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Here’s How Christine and the Queens Wrote One of the Year’s Best Songs

13 minute read

Ten minutes into our interview, Héloïse Letissier, the French singer who performs under the name Christine and the Queens, starts apologizing to me. She’s worried she’s not making any sense in English as she talks about writing “Tilted,” which TIME recently named one of the best songs of 2015. It’s an unnecessary apology—she’s actually just said something profound about thinking of our identities and emotions as a kind of performance, and it takes a second to soak in. But this happens a few times throughout the interview: she worries about her eloquence, then immediately demonstrates an eloquence that many pop stars who count English as their first language don’t even have. (And if Letissier’s few English-language tweets are any indication, she’s also got a sharp sense of humor.)

Letissier’s self-titled U.S. debut, which features English-language versions of the songs from last year’s French debut, is full of similar moments. Even at their simplest, her translated lyrics strike a rich vein of meaning: “iT” plays with ideas of gender as Letissier declares, “Cause I’ve got it/ I’m the man now,” warping the vowels with her accent; “Tilted” uses innocent imagery as a catch-all for whatever has listeners feeling down—low self-esteem, depression, insecurity—then asks them embrace it, almost like a superpower.

That’s what Letissier (who mostly goes by Christine now, even to her friends) did through her own songs. After a breakup left her devastated, she met a trio of drag queens in London who convinced her to channel all her uncertainty into music. Their uninhibited stage personalities inspired her to create one of her own, and Christine and the Queens was born. (Those drag queens are whom “the Queens” in her stage name refer to, though it’s a solo project.) “She is a writing technique,” Letissier says. “Christine as a stage character is just a way for me to be more daring, to be more out of the box, to be stronger and to use everything that could weigh me down like a fuel, like an energy.”

That fire has made her a big deal in France, where she won Best Female Artist at the French equivalent to the Grammys this year, and earned the stamp of approval from the queen of pop herself: Madonna cited one of Christine’s videos as inspiration for her “Living for Love” clip and recently brought Letissier out as a special guest on her world tour. Below, Letissier chats with TIME about writing in two different languages, her dance moves—watch her bring the house down with this cover of “Pump Up the Jam”—and her love of RuPaul.

TIME: You originally recorded “Tilted” in French and then released an English version for the U.S. edition of your album. How do they differ?

Christine and the Queens: I liked translating this song because the idea is the same in French and in English. It’s about making a pop song with a subject that’s not really funny or cool. It’s about making an easy song with an uneasy subject. It’s about feeling out of place, not finding your balance, or being depressed even, but with playful images, with a song you can dance on. I didn’t really suffer translating the song. The French song is talking about the same difficulty of turning on your feet. I was searching for lots of images or words that could fit, and I just stumbled upon this word, to tilt or be tilted, and I was exactly trying to find this image. It’s literally talking about not finding your balance with a playful image.

Dancing is a big part of your performances. What does the choreography for this song bring out of it that you couldn’t get from just standing behind a mic?

I can’t really sing this song without dancing now because my feet just have to do the same thing as the words. It’s really a song that exists with this choreography, and I love doing it because, again, it’s about really dancing on my problem. It felt good.

When I think about pop music, because I’m obsessed with pop songs, it’s about being generous with something that could weigh you down. That’s why I like the queer aesthetic as well—you take your scars, you take your flaws, you make something generous with it, and then you can share it and transform everything. I think dancing for me is like that. It’s about expressing [yourself] with another language, one that cannot be put in a box, because when you dance, you’re free as well. You’re just trying to convey a really simple emotion with a movement, like a poet in a way. You don’t have to [say a lot to get the meaning]. People can get the movement you’re doing in really different ways. It can actually be contagious, you know?

A lot of your work addresses what it means to be queer. Do you think of “Tilted” as having a particular queer message?

Yeah, I think my whole character, my whole project is queer in a way. Christine as a stage character is just a way for me to be more daring, to be more out of the box, to be stronger and to use everything that could weigh me down like a fuel, like an energy. For me, she is a writing technique, and a queer one. So yeah, “Tilted” can possibly be a queer song. It’s about embracing who you are. For me, I sometimes was feeling out of place because of my own story and my own way of being a young girl. Because of this I feel really queer sometimes. That can make me feel like an outcast in a way. I think you can project a lot of things on this song, but for me, Christine is a queer character, totally.

I love the line “I’m doing my face with magic marker/ I’m in my right place, don’t be a downer.” How did you come up with that image?

In the French version, it’s already this image of doing my makeup with something unusual. In French it’s about this liquid you have to heal your wounds that can be colored. I was trying to find something about embracing the weirdness of it, finding an image that can be violent and playful at the same time. You can enter this punchline in two different ways—it can be really funny, or it can be really freaky. I wanted to have this ambivalence in this sentence. Doing your face with magic marker, it can be quite creepy, right?

