French singer, songwriter, choreographer and dancer Heloise Letissier is one of the most compelling, thought-provoking, creative artists to hit the music scene since the likes of Madonna or Lady Gaga. Even then, she is still quite unique. You would be hard-pressed to find an artist (with the exception of David Bowie of course) to challenge the concepts of gender, sexuality and identity.
Letissier created the persona of Christine after moving to London following a bad break-up. Lonely and lost she visited gay club Madame Jojo’s (now shut down) and watched a drag act. These three drag queens took Letissier under their wings and taught her that theatre had no boundaries, to adopt a persona and write songs – and this she did, under the moniker of Christine and The Queens, in dedication to those drag queens that saved her.
Letissier released Christine and the Queens’ debut album, Chaleur Humaine in France in 2014, and then in the UK in 2016 to near-universal critical acclaim. It was the UK’s biggest selling debut album of that year and has sold more than 1.3 million copies to date. Christine and the Queens toured constantly with the album and her live, theatrical shows were so different to anything that had been seen before. Indeed, it was her unforgettable performance and personality that won over a post-Brexit Glastonbury Festival crowd and properly launched her musical career.
On her first album, there was a fragility and poignancy to her songs - of someone who was trying to find their way. But over time her confidence has grown alongside her popularity. She says the first record turned her from a reclusive, bookish young woman writing for herself into “an athlete performer, which is something I always wanted to live, but it happened. Then suddenly I'm out in the open and I'm having more experiences, meeting people, having relationships, and stories are happening to me. All of a sudden, you're a real grown -ass woman.”
She chopped off her long brown hair and embraced a bold eroticism. Here was “Chris”, her masculine alter ego and the title of her latest album. The vulnerability is still evident at times on the record but now her songs incorporate slick ‘80s funk and R&B influences whilst exploring an unabashed female desire and challenging traditional gender roles. The album has been written and produced by Christine and the Queens – (still no mean feat for a female performer) and is released in both English and French by Because Music.
An impressive, cinematic wave of “Prince-esque” electronica opens first track Comme si, along with delicious fizzes of funk that run through the whole album. It’s a shimmering start with a catchy melody that is bound to have us all joining in the “oh-oh-ohhh” “oh-oh-ohhs” in the chorus. Chris announces she is back as she sings in that unique vocal blend of French/Anglo vernacular: “There's a pride in my singing/ The thickness of a new skin” – Christine is now Chris – self-assured, with a sexy swagger.
Lead single Girlfriend (feat Dam-Funk) is fabulously funky. Chris opens the track with “I'm gone in a flick, but back in a second/With salted skin, rash for no reason” – perhaps a reference to the love bite on her neck as part of her persona? Comparisons have been made before to Michael Jackson with reference to her choreography but this song could have been released by the King of Pop himself. Listen really closely and there are echoey sighs of “Christine” in the background - I love this – so clever! It’s full of funky guitar and playful synth with a slick and polished production.
The Walker for me is one of the best songs on the album. It is simply stunning. Chris’ vocal is emotive and poignant. Sometimes, with the whole “image” concept of “Christine”/”Chris”, it’s easy to forget that here is a woman with a beautiful voice who writes and self-produces the most extraordinary songs. Regular drum beats and sparkling synths underpin heartfelt lyrics with additional pulses of programmed vocals punctuating every other word: “I am out for a walk/And I will not be back til they’re staining my skin/This is how I chose to talk/With some violent hits, violent blossoms akin/ Every night I do walk/And if they’re looking down I’m offering my chin/This is how I chose to talk/With some violent hits, violent blossoms akin”
Later, in the second verse, Chris seems to mourn her empathetic self as she sings: “It hurts; I feel everything As my sense of self's wearing thin” I could listen to this song forever and it still wouldn’t be long enough. It’s perfect. Doesn’t Matter is the second single release from the record and despite its bold, bravado bass-lines and swift, skittish claps this is a song questioning the heavyweight subject of the relationship between humans and God: “It doesn't matter, does it? /If I know any exit/ If I believe in God, and if God does exist/ If I believe in God, and if God does exist”. Chris successfully creates a song with soul-searching lyrics into perky pop. Not an easy thing to do for any artist.
5 dollars is the third single release and saunters upliftingly along with a slinky groove, sharp piano notes and a sweet, lilting chorus. Its video, in contrast, depicts Chris as an “American Gigolo” getting suited up and showered over a full kit of S&M bondage gear. It’s a testament of Chris’ charisma and creative abilities to pull this off without making it all seem a bit seedy. Oddly-titled Goya Soda (a reference here to the Spanish painter Francisco de Goya and Soda because….ummm - why not?) begins with a choral chant and a fantastic funky bassline accompanied by celestial and shimmering synths. It’s layered with rich textures and layers of twinkling keyboard & piano notes.
Damn (What Must A Woman Do) is driven by a jabbing, throbbing beat sounding not unlike Michael Jackson’s Dangerous. This track is indicative of Chris’ newfound confidence in her masculine alter ego – she is not afraid to sing of feeling horny. A quick check on Google Translate tells me that her chorus chant of “para follarse” means “to fuck” so I think it’s safe to assume that this is a song is all about female sexual empowerment.
The haunting What’s-Her-Face explores the feeling of loneliness, of being the weird kid at school, of not fitting in: “I'm forever what's-her-face (Ever ever)/ (Ever ever, ever)/ (Ever ever, ever ever)”. Chris revealed in a recent interview with Pitchfork magazine that “No matter what you eventually become—free, empowered—the lingering feeling of “once an outsider, always an outsider” is very vivid for me.” The sparse, stark production together with heavy, pulsing bass and ghostly vocals create a sad song of “crying from the inside”. Chris holds onto the last heart-breaking note until the sorrowful chords of a solitary piano usher the song to its close. This, for me, is another stand-out track.
Chris’ vocal is commanding and confident on another MJ-influenced song - Feel So Good - a stylish and smart track with a shimmering ‘80s pop-funk vibe. This track which includes some punchy programmed sounds, including the sound of smashed glass is so smooth it struts. Make Some Sense is a beautiful R&B -infused ballad – her vocal feminine, heartfelt and emotive. Sonically, the keyboards glisten and gleam creating stirring, soothing undertones.
The Stranger is a quirky and catchy album closer. Lyrically, I have no idea what this song is all about: “Who is the stranger/Behind the barrels?/Water/For us animals” but it has a chorus that is pure electro ear candy and it features bright and jaunty harpsichords which, in my humble opinion are very under-used in today’s music so this can only be a good thing. Chris is both an impressive and ambitious second album. As a huge fan of Chaleur Humaine, I was a little apprehensive but I needn’t have worried. Regardless of what guise she takes on Christine and The Queens defies definition - Christine and The Queens is a remarkable, unique talent.