Christine and the Queens: Pop Star Undefined
Christine and the Queens is hard to pin down, and that's the beauty of it. The French pop phenom shot to fame with her self-titled debut album in 2015 — a more-English reissue of her French debut, Chaleur Humaine ("Human Warmth"), which went on to be the UK's bestselling debut of 2016.
Then came a new, more aggressive era in 2018 — one described as "horny, hungry, and ambitious" in The New York Times. Christine became Chris, and so her fiery sophomore album, Chris, was born: another self-titled debut album, of sorts, under a new mononym.
That fire rages on in her new five-song EP, La Vita Nuova ("The New Life"), and the 13-minute short film that accompanies it. Shot in Paris's famed Palais Garnier by Colin Solal Cardo (of Robyn's "Ever Again" and Charli XCX's "White Mercedes"), the film encapsulates some of the best of her rarefied star power: the bass-driven athleticism of Chris on "Je Disparais dans Tes Bras" ("I Disappear in Your Arms") back to back with the downtempo embers of Chaleur Humaine on "Mountains (We Met)."
Choreographed by Ryan Heffington (of Sia's "Chandelier") and costarring the delight that is Félix Maritaud (of 120 Beats Per Minute and Sauvage), it's an artful send-off to "a really rough moment," as she described it to POPSUGAR.
Now, Chris is adjusting to life in a somewhat-reopened Paris. But life goes on, too, in self-isolation: she's called in at-home performances on Lady Gaga's One World: Together at Home, The Graham Norton Show, and The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, plus almost daily Instagram Lives. "It's the end of strict lockdown here," she said, "so it's just a bit soothing."
For fans, soothing, too, is Chris, an artist who consistently resists labels and leans into individual liberté: "the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority."
Those restrictions may not be written into law for some of us, but they are almost always written between the lines. It takes courage to be yourself in a world that resists complexity, and queer people are, by definition, complex. Or, we can be if we try hard enough. So, what better time to consider what we stand to gain by growing out of shame and into pride than Pride Month? Self-love is an act of defiance, after all, and Stonewall was a riot.
Over Zoom in late May, POPSUGAR sat down with Chris for a tête-à-tête in honor of Pride to talk La Vita Nuova and newfound freedom — in and out of self-isolation.
POPSUGAR: I know the EP was born out of "People, I've Been Sad," and you said in an interview with KEXP that you needed to address that sadness so it wouldn't eat you alive — and I thought, what a beautiful metaphor to express the need to make art. I was wondering if you could tell me more about the making of the EP.
"But it was beautiful in a way, because the stage was saving me every night, but it was not enough."
Chris: Yeah, I mean, it really started with that song. I was touring the second album, Chris, and it was such a dance-powerful record, and every night on stage was, you know, sweaty and joyful. But, I was going through a really rough moment of my life where I was dealing with grief and heartbreak. And I think at some point, the dichotomy between the stage and the personal life was almost comical. At some point I was joking with my friends, like, "This could be a movie and people would not even believe it." But it was beautiful in a way, because the stage was saving me every night, but it was not enough. It was not long enough for me to be saved: it was just two hours of a show, and I was back to the sadness.
But, what was really humbling too is that when I wrote "People, I've Been Sad," I actually thought I was doing OK. You know, you're in a place where you tell yourself, "It's fine, I'm going to do it," because I was also the lead of a tour and I had a whole team. You can't really let people down, in a way: you have to be brave. And then I wrote that song and I was like, "Oh."
C: And it was the end of that dichotomy because I had to address the sadness properly. I immediately sent the song to my team and I was like, "I think we need to release that song soon," because as a performer, I think I have a duty to be honest.
It might be a bit cheesy to say it like that, but I really want to relate to what I'm singing on stage. I think that song was kind of realigning myself with the words I would be saying. At first I thought I would just release that one, that song, but then I just realized it opened a gate. I couldn't stop writing, and I wrote several other ones. I think everyone around me understood that it was necessary for me to do that EP, and nobody got in my way. And then it escalated into this short movie.
