Life & Culture

Christeene: The Dystopian Drag Artist Obliterating Gender Binaries

A conversation with gleefully provocative musician and performer Christeene as the “feral” artist prepares for her biggest gig yet: a tribute to Sinéad O’Connor at London’s Barbican Hall

If we’re being strictly and boringly accurate, Christeene is a shocking, punky and deeply subversive drag character created by performer Paul Soileau. Christeene is about as far from a glossy RuPaul’s Drag Race queen as you can imagine – she looks as though she’s been dragged through a hedge backwards on a distant dystopian planet. When she gets on stage, she’s an unfiltered and flagrantly sexual presence on a mission to obliterate heteronormative gender binaries because deep down, we’re all just people with our own feelings, fuck-ups and fetishes. As Christeene memorably put it in a past show, “a hole is a hole is a hole”.

Christeene is also a musician who makes scratchy-catchy electro tracks with titles like Butt Muscle, Fix My Dick and Tears from My Pussy. In September, she’s taking over London’s Barbican Hall to pay tribute to Sinéad O’Connor’s superb 1987 debut album The Lion and the Cobra with a live band, dancers and special guests including Fever Ray. It’s Christeene’s biggest gig yet, so it feels like the perfect time to find out more about this unique and gleefully provocative creation – even if Christeene herself isn’t too keen on labels.

“Everybody wants to know where something comes from,” she tells me in her heavy and almost hypnotic Southern drawl. “They want as much as information as they can glean off a poor soul, so they can identify with that thing, but also so they can put it on their little laboratory shelf. I’m fine with that because the brain of the human animal is a wretched crazy mess and it follows certain patterns.”

That’s me told. Fasten your seatbelt – it’s going to be a (pleasurably) bumpy interview.

Nick Levine: So where did Christeene, as we call you, come from?

Christeene: I don’t really understand where I came from. I remember that it must have been down in the South because that’s where I started having interactions with y’all. The only memories I have of my early times is the woods and the dirt and the smells of it all – and not much talking. And I recall that at night there would be a bird whispering in my ear, telling me things. And then this bird made its way into my throat and started whispering from there and driving me crazy. And then finally I started listening to that little bird hiding in my throat and talking with it. And I believe that’s when it gave me the direction and the strength to pull out from where I was and start to make my way to where y’all were. And that’s the only way I can describe the kind of cloudy way I started mingling and jangling with y’all out here. 

NL: Can you remember your first time performing on stage?

C: It was at a night in Austin, Texas called Camp Camp. It was a night where anybody could get up and sing and talk and do anything they wanted on a microphone. I think y’all call that ‘open mic’ kind of shit. But it really wasn’t like that, because whenever I hear ’open mic’, I picture some wilted old Ani DiFranco kind of acoustic situation going on. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s just not my jam! Camp Camp was really just a place in a small town where a load of homos and lesbos and wackos could do what they wanted. I showed up one night in my pink boots and black fur coat and there was a microphone and I didn’t know what to say. So I requested that they play a Pizzicato Five song, and I just stood there and put the mic stand between my legs and started moaning and groaning to the Pizzicato Five song. I moaned and I groaned and I fucked the mic and then I threw the mic on the floor and I left. 

NL: Did you feel as though you’d found your calling?

C: Yah. I knew that I was in the right place to receive the right energy, and I knew that I was with intelligent people who could understand the importance of giving everything a space. I knew I had been drawn there for some particular reasons and they sure as shit showed themselves to me that night.

NL: How did you start writing songs?

C: The more I left the woods, the more I started coming around people and absorbing everything around me – everything people were celebrating or fighting or dealing with, I guess. I was getting a lot of feelings from the people around me because I didn’t really have a single experience of my own except for the woods. As I experienced all of these feelings from people, and experienced all the machines y’all have, everything was pummelling me, and it got heavier and heavier. I didn’t quite know what to do with it – I still don’t know what to do with it! So I just began to listen to the bird in my throat again, because I realised that was the truest thing I could hold onto. I started listening to that dirty bird again and that’s when I wrote the words for Fix My Dick. I guess the way that the music comes out of me is a response to what I was feeling from everyone around me and my way of “processing” that, as the lesbians would say. I had to listen to the only thing I could trust, the bird, and put that into some form of communication that all people could understand.

NL: Why do you think some people really connect with your songs?

C: Because they’re raw as shit. But sometimes I scare people and polish up the turd, you know? My songs don’t have any rules. I don’t like ‘genre’, as y’all call it. I was just reading about that person who wrote a country song, but the country fuckers told him it wasn’t a country song until Billy Ray Cyrus jumped on it and then suddenly it was country. All that is fucking bullshit. I don’t care how y’all need to classify something so y’all can feel okay or protected or racist or however you need to feel to keep your fences around your stupid yard. I think people like my music because there ain’t no rules to it. With my music, people can just breathe and live and infect and fuck and lay on top and roll around with anyone that’s out there that inspires my bird to say something. 

NL: You often get described as ‘feral’. Do you like that word?

C: I love being called feral! I’m like a dirty old feral cat – a bit of a Puss in Boots. I think feral is a good word because it’s a dangerous word. Most people hear ‘feral’ and they run because they don’t want no stinky smells or stains on them. 

NL: What made you want to create a tribute to Sinéad O’Connor?

C: There’s an immediate feeling of excitement and raw heat when I see her. It always hit me hard that The Lion and the Cobra was written when she was such a young age, and pregnant, and punk as shit. There was something joyful about her anger, and something delicate about her force of nature, that really attracted me. I have feelings about the way she’s been treated all these years after speaking out honestly and powerfully and intelligently – and what a fucking way to do it, when she went on the television and tore up that motherfucker Pope’s image. Can you imagine knowing that almost an entire planet hates you, at least through the avenues that you’re connected to them with, all because you spoke out about a very terrible institution that has been proven time and time again to be doing very terrible things? I always think of her as a [truth-telling] Cassandra. She’s this being that people have tried so many times to discard, but she just can’t be put away. That’s an energy that I love to tap into. This night is a celebration of many things, but it’s really dependent on the exchange of all the energy and force and compassion and vulnerability of this one woman artist. I intend, as I always do, to lay myself bare and be the conductor for that energy so that I can feel it wholly and share it with a room full of people. That way, we can possibly begin to understand the kind of feelings we need to deal with in this fucked-up world we’re in right now.

NL: How do you feel when you’re on stage?

C: Like there’s no time and no room physically. I always tap into the room I’m in – I like to know the history of the room, who’s been there, what’s happened there. I feel like there’s no beginning and there’s no end and I feel kind of responsible. I feel like my bird is at its most powerful and it’s almost come out of my throat and hovering above my head. I guess I try to pull everybody’s birds out of their throats and get them to wear their birds on their heads as well. So these costumes that we walk around in every day disappear, and it’s just our birds talking to one another. To me, that’s a really beautiful image.

Christeene: The Lion The Witch and The Cobra is at Barbican Hall on September 22, 2019.