There are some musicians who seem made for, and by, their work, who make music that lives through them, from their toes to the tip of their quivering quiff. Redcar, formerly known as Chris, also known as Christine and the Queens, and born Héloïse Letissier (a name he still occasionally uses), is one of those. Pure, intimate vocals, exceptional songwriting, a gift for theatrics and a dancing ability that moves from Michael Jackson to West Side Story via Cabaret’s MC has taken Christine and the Queens from French-speaking niche outsider to the mainstream. Singles Tilted (2014), from debut album Chaleur Humaine, and Girlfriend (from Chris, 2018) are the most well-known tracks, though true fans have enjoyed more outre offerings, such as the video for 5 Dollars, where we watch our hero(ine) donning bondage gear before putting on a man’s suit.
I interviewed him on stage in London in 2018 for the release of his second album and the outpouring of love from the young, mostly queer audience was palpable and moving. That was when he was Chris, a woman playing with masculine tropes, who wondered about switching between female and neutral pronouns. “My journey with gender has always been tumultuous,” he told the New York Times earlier this year. Then, in August, Chris took to social media to announce that “je me genre au masculin” (“I self-gender as male”) and would be using male pronouns from then on. About the same time, he started calling himself Redcar, or Red, rather than Chris. This name comes from the cars he kept seeing when his mum died, and forms part of the title of his new album, Redcar Les Adorables Étoiles. The album is sung mostly in French, with a splashy, open 1980s sound, hooks galore and much musing on love and sex. I love it.
So, I’m excited to interview him again. I arrive early, while everyone is at lunch, say hi and wait in a nearby studio. The photo session has gone well, all seems fine. But when I step out into a corridor to make a phone call, I witness a small scene. A little way away, I see Redcar talking to someone very intently. Is one of them crying? I’m unsure, but someone or something seems… upset.
The feeling of emotional trouble continues when, a few minutes later, we sit down in a cafe to chat. Redcar perches on a sofa, left leg stretched out to the side, in wide-shouldered jacket, pinstripe trousers, with slicked-back hair and strange-toed shoes. A tattoo peeks above a white shirt. One hand wears a red glove. The look is confident and masculine, but Red has an exceptionally expressive face and his expression is less certain. How is he?
“I’m going to be honest,” he says. “I just cried before. I don’t know if this interview is going to be even productive at all.” His eyes are brimming. What’s wrong?
“My musical cycle was very intense for me,” he says. “Wonderful, but also broke me down. And I don’t know how to rebuild myself because I feel very angry at a lot of things, including society, and how to exist today as an artist. I’ve been tempted by retreating, stopping, just releasing the music, not doing any visuals, maybe not performing – and I am a performer, so that means a lot to me.”
But wouldn’t being on stage, in touch with your audience, help you?
“To be honest,” he says, “I don’t have solutions to offer you and I want to be confident but I’m not really any more. I’m just lost because I don’t understand. I’ve been dedicating my whole life, praying to the angels for two years, working on very deep music I believe in, but it’s been a lonely fight and I’ve been isolating a lot. And I feel crazy, now, and just broken. Voilà!”
The voilà! is a flourish, delivered with a wry smile, but his problems, as he explains them, seem numerous; some surmountable, others not so much. Mostly, he is wrung out from creating and protecting his music. The songs for Redcar Les Adorables Étoiles were made quickly, in a two-week burst, alone on his computer in his home in Paris in 2021. He set himself a challenge of making a song a day and he succeeded (there are 13 tracks). This process, he says, was intense but joyous, a firework explosion after a very difficult time. In April 2019, his mother, Martine Letissier, died suddenly, in the week between his two sets at Coachella: “Her heart got infected and stopped abruptly,” he says. He cancelled his second set and rushed back to France, but wasn’t able to be with her when she died. “And since then, it was everything at once. It was just this unfolding. Very chaotic.”
In 2020 came lockdown; just before that, in February of that year, Christine and the Queens released a five-song EP, La Vita Nuova, with lavish accompanying video, which saw him on a Parisian roof, dancing inside with a troupe, dashing down stairs in a long white wedding dress and turning vampire on singer Caroline Polachek. The EP was well received; one song from it, People, I’ve Been Sad, was chosen by Rolling Stone as one of the songs of 2020. After that, in 2021, Redcar got an invitation to work with Mike Dean, highly regarded producer of Kanye West, Lana Del Rey, Madonna, Drake, the Weeknd. Covid meant this was difficult, but Chris sneaked into the US via Mexico and holed up in Los Angeles for several months, working. Dean restored his belief in his talents, which had been wavering: “He picked out everything that was personal and we worked on that. He knows how to protect an emotional gesture.” And with Dean, Redcar created an album – not this one, but another one that will be released early next year.
