Finding echoes of themselves in each other’s life and music, two modern-day queer icons with charm, humour and anxieties to spare speak to Laura Snapes.
Last October, Christine and the Queens released ‘Jonathan’, a duet with Perfume Genius added to the self-titled US/UK repackage of her 2014 French debut, Chaleur Humaine. In English and French, the pair (better known as Paris’ Héloïse Letissier and Seattle’s Mike Hadreas) sang a devastating lament about a lover whose fear prevents them from acknowledging their relationship in public, over a beat that popped and hissed beneath glacial strings and atmospherics.
It was a dream meeting: each of these trailblazing artists sets interrogations of shame and identity to some of the more forward-thinking synthpop around. Letissier weds the intricacy of Björk’s Homogenic to poses influenced by Klaus Nomi, Laurie Anderson and Michael Jackson, while Hadreas subverts balladry into womping dystopian cabaret.
Ahead of their back-to-back sets at Latitude tomorrow (July 15), FACT dialled Christine (aka Héloïse Letissier) and Perfume Genius (Mike Hadreas) to discuss their mutual appreciation club, Orlando and the beauty of gay clubs, their fascination with internet hate and their respective forthcoming records.
“I’m obsessed with the concept of shame, of being ashamed” Héloïse Letissier
Héloïse, when you were writing ‘Jonathan’ did you always have Mike in mind?
HL: Hmm, no. It was one of the many songs I wrote for my album and for some reason it felt like a duet since the very beginning. When I was writing the song I didn’t know Mike’s work yet. And then I chose other songs for my album and I forgot this one, and then I discovered Mike and became a huge fan, and so when I was asked to do another version of my album for the US and the UK, people were like, “Oh you should maybe try to collaborate with someone.” And I immediately said Perfume Genius. So I searched for a song that could work. I sent him this one because I thought he would be great on it, but I was open to anything. And Mike was kind enough to accept the song as it was.
What made Mike the right collaborator?
HL: He’s one of the few artists who I can relate to all the work he’s doing, and I really admire him as a character and performer and as a writer. Many of my songs are kind of obsessed with the same ideas, but this one is really about self-acceptance. I think Mike’s delivery is really emotional and intense but it’s not over the top – it’s really this perfect balance – and I thought it was just what it needed. Now I really think that I sound like a ghost on the record, because he has such a strong delivery. If you sing after Mike then you sound like an echo. But that’s good. The best kind of echo.
MH: I don’t know about that! I’ll take it though. That’s very kind.
Individually you both sing so boldly about presenting your gender and sexual identity in an honest and sometimes provocative way, so it’s interesting that you come together on this song about how that hard won confidence can be undermined by somebody who feels ashamed of it. How do you both relate to the song? Can you empathise with the position of the other person who’s in it?
MH: That’s pretty much what I do. So I won’t be too far from those feelings, no matter how much practice I have.
HL: For me, the whole point of my stage character and what I do is basically trying to cope with the fact that it can be hard to try to be free from many judgements and many perceptions of yourself. The song comes from a really personal place – I was dating someone who would not want to say that I was their girlfriend. So it can be really violent, especially if you’re not even sure yourself if you’re proud enough – you have to be really strong to actually survive that kind of shame. I’m always obsessed with the concept of shame, of being ashamed, and I think it’s because I’m queer and I come from a family that’s not really rich as well, so I’m always interested in how you can be ashamed of where you come from and who you are. And I always am really attentive to people who feel the same, I notice people who are ashamed of themselves, the way they carry themselves, it’s kind of an obsessive theme of mine. And how to overcome it. [Jokily] Are you still ashamed? How often a day? Me it’s like, it can be five times a day.
MH: I think more than I’d like to be, you know. I certainly write about overcoming things, but I don’t know how much I match up to my subject matter. I think what is strange to me is that performing seems to influence my daily life now.
MH: I’m singing songs that are difficult for me to sing. I was scared to dance, I was scared to scream, and I’m doing all those things and they’re becoming more second nature on stage. I think it’s upped my confidence in real life a little bit. But at the same time there’s a juxtaposition, big time, about who I am on stage and the things I write about, and the sort of compassion I have when I write, as opposed to what I have for myself when I’m on my own. They seem to be influencing the other, helping the other a little bit more as I go on.
