Christine and the Queens unfurled one of the most captivating sets at Boston Calling’s May farewell to City Hall Plaza, largely thanks to the French electro-pop act’s playful, near-constant choreography. Yet the most poignant move came when frontwoman Christine—born Héloïse Letissier—paused to reflect on pieces of a bouquet, comparing Beyoncé and Rihanna to stately flowers before proudly equating herself to a crooked stem in a symbol of freedom and unity.
“I loved to pay an homage to those amazing, flawless pop stars we have, but I do feel like we need many different presences,” Letissier recalls from her Paris home before Christine and the Queens return to enliven the Paradise Rock Club on Oct. 12. “I kind of see myself as this presence that brings something a bit more flawed. But then again, I always related to freaks or people who could be out of the norm.”
Letissier, 28, truly felt like an outcast at 22 when she wandered into a London gay bar called Madame Jojo’s. “I was stretching for something to happen to me because I was quite lost in every way,” says Letissier, who was frustrated in her theatrical and literary pursuits and reeling from a fractured love affair. She became a regular, befriending the drag queens who performed there. “They gave me important notions, for example that my gender was a construction,” says Letissier, who identifies as queer or pansexual. “You realize that everything is a game really, and you get to play by the rules, or don’t… You can subvert them.”
So she adopted the alter ego Christine and the Queens in a nod to her saviors. “I gave myself a new name to be fully myself,” Letissier says. “When I’m Christine onstage, I’m just more daring. I’m kind of unfiltered and really free.” The queens suggested that she try singing, and the onetime piano student began writing songs, composing with the computer program GarageBand.
The reborn artist quickly blossomed in France, leading to her 2014 album, Chaleur Humaine, released last October in the U.S. under the title Christine and the Queens. “I translated the French album for it to be more in English,” Letissier says of the bilingual release. “But before that, even [for] the French album, I drafted some songs in English before I actually wrote them in French, because I do like to play with sounds and words.”
Those sounds prove both organic and ethereal, as Letissier’s airy voice flows in uncanny synch with programmed rhythms and synths on a minimalist palette, aided on record by producer Ash Workman and multi-instrumentalist brothers Michael Lovett and Gabriel Stebbing. And her words play on issues of identity in songs like “iT” and the “Tilted,” a term that “metaphorically and literally could mean out of balance,” Letissier explains. “I’m a man now, and there’s nothing you can do to make me change my mind,” she sings in “iT,” in which she adopts necessary male accoutrements while facing the view that “She’ll lose because it’s a fake.”
“I liked this idea of Christine trying to be a character that breaks barriers, but I’m still in this given society,” she says. “I say to people, ‘Think of me as a male rock star,’ because then you can stop thinking about annoying things that we put on female celebrities. We always end up commenting on how they are dressed and who they want to fuck and why it’s acceptable and why it’s not. And those are questions we never ask of male performers.”
For inspirations, Letissier draws on favorites as broad as Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West (she sings an adaptation of his “Heartless”), performance-art siren Laurie Anderson and, particularly, Michael Jackson, whose influence fuels her vocals and dancing. “He was truly incandescent and alive and burning when he was performing,” she says.
As for how she dresses onstage, the singer tends to blend with the T-shirts and gray slacks of her male musicians and fellow dancers. Likewise, their movement seems casual and egalitarian. “I didn’t want to have these really rehearsed, rigid routines that pop stars sometimes have,” Letissier says. “It’s more like vibing all together.”
Christine and the Queens play the Paradise Rock Club on Oct. 12.