Chris — née Héloïse Letissier, a name she says only her parents use — is jetlagged when I meet her at The Standard East Village hotel, outside which she is getting her photo taken in navy tearaway track pants and an unexpectedly dainty white camisole. Onstage, and in the music videos for Chaleur Humaine, her super-successful debut album, Chris is better known for wearing what we, as unevolved, binary-thinking creatures, call “menswear”: suits and slacks and shiny patent loafers. For her new album, Chris, she wants to complicate the narrative, insisting we don’t get too comfortable with any one norm-threatening presentation. She cut off her hair, and her name: no longer Christine, but Chris.
The new album, too, is less starry-eyed than its predecessor; where before there was tentative piano and shimmering percussion (“Night 52”), twinkling flutes and metronomic breaths (“Tilted”), there is synth, and more synth. Letissier’s lyrics are sharper, and more frank, here than before; in “Doesn’t Matter,” which would be right at home in a training montage, she murmurs, “And of lately the only people I can stand/Are the unraveled ones with their hands laying bare.” In the Wet-esque “Make Some Sense,” she demands — softly, but still — “Make some sense of it all/Because I won’t make it for you.” With Chaleur Humaine, Letissier asserted her queer, feminist identity. On Chris, she explodes it.
And yet, Chris is more secure in her womanhood than ever before. Having recently turned thirty, she tells me she enjoys “the challenge of getting older as a woman in this industry.” She embraces the complexity of her identity, and is disappointed to find that the rest of the world — her native France, especially — has yet to meet her here, in the present. The entity that is Chris makes people uncomfortable, if the stated reasons for that discomfort are often muddled, only barely camouflaging their latent misogyny and heterosexism.
Days before I meet her, Chris released a statement on Twitter, below an exasperated emoji that looks just like her, defending her sampling of a free Apple Logic present in her single “Damn, dis-moi.” It was a decision which sparked some controversy in France, albeit only after an anonymous man made a YouTube video highlighting the sample, calling Chris a “scam.” (Chris, of course, is hardly the first artist to sample a royalty-free track in her music.) Chris tells me the video’s creator apologized to her via Instagram DM even before the story gained traction. Then he asked her out to coffee. She declined. No longer the twenty-something newcomer, Chris finds she is being asked to defend her right to be here, still, making music as a woman.
If there is something guarded about second-album Chris, there is also an apparent defiance. She is no longer a newcomer. She is tired of explaining herself. She’d rather just show you.
How do you feel going into this cycle of album promotion compared to your first?
The promo cycle on the album is not always easy in every territory. Side-eye to France. It's kind of weird. I have to educate journalists about queerness and feminism. And I'm like, "Are we there again?" I just notice that I'm taking a lot of punches. Even on the first record, I had to explain a lot of things that felt like, "Do I really have to explain that?" Yes, I want to escape the male gaze. I'm pansexual, and no, it's not a perversion. I have to admit, maybe I'm tired today because I’ve felt a bit tired this summer. I considered stopping doing interviews. I'm a huge advocate of explaining and educating, and I was like, well it's useful, I should explain, but recently I was like, is it even worth it?
That's a lot of burden to put on yourself, to have to educate someone as the representative of every group you might belong to.
Yeah. It's true. You probably catch me in a place where I'm a bit skeptical about all that. I released also recently the video for "Five Dollars.” It was received well outside of France, and in France, there were articles saying I praised prostitution. I'm like, So many things to say about that issue! We should talk about sex workers in a way that feels respectful, first. [The video isn’t] praising sex work. And if I was? Where do I even start? The article referred to me as "the neofeminist.” What does that mean? Does it mean I'm sex-positive? I'm sorry, probably.
In France do you experience a lasting cultural conservatism there you don't elsewhere?
Definitely. I don't want to draw a hasty conclusion, but I notice that after I cross a border it's different. In the UK it's different. In the U.S. it's different, but I'm not mainstream in the U.S., so I'm addressing [different journalists.] In France it feels heavier, and more complicated. And also, it's the second album backlash. But it's taking a form that I was not expecting. I was expecting some symbolic punishment for making it, because in France it's like that. But it's taking a weird form.
What kind of criticism were you expecting?
