Héloïse Letissier has won numerous awards and scored a number two album in her native France and is hardly an under-the-radar artist. But here in the UK she’s more of an unknown entity. Her new self-titled EP under the title Christine and the Queens promises an introduction to Letissier’s musical world, but also so much more. You see, Letissier has been exploring the world of fluid sexuality for at last five years. Inspired by drag queens in London – including The Fabulous Russella, who often accompanied her at early concerts – she took the step of calling her backing band the Queens. Last year she described herself as pansexual and has often dedicated her “freakpop” creations to transvesitites and transsexuals.
So on this EP, Letissier’s isn’t even the first you hear. That honour is given to Mike Hadreas, better known as Perfume Genius, well known for writing about sexuality and the dangers faced by gay men in today’s society. Across the opening bars of ‘Jonathan’ his yearning voice drifts across the mournful strings and tinny percussion in a deeply emotional opening minute. Letissier’s vocals eventually appear at about the minute mark and – shock horror – she’s singing in French. Well known for her hatred of bandwagon fans, this is definitely a bold and confident move from Letissier. Not only does she not put herself front and centre on the EP’s first song but she doesn’t betray her roots by singing in English either. The effect is as powerful as the song itself.
Making ‘Jonathan’ the lead track on the EP is defiant and bold, particularly when it’s followed by ‘No Harm Is Done.’ Though it begins with minor key piano and a bassline that sounds lifted almost directly from Arctic Monkeys’ ‘Do I Wanna Know,’ it soon morphs into an R’n’B-tinged minimal electropop tune. The piano and bass returns during an incredibly sparse chorus but here Letissier is accompanied more by beats and two swirling synths that are evocative of Metronomy. And yes, Letissier does sing in English here. She slurs her consonants into an almost indistinguishable jumble, but it’s all done with such smoothness and charm that it’s easy to forgive. She’s briefly joined by Philadelphia-based rapper Tunji Ige, who puts in a fairly decent guest verse but is altogether overshadowed by Letissier.
She’s mostly back in her native language on ‘Paradis Perdus,’ a cut originally from her album Chaleur Humaine. ‘Paradis’ bears the most resemblance to a traditional French chanson, if it was put through an American R’n’B blender – Rihanna if she sang French café songs, perhaps. The sing-song quality and odd inflections in Letissier’s voice are the main attractions on what’s otherwise the weakest song in this collection. ‘The Loving Cup’ sees Christine in full pop mode, accompanied by funk guitars and harsher beats than anything else on the EP. She sounds at her most confident here, particularly when she goes full Michael Jackson for a brief second before the beat breaks down two-thirds through.
If there’s anything this collection proves, it’s that, despite a couple of mis-steps, Letissier could easily be a crossover alt. pop star outside of France if she wanted to be. Her apparent desire to write for others, including fellow French singer Christophe, might put paid to that plan in the long term but as an introduction to her range, her confidence and her maturity as an artist, there probably isn’t a better collection out there.
Christine and the Queens EP is out now.