The King of Pop! Christine and the Queens is reborn
It begins beneath the angels.
The Church of Saint-John-Baptiste de Belleville, in Paris’ chic 19th arrondissement, boasts a vast stone front door, at the summit of which kneel two winged seraphim, their faces blank and impassive. It’s here that I’ve been told to meet Chris — aka Christine and the Queens, aka Redcar, aka the boundary-smashing French pop star.
Angels are on Chris’s mind right now. He is already sitting in the café across from the church, shoulder-length hair slicked back, crisp white shirt beneath a pinstriped Kooples blazer. His latest album — the one we’re here to discuss — is entitled Paranoïa, Angels, True Love. Loosely based on Tony Kushner’s 1991 play Angels in America — in which heavenly spirits visit gay men sick with Aids — the record strips away the Jackson 5-esque boogie that has powered Chris’s most commercially successful work (notably the 2018 hit ‘Girlfriend’), replacing it with something deeper, stranger, more interesting. Musically, you hear echoes of Kate Bush, Prince and Portishead. Thematically, though, it’s a blend of visionary poetry, religious ecstasy and tales of communing with angels — as if someone handed William Blake a synth. Put simply: it’s a mad, brilliant and beautiful album.
‘I was thinking a lot about Tommy by The Who when I made it,’ Chris tells me as our coffees and croissants arrive. ‘The concept album, the all-encompassing gesture, the prog rock operatic form. So, it became a rock opera about angels!’ He grins, tinkling his spoon in the espresso cup. ‘Music has always been this unexplainable practice that connected me subconsciously to spirituality.’
So, these lyrics full of Christian symbolism and weeping angels: they’re for real? Would Chris now describe himself as ‘religious?’ ‘Not “religious” — spiritual,’ he notes. ‘But yes: I took the leap of faith. I have faith now.’ He gestures at the church across from us. ‘I go in there sometimes. Just to see Mary and Jesus, not the priests. I don’t go by the books: I have my own relationship with my spiritual path. To pray is really a vast experience. I want to be a great artist so I want to work with this raw force of light and love.’ He dips his head closer to my Dictaphone, adopting a booming, mock-dramatic tone: ‘I’m in this for the deep quest!’
It was this mixture of clear-eyed vision and goofy humour that drew in Paranoïa, Angels, True Love’s most prominent featured guest (and another artist unafraid to blend religious imagery and pop music): Madonna. ‘One of my dancers had worked with her, so there was a connection there,’ Chris explains. ‘As I was writing, I came up with this ambivalent character called the Big Eye. I thought: “What if we gave Madonna the actress role she deserves? She hasn’t been an actress for a while...”’ Chris promptly got on FaceTime with the iconic singer to ask if she would be at all interested in portraying an all-seeing, disembodied spirit on an angelic rock opera. ‘She was like, “Well, that’s insane... I’ll do it!”’
Arguably more insane is the fact that Madonna’s contribution to the album comes purely in spoken-word form. Chris has essentially bagged three features from one of the most famous singers of all time… and had her not sing a single note. ‘I know!’ he gives a movie villain-esque cackle. ‘My record label wanted to kill me! But this was precisely the point — I think [Madonna] was enticed by this aspect.’ As a self-confessed mega-fan, what was it like working with one of his idols? ‘You can’t shake the glorious feeling of what she’s done,’ he says, smiling. ‘But she’s a complex character — supremely clever, very dandy: like a British lord.’ He laughs: ‘I was actually at her house, and she has this portrait of a dashing young lord that looks just like her. I thought she’d had it [commissioned], which would be quite a flex. Very “Dorian Grey”. But she was like, “No, I just found it. Anyway, tell me more about these angels…”’
Yes, back to the angels. Even for such a chameleon-like artist as Chris — whose appearance, musical style and even name seems to change with each new release — this latest incarnation as a divine prophet is perhaps the most striking shift yet. What prompted the ‘leap of faith’ in the first place?
He pauses to sip his coffee. ‘It really happened when I lost my mother. The grief, and my love for her… it exceeded limits of time and space and what is real and not real. I feel she is still present,’ he says now. ‘I don’t believe death is the end. Faith is a cradle for me to rest my body and mind. I was a very closeted person before.’
Chris was born in 1988, in the western French city of Nantes. From the get-go, a career in performance of some kind seemed inevitable: he took up piano at four, classical dance at five and went on to study drama at college. In 2010, though, a bad break-up sent him spiralling. ‘I was so dysphoric and unhappy,’ he recalls. ‘I was searching for people like me who felt they didn’t belong either.’ It was in London that he found them. Travelling to the Big Smoke for a month, he immersed himself in the drag scene at Soho night-club Madame Jojo’s, discovering ‘freedom, subversion, compassion. These places [drag clubs] are churches, too, in a way. I found kind people in a queer venue who took the time to listen to my sorry ass.’
