Christine and the Queens: Making English Physical

When you read or imagine a word, you create a physical shape and a ‘feeling’ inside your mind. The form adapts and flows. Heart holds one shape in the mind of a surgeon when she’s at work in the operating theatre and quite another when she’s at home, reading a precious love letter.

Héloïse Letissier of Christine and the Queens brings the music and the words of her song Tilted into such clear physical focus that you would understand the meaning with the volume turned off:

When you’re singing a new song in English, it’s a good idea to get a physical feel for the sound of the words. Dance or walk the lyrics into the beat. Find out where and how they intertwine.

Remember Evelyn Glennie‘s Ted talk here about involving every single part of your body, when you want to truly ‘hear’ music.

For example, in Tilted, the hard c, p, and d consonants provide a percussive rhythm in “Can’t help it if we’re tilted. Once you notice the physical importance of those crisp consonants, you’ll remember to pronounce them sharply, as if they were the taps on your tap shoes. You’ll feel the soft n, w, r, h and l consonants slide between the vowel sounds that swoop between the fixed points of the hard consonants.

Walk the lyrics and they will become a physical reality to you when you sing them.

Walking the words helps you pace yourself as you sing. It stops you rushing or worrying. The words will fit. They were written to fit. When you walk, you can feel the important beats, and suddenly, between the beats, you have space to sing it if without stumbling.

Walking the beat stops you singing help or we’re too strongly or too quietly. In Tiltedhelp and we’re move you between the beats, clearly and smoothly. The idiom can’t help it runs together in a stream of sound and meaning. As in a phrasal verb, the verb help takes its place in the chorus line, between can’t and it. Each word in the idiom links to the others. Otherwise its meaning is lost.

If English isn’t your native language – be careful to give it the weight it needs. It’s a common mistake for non-native singers to swallow impersonal pronouns like it, especially if you don’t have them in your mother tongue. Don’t do it.

There are English songs where help dances alone, plays a different role and dresses in softer clothes:


We’re steps up into prime position, when the songwriter needs it to encompass and strengthen a group dynamic:


All words have a chance to shine in song. To step forward into the spotlight or fade into the chorus. Songwriters imagine and singers decide. The music helps them decide well.

The meaning is in the sound and behind the sound. Meaning creates sound and the sound of words reminds you of subtleties in the songwriter’s thought process. Why did Héloïse choose tilted, rather than sloped, wonky, pitched or slanted?

Tilted is a wonderfully lyrical word. It rises and falls in the mouth. The slight droop of the sound as it leans up against the clipped central gives the word a slightly wonky aspect. A limp.

It was a conscious choice. Héloïse was translating from her French original, where the line is Ça/Je ne tiens pas debout, with its own percussive pattern. As she puts it in this Time interview:

I was searching for lots of images or words that could fit, and I just stumbled upon this word, to tilt or be tilted, and I was exactly trying to find this image. It’s literally talking about not finding your balance with a playful image.”

Which brings me to Ian McKellen, some 20 years before his Gandalf days, speaking about Macbeth and the importance of understanding a writer’s choices if you plan to embody their words. He’s speaking about Shakespeare, but the process he describes works just as well for song:

And here’s the result:

The hard work is invisible. The words come out of Ian’s mouth as if he’d formed them, in that moment, in his own mind.

Just as Ian, in that moment, is Shakespeare, Macbeth and Ian McKellen, all at once, when you sing somebody else’s song, or your own song written years ago in a different frame of mind, you need to embody the words. Make them yours, weave them into the music. Walk or dance them into life.

As Héloïse puts it, in her Time interview:

“I can’t really sing this song without dancing now because my feet just have to do the same thing as the words. It’s really a song that exists with this choreography, and I love doing it because, again, it’s about really dancing on my problem. It felt good.”

In French, and in English.

© Sing Better English, 2016


3 thoughts on “Christine and the Queens: Making English Physical”

  1. I learned a lot from your wonderful paragraphs, one by one;
    and I enjoyed all videos too much, each one, one by one;
    You write so amazing, all about the subjects which I love.
    I admire your knowledge and your choices of concepts and beautiful videos.
    That is so true, about “physical focus”; and if I can write correctly, that is true in every language for its own and that language speakers/people.

    I have to refresh again and again to watch, read and post my comment. And still I have many wonderful things to read/watch again and again to enjoy more.

    All the best, ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Golnaran and thank you for your kind words.

    I think you’re absolutely right – ‘physical focus’ is important in every language. It’s one of the things you find yourself taking on when you live in a foreign country and learn to speak the language there – the words take shape in your mind differently when you learn them through using them and through observing others using them. It ‘roots’ the word in your mind, ready for it to grow and blossom. It’s one of the problems that school children have when they learn French, Spanish, German or whatever in class. The words are two dimensional when you learn them in and from a book. Flat and lifeless. It’s speech and human contact that bring them to life.

    All best wishes

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi,
    You are welcome.

    I very much agree with you.
    I have experienced the problem, too, when we were living abroad for some years. And as you beautifully wrote, It is so important in every language. I enjoyed so much, when you explain it so thoughtfully for music/singing.

    Thank you so much for your great explanation.

    All the best, ❤

    Liked by 1 person

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