"It was a process of reconstructing myself with [La Vita Nuova], and it was both really humbling and beautiful because I was reminded of why I started Christine and the Queens in the first place."
I didn't want to comment on that EP. I was like, "How can people receive it as fully as they can with me being silent in a way," and I immediately thought a short movie would be the perfect way to just address everything with theater. It was a process of reconstructing myself with [La Vita Nuova], and it was both really humbling and beautiful because I was reminded of why I started Christine and the Queens in the first place.
It was exactly the same thing: I was trying to reconstruct myself, and empower myself, and heal, and it was kind of like a full circle. I was back to that point where I needed healing again, and so actually, the shooting of the movie was quite cathartic.
PS: The visuals are striking — it's such a lush, and dreamy, and fantastical film.
C: Yeah, it's really baroque? It's . . . flamboyant.
PS: Baroque, yes.
C: The songs are talking so much about the opposite. I think this is also why I wanted theater to express that, because the songs are so much about missing things, tears . . . even the lyrics are blunt.
PS: One of my favorite songs is "I Disappear in Your Arms." It's just beautiful. I feel like that theme of disappearing is a sort of through line on the EP, down to the pared-down final chorus of "People, I've Been Sad." Something lost, but also something gained. Could you tell me about your writing process?
"You always think you can overcome everything with language, and then something happens to you and you don't even have words for it."
C: Yeah, I mean, well-noticed. It's true. I actually noticed it afterwards, like listening back. It's so much about being empty-handed, disappearing. "What can I say, what can I do?" "Nada."
Grief: it's a really humbling experience of being at loss of words and things to do. You're overwhelmed by something way more — something immensely vast, and you cannot even grasp through art. It's really the most frightening experience as an artist also, because you always think you can overcome everything with language, and then something happens to you and you don't even have words for it. So I think this EP, for example, comparing writing Chris, which was a record that I thought of for a year, it was joyful, hopeful . . .
PS: . . . triumphant . . .
C: . . . and powerful, and moodboards, and lots of writing around it. It was a full process of a constructed dream. La Vita Nuova is more like a fever nightmare: it's something that slips through my hands and I don't know what's happening, and I'm running after something, but it's a ghost. It's really about being honest. I think the less you're fighting songwriting, the more great it is in the end. And that EP, I really let it flow out of me without really trying to make sense out of it, and it turns out the whole thing was quite coherent.
"Sometimes I think the songs are even more clever than I am."
A song like "I Disappear in Your Arms," I wrote it in 20 minutes just shortly after a fight with a lover. I wrote it in a solid emotion I was feeling, which was frustration. But in the end it's interesting because, when I wrote it, I was like, "I'm writing about disappearing into somebody's arms because I am trying so hard, and it's not working, and it feels like I don't even know who I am anymore." And then people told me, "It's interesting, because that song could talk about you and yourself also: your inability to allow yourself the love you deserve. Because you keep on disappearing in places you don't belong." And I'm like, "Ohhh." [laughter] Sometimes I think the songs are even more clever than I am. I'm like, "Ah, I see."
PS: I want to talk about identity, because we're heading into Pride Month, and I think you're a real role model, as an artist and on a personal level. Something you've said that I love is, "Queer is about intense questioning that can't be made nice and glossy."
We celebrate Pride this month historically, but it looks very different this year if we aren't together physically. As a queer person, what does it mean to you, to have pride?
"I'm always intrigued by people, queer people who really don't like Pride — the concept of it — because I'm like, 'How can you refuse joy?' This is all we have at some points: to just be joyfully present to ourselves."
C: For me, it means the end of shame. It really does mean that, because I think shame is something systemic that is built: it's something imposed on bodies and minds that escape a really normative, patriarchal construction. And I think shame plagued me when I was younger, for example. My worst enemy at some point was me, because I was deeply ashamed of not fitting in. I think pride is the opposite of that. It's the beginning of healing through self-love, and through that joy of being actually out of the norm: that joy of escaping definitions that can be possibly threatening. It means life. It means something that runs like water, and it is unstoppable. For me, it's really like that, and this is why I'm always intrigued by people, queer people who really don't like Pride — the concept of it — because I'm like, "How can you refuse joy?" This is all we have at some points: to just be joyfully present to ourselves.
