CHRIS Almighty: A conversation with Christine and the Queens
Photo by Suffo Moncloa
4 long years have passed since the release of the fantastic “Chaleur Humaine” by Christine and the Queens. But hey, the wait is finally over, her new album “CHRIS” will be out on September 21st and there are already 4 singles out and 3 videos (5 if you count the French versions) and CHRIStine will be touring Europe starting in October. We were too excited to miss the opportunity to sit down with CHRIStine and talk about the past, the present and the future.
KALTBLUT: We last spoke with you almost 6 years ago… you’ve been on tour, did festivals, won awards, the press fell in love with you (so did Madonna), you were on the cover of TIME magazine and we heard you in an episode of GIRLS… how did you deal with all of it? Christine and the Queens: Sometimes I had a hard time wrapping my head around what was happening. Especially in moments like when I met Madonna for the first time and ended up on stage with her in front of 20 000 people. Each time it felt surreal. I approached many of these moments as a music nerd though. Many times I felt more like a spectator than a participant, maybe as a way to protect myself. You have to in these situations. I never would have expected any of this to happen.
Also, I was caught in this constant and very humble whirlwind of emotions from performing every night. I was travelling a lot, doing shows, still feeling the need to prove myself every day. In a weird way, I only understood what was happening to me once I stopped touring. I had one month off and that’s when it really dawned on me. I was going to concerts and thought to myself « wait, I did that! I did a Zénith in Paris too! »
But I think it takes time to come to terms with this kind of situation. It’s normal. And you want to shield yourself. Plus it was my first album. It was pretty crazy! I didn’t want to be too excited too quickly because we all know how it goes. There’s always this fresh new thing people fall in love with immediately and can forget about in the blink of an eye. So I figured it was best to take a step back and just wait and see. I was also very eager to get back to work on my 2nd album. And that’s going to be the real test: will people be just as excited about my 2nd, my 3rd, my 4th?
KALTBLUT: In issue 18 of Egoïste magazine you wrote « I’m even more sincere now that I’m being watched. » Your reputation is now established, so Christine and The Queens becoming Chris, is that your way of taking off your mask on stage and in life? Do you feel freer than before? Chris: With CHRIS there is a certain willingness to affirm oneself. But I wouldn’t say that I’m taking off the mask here because Christine had already paved the way, allowing me to be more free and sincere. That was the beginning of me not apologizing anymore. Christine helped me a lot. Chris arrived because Christine had already helped me be myself.
But with Chris there was this added challenge: on my 2nd album instead of protecting myself from what happened, surrounding myself with producers, I wanted to be more human, sincere, vulnerable and raw when telling my story. I wasn’t interested in becoming some sort of an icon. I felt suddenly very naked. Shortening the name was my attempt at focusing on what really matters.
KALTBLUT: Did you have to sacrifice a lot with Christine and The Queens? Chris: No, but in the 1st album there’s a sort of shyness. I was learning how to write pop music. There were a lot of first times on Chaleur Humaine. I was more confident on CHRIS. It’s bolder.
When my 1st album came out in France, there was a bit of a backlash because I had to explain my sexual identity and defuse a number of situations. I was very careful. It was exhausting. I felt like I was educating people… but now I’m not afraid to confront people with their own contradictions.
I have done a number of interviews in France where the idea of a powerful woman is still problematic. Today I’m not afraid to scare or unsettle people. I rather like it actually! Patriarchal, macho, Latin societies are very hypocritical. So now if something rubs you the wrong way I’m just gonna look you in the eye and ask you point blank «something wrong? » That’s how I wrote CHRIS. On « Girlfriend », the 1st single, I’m like « who the fuck are you, what’s your problem? » I’m not being super aggressive, I’m just more confident. It feels so good.
KALTBLUT: Where Chaleur Humaine is a very innocent and naive album, in a way marking the birth of Christine and The Queens, is it fair to say that CHRIS is like a rebirth in a way? Chris: Or a mutation. It’s still the same character, but she has evolved. There’s a strong continuity between the 1st and the 2nd album. The issues are the same, they’re just addressed differently. What’s awesome is that with six albums people will be able to witness the evolution of the character who will go through phases, like in a novel, all the while staying true to herself. So yeah, I’d say mutation and self-assertion.
