Christine and the Queens: The Gender-Defying Chanteuse With a Plan
With her U.S. debut on its way, Héloïse Letissier doesn't mind bending the rules
Dressed in all black at New York’s Sunflower Diner, Christine and the Queens — a.k.a. French singer-songwriter Héloïse Letissier — sits gleefully in front of a giant stack of banana-topped pancakes, fatigued from a sweaty show at SoHo’s the Box the night before, another in a string of sold-out gigs she’s played in the city since the release of April’s the Saint Claude EP, her orchestrally lush Stateside debut.
“Music was not something I thought about when I was young, so this was not my destiny,” says the petite, 27-year-old singer, letting her pancakes grow cold. “I wanted to be a stage director, but then I had a terrible year: You get dumped and everything falls apart. You don’t know what you’re doing anymore. I just had to escape from France, so I went to London.”
On her own at age 22, Christine shook off her self-diagnosed depression after meeting a pair of drag queens who picked up on her downtrodden demeanor immediately. “They gave me tricks to change perspective,” she says. “Like, ‘If you don’t like who you are, invent yourself a better self for you to be.’ So I started to think about Christine as a character that could be like me, but more daring. And they were like, ‘If you don’t like theater, find something else to do. Sing girl.'”
Though she thought (and still thinks) she had a terrible voice, Christine realized she could pursue singing as a cleansing form of bodily expression. Citing Lou Reed’s “Sad Song” and Robyn’s defiant “Dancing On My Own” as inspiration, she bought a laptop and produced her first track, the dazzling gender-bending rumination “iT,” on GarageBand. That track shows up on the bilingual and aforementioned Saint Claude EP, which distills years of nuanced debates surrounding sexual and identity politics (“Cause I won / I’m a man now / Cause I’ve got it / I’m a man now”). During choreography-heavy live performances, she dresses in sharply angular suits and appears as gender-neutral as possible, allowing for a more broad appreciation of her craft.
“‘iT’ is about breaking free from who you think you are and trying to upset something,” she says. “I’m constantly singing ‘I’m a man’— I’m not — but in the middle of the song, there’s another voice saying, ‘She’s a fake’ or ‘She’s lying.’ So it’s a constant battle, like, I’m going to be the boss of this project, and I’m going to be not really pretty, and I don’t care.”
As she gears up for the release of her as-yet untitled U.S. debut album as Christine and the Queens later this fall, Letissier has recorded new English verses and choruses for many of the LP’s tracks (its French-language counterpart was released in 2014 overseas). “I didn’t want to be the exotic French girl releasing a pop album that nobody really understood,” she says. “Like, ‘Hey! Sounds good! Can’t hear a thing!'”
Christine has also added two new guests to the upcoming record, ones not included on her European release: Perfume Genius and Philadelphia rapper Tunji Ige. “Perfume’s really shy, he’s so delicate and fragile like a flower,” she says. “Then he opens up his mouth to sing and you’re like, ‘Oh s–t.’ And then you have to sing after him and you’re like, ‘Can I play the saxophone instead?'”
Christine says she looks to Madonna — who admits to copping the French star’s moves during this year’s Grammy Awards — and the way she handled the struggles she faced as a woman in show business as the blueprint she’s trying to follow. “I think women are like samurai now, kung-fu masters,” she says. “We have to be strong but calm at the same time. I was watching the documentary In Bed with Madonna [titled Truth or Dare in the U.S.] again, and it feels like the same period, the same concerns. She’s still badass and it doesn’t feel old. And I was like, ‘S–t. That’s not a good thing to feel when you watch this documentary.”
It’s challenging, Christine says, to be attempting full-scale U.S. crossover success while also combatting the norms of an industry she’s attempting to pierce, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. “The thing that bothers me is that sometimes I do interviews and they’re like, ‘Oh, so you’re like the good woman, ‘cause you’re not trivializing your body,'” she says. “‘You’re not a whore. You’re not selling your body like Miley Cyrus.’ I love Miley! She’s punk rock, she’s crazy, she’s sexual, and that’s cool. I can be complex like that. I would love to be perceived as a male rock star. You can take a picture of me and not airbrush it. Embrace my defects.”