Great, work-wise: but it was lonely, at times, as LA can be for Europeans unused to a city dominated by cars and careers. At the start of 2021, he made a track, New Shapes, with his good friends Charli XCX and Polachek. In the video, Chris seems a little detached from proceedings. “I was inside the record I was making, so I had not the same energy as them,” he says. “They were like, can we have roller skates and dance?” I was like the annoying dark friend. There were pool parties and we’re arriving and I’m like, smoking. And they were like [sombre, understanding voice]: he’s writing his record.”
Red takes his music seriously, but his mother’s death also plunged him into a deep grief, which ebbs and encompasses, and led him, as death will, to a search for meaning in life. It also helped him to a new freedom. “When my mother was alive, I think I had to be a daughter for her,” he says. “And, by the way, I loved her, so I was not super mad [annoyed] about this. But there was a huge chunk of me that did not even connect, I think, to my trans identity when she was alive, because to be feminine was an element of what she needed also.”
Becoming a trans man, for Redcar, was a liberation, though not an easy one. He finds himself in conflict with what is expected of him. “I am in resistance to the approach of trans identity that there has to be hormones and operations,” he says. “It’s abiding by a binary system that I don’t believe in. Binarism has been made to control. The system itself imposes a lot of performance on everybody from birth and I want to free myself and everybody else in the conversation. I am sick of having to define myself with their grotesque tools of oppression. And I don’t think I owe anyone scars, to be precise.”
He takes a breath, continues. “It took time for me to say, because I was terrified of having to act on it… and I think since I’ve been talking about it, and understanding from inside who I was, I’ve been fighting sometimes trans people, who want me to formulate myself to be a ‘proper’ trans man. Who are we doing this for? Everyone’s different. I know people who have been blossoming and thriving on hormones, reaching their proper incarnation, and I respect that, but my approach is I want to thrive in that contradiction. I want to make it a poem, to help deconstruct the violence of a system. But personally, I don’t feel I need to change anything about me. I think what needed to be changed was self-hate, dysphoria and self-harm.”
Making any personal pronouncement about trans identity causes a social media backlash and since August, Redcar has felt buffeted and attacked. Some trolls, he says, seem to have decided he is psychologically ill, partly because he put up a clip where he is smoking a blunt: “Snoop Dogg can smoke a big joint every day and for some reason I’m not allowed.” He’s good at chatting on socials, moving between Twitter, Instagram and TikTok with ease, but he takes criticism to heart. Sometimes he wonders if he should have come out at all, but “let’s stay brave”.
On top of all of this personal pummelling, he recently damaged his left knee, a devastating injury for someone for whom dance is so much part of their creativity. His big plans for his live shows, involving “baroque” theatre and choreography, inspired by Tony Kushner’s Aids play Angels in America, have been stymied.
“My body broke down in rehearsals,” he says, rubbing his leg. “I’m crying because I feel like I can’t do the shows any more, because I’m now too broken for it. And I’ve been waiting two years to do shows… I’m trying to make sense of what happened to me. I know I did it for the music and I’m aligned with the music. It’s complicated. Because the music I’ve been working on is quite deep. Because I’m still grieving, and because I’m changing, and I don’t think society helps at all. Society doesn’t help people connect to a truth that could be out[side] of consumerism. I feel… I feel just very angry.”
No wonder he’s crying, really. There’s a battle going on, inside and out, and it’s clear that he feels under siege. Part of it is to do with how his music should be presented to the public. He seems to be in conflict with his record label. In June, he begged on his social media “I need my music to be out… Can we release one song?” Any record company has an idea of how an album should be (perhaps asking for an extra track that could be a single) and how it should be marketed. But, for an artist such as Redcar, this doesn’t work, because his artistic vision is so complete.
He tells me that “they” have allowed him only two live shows in France and one in the UK. He had an Angels in America-type vision, with… Étoiles as the prologue work, and the forthcoming album (the one made with Dean) as the second part, but this is unappreciated. I can see that a record company might be reluctant to promote one album knowing that another is in the pipeline. But Redcar has so many ideas around …Étoiles and is desperate to show them to the world.
Maybe he could just do a few simple solo shows, no dance troupe, just him? “I could sing on my own with just a mic and lights, that’s what I said to them. And they were like, ‘No! we want people around you.’ I’m like, fuck you. Why am I never enough? I’ve been having tough conversations with commercials saying, you have to choose between being a niche artist and a charting artist. And I’m like, fuck you, fuck you. The music makes me, I’m trying to respect the only shit that saved me 10 years ago from suicide. Let me be blunt today. So … that’s why I was crying in the corridor, telling them again, let’s release the records.”
Poor Red, fighting so hard to do the best by his work. It seems only right we should talk about the album then. The music, which concerns intimacy and love, seems almost separate from the visuals that he’s put up on socials, where he acts in short vignettes in exaggerated male style. This is easier to understand if Redcar is viewed as a character, like Bowie inhabiting Ziggy Stardust. Redcar agrees, but also says: “Redcar is me, too. It’s me right now. Broken down. Suited, demented man, questing for angels. Misunderstood. Like Gena Rowlands in Opening Night. She’s actually seeing a ghost, but people really just see her as a drunk.”
