It’s 10am and Chris – or Christine and the Queens, AKA Héloïse Letissie – has his eyes closed through the laptop screen from his hotel room in Cannes. On each eyelid is the letter ‘M’, the ink fresh, like it’s just been stamped on. Then his eyelids flutter open, the Ms disappearing from view. “I got these tattoos this week,” he says, explaining how the letters stand for the names of his mother and grandmother, both of whom he lost over the past few years. “It’s a conversation starter as well,” he says, shrugging. “Which is great because I’m so shy… so, thanks mum.”
It’s true: he is a little shy. When we speak he looks down often, allowing his sentences to trail off, as if his mouth is playing catch up with his thoughts. But he’s cheeky, too, each answer peppered with wry turns of phrase and obscure winking asides. He tends to pause when considering something, pushing his loose hair back, strands gathering in his fingers, words coming out abstracted and poetic. I wonder whether he finds interviews tricky – not because he seems averse or anything – but because there’s something open and truthful about him, which can be difficult when the nature of an interview requires a certain level of superficiality or digestibility for hoards of unseen readers.
We’re speaking over Zoom for two reasons. The first being that he’s curated Meltdown Festival this year, at the Southbank Centre – with a lineup that includes everyone from Bat for Lashes to Django Django, serpentwithfeet and Tom Rassmussen, all playing throughout June 2023. The second being that today he releases his fourth album, Paranoïa, Angels, True Love, an expansive 20-track rock opera co-produced by Mike Dean (Frank Ocean, Kid Cudi, Lana Del Ray), and featuring appearances from 070 Shake and actual Madonna, who appears twice, her half-British lilt delivering lines of exquisite spoken word (“I look into his eyes, and he into mine, my one single eye” she purrs on “Angels crying in my bed.” Later, over dazzling rock guitar, her voice reverberates: “This is the voice of the big simulation.”)
Sadder and softer than Chris’ much earlier party-leaning output, Paranoïa, Angels, True Love is a masterclass in how to take loss and grief and transform it into something glistening, sensual and deliciously flamboyant. From the smoky trip-hop heartbeat of “Tears Can Be So Soft” to the silky, honey-sweet falsetto of “True Love (feat. Shake 070)” and the intense, slow-building synth of “To Be Honest”, this is a record built for deep, swirling emotions and soul-defining transformations. If his bright, squelchy anthems with Charli XCX were for the queer club dancefloor, this album is for the solitary days thereafter, alone and smoking a joint and pining for some past or future just out of reach.
Taking inspiration from Tony Kushner’s iconic play, Angels in America, Paranoïa, Angels, True Love is intended to exist within the same musical universe as 2022’s Redcar les adorables étoiles. Really though, these tracks glow – fully realised – on their own. People often say that, with emotions, the only way out is through. Paranoïa, Angels, True Love is definitely the “through”. Here, he delves into the record, love, fluidity and more.
How do you usually spend your mornings?
Christine and the Queens: I never skip coffee. I like mornings that are meditative. I’ve been working a lot in the morning – music, dancing, writing. And then I like to stroll around in the afternoon and take the world in.
I’ve been listening to your album a lot. ‘Tears Can Be Soft’ made me think about how different tears have different chemical compositions, depending on the reason you’re crying. Like emotional tears, they have more proteins in them, and release certain toxins from the body.
Christine and the Queens: That’s super interesting. I didn’t know that. I feel like [tears] are the cradle of everything that makes us human. Because you always cry for something that you believe in, or that you deeply feel. So in the end it’s very personal. An expression of your style is when you cry and why.
Do you cry often? What is your relationship like to crying?
Christine and the Queens: I cry often, yeah. I’ve had impressive moments of crying for long [periods of] time. Sometimes when I was younger I’d listen to ‘Firebird’ by Stavinsky because I wanted to cry. I don’t see it as self care exactly because it sounds weird when I say it like “headline: I see tears as self care.” But it’s a moment of connection with the self. I don’t give that to a lot of people though. And I’m very emotional. So this is why I become quite isolated. I think it gives a lot of information to someone. But I cry a lot, yeah – you?
I don’t cry in front of others often. It comes in phases... I’ll have to think about that one.
