I’m halfway through an interview with Chris — formerly Christine and the Queens, née Héloïse Letissier — when two cheerful fans approach our table in the busy cafe where we sit. They politely interrupt to lavish praise on the unassuming star and ask to take a picture together. She obliges and they slide into her banquette and sidle up for a selfie before hurrying away. Chris lets out a protracted sigh. “More hired actors? My mum pays for everything.” She rarely misses a beat.
It’s the same kind of quick, performative humour that marks her onstage presence — acting out the roles of Gallic lothario, elastic aggressor and cheesy emcee with equal vigour. Earnest in her intensity and forever flicking from one mode to the next, Chris performs her kinetic pop-funk with all the remarkable miscellany of a one-man band. She’s never really alone, of course — almost always accompanied by a troupe of dancers who buck against each other in fake brawls and feverishly gyrate with the energy of twilight cruising. It’s like a schoolyard scene with adult themes.
That manic-but-meticulous choreography speaks to her keen sense for restraint amid chaos. She’s both crude and mannered, smooth and scabrous, always solitary and always surrounded by friends. At a time where much of the press in her home country is still mired in gendered obsession over the question “What is Chris?”, it feels increasingly appropriate to wonder in response, “What can’t Chris be?”
Here, the French pop rebel lets us know the difference, discussing Goya, witchcraft and living with scars over a plate of pain perdu.
Joe Brennan: You’ve spoken about how you would write all the time as a teenager — novels, plays and poems. What were you exploring at that age?
Christine: “I went through phases. The first story I wrote actually terrified my mother because it was a tale of murder. But I think that’s kind of normal, no? I was just another child using words to process vivid images. I always felt that writing was superior to life because it let me shapeshift. But then as I grew older I found that it did the exact opposite. It helped me work out who I was with precision — the idea of finding and cultivating your personal voice. I became emancipated. My writing could suddenly define me or it could not define me in the most beautiful way.”
Speaking of emancipation, on the track “What’s-her-face” and in the music video for “5 dollars” you bare both your physical and emotional scars. How does it feel to share that with your audience?
“I’m actually obsessed with it. I used to hate the idea that I would have scars or that I might inflict them on others. I thought it would make me undesirable or dysfunctional. Sunlight on a scar makes it obvious to the eye, you know? And so I made sure to hide them. But in becoming Christine I learned to feel the opposite way. Now when I do photoshoots and I have scars I’m like, “Don’t hide it! Don’t you fucking try to hide it!”. I think it’s actually quite a queer idea, that a scar is a beautiful part of your storytelling because of what it says or where it is. It doesn’t suffocate you, it just opens you up. When I see people’s scars I’m like “Where does that come from? Explain that to me. I want to lick it.” [aughs] I like that I’m healthy but can talk about these things. I’m healthy but scarred.”
Watching you and your fellow dancers onstage reminded me of ‘80s music videos from Paula Abdul and Janet Jackson — these sprawling, impeccably choreographed scenes with play-fighting and discrete vignettes. What made you want to work closely with a small group of dancers on this record?
“I worked with dancers on my first album but it was in a more classical sense. I was basically just a singer decorated with backup dancers. But then touring with them made me realise these people are underestimated, they’re not being used to their full potential. The second album was so much more about stories of desire. Even in the record itself, there were these de facto duets like “Doesn’t matter” or the unrequited love of “Goya Soda”. So I needed to cast the right characters to have those interactions with, almost like a movie. I’m now lucky enough to be working with people onstage who I admire and who challenge me as a performer. The show goes by in a minute for me because I’m much more emotionally invested in the narrative we’ve all created together. I don’t know if it’s less superficial … but it’s definitely more theatrical. I think I’ll do it more and more.”
You mentioned filmmaking. The album opens with a recreation of the THX “deep note” familiar to moviegoers everywhere. And your visual output freely references the language of queer cinema.
The aesthetic of the music video for “Girlfriend” references Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982) and the high-collared suit in “5 dollars” made me think of Dirk Bogarde in Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971). Do you feel as though you’re working in conversation with the legacy of queer artists who came before?
“All of those things have influenced me foremost as … dare I say … ‘a human being’.” [rolls eyes]
Which is fine to say!
“Which is totally fine to say. Because I’m not a robot. I was more emotionally linked to queer art growing up because it resonated with me and shaped my imagination. I read Jean Genet when I was really young and it changed my sensitivity and my eroticism. So I go back to those spaces often because there’s more representation, more visibility for different types of bodies and more experimentation in how love is depicted. When I’m thinking of a video clip, I’m always trying to question the male gaze and diffuse it if I can. That kind of empowerment is just a part of the pleasure of my art. But I have a hard time defining myself with precise stereotypes. I like to escape and disrupt them. If I can be playful with my identity, I hope it can trigger something freeing for someone else. The art I’ve always loved has worked that way for me, you know? It’s about opening doors. Or just going through the window.”
