Paul Soileau is a performance artist also known as CHRISTEENE and Rebecca Havemeyer. CHRISTEENE’s record MIDNITE FUKK TRAIN is out now on Spaceflight Records.
Jibz Cameron is a multimedia artist who performs as Dynasty Handbag; Paul Soileau is also a multimedia artist, who performs as CHRISTEENE and Rebecca Havemeyer. CHRISTEENE’s new record MIDNITE FUKK TRAIN just came out late last year on Spaceflight Records, so to celebrate, the two friends talked the mystique of performing as a persona; the limitations of a fixed creative identity; the freaky life of the guy who invented the saxophone; and much more.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music
Jibz Cameron: So how should we do this? Are we doing it now, or do we start?
Paul Soileau: We might be doing this now. I was approached to do this, and I think because of the CHRISTEENE work, they were like, “Oh, talk to another musician.” But I have trouble putting CHRISTEENE in a realm of, “Oh, CHRISTEENE’s a musician.” And I think of you as a sister, brother, lover, mother, daddy, friend in [that] we don’t fit in this one kind of realm. We do a lot of different things with these personas of ours, or these things we’re married to, whatever they’re called. So I thought it’d be nice for us to talk, because you’re maybe one of the few people who understands what the fuck’s going on. [Laughs.]
Jibz: You’re right, that is what I’m known for: Real clarity with what the fuck is going on.
Jibz: Yeah, totally. That sounds accurate, that we don’t necessarily belong so we just make our own little hidey holes.
Paul: Mm hmm.
Jibz: But I have to say that listening to your record, I felt like you very much arrived at a way for a band — particularly a studio situation, because it’s really different live — to support CHRISTEENE in a [way that] really made a lot of sense. It was super dynamic. It wasn’t like, “put a band in back of CHRISTEENE and make it a band.” It was like, this is integral to the music, to the songs. Your singing was nuanced with the music behind it. I’ve seen you perform a lot of those songs many times live, and I love it when I can understand the difference between the medium of live and a studio record. And it felt like you just put so much work and care into the record. It’s so good. I love it.
It’s got highs and lows, ups and downs, ballads, twangy little ditties. You introduce CHRISTEENE with the ABCs, like “this is what she’s about.” It was also so funny because it harkened back to all these dumb, bubblegum songs that go through alphabets or 1-2-3s or ABCs — or even that Beastie Boys song, “To All the Girls.”
Paul: Did you watch Electric Company when you grew up?
Jibz: Oh yeah, totally.
Paul: The “1-2-3-4-5”s and all that.
Jibz: That’s the Pointer Sisters singing that, did you know that?
Paul: Is that real?
Paul: Oh, that makes me so happy, that they were in our life at that age. That’s so nice to know, because then they were there for us when we were teenagers.
Jibz: They’re still there for us.
Paul: I listen to the Pointer Sisters a lot. I think they’re one of the best karaoke groups to go to, when you’re forced to do karaoke, which I don’t really like doing.
Jibz: Hot tip. Yeah, I listen to the Pointer Sisters a lot too.
Paul: Thanks for what you said about the album, that was really nice. I think I find I was real drawn to the saxophone during that album, and I think of you a lot whenever there’s saxophones playing.
Jibz: We both have a really intimate codependency with the saxophone.
Paul: I know. And it’s so special because the times I’ve seen you do the air sax are just really, really remarkable. I think the sax makes the sounds of what’s going on in my head, or in CHRISTEENE’s head. It can go in so many different directions. And I think Dynasty and CHRISTEENE definitely could go to school together, could have been from the same town. I don’t know. There’s just a joyful ignorance when I’m around Dynasty.
