaine opening track] are mainly made out of GarageBand. I bought my computer – I asked around, “What is the easiest way to do music that could be a bit drums and piano and everything but without knowing shit?” So I bought that and started to fiddle around, and I found interesting, weird ways to work with it.
Then I updated to more sophisticated software, and for Chaleur Humaine I ended up being in a studio, because I wanted to have real guitars and everything – but the demos were shaped in the computer. It was quite painful because I used to do everything really alone in my room, and in a studio you have to organize several people. At first I was like, [recoils] “I can’t do that.” I had rashes because I always knew I was sure where I wanted it to go, but I didn’t dare to say it. So I would let the musicians do things, then I was like, “Oh, God!” and my skin was starting to itch.
But I finally learned. I cried several times and they kind of got that it wasn’t good [laughs]. I did the weakest version of authority which is basically breaking down and having people pity me. Now I’m more comfortable, because I do have this under my belt, so people trust me a bit more. But it’s true that because I was a 22-year-old girl with four years of experience with software, people were like, “Right, you want to produce it? Sure.”
Having your heart broken obviously had a huge effect on your life, and you’ve talked before about the idea of suicide. Did recovering from hitting rock bottom help you feel creatively free and confident? Like, “Wait! It’s a waste of my life to feel embarrassed or self-conscious”?
Exactly. For me it was related to the notion of self-hatred at some point as well. I was like, “Why do I want to erase myself so much? Where does that come from?” Because I was afraid of trying, being judged, existing – I didn’t like everything I was. I think I hated the fact that I was not the person Icould be. I feel like I was trying to fit other people’s expectations. It sounds a bit self-centered, but it’s what I went through. The breakup was like another rejection, and it comes on top of many things that happened to me as well in my professional life where I was just being rejected because I was a woman.
So, I was like, “OK, so either I give up, [or] now is the time to properly be the person I didn’t dare to be before. Now is the time to try.” And a weight was lifted. The character [Christine] at first was kind of having these kind of fun rages where I was like, “Oh, well, if you don’t want me, you’re going to see me – you’re going to see what I can do.” I remember being onstage for the first time and it was really defiant. I remember I was in a suit that I bought and it was a bit too big for me, and it was not really making sense, and I had too much makeup on, but I was accentuating everything to be even more awkward. I was like, “This is me!”
Is it harder to be a woman in France?
It’s like French people don’t really want to see that we are still misogynistic and the patriarchy is still there – “The French woman is free! She’s empowered and she’s free!” and you’re like, “No she’s not because she has to be skinny and perfect.” Some people are like, “But we had Simone de Beauvoir – it’s fine!” And it’s like, “She’s dead and we still have problems that Simone de Beauvoir would be upset with.”
Is there a connection between what you do creatively in relation to what’s going on politically at the moment? It seems that the more things fall apart, the more desire there is for honesty in art.
It’s true that when I talk to people I always am really moved because they kind of really like me being raw and bare and exposed and honest as well. I don’t really like this word “honest,” but I see what you mean.
What don’t you like about the word?
Because sometimes you can’t judge, like, who’s honest, who’s not. For me, I can’t really lie with the songs. I was ready to give up and music just helped me relate again. I can’t cheat with that. It has to stay really genuine. And at some point when you become a bit famous, you are – some people in France don’t understand the choices I make. Like, “How could you refuse this huge advertising campaign that could pay you a lot of money?” I was like, “This is a campaign for perfect skin, and I don’t have perfect skin, and I don’t want to advertise that.” Or, “How can you stop your tour? You could tour for six years with this album because it’s so successful.” I’m like, “I don’t want to because I don’t want to not mean what I’m singing onstage.”
Let’s talk about America. You played there for the first time last year …
Yes, and I did a tour opening for Marina and the Diamonds and I did Coachella. That was kind of hectic. It’s crazy conditions: You sing in the desert, you have wind everywhere, and herbs come in your nose, and people are totally crazy in front of you like, “Woo!” and you’re like [alarmed], “Why is he … ?” [Laughs] And daylight: I’m kind of a vampire; I don’t really like the sun. But I was really happy to do Coachella; it was a milestone. And people [in L.A.] are so enthusiastic all the time! They’re like, “How are you?!” French people, we’re like, “Me?”
How do you feel about America now?
Well, it’s going through an interesting and dramatic, hectic phase, right? Because, of course, the election.
Who do you think’s going to win?
I would say Hillary because I don’t really believe Trump could win because I don’t want to believe it, but then again who knows? It’s like Brexit. I remember at Glastonbury, talking to about my labelmates about it, the night before, and we were like, “That can’t happen; this is impossible,” and then the next morning everyone was like, “What?!”
It feels like there is a cycle of destruction. There is a social anger, and people just want to show something by destroying things. But yeah, I hope Trump is not going to win. I feel like right now an intense fear of him winning even more than two weeks ago, so it’s going to be quite interesting to tour. Then again I’m not doing a full, intense tour, and I think America is several realities. I would be interested in bringing Christine to Texas, see what happens, you know? This is what I loved about touring all the cities in France. In some cities, I was just this girl singing onstage about having a dick.
What does queerness mean to you? Do you see it as a way of living that puts you outside the norm as well as relating to sexuality?
Well, my definition of queer is basically that you don’t fit in at some point, and you experience yourself as just being in the margin. There are lots of ways to be queer, and you can be queer by being bisexual, but then you can feel queer because you’re too fat for the society, for example. It’s not fitting the normal and having to twist it and to think about other norms that you would want to reinvent. I did experience myself as queer because of my sexuality, mainly, but I think you can feel queer quite easily in this society! [Laughs]
How about the relationship between queerness and creativity? No one’s really normal, and if you’re channeling that genuinely, maybe everyone’s a bit queer?
No one is normal, but some people are made to feel that they are not. I think queer is being out of a privilege at some point. When you think about white, straight men, it cannot possibly sometimes be queer because he never actually experiences any kind of discrimination. Queer used to be an insult before, so it’s very much about taking back what’s been stolen from you, or like, being proud of something that you can feel ashamed of.
I think the relationship with shame is really important as well. I do think a lot about shame as an important concept today, because, for example, women are constantly made to feel ashamed of something. “Oh, you didn’t shave your armpits,” tiny things. Constantly we are surrounded by possibilities of being ashamed. For me, Christine is a queer character because of that – queer is taking the shame and anger and taking it as a fuel for it to be something else.
Have you started writing songs for your next album?
Oh, I have 40 songs. I don’t know if they’re all good, but I’m writing as soon as I can. I had the luxury of being properly introduced with the first one and I feel really grateful for that because there’s no misunderstanding about who I want to be. That’s a treasure. So with this second album, it’s “OK, what do I want to do with this character now?” I’m excited about being a bit tougher – sexual, but on my own terms. And pushing boundaries even further in terms of being a female pop character, and experimenting more. I think Chaleur Humaine is very melancholic, but quite luminous in a way. It kind of radiates something. And with the second one it’s going to be darker. You know, you can try to name your reality and name your rules, but it’s not really always accepted. There is still this struggle. We live in troubled times and I’m interested in how the shame and anger of other people kind of crosses [into] mine as well. I’m so excited about it.