Madonna? She’s a complex character. Supremely clever, very dandy. Like a British Lord
He was so taken with the experience, he proposed forming a band with a few of the drag queens (‘they declined as, at the time, I hadn’t written any songs,’ he chuckles). But he liked the idea of paying tribute to their influence anyway. ‘I kept the name as a starting point,’ he says. ‘“Christine and the Queens.”’ It was a manifestation technique. Many names, many truths, many possibilities.
‘Many names’ is right. After releasing his debut album as Christine and the Queens in 2014, the singer shortened his moniker to ‘Chris’ for his eponymous follow-up in 2018, adopting a more ‘masculine’ image to go with it. For last year’s Redcar les Adorables Étoiles, Chris morphed into ‘Redcar’ (named for the abundance of red cars he was spotting in the wake of his mother’s death), a Patrick Bateman-like figure, all gelled hair and sharp suits. So, for this new record, what’s he going by? Chris? Redcar? A new name altogether? ‘I don’t even know what’s going on with that,’ he laughs. ‘Questing for a name is very hard, particularly in this time when capitalism makes people lose their humour about it, [calling it] “re-branding”.’ He groans at the very sound of the phrase. ‘What are you talking about?! I’m a Gemini — just let me flow! Can’t I use several names, without you calling it a “rebrand”? Every name unlocks a truth!’
A major truth in Chris’ life was finally unlocked last year — just prior to him re-emerging as Redcar — when he officially adopted ‘he/him’ pronouns. ‘My work was talking about it a lot, I was already starting to shapeshift. But when she left this physical plain, I was relieved of my performance as a daughter — a performance I was happy to do, because I loved her.’
Gender fluidity has been around in pop music forever, of course, from Little Richard to Bowie to Boy George. But I wonder if Chris feels any progress is being made? He sighs: ‘I’ve been thinking about it this week, actually: the illusion of progress. It’s like an endless loop. Since I started in this industry, and was blunt about how I felt was always singled out and distilled into a kind of…’ Gimmick? ‘Yes! Or a fetishisation. It’s sold as an individual story, without opening up the wider conversations we need to have about dismantling patriarchy, and subverting a structure that is oppressive.
Instead, we only get the observation of the transformation, which I always found very invasive. When I [came out], people said: “Oh, so you’re going to take testosterone now?” It’s like, “This is just me, ending my dysphoria for myself. It has nothing to do with you. You don’t get to validate my ‘river crossing’. Maybe there is no f***ing river.” I should be nodding and grateful now just because I’m gendered correctly, when for me, it’s just the beginning of a vast array of questions.’
‘Since I authorised myself, I have been feeling true joy. Tears of joy. But it’s not an easy journey. The trans friends I have, a lot of the time we’ve bonded through trauma. I’m fighting my own transphobia every day, because it’s so ingrained. Society is f***ed up: transness is commodified and objectified.’ It’s a sentiment that was already there, fully formed, on ‘iT’ — the very first song on Chris’s very first album: ‘I’m a man now/And I won’t let you steal it/I bought it for myself.’
Talking about gender stops people from paying attention to what I’m really doing as a musician
Our time together is drawing to a close. As we pick apart our croissants, we touch on everything from artists he’d still love to work with (‘Weyes Blood is amazing, Koffee is amazing… I love Burna Boy!’), to the accusations of ‘queer-baiting’ Harry Styles received after stepping out in a dress (‘That’s what I mean about the endless loop! It’s no different from Bowie wearing a dress. Why are [people] still talking about it? We don’t even deconstruct why the dress is specified as feminine!’)
Our coffees finished, Chris shrugs an ankle-length grey coat over his blazer. Today is a busy day: he’s hitting the gym and then heading straight off to prep the staging of a new tour. But outside this ‘monk-like existence of work and exercise’ there is also time for a personal life: ‘I’ve been in an on-and-off passionate relationship where there are five endings a year.’ That sounds… tiring? He laughs: ‘It’s exhausting! But sometimes I make the choice to persist in something I don’t understand just because it’s intense. I like it when I don’t really understand something.’
A little like the ‘leap of faith’, perhaps? The leap after all, is the choice to believe in something seemingly irrational. Chris nods: ‘Yes. I decided to believe in Heaven just to see what happens. And by the way I’m still waiting for the angels to appear visually. I haven’t seen them yet. But I feel this album is proof that they are there. In the space of doubt, why not choose the magic?’ And then he’s off — across the courtyard, past the church, the angels watching him as he goes.
Paranoïa, Angels, True Love is out 9 Jun. Christine and the Queens will curate the Meltdown at the Southbank Centre, 9-18 Jun
Photography: Jesse Glazzard
Stylist: Jessica Skeete-Cross
Tailor: Claire O’Connor
Photographer’s Assistants: Antonio Perrone and Hannah Burton
Stylist’s Assistant: Benjamin Carnall
Photographed at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club