Jibz: For sure. I mean, we both independently use improvisational sex people in our shows. I have a guy that comes to Weirdo Night named Taylor — Taylor the Sax Bottom. He’s a jazz guy and he just can pick up anything and improvise with me at the drop of a hat. And the other night, it was Adolphe Sax’s [birthday], the guy who invented the saxophone — you need to take a deep dive into this motherfucker, because basically his thing when he was a kid was that he almost died, like, 100 times. Like, he fell into a vat of acid and fell out of a window, and was depressed and haunted by ghosts. He was just a total freak, and he invented the saxophone. [So] it was his birthday, and we did a tribute to him, and I read his Wikipedia page to the saxophone — I poetry slammed his Wikipedia page, which is just basically him talking about how many times he almost died as a child.
Paul: [Laughs.] Oh, my god.
Jibz: So there’s this darkness to the saxophone. There’s a reason why it is what it is.
Paul: Yeah, he created the sound of the madness of his life. I think that’s very much the saxophone.
Jibz: It’s raunch.
Paul: Yeah, it’s been a good tool. It’s the one thing I was hunting down when I was starting to do this new music. And the musicians are all in other bands. I met Viva DeConcini and Mary Feaster years ago — that guy, Earl Dax, used to do a party called Pussy Faggot, and I met Viva and Earl there.
Jibz: Yeah, I used to perform at Pussy Faggot. I think he still owes me $50.
Paul: Oh, I think he owes you more than $50. That’s being very generous. [Laughs.] But that was a nice gathering place where I met Mary and Viva, who are the two guitarists, and held on to them throughout the years, and then hunted down the other folks.
I find it difficult, even when we were putting this album out, the closer I get to the structure of having a PR or any kind of manager. I’ve never had a manager or agency or anything like that—
Jibz: Me neither.
Paul: Yeah, we’re in the hustler family. And the closer I get to any kind of help in those realms, it always is such a deterrent because they want to kind of lock you into an identity of Musician, or this or that, and then they want to drive that really hard and sell that. And I still can’t figure [that] out. I’m talking to people right now about possible management or possible booking agents, and they they want to drive it so fiercely in one direction.
Jibz: The specifics.
Jibz: I mean, I think it’s kind of a bisexual problem for me, because it goes a lot of different ways. I pay attention to how people are marketing things — I really like checking it out, because I don’t totally understand it. And for myself, I’ve never been able to figure out what that direction is, obviously. But I do think for specific projects, it can be really interesting to just kind of go for it. Like, for example, your record is a really great record, and in a way it’s like, who’s your audience and where do you want to expand it to?
I don’t know… A lot of stuff that I make, it just sort of goes into the ether of vagueness of people who know who I am on YouTube or something, instead of being like, “this is a cool new piece of video art,” or “this is a cool new comedy thing.” I think in some ways that’s really great for me, but I also think it holds me back sometimes, because I think I could reach more people if I did focus in a little more. But I don’t really know what my goals are, so I don’t have any. [Laughs.] So That’s also part of the issue.
However, I just made a record, too, but it’s a comedy record. It’s a comedy record kind of in the vein of old ‘70s, like, Lily Tomlin kind of sketches and funny characters and stuff. Not a lot of live stand up or anything. And I wrote the record to be a record, even though it took me a really long time to figure out that that’s what I needed to do. I kept trying to force it to be like, “I’ll just throw some jokes in there.” And it was like, No, you have to work on this. Anyway, so I’m thinking about, Well, who do I want to have experience this? And I think I might just try to market it as a comedy record instead of being like… I don’t know. What do you think about this?
Paul: I think I try to understand that relationship to it — like, “Oh, I have this record, I could just go direct with it and really focus on a goal,” like you said. “Where does this want to land and how much are you going to follow the structures of how to put out a record?” You know? I don’t know if it’s shooting yourself in the butt or the foot or wherever, [but] I get nervous, and I think it’s that way with me in life, like with commitment. I’m a single person.
Jibz: You’re a single mom.
Paul: Yeah, I’m a single mom, I like being a single mom. I don’t own a home like many friends who are going into that realm, I don’t have children. I don’t have these things that kind of hold you and commit you to something for the rest of your life. And I think with the work, too, I like that ether. I like when you can send it out somewhere and then jump into something else, or change your mind and change the whole direction of it. Creating goals to kind of push this work into a direction and into a people using a PR company and management, those things all feel binding to me.
