The Big Read – Christine And The Queens: “I’m horny, and I desire, and I’m sad, and happy, and joyful”

Reinvented as Chris, the randy protagonist of her second album of the same name, Christine And The Queens’ Héloïse Lettisier has embraced '80s funk and pan-sexuality to five-star effect (see our review). But, the morning after a Brief Encounter-style moment at a London train station, she’s got romance on the brain too, finds Emma Madden

Last night, Chris – or Christine And The Queens, or Héloïse Lettisier, they’re one and the same – was running to the train station, screaming, “No! Don’t leave!” at a lover.

This morning she’s sat eating a bacon and cheese toastie in a fancy East London restaurant, preparing for another day of press and appearances.

“Spoiler alert: it didn’t work,” she says. So where is her paramour now? “Back home. It got really confusing. I shouldn’t talk about it, but I was trying to save a relationship yesterday. It was humiliating. It was like in the movies, I thought the gesture would be enough.”

She tucks into her toastie, eating the edges first, then the white of the egg on top of it, and scrapes the yolk to the side. “Want it?”

Since releasing her debut album ‘Chaleur Humaine’ four years ago, the French pop star has performed with Madonna, formed a close friendship with Elton John, scored a Gold selling album, and won Best International Female and Best Track for ‘Tilted’ at last year’s NME Awards. Surely that should be enough to bring her lover back? “No. That’s also why the person was going. I think I’m not enjoying the forcefield I have as a pop star. I’m not using it, I don’t take advantage. I just crave simple, natural ways to relate. So, sometimes it can be complicated because I just don’t know how to use that. I’m Chris. I’m just a woman trying to relate.”

The train station blunder was a “cool slash weird slash sad” echo of her new album ‘Chris’, which she says is “all about the chaos of desire”.

Since the release of her debut, the once diffident Chris has been thrust into a heady world of nightly shows, flights and tour buses – a life beyond that she had considered herself capable of. But today there’s one thing on her mind. “I’m also discovering the complexity of love,” she says. “I was quite a classic romantic before — like one person forever — and now, by exploring my desires, I have ramifications that are impossible to reconcile, and I’m trying to live everything at once.”

Christine & the Queens NME
Photo Credit: Jamie Morgan

The abiding story of her new album, which is set to storm the Top Five of the album charts today, is of a woman in lust. On it, Chris is an erotic tourist; she discovers life and gathers ideas on love, gender and humanity one sexual companion at a time. One moment she’s in a ménage à trois with “a butch babe in LA” and a “young man fresh asleep”, the next it’s a more tender affair. ‘What’s-her-face’ sees Chris pondering “how their soft skin brings me pain.

Each situation is a meeting of differences. “I became excited and intrigued by alterity [otherness] and being lost in the desire of someone you don’t really understand, but you still want,” she says. “I think there’s something beautiful in that. I’ve got to live stories with macho guys who have nothing in common with me, except we want each other very much. And the [macho] guy was infuriated because he’s like ‘I don’t get it! You’re a woman but you’re a dude also!’ And you could feel sometimes like he wanted to reject it. It’s always more complicated than it seems. I have stories with women who are more oppressive and jealous and patriarchal than some men. I get to explore complexities, I find it everywhere.”

It’s an album that affirms Chris’ place in a group of female artists whose art actively refracts the male gaze. Last year, we had Torres manspreading on her album cover with a half naked woman dancing in the background, and St. Vincent with someone else’s ass adorning her album.

Meanwhile Chris is dancing around like Magic Mike, thrusting her hips and contorting her muscles in the ‘Five Dollars’ music video, and causing a new kind of lust. “For me, the male gaze is oppressive,” Chris says. “And I hope if we are building a female gaze that it’s inclusive, and it’s about pure desire and not how I want people to look in order for them to be desired by me. I’m just trying to deflect the male gaze and to sabotage it slightly. I’m horny and I desire, and I’m also sad and happy and joyful.” While she’s referred to herself as the trojan horse of pop music — one who seeks to bring queerness and fluidity to a rigid world — her music isn’t a mission statement. “Growing up as a young, queer woman shaped the way I am — the albums I’m writing now are shaped by who I am. Even if I didn’t want to be political, it’s body politics. I can’t escape it. No one can escape politics. We are all in it. Even if we shy away from it, I just decide to embrace it. And I try to be an ally for other fights”.

As a live performer she channels a “Bruce Springsteen energy”. When you see her onstage, she moves as though she’s effortlessly tussling with an unseen opponent in a wrestling ring. It’s Chris’ safe space. “Something could fall off and I could make something out of it, and find solutions onstage, and sometimes in life it’s less obvious. I’m never leaving the stage, I’m never changing outfits,” she says. “Sometimes people are like, ‘but you never leave the stage to change!’ and I’m like, ‘Why would I? I don’t want to leave you!’ I’m not setting up an situation of being adored. I have more of a physical relationship with the audience, I do love them more than they probably love me already. It’s weird. My problem also is I love when life bleeds onto the stage, and the stage bleeds on life.”

