She's sat at a table when I first arrive in an East London cafe, her head buried in the culture section of a broadsheet. There's a cup of tea to her side, while the rest of the newspaper is spread out loosely across the table.
Heloise Letissier has every reason to feel at home in London. After all, the city is where Heloise became Christine, where she found the inspiration to focus on Christine And The Queens, providing the spark to return to France and become an unlikely but transcendent star. “Yes, this is where everything happened, for me,” she reflects. “It was more like this weird period of time. Quite intense, and quite short. But actually I knew London before that – because my father is an English teacher and he is obsessed with Britain. The Beatles and BBC!”
Growing up in provincial France, Heloise felt stifled, frustrated – yet she didn't exactly know why, and couldn't find a vehicle for these feelings. Returning to London for a series of what she terms “weird holidays” she tumbled into Soho's twilight world, into the freeplay of gender and identity. “I just wanted to escape and the only city I thought about was London, actually. Because it felt good in London, for some reason.”
“It was not a coincidence, because I was searching for queer evenings to sit and just watch. I was just waiting for something to happen to me. And because I have a queer background – and I love that culture – I was drawn to those type of evenings.”
For Heloise, these evenings were not about mere entertainment, about laughter of titilation, but about something much deeper. “It's about acceptance,” she says. “It's about being free, because maybe I just wanted to trigger something, and free myself as well. I am a huge fan of drag shows because it's about empowerment, and at the same time it's about wearing your scars, and your flaws, and it's always really funny but you can tell that something sad can be behind that humour.”
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This notion of creating a character – a cypher through which you can observe the world, and the world can observe you – was vital in forming Christine And The Queens. “I don't have a drag character, but Christine is inspired by this aesthetic. You choose your name, where you come from, and where you want to be. It's a powerful statement.” “Actually revealing yourself through a character – like you're even more sincere with lipstick on, than without. Something about that speaks to me.”
“I guess I was inspired by this energy,” she shrugs. “And this is why I actually wanted to choose my name, and choose what it would mean to me, and choose my outfit. So it was like, OK this is the start of me choosing now. Instead of enduring.”
Returning to France, Heloise began focussing on the Christine And The Queens project. Pouring herself into the music, she began look much wider than this – towards the artwork, the visuals, and the stage presentation itself. “I was a huge fan of creatures of pop music, since I was young,” she explains. “Michael Jackson, of course. Bjork, as well. David Bowie. They were creating themselves and re-creating themselves all the time. Shapeshifters – I always loved that. I listened to other artists, like Lou Reed, for example. But I'm always drawn to stage characters.”
The sheer drama within Christine And The Queens was evident almost immediately. “Before I wanted to do music I wanted to be a stage director,” she tells me. “So I was obsessed with that. Staging plays, and thinking about every discipline. Dance, stage design and writing. It was about blending all those influences to create something. This is what I like to do. Even when I write a song, I'm like: oh, so shall I sit when I sing this song, or stand up? What could I do? What video could I make with that? I think it's just writing. I'm a singer, but I'm writing for me, so it's all about writing and staging all the time.”
Christine And The Queens is a multi-disciplinary project where every discipline informs one another. “It's not about building different levels, it's all about nourishing everything with everything else,” she insists. “And I can be inspired by many things. For a song I can be inspired by a movie, or a dance move that I want to do, so I have to find a beat to do the dance move. It can be many things.”
Debut album 'Chaleur Humaine' is the result. An odd, beguiling gem, it's Gallic flair is matched to an inherent universality – even if you can't understand the words, you'll definitely get what Heloise is saying. At first a cult success, a series of astonishing videos helped Christine And The Queens go viral, with one such clip racking up more than 20 million views. When pushed on this, though, she's typically bashful.
“They're not tolerating me now, they're actually welcoming me!” she gasps. “But that was unexpected, you know. The sound of it ('Chaleur Humaine') was not really radio friendly, or anything. I remember us sitting with the label, and they said: we don't know if we have a radio single. We're not expecting anything, except maybe having a cool fanbase. And then it slowly exploded! And I still don't know why. I mean, that's good, I'm not trying to calculate why it worked.”
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Acceptance is a work in progress, you don't really have it all the time...
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Strangely, Britain has remained astoundingly mono-lingual in its approach to pop music, meaning that Christine And The Queens will re-record the vocals on 'Chaleur Humaine' in English for a UK release. In an odd way it finds the project coming full circle, and it's something that Heloise actually relishes. “Actually, I kind of like it,” she reveals. “I like the shifting again. For my French album, some songs were written in English and then I actually re-worked them for them to be French. From the beginning I'm always switching, because again it's about writing. For me, language is like an instrument.”
“Translating is a cool mind-trick,” she continues. “I just wanted the message to come across. It was interesting for me to actually find my old drafts in English, re-work them, see what I could do... twist and stretch.”
With her album gaining a full international release, Heloise is able to get her music heard by an undreamed of audience. So has she gained the acceptance she sought when the project first began?
“I think it's a work in progress, all the time,” she insists. “I don't know if when you're accepted as a musician and an artist that you are accepted for who you are. Sometimes when you're famous it's a bit weird, because you're loved by people you don't know for something you're not sure you are. But for me, this project was about acceptance. It came from a desire to accept myself, first, as I was.”
“I remember when I was depressed and met the drag queens, I was angry as well,” she remembers. “I didn't want to be a young girl, there were too many contradictions to fit into one body. When you're a girl you have to be so many things, and nothing at the same time. So it was an anger, as well. I remember writing 'Christine is the name of my anger'. I'm not angry all the time, but it was a bit... There are other ways to exist. Acceptance is a work in progress, you don't really have it all the time.”
As an artist, Heloise has probably had countless variations on this conversation, a hall of mirrors reflecting painful experiences and artistic inspiration. Yet she remains astonishingly open, and – at times – gleefully enthusiastic. At one point she throws her arms wide open, revealing a tattoo on either forearm.
“It's a two part sentence: We Accept You, One Of Us. It's from an old movie, called Freaks. Same obsessions – freaks, queers, weird people, outcasts,” she states. “I saw this movie too early on. I love my parents, but they showed me intense movies a bit too early. Elephant Man and Freaks... at nine? No wonder I like weird people. That was cool, but a bit intense to take in at nine. It caught my imagination.”
“I had this done in France. Maybe I'll do one more in London – I have to find a great sentence, though. I can't find any better than that.”
Departing to play a sold out show at London's historic KOKO venue, with an appearance at the award-winning Latitude festival only a matter of weeks away, it's clear that Christine And The Queens are definitely one of us: the freaks, queers, weird people, and outcasts, all the world over.
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Catch Christine And The Queens at the following show:
3 London Roundhouse