Jibz: Yeah, well, it’s also part of this weird Western capitalist kind of thing, where you’re only supposed to be one thing.
Jibz: It gets very scary to commit to one thing. I have a really good friend who’s an artist and has a really successful art career — [they’re like] a weirdo sculpture, interdisciplinary person — and they made a record. They’re doing a very concentrated pop star push. I’m watching the way it’s been unfolding, and it’s just sort of like they’re just going with it. And I’m like, Wow, this is so crazy. It’s very controlled, but also the concept is very clear. So that’s kind of what I’ve been learning from watching her process. It’s clear what she wants to do with this record, it’s clear what the record is, it’s clear what her vision for it is.
I have a lot of chaos with my, quote-unquote, “brand,” so now I’m like, OK, how do I clarify things a little bit more? Because people intake stuff and they’re like, “I don’t know what the fuck you’re doing. Is it a show? Is it a video?” But I’m not sure what the balance is.
Paul: I like the clarity of it. I think it is nice. I’m working with this PR firm, Girlie Action, and it’s the first time I’ve ever worked with someone like this. It has been so wonderful to allow a clear channel—
Jibz: What do they think about how you how you should market this?
Paul: Well, whenever I work with people, I really want them to understand that they’re working with CHRISTEENE and not me — I keep myself out of it a lot. Which is how I always wanted it to be, because I wanted people to see and accept CHRISTEENE as her own entity. And I’ve only recently started putting myself into things, like you and I talking right now, and associating myself with, “Oh, I’m the person who makes this shit.”
With [Girlie Action] — and then I worked with another PR woman, Amanda Freeman, in the UK — I always was like, “Yeah, I really want you to enjoy this. I want you to treat it as though you’re really representing a feral creature that you’ve caught, and I want you to use use CHRISTEENE to kind of fuck with the system that has set these rules around you.” And they like that. And they kind of take enjoyment in it, the way Thomas [Graves] and Silky [Shoemaker], my dancers, would do, where it allows them to break free of the structures of being a theater artist or a sculptor or painter. And my sax player breaks free from the rigid, horrible structure of the jazz world.
So with anyone I ever work with, I always want them to be able to break rules and to do things they’re not allowed to do. And Girlie Action has been really great and understanding what they’re kind of representing, and ow to fuck with journalists and publications and kind of bend them to the way in which CHRISTEENE, or this thing, wants them to bend.
Jibz: Can you give me a sneak peek of one of your marketing strategies? I want to know, how are you going to take down the Murdoch empire?
Paul: I mean, I like messing with journalists a lot — I like to make them have to go to a strange place to meet CHRISTEENE.
Jibz: And you arrive as CHRISTEENE?
Jibz: I think that’s one of our main differences. I used to be a lot more controlled about separating my personhood from Dynasty Handbag, and I was very uptight about it. I don’t know why exactly. I felt like I wanted a lot of autonomy or something. I felt like if I was personally up in front of this persona, that the persona would lose magic.
Paul: Yes, that’s exactly how I felt.
Jibz: Yeah. And then when I started being a host of Weirdo Night, it kind of forced me to have to come into reality a little bit. Because CHRISTEENE actually interfaces with reality, but up until the point that I was doing hosting, I was sort of more building these realities myself and then operating within them as Dynasty Handbag, like fantasy worlds. I didn’t really have communication with, quote-unquote, “real people.” There was never anyone else in my shows, and I built all the environments from soundscapes and video and whatever. And then when I started to be in front of audiences in this different way where I had to introduce acts that were in reality, it really wasn’t appropriate for me to just make shit up like I would have done in the past. It was like, this is actually an artist who’s here to be introduced to an audience. I need to say that for real.
Jibz: It kind of forced me to break it down a little bit more. And I feel like it’s been a really good thing for me personally, to be a little more fluid, because I’m not the most vulnerable person, naturally, and it’s forced me to be a lot more vulnerable and let people in more. Which is kind of which is scary. It’s a scarier place to be.
