Héloïse Letissier’s music career began with a forgotten name and was reinforced by three British drag queen fairy godmothers. It allowed the French singer-songwriter to escape depression, and it carried her to America, where she slayed SXSW audiences and piqued the attention of Madonna, Lorde and a cadre of other divas, who no doubt noticed her ability to simultaneously sing and dance. Not gyrate across a stage, but to clearly communicate thought and emotion with every swivel of her waist or kick of a leg.
Letissier, 26, released her first English language E.P. last spring, and an English version of her debut album, Chaleur Humaine, will follow this fall. The album was already certified platinum three times over in France, where she’s on her way to becoming a household name. What’s that name, again?
“It’s probably better if you call me Christine,” she said in a recent interview, relaxing before a show in San Francisco. “Even in France I choose to be called ‘Christine,’ because I try to escape my civil state.”
Letissier performs as Christine and the Queens. The “Queens” are a reference to her fairy godmothers, who taught her to believe in her abilities after she dropped out of college, where she was studying theater production and literature. She took the stage name of “Christine” as a running in-joke with friends, for all of the people whose names she forgot over the years.
“Every time I forget someone’s name, I call them Christine,” she said. “(Friends) always ask me, ‘so how is Christine?’ She was already in the air.”
Letissier wanted some degree of anonymity, just like her drag queen friends.
“I love that the name doesn’t belong to me, and belongs to, possibly, anybody,” she said. “Anybody can be Christine.”
By 2010, at the Conservatoire de Paris, she studied not only theater and literature, but comedy. In theatre productions, especially Shakespeare, she gravitated to the role of the fool, the oft-mocked character who doled out more wisdom than primary characters.
Stand-up comedy was the first thing she gave up, deciding she wasn’t funny enough. Acting was traded in for stage production.
“I felt more eager running the whole project; running the visuals, writing the plays, directing,” she said. “I felt more at peace with that.”
Yet her college experience was not progressing like Letissier had hoped. She began to feel isolated and alone. She continued to have desires for the stage, but she lost her vision of how. Then she got dumped. She’d find herself walking around Paris, but that did not cure the depression. Instead, she decided to take a break from life and go to London, a city with pleasant childhood memories.
“It was a terrible year for me,” she said. “So I had my time-out.”
It was not a happy accident that Letissier ended up inside Madame JoJo’s, a gay club, on a drag queen evening one night. She wasn’t hoping to catch the end of a soccer match over a beer, or swing open the door, not knowing what was on the other side. She’d been in search of queer evening gatherings, and identifies as bisexual. She grew up with the work of queer writers, characters and artists.
“I think even if I wasn’t dating girls and boys, I’(d be) in love with the idea of being a drag queen (for) aesthetic reasons.”
That night, she watched the drag queens sing and dance, and felt heartened. She began to attend regularly, never talking to anyone. Eventually, three of the queens befriended her.
She had, by that point, made the decision to drop out of school and all of her career plans. They gave her other options.
“They convinced me to sing,” she said. “I was already quitting everything else. … I was in a terrible place where I didn’t know what to do. I was a mess. They said, ‘girl, it will be OK. We’re going to find something for you to do.’
“They told me that I had a great voice, which is something I didn’t really think was true. They made me look at music in a different way. Without them, I wouldn’t have started to write songs.”
Despite her insecurity with her voice, and her abilities in general, she began to write. As Christine, Letissier’s lyrics (often sung in a combination of French and English) calmly reveal self-assured deliberations and steadfast beliefs.
“There’s nothing you can do to change my mind / I’m a man now,” she declares on “iT.” On “Saint Claude,” she wavers on love: “But if you say just one word I’ll stay with you.” And on “Chaleur Humaine,” which translates loosely to “Human Warmth,” she declares that she opposes organized prudish conventions.
These lyrics are set to staccato synths, minimalist beats and bass lines, and string flourishes. The end result, combined with the artist’s theater-ready dancing, is a playful, sexy-yet-androgynous pop. Letissier has taken a few lessons from Bjork. She performs wearing suits, oftentimes in boys’ sizes due to her small stature, and equally incorporates choreographed moves from hip-hop, swing and ballroom dance.
“It’s a way to find a new language; a simpler one,” she said. “For me, art is a way to relate to people; a way to share something. It’s cheesy to say that, but feels like that.”
Her earlier songs were much darker, weirder and more depressing than the material that got her noticed in France. Nonetheless, once she provided an outlet to her frustration, she immediately wanted to go on stage to perform it. Letissier didn’t believe songwriting would turn into a career, but she saw early on that she could find in her music connections to others.
By the time she got to rewriting her French-language songs for Anglophiles, the process came naturally. Although she had to give up on some rhymes, the messages remained the same.
“I had to have people who believed in me first,” she said. “I believed … that I could relate and speak again.”