HL: I was about to say that this is something I can relate to with Mike – the moment when you perform, something happens. You’re not changing because you are the same, and I don’t want to sound cheesy, but it’s like blossoming. Even when Mike arrived in Paris in the studio – really delicate, really fragile, I must say, in the best way – and then you go to the vocal booth and you start to sing and something else happens. I wish I could hold my character out of the stage, I wish I could be always fabulous. But for some reason it’s working on me only on stage. And this dichotomy, it’s quite moving. It resonates with me, this weird process.
MH: The more I think about it the more I’m not sure if they really do influence each other. It’s more that when I am scared I remember what I can do, you know, on stage and when I’m writing. That’s comforting to me. I feel very purposeful.
HL: Yeah, whenever there is sorrow or anything I’m like oh, maybe I can turn it into something—
HL: I didn’t used to have that.
“I’m singing songs that are difficult for me to sing. I was scared to dance, I was scared to scream” Mike Hadreas
Héloïse, you’ve said before that if you ever fully became Christine, you would no longer have any need for the character. Mike, as you feel like you’re getting closer to what you’re putting across, how does that filter back into your art?
MH: I’m having a hard time with it now. I’ve been writing for my next album, and melody and music is coming really easy but the words are not. And it’s usually been the opposite, which is very weird for me. They sound good! But instead of being inspired by experiences or whatever, I’m very deliberately thinking about what I want to say. It felt more brave for me now to write about things that are much lighter and more hopeful and… not happy, I don’t know if I could ever really do that [laughs]. But at least happier. Or approaching happiness, trying for it more. And I think part of that is because I know that that will season the rest of my life if I push towards that, musically and creatively. I think it’ll be good for me. And I know that other people will need it.
HL: So you’re writing new songs now in Seattle, right? I want to ask stupid questions because I don’t have many friends who actually are singers and writers. [laughs] Do you have a usual day for writing, or like is it something that comes really when you feel like I?
MH: I go in and I just try, every day. But I usually have a month or two that nothing’s happening, or the things that I’m making seem really forced and not good. I end up thinking I’m horrible, and that this whole thing was a fluke, and I panic and freak out and… And it gets a little better, but then I end up thinking too much about, is this good? I think about the pressure of releasing something, and that other people are going to hear it. Eventually I will make one thing that’s completely weird, but inspired, that I know is good, and everything will open up. And then I sort of manically write every day from then. So I’ve got that part over – I heard a direction that made sense and that I knew was at least interesting. But the no-words thing is very strange. They usually guided everything.
HL: Is it tough, how does that make you feel?
MH: I’m trying to think of it as, I like every element to try to do something that’s hard for me to do. Either melodies that are hard for me to sing or – something to push myself, and I’m thinking that this is it right now. This very deliberate, kind of very adult feeling – it feels like work. Which is something I’ve never really done [both laugh]. I’m not a worker. This is the teaching moment for myself, being very deliberate. So I’m hoping that it’s still good. It makes it seem like it’s not inspired because I’m trying so hard. But we’ll see, I don’t know.
Music that has hope and some happiness isn’t necessarily what people have known Perfume Genius for. Do you have any trepidation in bringing out something that’s potentially very different?
MH: Yeah. I mean, underneath everything I’m very rebellious, and I don’t wanna be rebellious against the people that loved me in a certain way [laughs]. But I’m a big music fan and I’ve been an obsessive fan of people before and seen their music change, and wished they would go back to singing really depressing songs with two chords, which has become my speciality. But I’m always thinking about who’s going to listen to it, I never would release something that is not for the people that it’s for.
“I became obsessed with Eminem and the concept of having a Slim Shady” Héloïse Letissier
You’ve both gone from confrontation to provocation – Héloïse your old routines were inspired by Andy Kaufman and had these long awkward silences, and Mike I feel like there’s something more confrontational about singing a song like ‘Mr Peterson’ alone at a piano compared to performing ‘Queen’ in a harness and heels. Do you think there’s a difference between confrontation and provocation?