They're reacting to everything I thought they would react to in a non-surprising way, but even worse. As a feminist, I was like, well, I'm going to embrace the fact that I'm producing the record, and I'm not going to shy away from saying it. The immediate response in France is like, “she's a controlling bitch.” It means I'm precisely touching a wound, but I'm kind of surprised by how predictable the reaction to that is. I was secretly hoping it would be a bit more advanced.
And you know what, the haircut?
“I used to be quite afraid of living things before. But interesting things happen with heartbreak.” — Christine and the Queens
I was going to ask if you thought that was part of it.
It gives everyone a different lecture. Just the fact that I affirmed something a bit more ambivalent, everyone is like, is she transitioning? Is she a dude? Actually, it's just me working a different way to be feminine. It's just a haircut.
I think the second album addresses subjects like sexuality more bluntly. I'm not giving any clear answers about identity, and it's deliberate, and it's infuriating people. In the “5 Dollar” video, for example, with the sexual vocabulary, and the bondage, and the exposure of the body, there is a backlash to that that is visceral. It feels like queer militarism 101, but when you're working on a different way to be sexualized and a different way to exist, you are made to feel like it's obscene more easily than artists who are exposing their personal lives or even their bodies way more. How come it's obscene when it’s coming from me? It's interesting. Some journalists have said Chris is "violent" as a record. It seems like it's violent to YOU, but to me it feels like I'm empowered through the record.
Do you find it difficult to be authentic to yourself while also, presumably, wanting to continue to be successful?
Not really, because first, I don't know how to be successful. (Laughs.) Honestly. Maybe I will never reciprocate what happened with the first album. I have a relationship with writing that is really intimate, and brutally honest, but it's because before writing pop songs I was writing, and am still writing constantly, in journals, short stories, poems. I have this relationship to writing that is an everyday unveiling. But at the same time, I'm in love with what the pop song is, so most of my references for the second record were immediate, catchy pop productions like Cameo, or Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, or Michael Jackson's "Dangerous." And it's about how to mix this relationship I have as a writer that says "I," with this more immediately tasty pop landscape. I kind of don't think it's natural for me to work around that. So it's like, I'm going to do a production inspired by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, but I'm going to talk really simply about feeling depressed.
Actually I'm reading a lot of English writers. For example, I just got a Maggie Nelson —
I love her. Sorry. Is it The Argonauts?
Actually, I started with Bluets. My heart! I don't think she's translated in French yet, so I discovered her in English, and reading people like that in English makes me work my English writing even more. I think I almost cried when I read it, because it felt like discovering the writing I could particularly use then. The way she constructs a really intimate and personal writing with something so full of memories of culture and philosophy, it's gorgeous.
Because you mention Bluets I’m going to take a leap and guess that means this album is heavily influenced by heartbreak.
Yeah, there were heartbreaks. Several, actually. "She says, with delight in her eyes, as if she were trying to prove that she's human,” (she narrates.) No, but I'm saying that because I used to be quite afraid of living things before. But interesting things happen with heartbreak. So it's both painful and kind of slightly ecstatic, to me. The sounds are more rough, but there is also warmth because I'm in a way satisfied. Even if it's failing, I tried.
I put myself in impossible love stories on that record. I was deliberately intrigued and attracted to people who could not possibly love me for the whole me, usually meaning young, macho men. Because the concept of who I am is disruptive to them. They're like, "I'm confused. Attracted but confused." And I'm doing nothing to help them in being un-confused. I think I was just attracted by this extreme authority of who they were, because they were also giving me stories of conflict in themselves, about their own identity. But then the next day they were ashamed, so I was back to feeling super powerful, and super ashamed as well. It's this back and forth, on this second record, of trying to live all your desires, even those that could wound you. Sometimes you feel like utter shit, but you're brave enough to experiment with what you want to experiment with.
I can see where that might be challenging to people who want you to be all one thing or the other. Like you have to either be gay, wearing suits, or if you're going to date guys, you should look more feminine.
