For French-born pop maven Christine and the Queens (née Heloise Letissier), a Best New Artist nod at the Grammy Awards would be “surreal,” as she says, to say the least. “When you’re a music nerd, the Grammys are kind of a mythical thing, especially when you’re not American,” she tells Variety. “You see engineers with a Grammy on the shelf and you’re like, ‘What?! Is it real? Can I touch it?’ It’s like this fetish.”
If nominated — she’s got a cosign from Variety — Letissier would be the second-ever French artist named in the category, following the long-running vocal group the Swingle Sisters’ nod (and win) in 1963. While her sophomore full-length, “Chris,” was released late in September, within the 2019 Grammys’ window of eligibility, the Parisienne is not quite a new artist, but that’s often the case with the category: 2018 nominees Alessia Cara and SZA both had established careers — and hits — prior to their nomination, and there are many previous similar examples. Letissier’s 2014 eponymous debut LP (titled “Chaleur Humain” in France) sold 1.3 million units worldwide and earned the 30-year-old a global fanbase, including praise from the likes of Elton John, Madonna, Lorde and Katy Perry, as well as synchs on HBO’s “Girls” and FX’s “Better Things,” and sets at Coachella and Glastonbury.
A nomination alone would be enough for the young singer (who is a solo artist, despite the group name). Letissier isn’t concerned with reaching a certain echelon of fame, but rather with building a cohesive discography, with distinct eras. “I don’t know if it’s going to make me a huge artist, but I do like the idea of being a consistent one,” she says. “When you think of David Bowie you have images, songs, and they are like monuments.”
In that spirit, Letissier opted to write, produce, and arrange “Chris,” which is available in both English and French, in its entirety. “It’s such a solitary and intimate process, I wanted to be the captain of the ship, and my record label actually trusted me to do it,” she says. She intentionally shaped the album’s aesthetic as a nod to ‘90s pop and R&B. “Productions by Cameo or Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, [like] Janet Jackson’s ‘Rhythm Nation.’ There is a minimalism but everything is striking really hard,” she says. “There’s still something human behind it: it’s analog and warm and sweaty, but you’re discovering the power of machinery for the first time as well. I wanted the record to feel like flesh and blood and pure excitement.”
Preceded by early singles like the slinking summer bop “Girlfriend” (feat. Dâm-Funk) and the existential anthem “Doesn’t Matter,” “Chris” has already earned praise from RuPaul, which left her feeling “anointed,” and Paul McCartney, who named her as one of three contemporary artists — alongside Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West — that he looks up to during a Facebook Live Q&A last summer. Letissier thinks it’s better not to process the latter co-sign for now. “I’m keeping it close, in case I need it if I’m really sad,” she says. “There’s lots of work to be done still, but it warms my heart.”
The new album as a whole is more or less about acceptance. “’Chaleur Humain’ was me reading books and dreaming about living, and ‘Chris’ is living to write about it. It’s wilder,” she explains. Her own journey to self-acceptance as an LGBTQ icon has been a major force in her artistic process. Identifying herself as pansexual, Letissier sees the tag as a way to opt out of boxes altogether with regard to sexuality and gender.
“This album talks about desire as a form of chaos, a constant surprise and a welcomed one,” she says. “You don’t know why you are attracted by someone, you have to learn why, and then you learn about yourself. I don’t care if I’m giving satisfying answers to people, I care more about exploring further what it means to me. Being queer is about resisting structures, I don’t believe that it’s just a trend.”
As the streaming era continues to unfold, industry’s top artists are taking more and more sonic risks, something that’s a welcome surprise to Letissier. “I love how diverse the landscape is getting, especially when you think about female performers,” she says. “They’re loud and proud in a way that feels really empowering, and there is defiance.” She’s even a fan of Taylor Swift’s polarizing “Reputation” LP. “I actually loved the fact that she didn’t care anymore about being lovable. It was really interesting from the feminist perspective. She didn’t want to work on something soft and unthreatening.”
For her current headlining tour, Letissier is leaning into operatic and contemporary dance influences in the stage production and choreography. “There’s something humbling in touring. You have to reaffirm something every night,” she says of the “monastic” live experience. “How can I be poignant but quite bare also? It’s a job to be able to work a big stage. You have to start small and repeat and repeat. The show is a muscle, you have to own it all.”