MH: Yeah – there are some songs that have offended people and it was intentional, and there are some songs that have offended people and I really just had no idea before I put them out.
HL: It’s true that at first I was a bit more dark, the character was a bit darker. But for the second album I became weirdly obsessed with Eminem and the concept of having a Slim Shady: I can get really mad and lose every hope and be really rude. But for some reason I can’t have a Slim Shady because for me the music is always hopeful – I end up doing really bright choruses that open up and call for love and acceptance. I was like, damn it! I was really trying to have a really dark vibe, and I think the only dark thing I can do is actually perform in a dark way. Maybe it would just be my face that could be a bit tough and the rest could be really luminous, I don’t know.
You’ve spoken about being a Trojan horse for progressive ideas, but wanting to go further while also staying efficient and mainstream. And Mike I feel like that’s something you did on Too Bright. How do you balance those things?
MH: I think some of that’s just taste. I can just tell, if I’m forcing it. It still has to be me and it has to be real, or else it comes off preachy or corny, you know…
But ‘Queen’ being on Letterman, that felt like a massive moment.
MH: Well, I suppose. But I think it would be much more massive if it wasn’t gay, so… [laughs] It’s complicated. And that’s one of the hard parts about starting to write, for me, is that there’s always this knowledge in my head that if I was less gay, if it was less specific, it could potentially be more successful. I mean, I totally fucked myself on that. It’s not like I can go back. [laughs] And I would never ever want to.
But it’s hard not to think about those things when this is how I make money, this is how I am sustaining my life: you want it to be successful, and you want to play to as many people as possible. But at the same time I’m talking about writing all these hopeful songs and everything, and I wrote this really upbeat pop song, but it’s about gay sex, so… [laughs] What are you gonna do? This is what I do. And in the end no matter how much I think about all these real things, I end up making what I think is gonna be the most helpful. Which is very bizarre to me, because I’m so selfish otherwise.
HL: That’s really interesting because I do believe in how you can get away with things by just having something really catchy. Imagine everyone singing the song about gay sex just because it’s catchy, could be cool.
MH: I love that. And you do a lot of the same, maybe I’m channeling a little more of you in this album. I think that that’s something that your songs do very well. A message that takes you a second to realise the reality of it. That’s awesome.
HL: I’m kind of obsessed with that, with tricking people into singing something that can be really creepy, with finding catchy tunes and then I’m like, how can I twist that? This is actually one of my best mind tricks. I think pop as a vessel is really interesting for that precisely. I kind of love how sometimes people get the back story and they’re slightly, you know, not horrified, but they’re like, “Oh, so this is actually a song about this. Oh.” And you’re like, “Yeah, it’s too late, you sang it. You have it in your head now.” [laughs]
“There’s always this knowledge in my head that if I was less gay, if the music was less specific, it could be more successful” Mike Hadreas
Héloïse you’ve always said you were surprised at how much France took to you considering the content of some of your songs. Are you nervous to push that further, or is the fun keeping it where people don’t realise until later?
HL: It’s actually quite exciting to be where I’m at right now. It actually pushes me to be more daring, because I think there are still lots of things to do as a female performer. I feel that my character is really soft as well. I think it has a lot to do with a childhood vibe of trying to express yourself and be free onstage, so I’m not really threatening. But at the same time it’s because I’m kind of obsessed with the mainstream that I never will be maybe as aggressive as other performers. I always want to use the soft side I have to keep on pointing fingers at some things that could be a bit more tough.
And I think in France we have lots and lots of work to do regarding how women are perceived, and the fact that I was some character that could be really disruptive in France is already a sign for me that something’s wrong, because I was not really extreme. So actually I want to be a lot more sexual in my second album because I think that some people still have a hard time to accept that a woman can be really sexual and empowered without her being immediately called a slut. So I think I want to go into that direction and see where I can go.
MH: Hell yeah. I’m not sure that you can really measure that though, I think it’s kind of bullshit that what people see as strong, usually you have to beat them over the head with it. And then they’re like, “Oh, we got a badass here.” So that’s what strength is. And it’s not true, it’s just what’s easy for them to find powerful, you know?