KALTBLUT: Sonically it’s a very funky record. It does feel very « nineties », all the way up to your clothes. Air Max and a crop top? Are you forever done with suits? Chris: I’m addicted to crop tops! For now, I’m definitely done with suits. On this album, I felt the need to take my shirt off. That photoshoot I did for Egoïste got me really interested in my own body and the fact that it’s more exposed on CHRIS. I want to thank Paolo Roversi because we discussed showing more of my body and I was OK with that but I wanted to subvert the male gaze, to sexualize myself differently, to bare more skin. He told me I could do that by working on more macho energies. So now I show my femininity by playing with macho boys codes.
When you think about it, super machismo is very homoerotic and feminine. The open shirts, the oiled bodies… they’re laying themselves bare. It helped me come to terms with the idea of showing more of myself as a woman, all the while staying in control. That’s the subversion. The energy is completely different than when you just surrender to that male gaze.
KALTBLUT: Tell us a little more about your collab with Dâm – Funk. How did it happen? Chris: I’m a big fan. I first discovered him 7 or 8 years ago and I immediately loved his work as a producer, a mixer… and he’s such an interesting character! He’s not a commercial G-Funk artist. He’s an underdog in the L.A. scene. He worked with Snoop Dogg so his credibility in the music business is undeniable. He’s here, but always in the background. I like that. While working on my audio mood boards for the 2nd album I had 7 Days of Funk, which he recorded with Snoop, on repeat. I loved it and imagined how awesome it would be if Dâm-Funk did a solo on one of my songs.
My references at the time were very Gainsbourg / Love On The Beat. I liked the idea of a French artist integrating an American sound into their work. So I contacted his manager myself, in the off chance that he would be interested. I never imagined that he would get back to me, but he did, almost immediately, and ended up coming to the studio. He’s a self-taught artist, he works a lot by instinct. He’ll listen to a track for 10 minutes, looking for the notes, and you don’t really understand what is m.o. is at first. Then you press record, he does one take and it’s THE take!
He is very curious and knows a lot about music, not just G-Funk. I knew which two songs I wanted him to lay his tracks on but I made him listen to the album and he really liked « Doesn’t Matter ». We’re staying in touch. I love him. I admired him, asked him to work with me, he did. In the end, it was my decision, not the record company.
KALTBLUT: Two versions of the same album… isn’t it a little complicated to manage? Chris: It is a lot of work! That’s why I have shadows under my eyes! I have to sing and record the album twice. It is quite something. But again, my decision. When my 1st album came out I decided to translate it as soon as I learned that it was going to be released in English-speaking countries. What happened in the UK with « Tilted » would have been impossible had the single only been released in French.
It’s not a commercial decision and I know I will never be labelled as a « British artist » but it was a conscious move on my part in order to exist on the British music scene. Translating my album helped me be seen not just as an exotic French artist. Which is cool but not how I want to be perceived.
My English accent is peculiar but I think it helped. Coming back in the UK to discuss CHRIS I can feel that people don’t talk to me like I’m a French artist. It’s different in the US where I think being and sounding French works in my favour. Also, I wanted to be understood. My music won’t just « sound good », you will also have access to the lyrics in English.
I don’t know if I’ll keep doing it, I don’t even know if it’s a clever move or not, but that’s what I wanted. Recording a mirror album in English was another opportunity for me to tell a story. And who knows, we are witnessing a shift towards native languages in music with artists like Rosalia (Spain) who don’t translate their songs. Maybe that’s what will happen with French, maybe people will eventually be willing to search for the lyrics and their meaning.
KALTBLUT: As evidenced in your first two clips, CHRIS is a very physical album. Very sexual, sensual, violent even. You exude confidence as a woman, a queer artist, a performer. How will all of this influence your upcoming tour? What can we expect this fall? Chris: The physicality was already part of my 1st tour. A lot of people came to me after the shows and told me that they were surprised because that’s not what they expected to see at all. I wrote the 2nd album right after my 1st tour and I think that you can hear that I just wanted to get back on stage.
