After courting Europe and signing with Because Music in her native France, Christine and The Queens’ Heloise Letissier is now ready to export her slinky electro-pop to the U.S. masses thanks to a partnership with tastemaker label Neon Gold Records (via Atlantic), the label that first backed Charli XCX and Tove Lo. The singer-songwriter, 27, dropped her debut bilingual EP Saint Claude this April via Neon Gold/Atlantic/Because, and is poised for a major breakthrough this year, with her first full length (a re-imagining of her French language LP Chaleur Humaine) arriving this August.
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Aiding her too-cool buzz are a bevy of A-list fans, including Mark Ronson, who has said she has a voice that is “exactly the sort I like: gravelly and [with] texture,” and Madonna, who loves how “she doesn’t seem to care” when it comes to presentation. Madge was so taken by the singer’s visuals on standout track “Saint Claude” that she poached Letissier’s directing duo J.A.C.K. (Camille Hirigoyen and Julien Choquart) for her own “Living For Love” promo cut [also see Madonna’s levitating Grammy performance, a direct nod to both Letissier’s video and the EP cover of Saint Claude].
And with a sartorial approach to fashion rooted in chic menswear silhouettes, the singer/songwriter has even graced the cover of French Elle and has become a staple in the front row at Paris Fashion Week. In fact, she met another of her fans, Lorde, at the Chloe show last March. “It doesn’t quite feel real,” Letissier, who is currently on a European tour promoting her EP, says of her high-wattage co-signers. “It’s like the teenage posters in your room are talking to you, and you’re just like, ‘What?’”
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Billboard talked with Letissier about her celeb following and the origin of her musical persona, which she says she “can’t be without” and was inspired by a group of London drag queens she called her “fairy godmothers.”
How has it been to gain such a large celeb following?
It doesn’t feel quite real — until you meet Lorde and she says hi to you. It’s really flattering. What really pleases me is that the music I do can be appealing to them. I’m a French girl doing pop music, so at the beginning in France, people were a bit skeptical. We have a complex that comes with pop that we can’t excel in that area, so it’s quite cool to see that we can appeal to Americans. It’s a boost of confidence.
When did you start work on the bilingual EP and begin discussions with Neon Gold?
It came together in February. I met Neon Gold’s team and we knew they were interested last December. I thought they were working like a family and were really enthusiastic about the project. Before that, I was just dreaming what was going to happen without really knowing. I wrote both in English and French because my culture listens to a lot of American pop music as well as hip-hop, so I grew up with that. When I’m working I have that coming back to me. [Neon Gold] is a really cool label as well, and I’m not just saying that to be nice to them. It’s really not just like having your album released by people you don’t know. It feels natural.
Did you work with the same producer?
Yes, it’s still the same producer [Ash Workman], because I’m quite a loner. It takes time for me to trust someone. He’s really guiding me through the technical difficulties and gives me space to do my thing. I would not be comfortable going into the studio with a guy who would say, “Oh, we are going to do this and that and this is your cue…” I need a partner in crime.
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Was it challenging for you to re-imagine the songs in English?
It wasn’t, because I always mix English and French. Like the song “Tilted” for example — at the very beginning when I wrote the song, it was just in English. Then I translated it in French for my French album. And then I did an English version for the U.S. album. I’m always navigating between the two languages. It’s a cool mind trick and doesn’t feel like I’m betraying anything.
In the beginning, you were writing from the perspective of Christine. Is that still the case?
To be honest, it never felt like I was hiding behind anything with Christine. It’s a character, of course. I’m not Christine all the time, but it’s not a character that is different [than me]. It’s just a way to be freer — a way for me to express myself without feeling stupid. But these are my emotions — my breakups, my doubts — and she’s just a way to translate them into something I can share. It’s a writing technique and a living technique. When I have troubles, I think, “What would Christine do?” It’s just a way to allow myself to be daring. I can’t be without her now. I need her.
You “discovered” Christine in London when you met a group of drag queens. What about them awakened the character for you?
It was really important. Without them, I would probably not be making music. It was like a revelation, because precisely with drag queens, all the characters they have are like survival techniques as well. You take what pains you and what hurts you and what makes you feel small, and you turn it into a character to be in power again. I was at a time in my life when I was a bit lost and depressed, and seeing those girls walking every night on stage in characters with names after insults they received, it felt like I could maybe find a way to do the same thing without being a drag queen. They were like, “Well, if you feel helpless and insecure, you should use that and write about it.” They nursed me a bit. They were fairy godmothers in a way.
You studied acting and directing as well. What pulled you more towards music?
It’s weird because I was interested in being on stage all my life. I wanted to be a stage director. In theater what I loved were wordless plays, and working in silence. Now that I’m making music, it’s a way to express yourself without being too chatty. It’s a language that can allow you to dance and think about visuals as well. I found a way to talk. It all clicked together and even when I’m thinking about gigs, I always have theater references for lighting or transitions.
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You have a diverse list of inspirations, from Michael Jackson to Kendrick Lamar to Lou Reed. Is there a common thread for you?
It’s these strong voices. I’m in love with artists that are really difficult to cover or to copy. You can only try to copy them, but you will never succeed because it’s intertwined with really personal references and really personal ways to exist on stage. They are really strong individuals, and are writing their own songs and know where they want to go. It’s the strong will of an artist that really inspires me.
What advice would you give to aspiring female singers trying to breakthrough?
You have to be strong and confident, even if deep down you’re not. You have to be really firm about what you want, and sometimes you have to say it louder when you’re a girl. You have to be more protective. For example, I love suits, but I had people saying, “Oh, but you’re pretty, you should show more skin or you should be sexier.” I love sensual women like Beyonce who are very empowering and sexy at the same time, but if it’s not what you want to do then you have to say no.
Exclusive: Heloise Letissier Reveals Her Tour Playlist
The singer shares the songs that keep her inspired — and moving — on the road.
Tame Impala, “Let It Happen”
“Every [new] song seems to hint at a monumental album, where pop efficiency meets the torments of an introvert.”
Cock Robin, “When Your Heart Is Weak”
“Could sound cheesy to put it in my list, and indeed it is cheesy. But this is what I love with ’80 ballads: they’re generous. This one is perfect for wandering alone in airports.”
Kendrick Lamar, “For Sale? (Interlude)”
“Kendrick melts everything — politics, lives, loves — with a striking ease and a proliferation of voices. This song is my favorite, smooth and cruel at the same time — because nothing can be simplistic with Kendrick.”
“His delivery is sincere and sexy. And lord, what a voice. This is the voice I always dreamt of having.”
Imogen Heap, “Hide and Seek”
“It’s a masterpiece. I can’t believe how heartbreaking, bold and well-written [this song] is. I cried the first time I discovered it.”
Axel Bauer, “Cargo”
“This [French] song makes me feel like a young, vengeful dude. I love the guitar riffs, its atmosphere, and seedy sexuality. Also, it’s a song that’s not afraid to use French language as it is — rough, uneven — and make it sound like another set of weird drums.”