On both your most recent records there are some really obvious displays of power, like ‘Queen’ and ‘iT’, but also there’s a lot of vulnerability. I get the impression that both of you two think that vulnerability is its own form of power.
HL: Oh yeah. That’s definitely something I love about Mike, for sure. A song like ‘Queen’ for me is really queer in the best way, because again it’s about taking insults or suffering, or this idea of being threatening or sick, and turning it into something that you can proudly present to the world. I found it first in the books I was reading when I was a bit younger. I read Jean Genet, and I was like, oh my god this is a revelation, because it’s about this very ideal: using poetry to turn everything that weighs you down into something glorious. This idea of celebrating the misfits, the outcasts, and people rejected by society, and actually turning them into legends. And I think for me Mike is doing that with his work, this is why I think it’s really powerful.
How easy is it to maintain that philosophy as a way of dealing with hurtful things that people might say? Is it your natural reaction?
HL: It became a natural reaction quite early for me. I understood quite young that I had to cope with it with humour, and that would be lighter for me. I had this survival technique of making fun of myself first so people can have nothing to hate on because I already hated on myself. So yeah, it kind of became a defence mechanism. I’m going to sound really creepy, but I’m always searching for my own name on Twitter. Not only my mentions but I’m searching for “Christine and the Queens”. And then I read absolutely everything [laughs]. I always am interested in what haters have to say about me. I always think what they hate about me is what I should keep on doing. So if they think I’m ugly then I should keep on being ugly, or if they think I’m too loud then I’m going to be even louder.
MH: I think that’s good. Less and less, I’ve searched everything. It was like a sickness in the beginning for me. I don’t think I dealt with it that great. But essentially everything that I was terrorised about growing up, and made fun of for, that’s what I’ve made a career out of [laughs]. That’s a helpful idea. And I’ve noticed that meeting other musicians, everybody’s just a nerd. And that’s a very sweet thing to me. I get mad when people say things that are really superficial. I’ve read some really good reviews that were very negative about my music – really thoughtful, well-written ones. But if it’s about my physical appearance, I don’t know, maybe that’s the part of me that’s not ready to – that’s not grown enough yet.
HL: When you grow up being a girl you’re always commented on for what you look like, so sadly I’m used to it. I knew that as a female singer people would just discuss whether they’d fuck me or not, so I was desperate as well for people to talk about my music. I was always thinking about escaping that tradition. The violence on the internet is fascinating – I shouldn’t be fascinated, I should be horrified, but I’m just fascinated by how absurd it is. By the way you have the best Twitter. I’m saying it constantly. I wish there were some kind of Twitter awards, and you would win every year. [laughs] This is hard, to keep on being funny.
MH: Well you were talking about how you survived growing up, that’s also how I did, too – but it was also in tandem with my actual real shitty feelings running parallel underneath. That’s kind of what the music comes from. I think as I go on maybe both of my coping mechanisms will start to blur together more in my music, I don’t know. But I worried about that, because my Twitter is very silly. And I thought, are people gonna be able to take really bleak depressing music from someone that’s goofy and silly on Twitter?
HL: Actually I think, yes, this is complementary for me. Really funny people are always quite sad people as well I think. Humour is for me a social way of being elegant with your sadness.
MH: That’s definitely been true, and the funniest people I’ve ever met have also been the most fucked up, usually. So if I can get close to that then I’m okay.
“I had this survival technique of making fun of myself first so people can have nothing to hate on” Héloïse Letissier
You both often sing about the grotesqueness of your own bodies. We’ve talked about how your songs have impacted your lives in other ways, but has singing about it and really confronting those ideas changed how you feel about your own physicality?
MH: It’s made it worse, for me.
HL: It’s worse?! Oh dear.
MH: I think a lot of it is just straight-up getting my picture taken and seeing videos of me performing. All my physical stuff is such an easy place to put all my insecurity and anxiety. Unfortunately I think I’ve decided to channel a lot into that. It’s really embarrassing for me, I’ve never thought of myself as being so vain. I never saw what other people saw when they didn’t like how they looked. I don’t understand why I can’t give myself the same kind of kindness.