He often uses different characters and names to locate himself: Christine and the Queens and Chris are an expression of where he was at the time. Chris was a sexual woman playing with masculine identity, while Christine and the Queens came out of his blossoming away from being a serious music and theatre student in Paris, through hanging out on the London drag scene (hence “and the Queens”). “Christine, when I picked Christine as a name, it was a joke,” he says. “Christine was a name I was using for everybody, like ‘darling’. And my intention was that that name could be used by everybody. A concept that I was using for myself, but it was really not that personal.”
He uses his birth name too, on occasion. “Héloïse Letissier is my parents’ provenance and I love my parents. I sometimes use Héloïse to reconnect me to my childhood, but my inner child name is Manamané. I just have many names for all the layers.”
Redcar is another iteration, then; in his first Redcar video, for La Chanson Du Chevalier, he plays a sailor, limping because of his leg, moving between enormous rooms, gesticulating and posing. It’s very theatrical, like a mime performance, and he is interesting on how theatre and performance work with an audience, believing that “a true performer is actually the opposite of an egotistic person, it’s just this conductor. It’s an energy that they lead through the middle, where imagination is breaking the perceptions of what is real and not.”
Still, despite all Redcar’s costumes and characters, the lyrics are personal. I mention Rien Dire, which uses the French pronoun “on” to describe a romantic couple: “on” means “we”, but also everyone at the same time. “Yes, you don’t really have the equivalent in English. And I think that’s quite interesting when you think about gender as well. In that song, it’s a space, when you really love someone and you both coexist in that space, both of you created this other entity.”
Redcar was in love (“and am still”) when he wrote the song, but it didn’t work out. “I was very in love, very passionate, so it was grief and this love story that created this as well.” He understands that it can be hard to be with someone who’s not only a workaholic, but is also transforming their gender. “Let me just say patriarchy again. Some people are not ready to be limitless. So, all the complicated things for sure … It wasn’t meant to be, so I guess it’s just a moment in time, a moment in life. It’s a karmic lesson.”
Broken-hearted, broken-legged, grieving, en-gendering: Redcar really has been through the mill. It’s hard not to feel that releasing the records, him singing them straight to an audience, even with his damaged knee, could bring some of this torment to an end. Aside from that, he has been gaining comfort from his search for signs since his mother died. Surprisingly (or not; he has been in LA, though he has since moved back to Paris), he’s been consulting with shamans and went on four “shamanic journeys” while working with Dean. He wanted “to understand more and to try to talk to my mum and to understand who I was. Did it work? Yes.”
His mum was a teacher, and a romantic person, he says, who noticed details and enjoyed the poetry of life. She was supportive of his career. They did fight – “we were both very intense” – but they were very close. “Limits were unclear between her and me. So I had sometimes to make the separation. I was like, we are actually not the same person. But I think now, in grief, that is transmuting into something wonderful because I’m having a conversation with her for sure.”
One of the aspects of his mother’s death that has been on Redcar’s mind is its suddenness, unsurprisingly. His mother’s mother also died unexpectedly when she was young, so he has been thinking about that pattern. His mum would talk about her own mother visiting her after she was dead, in her garden. “When I was young, I was like, that’s creepy. And now I’m like: uh huh [agreeing].”
“I think she taught me a lot,” he says, “and she told me about death. She was my first big grief. So I think it’s really tender of her actually, to be that teacher. And because her own mum died abruptly, it made me think about manifestation. What happened to her with her mum left a huge imprint on her. This is also why I did the shamanic journey, because I was like, maybe I should break the cycle.”
That would be good, right? Don’t die young. “Yes, and it’s even wittier, because in the end I ended up understanding my own self. And now I’m like, I can’t be part of the curse, I’m not a woman!”
He laughs, as do I, because it’s funny and it’s not that simple, of course. Death knocks you sideways and so does love and heartbreak and art and creative frustration. You turn to life to find clues about how to live. Redcar has taken his new name because he was searching for his mother, and he kept seeing red cars, so he took them as signs. He also kept noticing the archangel Michael, so Redcar incorporated him, too, into his new world, praying to Michael and painting him red and singing to him in videos.
“And,” he says, smiling, “I would like archangel Michael to manifest at some point. I don’t want to sound ungrateful but I’ve been praying for two years. I’m like, bitch, in Angels in America, they actually arrive. So, no shade to the archangel, but… you know. I’m waiting. If you can read the Observer and just manifest yourself…”
I wonder. A few days later, I watch Redcar performing on BBC Two’s Later… before a huge statue of his archangel; glistening and defiant, sharp-shouldered, sharp-chinned, utterly committed. Glorious, despite all. Does he need angels? Maybe he can be his own.
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