Christine and the Queens: We’ll have to monitor the tears from now on. People monitor their hearts, they should monitor tears. That would be fire. This is technology that entices me. Technology should be more imbued with poetry.
Absolutely. What tends to really make you laugh?
Christine and the Queens: Stupidity and crazy, funny things. When I was younger I’d love gag compilation videos of things going to shit on camera. I’m very visual – I like moments that seem so absurd. I adore people with a good sense of humour – they’re quite rare.
There are a lot of serious people around.
Christine and the Queens: Yeah, or those terrified not to be taken seriously. Just let go! It’s the end of the world!
We’re all dying. Do you find yourself worried about not being taken seriously or is that not something you’re too concerned with?
Christine and the Queens: Actually you just pointed out something quite crucial for me... I think it was cripplingly painful when I was younger. Now it’s better. I feel like dysphoria is linked to paranoia, like ‘nobody can see me, understand me, hear me.’ When I discovered Tommy by the Who, the song [lyrics] that struck me were ‘See Me / Feel Me / Touch Me’. That wanting to be understood. Which is why I’m becoming more and more precise.
“I feel like dysphoria is linked to paranoia, like ‘nobody can see me, understand me, hear me.’ When I discovered Tommy by the Who, the song [lyrics] that struck me were ‘See Me / Feel Me / Touch Me’. That wanting to be understood. Which is why I’m becoming more and more precise” – Christine and the Queens
What do you mean by more precise?
Christine and the Queens: I think I’ve solidified during the past three years. Even my music has been a key to solidification. Now I wake up and live my life. When I was younger, I’d wake up and the contradiction of my body was too much for me to get through the day. Now I can be interested in living the texture of life.
It’s weird that life can be a process of solidifying your authenticity somehow, and then it’s all about conveying that to the outside world, which can be a process in itself.
Christine and the Queens: It’s fascinating. Even to see how the world answers differently when you create something differently for yourself. But yeah, I totally agree and that’s very well said – life is a solidification of your intention. I like the idea of life having meaning. Like, I am obsessed with love itself. Art devoid of love has no form of… I don’t know, I don’t even want to wake up.
You have a song called ‘True Love’. What is your definition of true love?
Christine and the Queens: I personally feel unable to vouch that I know true love because I feel like I’m not even there yet in terms of loving myself enough. True love seems to be this all-encompassing love that accepts everything. I am not at that stage in my healing. I feel like love is an experience of discovering my wounds as well… I want to work on a record called True Love actually – it’s just a very solemn title and a bit vulgar on its own. It's terrifying to me.
You speak about true love almost like it’s a spiritual entity, like in the same way people speak about God or something like that.
Christine and the Queens: I don’t know if it’s because I’m heartbroken or hopeful.
Both? I have to ask. What was it like working with Madonna? Was there anything that surprised you?
Christine and the Queens: It was a rock ‘n’ roll experience. I wanted to give her a character and knew she’d slay it because she is a fantastic actress. I explained the part and was very enthusiastic about it, like ‘you can be the all-encompassing mum, the all encompassing alter for the angels’ and she was like ‘I’ll do it!’ Maybe she just wanted me to stop talking. She slayed the part. At night I sent her the songs with the imprint of the lyrics. She did it her way. It was like Gina Rowlands playing for [John] Cassavetes, you know?
Then I met her to properly talk, for dinner. She was very powerful. I really think she’s a reincarnation of a British lord. She has that dandyism. And the piercing blue eyes. Sorry to say it, but her flesh is transcended by a charisma that is hard to pinpoint. I was actually listening to her and having very genuine conversations, but her blue gaze, I was trying to pinpoint… where the fuck does she come from? She’s quite intoxicating. She’s immediate but also mysterious. I don’t exclude the idea that she might be Metatron, the angel of presence and transformation.
She is Madonna after all. I wanted to talk about the song ‘Full of Life’. It made me think a lot about the ways in which loss and grief can make way for aliveness somehow, like the contrast brings the other emotions out. I wonder whether that was something you’d experienced.
Christine and the Queens: Precisely there at that moment, so thank you for picking up on my emotions. I felt very washed over by grief, but you know when you feel like you’ve lost a lot it can also solidify what you believe in. It makes you weirdly earnest and there is no violence anymore, there is only what you feel.