PS: Something I admire about you is how you resist labels. Your persona is a celebration of all the beauty that exists outside the binary, in those liminal spaces — it's chaotic and controlled, soft and sharp, macho and femme. You play with those aesthetics. In the EP, you cradle us with a song like "Mountains (We Met)," then take us on this roller-coaster fever dream with "La Vita Nuova," which is a stark contrast.
Yet, people love to label, and assign, and define what they don't understand — things that don't need defining at all. I was going through your past interviews, and you are made to define, and explain, and educate others so often. Honestly, it's tiring. As a queer person, thank you for doing that work. But, what advice would you give those who don't want to tick those boxes either, who want to live more freely?
C: Well, thank you for saying all that to me; it really warms my heart. It's a tough one, because I think I try to answer that question every day as I move forward. But I think the first thing you have to [do] is be comfortable with yourself.
You know, the lockdown, for example, has been for everybody a really deep experience. For myself was a lot on my own, and I thought a lot about my youth. Well, not that I'm 60. But I kind of really reminisced a lot.
PS: You've spoken about making art out of loneliness, and how stay-at-home orders sort of indulge your more natural tendency to self-isolate. But now, it's without a choice. So, what is it like to make new music right now — does it feel different?
C: I think lockdown just imposed a routine on me that was not planned, because I was supposed to travel and be in the US, actually: I was supposed to try to meet new people. It almost arrived as a fate of still figuring things out on my own. But I think I took it as a lesson that maybe it was not the same. Maybe it's not the same as when I was self-isolating at 20, because I didn't feel like I fit in outside. And actually, the songwriting leads to a different place.
C: But I was about to bounce back to the question before I failed to answer, because it's such a vast question: acceptance. I think I'm in a place where I do accept [myself]. It's tiny steps a bit further and a bit stronger. But I think the notion of fluidity, now, is totally in me, for me, by me.
PS: In me, for me, by me: I love that.
"When I really shut down the outside noise and I just look at myself, I see a mutant, and it's fine."
C: I don't even try to define myself as a woman, for example. And it does liberate even more things in the songwriting, and the character, and the possibilities of what I can do theatrically. And I think with everyone who does have a feeling that fluidity is a thing, observe it as much as you can: for you, by you. Try to look at yourself. Try to do that exercise of [looking] mercilessly at yourself in the mirror — try to forget what people see of you and just really look at yourself and your face deeply, without.
When I really shut down the outside noise and I just look at myself, I see a mutant, and it's fine. [laughter] This is me not answering the question, because it's such a vast one. I'll write something about it, maybe.
PS: It's a huge question. I mean, that kind of calls to mind the story of you [deciding to cut] your hair for Chris. You being like, "Well, my jaw is a bit square," and [Italian fashion photographer Paolo Roversi] saying, "Your jaw is square, that's why it's cool!" It's about leaning into what makes you different.
PS: I'm curious, too, about sex and desire. You were asked on KEXP why you covered Steve Lacy, and you just said, "I was horny that day," and it made me laugh. [laughter] But, how is our favorite horny pop star dealing with self-isolation?
C: Oh, well. What can I say? A lot of masturbation, lots of masturbation with different supports — movies or imagination helps. Also I love masturbation because it's about exploring exactly how you want to cum and what makes you cum, so it's even better when you have sex with someone else.
C: Yeah, basically what I do. I mean, I thought about disobeying lockdown. The only thing that almost made me disobey lockdown is sex. But that was like, "I cannot do that." I mean, I also kind of took some pleasure in enjoying those constraints, because I think eroticism comes, sometimes, from constraints. Something you barely see, something you guess: something you want to have, but don't have yet. I mean, it's quite erotic, also, to just accept that for a moment you're going to be deprived.
Because then the orgy will probably happen — the end of lockdown will probably be a splurge of horniness all around. I hope people still will be horny, because I don't want to be the only one.