Silence Soothes Me: Christine And The Queens

Silence Soothes Me: Christine And The Queens

“I want to be scared all the time… When I stop being scared, I think I will stop writing songs.”

Chris represents something different. In a time of easy answers shouted at ever eclipsing volume, she is nuanced, complex, carnal, and emotive; Christine And The Queens’ new album uses its minimalist pop framework as a shield against the world’s darker forces.

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Héloïse Letissier was absolutely terrified - but that’s exactly what she wanted.

Seated at her computer, she was about to share a new photograph, the first sign of her second album, ‘Chris’. “There was a sense that I was risking something,” she recalls. “Maybe risking the beautiful story of the first album. In a way I was breaking free to tell another story. And I loved that feeling!”

It was an extraordinary position to be in. Christine And The Queens - a project rooted in drag culture, pan-sexuality, empowerment, and risk - won over her native France on debut album ‘Chaleur Humaine’, with its vivid ’80s-hewn songwriting recalling those other extra-terrestrial pop aliens Prince, Michael Jackson, and Bowie.

And then something special happened. The English language version of ‘Chaleur Humaine’ was released here in the UK during the opening weeks of 2016, a year dominated by political strife, the unrelenting rise of the dogmatic right, and the defeats to progress represented by Trump and Brexit. In amongst all this, Christine And The Queens effortlessly bowled over everyone in its path, this rippling creative force, asking difficult questions at a time when everyone, it seems, is obsessed with easy answers.

New album ‘Chris’ is a mutation, not an evolution; the central character is different, its lexicon has shifted, with the songwriting continually moving between fact and fiction, desire and regret, truth, and distortion; at its core, however, this stripped down, minimalist take on pop classicism remains.

“It’s something I’m kind of more and more obsessed with as I notice that immediacy becomes the greatest thing,” she muses. “For me, it’s never like that. Even when I love something artistically it is because it resists me a little bit.”

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Art as an act of resistance, the first seeds that became her second album were planted during the final exhausting weeks of the international tour that wrapped itself around her debut album, when Christine finally became Chris.

“I mean, I had to stop,” she shrugs. “I didn’t know how to give anything more onstage. I was too worn out. And I didn’t want to be in robotic mode.”

“It was wonderful,” she adds quickly, “but at the same time I was like, I am in a different place now so I have to tell a different story. I stopped the tour, and then I had to sit back at my desk and recreate another dream”.

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“I thought: I have to tell the story of Chris, because Chris was the reflection of who I became,” she continues. “Of course, changing your name is a way to rebel against being trapped in the brand, but for me it’s also about accuracy. I want to tell the exact story of how I feel. And since I was young I used many alter egos, but it was every time a way to tell a story precisely. I have to find a name for that emotion, or that moment in my life. It’s the opposite of constructing a character.”

As she traveled, she found her spirit and her body were indelibly changed by touring. Her voice broadened, and grew in strength, while constant touring altered her body in subtle, sometimes striking ways. It was a carnal experience, but when the touring stopped, those feelings did not.

“I was slowly becoming a bit more muscled, precise… and there was something really empowering about singing every night and being embraced and welcomed for that,” she recalls. “Eroticism arrived in my life more bluntly because when you are performing you are a body in action, and you are projecting, and people look at you. It’s a different perspective on your desires and how to experience them.”

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Building her work, Chris started out by looking to what she knows best: pop music. Speaking about her favourite albums, her favourite songs, her arms fly upwards, her smile stretching ever wider - a never-ending font of knowledge about songwriting and production, she pulls reference point after reference point out of her magician’s hat.

Janet Jackson’s sexually charged, incredibly daring ‘The Velvet Rope’ is one; Serge Gainsbourg’s opinion-splitting ’80s work ‘Love On The Beat’ is another. Both broke stylistic boundaries by embracing technology, and both were coded in queer language.

“It was vintage references, but they were so cinematic and almost cartoonish sometimes, and it was pure expressions of desires,” she insists. “So I was like, let’s use that as a soundboard. And see where it fits with the songs. But then I kind of wrote the whole album with the soundboard in mind. That vocabulary was already there.”

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Lead single ‘Girlfriend’ emerged from a fascination with both G-funk and Michael Jackson’s ‘Dangerous’; album standout ‘Doesn’t Matter’ protruded from a desire to locate the fragility in ’80s machine-led production. The list goes on: Chris doesn’t write songs in a conventional sense, she conceptualises multi-faceted objects in sound that happen to be some of the catchiest things you’ll ever hear.

“It almost feels like a small novel,” she smiles when looking back on her new album. “It’s important to have songs of pure power - like ‘Girlfriend’ - or some songs like ‘What’s Her Face?’ just fall back into that sadness of the high school time, when I was on my own. It’s the same person; it’s just different. I think it’s even more fragmented as a record than the first one maybe. But maybe I’m not the one who call tell that!”

A splintered mosaic with a carefully plotted structure: a complex, nuanced mesh that retains a simplistic minimalism, ‘Chris’ defies convention at every turn. One of the aspects of the conversation surrounding her debut that frustrated the songwriter so much was the belief that her art must somehow be merely autobiographical - that instead of creating something beautiful from the imagination she must be representing what is around her.

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Discussing this, she quotes Chris Kraus’ cult novel I Love Dick. “There is a great moment in the book where she says: Everything a women writes has to be true because she cannot imagine or project or sublimate, which is actually really something I felt. Even on the second album. And this is something I’m trying to defuse slightly. Even the grand discussion about having a stage name, and a stage character… sometimes I felt like I was made to feel sorry about that. And I was like, how can that be?”

“I think it’s something that I always have to battle through a bit more because I’m a woman writing. But then again I did work on the album, and did produce it; I made all the choices I wanted to make without thinking of that because then you narrow yourself even more.”

If there is one thing ‘Chris’ definitely is not, it’s narrow; moving from tender romance to moments of violence, erotic funk to softly beguiling melody, it arrests at every turn. Aware of her provocative power as a pansexual female performer, she chooses to disrupt the male gaze, to invert preconceptions, and play with them.

“I’m talking a lot about intricacy,” she says at one point in our conversation. “It’s weird that intricacy is a fragile thing to maintain because people want radical answers.”

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Those radical answers seemed to make her rise all the more powerful. On the morning after the Brexit vote, Christine And The Queens played an emotionally charged set at Glastonbury, with Chris left to raise the spirits of a crowd whose hopes for a progressive future had been crushed.

“There was an intensity,” she admits. “It looked like a big muddy utopia of people just wanting to enjoy music. It’s true that when I went onstage I had the reality of Brexit in my mind, but that also made it such a pure pop moment, even for me… I was fuelled by the eagerness of making the space a safe one. Seeing people soaked by the rain, cheering, it was this utopian place for half an hour. I was trying to battle the rain!”

“I hope it’s not the beginning of a deep sleep,” she says softly. “There is this sense of a deep sleep, which is always a bit scary. And actually when I think of what I want to do it’s the opposite. I want to be scared all the time, and awake all the time. When I stop being scared, I think I will stop writing songs.”

As the world becomes a little darker, Christine And The Queens burn ever brighter - it’s like Michelle Obama once said: when they go low, we go high. Where Chris goes next is entirely up to her - she may mutate once more, or perhaps linger in this creative space for a little while longer. “You know what? I don’t know yet!” she laughs. “It depends on the third album. Which is something I’m starting to think about! It’s cheesy, but when I made that change, it’s because I felt it. I didn’t really think about it - I went with it because my guts wanted to go with it.”

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'Chris' is our Album Of The Year for 2018 - check out the full list HERE.

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