“She’s Madonna, she’s spanking me, it was delicious, you know?” says Christine and the Queens’ Christine (born Heloise Letissier), recounting the moment Madonna smacked her ass onstage in front of an arena full of fans. But what really gets her goat is when journalists subsequently suggested such an act might be humiliating for the French singer. “Are you fucking kidding me? It’s kind of kinky,” she says, leaning back in her seat. “The spanking was nice and I enjoyed it. I loved to surrender.”
By this point, in 2015, Christine was already a huge star in her home country thanks to her debut album Chaleur Humaine. She meticulously conceived and produced the collection on her own, a fact her French label — peculiarly enough — encouraged her to diminish or leave out entirely when publicly discussing its genesis. It’s a sophisticated record that twists poignant pop with themes of vulnerability, identity, and gender fluidity, and Christine served up a live show of electrifying choreography and theatrical chutzpah (a coterie of London drag queens was a formative influence), not to mention a raft of visually arresting, oft-aped videos (hi Madonna, hi Dua Lipa). The rest of the world soon caught up, falling for Christine until she woke up to find she’d been touring the same record for two and a half years. She pressed pause, slept for a month, and then produced 60 songs in 60-odd days, whittling down her experiences and explorative tendencies into her imminent second album, Chris.
Now 30 years old, her Parisian bed-head’s been chopped to a boyish crop and she’s swapped gamine for sinewy and cut: Christine has been usurped by Chris. Musically this record is brighter, bigger and more immediate. Her lyrics continue to read like poetry (she’s a fan of Philippe Jaccottet and Maggie Nelson), but in song, her cadences bend words and break sentences in ways that make you lean close and listen a little harder. What’s revealed is an artist flexing a newly minted confidence, a forthright sexuality, and a desire to examine the depth and unapologetically conflictual elements inherent in all of us.
You’re now taking full ownership of the fact that you produced your first record and Chris too. Why did your label want you to keep that element under wraps?
Honestly I don’t understand it, and I wasn’t confident enough to say “What the fuck?” I took the lesson really hard on the first record to not do it again. Honestly I think it was regular sexism — I think they were trying to protect me from sexism that was everywhere. For example in France I’m asserting way more that I’m producing this second record, so immediately the narrative is “CONTROLLING BITCH.” [Journalists] started calling my team asking if it was hard to work with someone who is so sure of what she wants. My team is like, bah, no, it’s actually easier.
You’ve spoken about how rage permeates parts of this record. What are you angry about?
I was thinking a lot about the figure of the witch as the woman who is always too much: too angry, too horny, too clever, too crazy, too much, you know? I did a performance on my first album cycle where I was just dancing on my own, just me and the microphone and I was doing quite aggressive movements. People were like, well, you can be angry, but you can still be pretty, you don’t have to be full angry.
We’re still at that point where anger has to be softened or made less threatening. So I thought, this record is going to have many different facets, but all of them are going to be full force. Full sadness or full horniness or full anger. I have old sadnesses and old angers. Sometimes I don’t understand why I feel angry, but I think it’s because sometimes I feel like things are still too narrow for me to exist. Even with Chaleur Humaine and how people would perceive me it felt hard to assert fluidity and nuances and intricate narratives because people always want to box you somewhere.
Even pansexuality becomes a box.
Sometimes people were discussing pansexuality and they’re like, right, you’re gay. No. I’m just trying to escape binarism. [Laughs.] I was also angry during the first album because I was becoming a more powerful woman: I was the boss of my own team, I was making more money, and I was like, Great, just like every male counterpart, this is going to give me more power, influence, and respect. Actually sometimes when you’re a woman with more power, men will freak out. Or they’re always trying to diminish the accomplishment or make you feel like it’s, again, too much. How am I refused the triumphant narrative that males have?
Where was this coming from? The public? Journalists?
Not all of them — from intimate relationships, sometimes journalists, sometimes people in the industry. I was listening to records made by women addressing complexity, like The Velvet Rope by Janet Jackson. It’s such a cool record of one person resisting one narrative from one song to the other. I was also fascinated by creating a character that could be as complex as a novel. I didn’t want a record with just bland empowerment, it was about addressing all the crap that comes along with trying to be free.
What would you say is the most vulnerable song on the record?
“What’s-her-face.” It’s sad all the way: It was depressing to write, depressing to record and it’s going to be sad to perform. It’s like the finger in the wound. In my case no matter how powerful you become there’s still the lingering note of me being in high school on the bench, totally on my own. I escaped total bullying because I was an art and theater kid, but I do remember school as a micro-society that was quite cruel to me. With my parents I was surrounded by books and art and fed with possibilities so I didn’t have to choose what I wanted to become. In high school it felt like you had to choose immediately, to fit a narrative and then be left alone and I was kind of resisting that. I read books so young — like Gender Trouble by Judith Butler. I was addressing gender fluidity at like 11 and 12. I remember declaring my love to a boy at 11: “I love you, but I love you like a man would love a man.” To me it was sexy to say that, but the guy was horrified. To me it was like literature, I was exploring shit. I was not clicking with the common vibe.
To me, being bullied feels like an almost necessary part of adolescence. It’s not pleasant by any means, but in some ways I’m happy I went through it.