On this upcoming tour some of the venues in France, such as Paris, are huge. I never liked big shows, screens, strobe lights… basically, anything that conceals bodies and performances. So my team is a little worried right now. But I think that nothing but bodies performing in front of 20 000 people can be very spectacular. Right now we’re working a lot with empty spaces, and maybe, in the end, it will be just me on stage!
I like the risk. I come from a theatre background and being able to feel the bodies and to taste the danger is precisely what I like about live performances. I’m not saying I don’t like big shows like Beyoncé’s, which are very perfection-oriented, but I’m not interested in doing that. I even long for imperfection. I don’t want to change outfits, I don’t care, I want to stay on stage for 5 hours, dripping sweat.
The team of dancers I’m working with right now is very beautiful and diverse. There’s a couple of girls too, which I’m very happy about. The dancing part will be different this time around. Sometimes it will only be a presence or a face to face. I’m collaborating with La Horde, a French choreography collective. They’re non-professionals, it’s very freeing.
KALTBLUT: Can you tell us a little more about La Horde, the collective of performers you’re working with on your upcoming tour? Chris: They’re more like a theatre company. I never wanted to work with dancers who were there just for show. And since in the 2nd album I talk a lot about desire, about otherness, it seemed natural to have all these different characters with me on stage. And so the dancers became my partners. They’re not just here to make me look good, they’re here with me so we can play off each other: it’s about challenges, love, failure, frustrations. When I first worked with La Horde I told them about all the characters in the album and we did casting auditions, just like for a film. We were looking for very specific profiles, like the sun thief in « Doesn’t Matter ». We found each character during these auditions. The way we worked was beautiful. We immediately started writing together, which is how they do things in La Horde.
At one point we told them that the album would be about a strong female figure and asked them how they thought that should translate on stage. They were 10, they started improvising, and one of the girls stripped down to her underwear and said « this is what it means to me ». Then the other performers started carrying her. We were in awe, taking notes. That was our entire show right there! Collaborative writing worked really well on this album. It’s beautiful to be able to give dancers some freedom because they’re too often under-used on commercial projects. They’re artists too and I don’t think people realise that.
KALTBLUT: We are right in the midst of the anti-Trump, #metoo, LGBTQ rights movements. Being a queer, strong-minded female artist who has worked with teams in France, the UK and the US, do you feel that the industry can still be tough to navigate when you don’t fit the profile? Chris: Imposing my vision on the 1st album, with no room for negotiation, and the fact that it worked, I was immediately able on my 2nd album to take the lead as a woman, without anyone ever questioning me. I definitely took advantage of that. As for being a queer woman in the music business, I’m careful because a few things scare me still. Like the « queer » part becoming a marketing tool because it’s « hip ». They’re hijacking the queer experience to the point that it doesn’t mean anything anymore, and that bothers me. Like these websites that publish lists of « queer artists to listen to right now ». We’re not a commodity! Besides queer for me is this constant questioning of the norm, so if it becomes the norm… it just doesn’t make any sense
Recently I’ve even had people congratulate me for being queer! That’s partly why I decided to push things further with the 2nd album. My self-portrait in Egoïste was exactly about that. I don’t like being comfortable. For me being queer is always questioning the status quo. It’s a double-edged sword though: we talk about it a lot more, but the way we process it sometimes bothers me. It becomes this glossy thing. This being said, I won’t argue that increased visibility is bad. Compared to when I was a teenager, it’s very cool.
But there’s a lot of things left to be done: homophobia is still very much present in France, trans rights… I was over there doing press the other day and the questions I got asked really depressed me. One woman said, « homosexuality is legal now, so I don’t see what the problem is any more ». I was like are you serious right now? Then I had to explain to another one the difference between queer and pansexual. I don’t mind educating people but they should be able to educate themselves by now. It’s exhausting. On the other hand in Köln, I was asked about queer activism, about the inclusion of trans experiences in feminism… things that would never cross a journalist’s mind in France. So we need to keep fighting and try not to simplify the diverse nature of the queer experience. Things need to change everywhere, not just in pop music, and conversations need to be had. We need to stay hopeful.
Interview by Nicolas SimoneauandBénédicte Lelong
Christine and the Queens will be in Berlin on October 15th – and touring all over Europe till December. Make sure to check if she is performing in a city near you and secure your ticket now! All information >> OVER HERE.