Every album in the synth-pop arsenal of Héloïse Adélaïde Letissier – aka French vocalist-composer Christine and the Queens – benefits from a delicious brand of drama to go with his often obtuse lyricism. Yet it is only with this weekend’s release of “Paranoïa, Angels, True Love” that Chris (as he prefers to be known) has gone the extra mile in his decade-long journey of music making and found genuine theater his melancholy work, courtesy of the inspiration of playwright Tony Kushner’s iconic HIV-AIDS elegy “Angels in America.”
Calling the grand new work a “heart-opening transformation, a prayer towards the self,” and “a rest in true love,” Chris opened up his mind to the smartly, tortured soul of Kushner… and his Queens’ usually cloistered self-productions to collaborators such as Madonna, 070 Shake and Mike Dean, the co-producer of “Paranoia, Angels, True Love.”
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Chris and Dean were sharing a Los Angeles studio for an afternoon of multi-media work while getting on a Zoom together to talk with Variety, with the singer noting that the recent collaboration between them started as a “blessing — a message from Mike to (ask to) work together. I was shocked, and couldn’t allow myself to believe that could happen. I had already loved all of his choices: how he mixes music, his textures, how he produces. That Mike wanted to take a musical journey with me was thrilling…. We connected like two sprinters running toward the same goal.”
Dean – known for a production slate including the Weeknd, Beyoncé and Kanye West – says he fell in love with Christine and the Queens’ music courtesy of his girlfriend Louise: “She was a big fan, always playing it during dinner,” he says in a separate interview. He became one, too, enough so to make the producer curious enough to reach out to the French singer. “He snuck into the United States through Mexico during the pandemic, and his journey with me began,” says Dean. “What really drove me to make the music with him was the challenge of matching the emotion of what was going on with Chris’ lyrics, some of it in English, some of it in French.”
Broken by his mother’s 2019 death and moved to create the forlorn but effervescent “Redcar Les Adorables Étoiles” in the wake of her passing, Chris sought a broader brand of mournful communication for his next work, a three-part song suite of 20 separate tracks that would stretch his synth-pop melodies to truly operatic proportions (“all while remaining melodic”) and his lyrics to something equally moving, yet universal.
Dean jumped in and reminded Variety that most of “Paranoia, Angels, True Love” was recorded before “Redcar,” but released afterward, as “Chris’ opera was a bit much, so ‘Redcar’ was a smaller bridge.” To this Chris added that “Redcar” truly unlocked the power of theater behind “Paranoia, Angels, True Love,” and that its entire process was “ritualistic, a reaffirmation of theater as a necessary tool in my life, my understanding and an all-encompassing vision of life and art. And art in life.”
Noting that “Angels in America” was written in two parts with a main centerpiece and a small prologue that touches on madness, Chris’ lyrics, too, went about the greatly pained (“yet cathartic”) transitions that Kushner’s main “Angels” character Prior went through during its epic dramaturgy. “Spiritually… it was necessary for me to purge,” said Chris. “It was intricate in thought, but I needed to re-contextualize all that I was thinking for the new album.”
With that, “Paranoia, Angels, True Love,” had to be, in Chris’ estimation, about being “brave and extreme, flashing with bright colors like Prior, dying, but lost in this dream-like state,” he said. “Once there, you must listen to the angels, and wish for a better tomorrow. So, this is an absolute gesture of poetry in my life. I needed liberation, and Mike was standing there, allowing me to best express myself.”
“Chris always had great instincts,” Dean says quietly about helping to turn “Paranoia, Angels, True Love” into an opulent work of ethereal synth-pop while remaining true to his own sonic nature. “I was just being myself, and doing stuff that we liked,” said the producer with great emphasis. “This was self-indulgent music with a strong message.”
Recording Chris’ voice in the mornings so that the vocalist “could be alone with his feelings,” and always using the singer’s first takes, Dean brought in friends such as drummer Darren King (and samples such as Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s “Lucky Man”) to bear on intimate songs such as “Track 10.” As for working with a (purposely) robotic-sounding Madonna on three “Paranoia, Angels, True Love” songs, including the “Angels crying in my bed” track, Chris talked about his new album’s operatic form, and imagined a dystopian, all-seeing character, Big Eye.
“I wanted an AI voice, identifiable though, like Madonna’s, which is always so reassuring,” says Chris with great enthusiasm. “Motherly, even. So, Mike called her, and was worried I might be annoying when I asked her to be a mom married to something like a cyborg. And to this, Madonna said, ‘Yes.’ She is such a great actor.”
Whether singing lyrics earthly and terrestrial or heaven-bound and otherworldly, Chris, too, is a wrenchingly emotive actor while providing all of his own cues, texts and stage direction. And with such brittle, pained topics to touch on, and such powerfully emotive ways in which to render them, “Paranoia, Angels, True Love” is – in a catalog fraught with passion – Christine and the Queens’ most vulnerably lyrical album. Ask Chris if such receptivity to sensitivity was difficult to get through, and he says, “No. The song is never the hard part of my life. It is the living that is the hard part. The songs that mean so much to me write themselves through me.”
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