There is a dignity in that song which I love. I was hearing [‘Pachelbel’s Canon’] a lot in America, in stations and stuff, so thought that would be a great song to [sample]. I felt like the melody was wonderful. And then I was told that it’s a marriage song, to walk down the altar. And I thought of Björk then and [the lyrics] ‘My name Isobel / Married to myself’.
It’s interesting you bring up Björk because I’ve been getting a lot of Björk from this album, for sure.
Christine and the Queens: When I was younger people would talk to me about Michael Jackson, but growing up I listened to Björk a lot. I was obsessed with Björk in high school. Vespertine is one of my favourite albums. Through her I also discovered Tricky and Massive Attack. So she has been surfacing. Because my teenage years have been surfacing again. That’s the truth of it.
“So fluidity is acting a state of water, centred on the spirit. The spirit is revolutionary by nature, because society doesn’t understand the concept of the spirit. It only understands the concept of positioning through identity. For me, the spirit is about shedding the concept of identity. You just keep the heart” – Christine and the Queens
Sometimes I think that when you’re a child, or even a teenager, that’s your ‘true’ self and then you get further away from that and have to try and find that person again.
Christine and the Queens: For me, it’s linked to a big wound because my teenage years were the beginning of my dysphoria, which I attempted to push down. But I feel like my teenage years could be now. It’s often the case for people who transition later in their life. A lot is coming back actually: smells, things I felt… I pushed that shit down for a long time. Losing my mum also made me revisit all that shit.
I guess when you’re a teenager people start projecting onto you. You become more ‘seen’ in a way you never were before.
Christine and the Queens: I remember the socialisation at 14, and my discovery also of the confines of patriarchy on women’s bodies… it was the start of this fight. I remember seeing it, panicking and being like ‘I see myself in none of it. I don’t even know where to take part in the fight.’
You’ve always been a proponent of fluidity in all senses of the word – artistically, personally, even in gender presentation. I feel like society is afraid of fluidity. Why do you think some find fluidity so frightening?
Christine and the Queens: I don’t know what people are afraid of. But human identity is still organised around these two poles. I’ve been having conversations with even my trans peers sometimes who were disrupted by me acting my masculinity but not for example taking hormones. Society itself is built on this approach. Even the French language itself is polarised between the masculine and the feminine. There aren’t the tools to think freely even in the conceptualisation.
So fluidity is acting a state of water, centred on the spirit. The spirit is revolutionary by nature, because society doesn’t understand the concept of the spirit. It only understands the concept of positioning through identity. For me, the spirit is about shedding the concept of identity. You just keep the heart. Sorry I’m abstract but it’s so painful for me. I feel like we are wasting our time, as well, trying to define queer. Queer is just a question. Queer is something that’s not straight.
I personally don’t really think about my queerness until I am in a situation in which I am outside of my circle, outside in wider society.
Christine and the Queens: You become queer when they look at you. When they don’t think about you, your spirit shines free in the forest with your friends.
You express a deep frustration with language – do you think your music and use of movement is a way of transcending that somehow?
Christine and the Queens: Yes. Thank you for picking up on that. We create a system to understand each other, but we are also reducing it at the same time because it’s imperfect. For me as a person, my fluidity, my dignity came from dancing. It’s taking your body out of the eye of society – be productive, eat, sleep, fuck the right way – and then you become absurd.
You’ve spoken before about the pressure of being a charting artist in opposition to being an authentic one. Is that something you still struggle with?
Christine and the Queens: I suffer from the conversation around that. Success happened around some of my work, but truly I don’t think about it. Music actually saved me from depression which is why I persisted. Success is exterior to you, it changes your life, changes the people around you. And then they say that you’re not earnest because you are successful and you feel scammed.
But I am not afraid to prove myself. You will get with me in the long run if you don’t get with me yet. Because in ten years, bro, I’ll have been showing you I was an absurdist for a long time.
Christine and the Queens’ Meltdown runs Friday 9 June until Sunday 18 June at the Southbank Centre. Tickets are available at southbankcentre.co.uk