Both your music and Instagram feed feature the work of famous painters — Edward Hopper, Gustave Courbet, Francisco Goya and Francis Bacon. How does their work resonate with you?
“Wow. It can be a lot of different things. The Goya painting Saturn Devouring His Son shaped a whole track on the album. It’s a terrifying artwork but, at some point in my life, it spoke to me about the impossibilities of carnal desire. Who eats who? And why? Why am I so hungry for that person? And why does that make me mad? Those questions sparked the song. I paired “Goya” with “soda” as a kind of Warholian trick, putting an item of consumption alongside an item that can’t be consumed. It’s like any great painting, play or book — you want to own it but you can’t. It resists you. That’s why you go back over and over again to see the same painting in a museum. You can’t have it. You can’t grasp it. It stays mysterious. That’s the kind of relationship to art that I enjoy.”
In your very beautiful essay for Égoïste, you write “Amongst our clique, I’d be the sickly one…” It’s perhaps a niche question, but I wondered what you meant by that?
“I’m asserting the multitude of things that I could possibly contain. And I’m always questioning, “What if I was born assigned male? What would be my destiny?”. I fantasise about that. Who would I be in the arbitrary stereotypes of the masculine sphere? I always pictured myself as the fragile young boy who could tell stories but would also probably be low-key bullied. That variation of me exists somewhere and influences my writing and makes me who I am. When I’m in a relationship with a lover, for example, I like to be every possibility of me that I can, including that sickly boy. You have to accept the sickly boy.” [Laughs]
In the same piece, you refer to “Women with an appetite, women with a revenge, bloody witch”. Do you feel a kind of kinship with the persecuted witches of history?
[Laughs, raising her hands to the sky] “The historical figure of the witch is coming back hard thanks to feminism. It’s a political statement to revise that historical figure. We see it with a new eye — the witch hunts were just community organised femini-cides and “witch” was just a construction to describe anyone who was too hungry or too educated. Our patriarchal society oppressed them to the point of execution. In a way I do feel like being a witch could be easy: you’re just pointed at and accused of being too much. I’ve been accused of being too much many times. I don’t know if that makes me a witch … maybe I am? Meet me at the bonfire tonight and we’ll sing at the moon.”
You’ve had to do a lot of heavy-lifting in France in terms of explaining fairly straightforward notions of gender and sexuality to the press. I wonder if that gets tiring?
“I have dark circles, man. I’m quite patient and it’s not usually a problem for me to talk about it at length. I did it a lot with the first record but then with the second album it was just the same questions again and again — like, “Can you explain ‘queer’ to me?” I’m like, you can probably just read about it, you know? I mean, you’re the journalist. It got to a point where I wasn’t talking about music anymore and I was like a weird spokesperson for something that they couldn’t possibly understand. It felt like facing a wall of personal questions. And then I was accused of being a marketing scam about gender and I was like, “Are you fucking kidding me? You’re the ones obsessing over it.”
Don’t get me wrong, when it’s respectful it can be interesting but when it’s just voyeurism, when “queer” is used as a glossy trend, or when questions get really personal like it’s a perversion then it becomes exhausting. And you have to be really calm because if you’re not calm then you’re an angry feminist. Especially in France. I mean, some people were like “I find your record really aggressive.” And I was like, “Really?! To me it’s joyful. Maybe it’s violent to you but not to me.” The reception of this second record has been so interesting socio-musically. I could write a book about it.”
“Maybe I should. I’ll take your glasses and get to work.”
I think those kinds of interrogations are also so serious-minded that they disregard all the joy in your music. What role does humour play in your songwriting?
“A lot actually. The first album was very melancholic and nocturnal. Then people went to see me onstage and discovered the part of me that’s just constant bad jokes. And on the second record — thank you for noticing — there is a lot of humour. The comeback single “Girlfriend” is very funny to me. Even the video is really wink-wink: all these obvious references to Querelle and me flexing my arms like some matador. It’s the joy of making a grand pop gesture that feels a bit flamboyant for the sake of it. And Chris gave more credence to that side of my personality. Sometimes people did take it really seriously and I was like, “We are in pop territory guys, lighten up, it’s fine.” But I think it was threatening to them, the idea that I could be playfully unapologetic and just enjoy the mess. And then there were people who were so mad and confused when I changed from “Christine and the Queens” to just “Chris”. But I think they understand now that I’m going to do what I want. Maybe they didn’t expect it before but now they know.”
Text and photograph by Joe Brennan