Christine & the Queens NME
Photo Credit: Jamie Morgan

The relationship to her listener is even more intimate on the album. Opening song ‘Comme Si’ has Chris comparing the up close and personal nature of songwriting with straight-up intimacy – “‘Cause when you play me loud baby we are making love,” she teases. Hearing them again, read back to her mid-toasty, Chris grimaces. “Sorry this is personal,” she says, pulling a face, “It’s the situation of someone saying to me, ‘Sorry I’m not into you, but I do love your music though’. In a way,” she adds, “I was purposely writing a catchy song that was inescapable, that the person could listen to; making it possible to love me through that. Also it’s quite erotic,” she pauses, “Sorry again, to write a song that can dissolve into people’s lives. They can love the song, they’ll listen to it, love it, cuddle with it. The relationship you have to a song is so intimate. Why not play around with the idea that it could even be a touch? It’s slightly delirious but it was a nice idea to write about.”

To Chris, language itself is erotic. In French, the word ‘langue’ means both ‘language’ and ‘tongue’, already implying a sensuous connection between the two. “Your language could be a touch. You can move someone with words, you can excite someone with words if you like.” There’s a sense that words bring Chris a sense of justice too. “I get to choose my narrative always. I get to define myself, I get to choose my name, I get to address the things that I want to address,” she says. “Sometimes life disappoints me, but I can always dress that with the writing. All of the record is about that. My words are my sword. I have a relationship to them like I’m eating shit. Crispy, tasty, sometimes intricate words come naturally.”

Christine & the Queens
Photo Credit: Jamie Morgan

Her craft has saved her ass multiple times throughout her life, particularly when she was in school. “I was bullied, but then the guys and the girls would discover that I was actually writing well, so they were asking me to write love letters for them. In a way I was buying time. Also I was drawing well, so some guys were like, ‘If you want to be safe, draw me a naked girl,’ and I was like, ‘OK, do you want big boobs?’” Chris observed the behaviours at her school like it was a soap opera, full of stock characters following a script, but “school was like a metaphor of life before life,” she says. “I mean, I think it’s immensely cruel when you’re young, because you have to define yourself and the forcefields that are set up are metaphors for society.”

Once you’ve mastered the unspoken scripts of life, you come to realise that life is just one giant theatre. “Everyone’s regularly performative,” Chris says. “I think the building up of a character is something universal. This is why we are moved by drag queens and pop stars, I think. [This is] just the incandescent, more extreme version of what we all do – it gets to be more flamboyant in the pop realm.” As ‘Chris’, she is waving goodbye to fear and shame. “It’s the beginning of something that’s going to empower me. I got a bit more self acceptance and it changed a lot of things for me. That acceptance possibly helps you to love someone better, it’s kind of virtuous.”

Chris’ unmistakable swagger is influenced by a moodboard of icons. Among them is young Leonardo DiCaprio. “ I do want the sublimated bragging,” Chris explains. “Like when Michael Jackson is playing the thug in ‘Bad’. It’s unbelievable because it’s theatre, and no one believes he’s actually a thug, but it’s so sublimated and theatrical that he actually becomes the most badass character in the group. I like that idea.”

It’s impossible to distill Chris. Each music video enters into a more cinematic realm, functioning like a small movie. “They’re not really answering each other, they’re different facets of what Chris is,” she says, “I impose on myself to assert a complicated narrative, because I didn’t want to be simplified as a female performer. I wanted to have that complexity myself,” Chris says. “I didn’t want to be simplified by having one outfit or one energy. I’m going to break the mirror into several pieces.”

You’ll find every shard of Chris on this album — from the desperately horny to the deeply sad. “You know, it’s not solipsistic for me, writing the song,” she says. “It’s also a craving for it to not just be my story. Sadnesses can meet. If I screamed, ‘I’m lonely right now!’ Maybe two other people could say, ‘I’m lonely too!’ In a way it’s a relief, it doesn’t belong to me anymore, but you’re throwing it away even though it stays close to your heart. Nothing really heals, but it’s always really soothing when people come and talk to you about it. Like, I made friends from the first record, from people just coming to talk to me about their own shit, and I was really happy about that. It’s not someone being adored. It’s just a nerd dreaming of being someone kickass, and relating to other kickasses.”

Chris is already thinking about the third album. “I’d like to get music out. I had four years before the first and the second one because it was such a whirlwind from the first one—” her phone buzzes. Once, twice. “Oh Jesus, oh Jesus”.

Is it the lover she tried chasing last night? “Nope, nope! Someone else. I wish I could say more but I’m not going to say more.” Come on, what’s on the phone? “Intricacies of desire are in my phone.” “I’m not trying to brag, but if I did expose my life it would be a good YouTube series. It feels like a soap opera. I don’t think it’d be interesting, but it’d be crunchy. I’ll get to talk about it on the next episode.”

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