Paul: I agree. I think the first thing you said, about [how] it kind of mess with the magic of the persona, that was really the main reason I thought I was doing it. Someone flew us out once to France and wanted to do this show, and they wanted to have dinner with me and the dancers before the show — basically meeting me, Paul, before they had met CHRISTEENE. I was like, “No, you’re not going to meet me first, because that’s going to allow you to know that CHRISTEENE is a costume.” I wanted him to meet her first, and then me. And I was really strict about that for years, too.
Obviously the work kind of forced you to introduce people and be aware of their life outside of the fantastical realm that you lived in, and there was that time [for me], too. When we started doing the Barbican production, that Sinead O’Connor show we did, this guy Kamal [Ackarie], who was helping me produce it, was like, “There’s a time when you also just need to let people know who’s making this work, and to be be proud of that and celebrate that about yourself too.” And I think there is that feeling I share, with letting people into that realm, and all of a sudden you are talking about it yourself.
Jibz: Yeah. And then you really have to be responsible for what you say in a way that like… [Laughs.] Handbag’s said some crazy shit.
But also, I think for you — so I met you at a Peaches concert. Jess Cuevas was like, “You have to meet CHRISTEENE,” for months, and then Peaches invited me to the show or something, and you were performing. And then me and Amanda [Verwey], my sister-wife and writing partner, met you backstage and you were in full CHRISTEENE. We were totally floored, blown away. It was so fucking good. You were, like, taking people’s cell phones, rubbing them on your vagina, throwing them back. I was just like, this person has captured my heart. Who is this person that’s under CHRISTEENE?
I can see why you would want to really keep that mystique — that feminine mystique — because it’s so powerful with CHRISTEENE. But then when I met you, I was like, Oh, this makes sense. This is just like an arty fag with a cute hairdo who’s in really good shape. I just was like, what are their shoes going to be like? It was very mystical. But at the same time, knowing you and knowing CHRISTEENE is so nice. It makes creative sense to know you as a person and then know what CHRISTEENE is about, because you’re a total leftist pinko commie freakazoid, and you’re very political in a lot of the things you talk about. It’s rooted in CHRISTEENE.
Anyway, I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way. It’s fascinating, though, to me. And actually, last week when I was working on this project with my partner [somebody] said, “Wait a minute, are you Dynasty Handbag?” And I said, “I am, but not right now.” She was like, “You’re so normal. You’re so nice.” And I was like, “Yep, I’m just a regular old tea-drinking lesbian.” But, you know, that’s where all my insanity comes out, in Dynasty Handbag.
Paul: Yeah. I find it really comforting when I meet you and other folks outside of the chaos and the wild realms we create. For a long time, I think there was an insecurity, too, of, how am I going to live up to the thing that they like, or, what kind of a letdown am I going to be?
Jibz: Not at all.
Paul: There’s those feelings, and I think that does live within that realm. And I mean, we’re obviously in it to win it with these things — they’re not just fun little fad moments we’re going through, we’re married to these things we created.
Jibz: I mean, I always thought my real job would come along one day, and it just it hasn’t.
Paul: [Laughs.] The only real job I can imagine is like, when it all burns down, I’m going to go serve coffee again. And that’s about the only real job I’ll have, is a barista.
Jibz: I feel like that really speaks to me as well. I could do a service job.
Paul: Yeah. But I more and more find comfort in the acceptance that the majority of us who do these things, when I meet the other side, are quiet or tea drinking and sweater wearing. Like, we’re kind of nerds, or we’re just quiet. It’s very nice. Someone told me once they went to a party and Bootsy Collins was there, and he was in the corner and he was just like this quiet, not-dazzled nerd.
Jibz: I think that’s a really good point, to bring up nerdism, because it takes some nerd to create that much magic. Like, you have to focus. You have to be a fucking nerd. That’s also a mystique, you know — there is the aspect of big show-boat-manship that goes into it, but when you watch people’s behind the scenes stuff and you see them in their studio and they’re like, “No, it’s one, two, three, four,” you’re like, Oh, right, this is actual fucking labor and work. You have to be a total nerd. And I think about that a lot: That part of the magic is convincing people that you’re not a nerd.