HL: It’s interesting. I mean I’m kind of obsessed with trying to control that, because I kind of discovered with touring and dancing a lot more that my body actually was starting to respond to all this physicality by becoming more muscular, even more androgynous. I was losing weight and my breasts were actually disappearing. And I think sometimes I’m freaked out by how happy I am to try to control how I look. I could be tempted to try to choose my face, because I just think it’s so unfair to have a face that you can’t really switch. I’m kind of obsessed with choosing everything.
But at the same time I have this contradiction because I want to look better, improve and change everything, and at the same time I don’t, because I want people to accept me as I am, even if I’m not really that pretty, because I think as a woman it’s like an act of defiance to grow old and stay like that and don’t change your nose. So I’m torn. And I think the solution would be, oh, I should shape my body to look like a 15-year-old boy, and add some gold teeth. And I’m heading towards that. I’m eating vegetables and doing rope every day and I’m muscly, and I’m like, yeah!
MH: I want some of that. I do the opposite of whatever would be healthy. [laughs]
HL: But you told me when we were on set for the [‘Jonathan’] video that you wanted to dye your hair really blonde and have a really tough look.
MH: That’s easy, see. Like I will do any sort of physical change that is, like, buying something. I’ve never been to a gym. I think part of the reason why I don’t like the way I look physically is because I don’t take care of my body. It’s the last thing on my list even though it’s the thing that I’ve decided is horrible. But no, I want a bleach blonde flat-top. I want my whole buzz for this next album to be very, very muscular. We’ll see if that happens, though, because I don’t move.
HL: We can do rope together at Latitude. [laughs]
MH: I wish I had a fucking rope at home. Maybe if it was just right here I’d climb that bitch. You know the video game Duke Nukem? I want to look like him.
HL: Oh wow. That would be something. I’ve been basically surrounded with healthy young men, touring, because I was with dancers that are 21 and always doing push-ups. Because I’m kind of competitive I started to do push-ups as well. If I wasn’t surrounded with them maybe I wouldn’t be obsessed with being in a good shape.
MH: I’m very addictive – I’m a very obsessive person. And I wish I could get as into restriction as I am into excess. My boyfriend’s really addictive too but he can be as into extreme health as I am to extreme opposite of health [laughs]. But I’m hoping to flip it at some point.
This is the opposite of physicality: you’ve both talked about wanting to be an energy rather than a being, though perhaps in different ways.
MH: That’s, like, the end goal. It’s a fantasy of mine. I think I just get tired of all this bullshit: things I tell myself about how I look, who I am. As much as I’m fighting against it all the time I have this pretty warped idea of myself. And even though I can intellectually tell that it’s bullshit, it’s always there underneath everything. I feel like if I was floating around, if I was a puff of smoke, I would lose all those lies somehow. So I think about that a lot. And a lot of the time when I’m writing it sort of begins with that idea of transcending all the bullshit in some way, physically or whatever.
HL: You would be a beautiful puff of smoke. You would be a great one.
Héloïse, the way that you’ve talked about it is to deflect the idea that you should be a point of adoration for people, but that made me think, Mike, obviously thousands of people really love what you do as Perfume Genius. How does that growth in audience relate to how you feel about yourself in that way? Does it have any impact?
MH: It does. And for all this sad talk I’m doing, when I am on stage or when I meet people then I remember why I’m doing everything and why I fight against all of it. It gets to me a lot less once I add other people into it. I think a lot of that is feeling a purpose and a direction. Other people remind me of that, when I sing for them. I don’t do a good job of reminding myself on my own.
“Orlando was a wake-up call for me, and I was reminded of everything angry and tough that you can experience”Héloïse Letissier
Héloïse, you added the Chaka Khan bit to your set after Prince died, but when I saw it at Glastonbury, it was the day before Pride, and just after Orlando, and I felt like the resonance of that whole house music section had changed. Has it felt different for you both performing since Orlando?