It’s a tough way to experience how being different can be a real issue. It’s inevitable. I don’t know if it’s like this for everyone, but for me it crystalized somewhere. It’s part of why I always try to experiment and be stronger. I think many different things are rooted in those moments.
It’s an inescapable feeling. Sometimes it wakes up in really mundane situations, like if someone looks at me weirdly. I wanted to address that because it’s also about owning all the narratives you have, even if I’m asserting freedom and confidence in this record it’s more intricate than that.
Right, like here’s one facet of me. I’m interested in the sexier facet that you have coming to the fore.
This notion of exploring sex outside a serious relationship is a relatively new concept for me personally. You’ve been in long relationships for the most part, right?
Yeah, and it was also a huge shift. I was scared to experiment with my sexuality even though I knew it was really important. For me getting older is a liberation regarding my body, my body image, and my self-esteem. It’s fucking easier now than when I was 20 years old. And so then there was the discovery that something could be lighter or simpler. The simple fact of desiring someone and expressing that is the huge difference between Chaleur Humaine and Chris. I’m just living my desires way more.
Did you meet someone who inspired that in you?
I think it was a blend of different things. Making the first record, introducing myself as Christine, which was a way to liberate myself, was 50 percent of the job done when I arrived somewhere. It was soothing in a way. I was not hiding or ashamed of who I could be and that was a great shift. And also I had a long relationship with a woman during that period and she was a really good partner to talk with about the intricacies of desires and how wild I can be sometimes and how good it is to explore. It felt good to have someone to talk about it with so freely and it empowered me a lot. I grew up with absolute ideas of love — pure, impossible — and then you discover sensuality and the nuances of that and how it can be wonderful, [even if] just for a moment. It doesn’t define you. What defines you is the addition of all the desires you experiment with. And then with more experimentation comes more confidence to explore further.
I heard you keep a journal you’ve called Notes on Wanting.
If I publish it one day I will have to be careful to change names and blur information!
Is it essentially a diary of your desires and sexual impulses?
Yeah! I write every day, it takes lots of forms, but I noticed at some point I was constantly writing about my desires and my love stories in a really precise way, so it’s not just a journal. I decided to call it “Notes on Wanting” and add a password to it! It’s not on my iCloud! Writing is a part of living and living calls for more writing. It’s always been like that for me. Even inventing Christine was me writing to myself what I would become. Writing helps me process and remember and taste again. I couldn’t stop writing about the desires and it made them even stronger and more interesting. And then it was like, let’s experiment some more so I can write some more. It’s like when I discovered the writer Maggie Nelson — I was in love with the writing because it was really crude and intimate, but it was always the starting point for something that could include philosophy and culture.
What book of hers moved you specifically?
Bluets moved me to my core. It’s demanding, generous writing. I love how intelligent and slutty and philosophical it is. She was not negotiating with any facet, she was all of that, and very much still a woman living. I want to be that too.
You like the word slut.
Yeah. Actually I saw a video on the internet, a video of a young American girl and she was addressing a journalist: “I’m a slut, you’re a slut, the microphone is a slut,” and the interviewer was like, why would you say you’re a slut, it’s an insult, and she was like, I’m owning my narrative. It was fantastic. To me it’s like the word queer, you take the stigmatization — you know what I’m a slut, but I’m more than that, we’re all sluts — and it’s a way to just give back to the woman; the possibility of being a slut. And then we go back to the witch figure. Like the angry woman, the horny woman always has to be a bit demonized. Like she has a problem. It’s never pure and great conquering desire, like with men. It’s changing, but really slowly. Like when you watch In Bed With Madonna again: She’s still threatening in that documentary. It’s such a great scene when she wants to date Antonio Banderas. She’s like, I want him for dinner tonight. It’s not that different to today and it freaks me out. Are we still there? She’s still disruptive in that doc.
“Doesn’t Matter” is a very upbeat pop song that’s remarkably honest about depression and suicidal thoughts. Were you at all hesitant to lay yourself that bare?
It’s never an option to shy away when I write. Sometimes I feel I can be more honest in my writing than in life. Sometimes it’s a problem, actually. Sometimes in life I’m so constrained by invisible barriers and filters I inflict on myself. I have to liberate myself in the writing, then it bounces back to my life, but why can’t I be that free right away? When I’m writing I’m not questioning that at all. When I wrote that track I was quite vulnerable. It was February 2017 and I remember it very well. I was having a hard time relating to people — like I was trapped in the concept of being famous and people were not talking to me anymore. I was craving for someone to hold me like a normal, tiny girl and people were always bouncing back at me: but you’re Christine and the Queens. I was like, fuck, just let me relate to you!
I was having the most terrible day and I was crying my heart out before I wrote the track. As always when I have those moments of sadness I’m like, I should make something out of it. I remember building the beat quite aggressive and it made me comfortable to just sit inside that aggressive beat and be exhausted in it. It was like a confession, a monologue, I’m fed up with that shit. And then came the chorus and it’s more soothing because writing is mending already. When the song is finished, I was like well, that’s it, I’m not going to modify it, it’s too late.
Does Chris get along with Christine?
Yeah, definitely, but Chris is the latest iteration of Christine — she’s like the iPhone X. So maybe some updates are not that good, but it’s the newest version.