You're right about that. I noticed, and even with the first album, that people are more comfortable when you answer a question clearly than when you say "Actually, I don't know." Because the "I don't know" is infuriating and scary to them, because it opens an abyss in front of you. Because if I don't know, why do you know? It's this weird Freudian shit. I'm not going to simplify just because you feel more comfortable if I do. I was intrigued in working a complicated narrative on the second album. I'm saying "he" in a lot of tracks, because I was actually having experiences with men. I was constantly talking about pansexuality on the first record, but people were like, "Right, you're gay." I was like, actually...
There might be some wishful thinking or territorialism there, at least on the part of lesbians. Sorry about that.
Even though I think it's more difficult to assert what I'm asserting right now, I owe it to me also, because at some point I didn't want to live a life that wasn't mine. I didn't want to just assert a narrative to please people. I had, and I will have, I'm sure, experiences with women again. I had really important love stories with women. But actually, if I'm honest, I'm never thinking of gender. Sometimes I'm attracted to the masculinity I see in a woman, sometimes the femininity of a man. I'm a woman, but...
How do you identify your own gender?
[Sighs] It's complicated. For me, the experience is that the more you explore, the less you're sure, in a way. And the more you explore, the more it changes. I say I'm a woman, but I'm exploring desire as a force of chaos that surprises me. And through desire, I get to explore many different identities. I don't feel like I'm trapped in my woman's body. I'm loving that woman's body, actually. I love also the versatility of it — how easily I can look like a young boy, if I want. And my eroticism is made of hesitations and doubts and being uncomfortable in lust. I keep on exploring. I think I present a broken mirror instead of something reassuring, probably.
“I like to take the stamina from that anger and put it into dancing.” — Christine and the Queens
Do people express curiosity about your personal life or do they kind of let you have that?
They kind of let me have it! Maybe they don't even think I can have a relationship. I'm joking. Well, if I'm being honest, on the first record, I was asked "who are you dating" and "are you dating," but now, since I'm talking about it more bluntly, but still not giving any private information, they don't really ask. They're afraid to know! (Laughs.) They're afraid I'll say "I'm in a relationship with five people and we're all fluid!" They're like, please stop.
I read that this album was also partly a response to being bullied when you were younger. Do you consider this album a form of revenge?
I wouldn't say revenge, actually. I think this album is about embracing all of the emotions a bit more, including anger, but also horniness and extreme sadness. There is a song called "What's Her Face" that addresses the idea that no matter how empowered I get, it doesn't negate the fact that I still remember sitting alone on the bench in high school. And that's actually part of the powerful woman I am now. It's a piece of it. I wouldn't say it's revenge. I'd say it's cathartic. I like to take the stamina from that anger and put it into dancing.
What role will the dancing at your live show play in transmitting these ideals?
Since it's so much an album about interactions and sensuality and otherness, the dancing was really interesting to work on from the beginning, because as I said, I wanted to cast characters with me. It was kind of like searching for the right roles for a movie. I didn't want to do a singer plus dancers to decorate the scenery. I work with a collective that's called La Horde, three French people who work on collective writing and kind of help me cast the team of dancers/characters.
On "Girlfriend" I wanted to work around what does it mean to perform the idea of a man? How can we diffuse it slightly? What does flexing mean at some point? We kind of built choreography around it. For "Doesn't Matter," I knew I had to do a duet with a male dancer. This is why I love Michael Jackson, because he was really clever in that the dance was a second way to sing the song, and you remember the choreography as much as the song.
What do you want people to remember about this album?
For this album, I was reading a lot and thinking a lot about the figure of the witch. That stigmatization of women who were too much — too angry, too horny, too cultivated, too emancipated, too old, too everything. It's really easy to be too much when you're a woman. I was like, "Let's make a record where I'm too horny, too angry, too sad, too joyful." It's an affirmation that I have the right to be too much, and as complex and intricate as a dude could be in a novel.
I wish I didn't have this discourse now. I wish it was different. But I still very much feel like as women we are refused complexity, or extreme emotions without being slightly dirty or deranged. We still have make anger nonthreatening by being pretty. During the second record I was intrigued by the figure of Madonna as a way to be a pure threat. She was classically beautiful, so it helped, but she was not apologizing for a second for being threatening. She was not smoothing edges for you, so you were scared, and she was kind of enjoying it. As a feminist, it's quite inspiring.