HL: Ah, that’s a tough one. I feel like I’m lucky enough not to be reminded every day how tough it can be to be gay, and I think [Orlando] reminded me of this anger that was a bit sleepy-ish recently because I was touring constantly – you can easily forget and fall asleep. And now I’m constantly writing songs about being awake or waking up – I think Orlando was a wake-up call for me, and I was reminded of everything angry and tough that you can experience. But being on stage is for me always to remember where that comes from, and it comes definitely from a place where I’m angry, not in the bad way, but it’s like I’m really ready to fight. I dance angry as well, I don’t dance laid-back. It made me feel sick, Orlando. It’s the worst reminder of how far along we have to go still to be accepted.
MH: Yeah. It’s just heartbreaking and horrible. I remember when I first went to a gay club I had never really been surrounded by an energy where I was completely free from all these things – like, the shame. I’m living against my instincts all the time to be self-destructive or ashamed or feel all the things that I was told about myself growing up, from other people and myself, and all of that went away. Even if it was just for half or a quarter of a song, it went away. And the idea that that sacred thing was… It’s just a horrible thing. And I think hopefully, my shows, if they can have a tiny bit of that…
HL: I don’t really go to gay clubs often but I went to one in Paris because it was Pride recently. I don’t really dare to go often I guess, because again maybe I’m internalising lots of things myself. But I was reminded how beautiful it was as a safe space. I was like, why am I not going more often? Because this is indeed, as Mike said, a place where you feel like you belong. And that does not happen often in everyday life. And we do have some instincts to – not hide, but just to be careful in everyday life that we don’t have when we go into those clubs, where you can actually just be relaxed. So I think it was really violent that the attack was in this safe space as well. And of course it was meant to be violent and terrifying and it was chosen like that. But if this is attacked then you kind of feel helpless, because then where can we go, you know? And it was meant for us to feel like that. So that’s the worst part.
I read a beautiful essay that said that these clubs are the first opportunity that a lot of queer people get to engage with the superficial, which I thought was such a great way of putting it – not having to care or worry in that deeper way.
MH: And you forget for a second to hold yourself defensively. And I think that’s such a heartbreaking – I don’t know, it’s hard not to speak with words like that about it, to try to form something to say when something’s unspeakable like that.
HL: I mean, I was born in a club like that. I was born at Madame Jojo’s. I can only wish more are going to stay open and safe, hopefully.
We’ve talked about a lot of kind of sad things, and ugliness, so I thought I would ask what you find beautiful.
MH: I’ve got one.
HL: Oh you do? Please.
MH: I watched a documentary about a woman that was in love with a roller coaster —
MH: That’s the thing, though, is that I watched it at first out of jokey curiosity, but of course I ended up crying five times and was really moved. I love when people know exactly what they want, regardless of how it will be seen or what it could mean about them. And she was listing off the reasons why she loved this roller coaster and I cried. I thought, that’s very beautiful. And she also said, “If the reason I love this rollercoaster is ’cause of all the horrible things that have happened to me, or the good things, whatever the reason is, whatever mental warp caused me to love this thing, I don’t care, it’s real to me.” And that’s not what I think about homosexuality, obviously – I believe I was born this way – but even if I wasn’t, even if there’s some fucked-up reason for it, it doesn’t matter. It’s who I love, I love my boyfriend and it doesn’t matter why. That’s beautiful to me.
HL: Oh, yeah. It is. That was a great answer so I don’t know what to say now. I usually find beautiful everything that reminds me of the awkwardness of teenagers. People putting too much makeup – I find them really moving because I know where that comes from. People who are trying to draw their faces on over their face, for some reason I just immediately love them. Everything that betrays something unsaid, like people having facial tics, constantly blinking, weird things happening with the mouth, that speaks to me on a different level. Bodies betraying the mind. I can immediately bond with those people. I smile at them really widely and they are scared. They don’t talk to me because I’m smiling at them really too much. But the rollercoaster is good as well, I mean that’s good. [laughs]
MH: You should watch it, I will email it to you.
HL: I definitely want to watch it. I think it’s really pure.
Christine and the Queens and Perfume Genius play Latitude on Friday (July 15)
Laura Snapes is on Twitter