It’s funny, I associate magic marker with something children use, so it always felt very innocent to me, never creepy.

[Laughs] I’m sorry!

Those lyrics remind me of this RuPaul quote— “You’re born naked and the rest is drag.” Do you know it?

Ooooh, yes. I’m a huge fan.

I think of “Tilted” as the pop-song version of that quote.

Oh, that’s nice! I appreciate it. Don’t start me on RuPaul because I’m a huge fan. I have several sentences on my wall, and I looked at them every time: “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else?” It’s actually one of the main influences and one sentence I could totally relate with. Christine is a character like that. It’s about changing your mind, about being playful with your identity. It’s about shape-shifting. It’s about being an old man and a child at the same time. It’s exactly this idea of performing your own identity and performing your own sadness or joy. Doing your face with magic marker, it’s putting something on the outside that’s on the inside.

Back up for a second—what other RuPaul quotes do you have on your wall? I love that.

I have your quote, I have “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else?” And then I have another, but it’s not really from RuPaul, it’s from one candidate of [RuPaul’s Drag Race], Sharon Needles: “When in doubt, freak them out.” I think that can actually match the “doing your face with magic marker” sentence. When in doubt, just freak them out! [Laughs] This is my bible. When I lose my way, I look at those sentences. That could basically be the explanation of Christine.

Going back to the idea of feeling tilted and out of place—do you still feel that way now?

I guess it’s about embracing the fact that you can’t really find your balance. The song is not a solution, it’s more about trying to make the most of it. For me, it’s embracing my awkwardness now. I used to hate feeling awkward or imperfect. Now I’m just starting to like myself like that. I can’t really do something else. It’s about being proud of who you are and where you stand.

So being “tilted” becomes an identity of its own.

Yeah. There’s this interesting way of feeling like an outcast, because you have lots more questions running through your head. Questioning myself and not being sure of who I am made me look at other people with less boxes in mind. It’s about a softer way of living, when you’re not sure [of who you are]. It’s not a bad thing. I love people that are question marks. I love people that don’t have answers and are just trying to cope with it. I love people that just don’t tick boxes. There is a grace in them I can’t really find elsewhere. I’m not trying to tell them it’s okay to not feel good, but I just feel like there is something you can find there as well.

How did you write the actual instrumental for the song?

It’s always the same process: I’m alone with my laptop, I’m working with my software. I’m always starting with the beat and the bass line. I don’t know why, it feels like a spine, like vertebrae. It cannot take shape until there is a skeleton first. Also, because I’m obsessed with dancing, even if I’m writing a slow song, I’m always taking care of the beat because I want people to be able to dance on every song. For “Tilted,” I first had this marching beat and bass line, and I built everything from it. I had this melody that’s one of my easiest and most efficient melodies. I was like, “Let’s make it a little weird now!” With the lyrics, I got to twist the song, which is why I like it as well.

What other music did you like this year?

Like everybody else I love the Tame Impala album. I’ve discovered an artist I really like, she’s called Empress Of. It’s a really powerful album, quite raw and poetic at the same time. I was waiting for the Grimes album as well, and I’m enjoying it. I really love Grimes. I think she’s the most badass woman in the game right now. She’s free in a really ecstatic way. I’m really looking up to her. Every time I think about a girl to motivate me, I think about Grimes. She’s one of my heroes.

Grimes has talked about how she writes and records everything herself because if she worked with a male producer, he’d get the credit. You mentioned fiddling around with software and recording yourself—do you relate to her struggle of getting people to understand your authorship?

Yes, it’s still an interesting question, and a tough one. She’s really brave to do all the production by herself and be so independent. For me, I co-produced this album. I wish I could be like Grimes, but I have this thing where I can’t really master all the techniques myself. At some point, I’m quite bored!

The real fight is for the girls to not have to explain what they did or did not do. When you’re a girl, you really feel like you have to prove yourself even more. I understand this anger and hunger she has to do everything by herself. My songs exist already with the beats and the bass lines, [but] because I’m going into the studio with a sound guy, everything changes for people—they assume the guy did the production, which is not the case. The real fight will be when girls will be able to do what Kanye West does. Kanye West is never questioned as an artist and is working with, like, 10 producers at the same time.

For example, I’m thinking about my second album and would love to collaborate with people and have musicians be involved to [give it] a live feeling. And I already know people are going to say, “Oh, these guys found the bass line!” I will have to justify everything. The fight is still going on. We still have to be bosses and still have to educate people. Grimes is the extreme version of doing everything yourself. I think this is impressive, because she is fiddling with things I couldn’t fiddle with, all the technical stuff. I know what I want to do, but I wouldn’t do it all my own, I would go crazy. This is insanely hard, to do an album by yourself. But I admire her for that. She’s slaying it.

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Write to Nolan Feeney at nolan.feeney@time.com