Paul: [Laughs.] “I’m not nerd, damnit!”
Jibz: “I’m not a fucking nerd, OK!” But, I mean, now it’s OK to be a nerd and all that. We’ve crossed that normcore [threshold].
Paul: But also, we’ve been slingin’ this dirty hash for a long time. I think we can show our face now and be like, “Hi!”
Jibz: Well, I think it also gives other people permission to be like, Oh, I’m actually also a total fucking dork and I can do something totally outrageous. I can have a life that is not totally unmanageable and off the rails, and perform in a way that brings the chaos that’s actually inside of me. Because I can’t live like that anymore. And I used to live a lot more parallel to Dynasty Handbag. When I got sober, which was 2005, I think, I was very scared to perform. I couldn’t imagine going on stage sober — and I wouldn’t ever go on stage wasted, but I definitely had to take the edge off. It wasn’t really my thing to be super drunk or high on stage, but the chaos surrounding it was part of it. And that was very terrifying. But now it’s actually become such a more clear channel. All of that stuff that I used drugs and alcohol for just goes into my work, and it’s made my work better. Way better.
Paul: Absolutely. I mean, we’ve talked about this — I went through my spiral of living the parallel life, closely to the fire that we’ve created and all that shit. I took a good two years, I think, off of the sauce and continued to tour. And it was terrifying. But I realized it was becoming just a really toxic, dangerous train. I wanted to really be intimate with the cities I was going to, that the work was taking me to, and the people that I was meeting along the way, and the alcohol and the madness of it really started interfering with the human relationship. I was really living in CHRISTEENE so much so that I, as Paul, was not engaging in a healthy way.
Jibz: I think you really nailed it, actually, because it’s not so much the the mind-altering substances. It’s really the community that you’re around within that, that is such a distortion to your channel for creativity. I was for so many years, even after I got sober, still kind of surrounding myself with people who were a psychic drain somehow. And that all makes sense. If you’re numbing out with substances, you’re also generally numbing out with the people you’re around as well. You’re not going to be around people who are really super real with you, because you don’t want that. You want some distance.
Jibz: All my relationships now that are close to me are on the same trajectory of what’s important, and what’s important is not the work being celebrated, it’s the work being created.
Paul: There’s certain friends of mine who have a joie de vivre, if I may, or a genuine, really wonderful joy of what’s around them and what they’re doing. Our minds are always in hustle mode, thinking of that next thing, which is good — I like that strength and that energy. But the joy of it all needs to be there. And I think that’s what I’ve been really searching for, in this way where we’re allowing ourselves to be more present next to these things we’ve created, and allowing ourselves time for ourselves to kind of relax, or try to.
Jibz: Do you think you’re going to be talking about your record a lot as Paul?
Paul: That’s the thing I’m tricky with. I want to talk about it as CHRISTEENE for press, but I really want to have conversations like you and I are having, where I’m actually also just talking about it as an artist who creates this music and has this persona. I’m such a one or the other person, and I’m trying to find the middle ground — the fluid relationship with it, to where I can talk about both but still maintain the mystery or the magic of CHRISTEENE. It’s very tricky.
Jibz: Yeah. Because when you asked me, “Should we talk as Dynasty Handbag and CHRISTEENE or Jibz and Paul,” I was like, at this point, I don’t really do interviews or talk as Dynasty Handbag anymore, because it’s too much work. [Laughs.]
Paul: Too many postures and sounds.
Jibz: All I’m saying is, I think it’s cool to keep a separate thing, but I feel like there’s no mystery lost in knowing you and knowing CHRISTEENE. In fact, it makes it almost more magical, because I’m like, How did this fucking bitch go from here to there? It’s like, this is a professional. That’s the thing that really gets me, is that like you’re not method acting as CHRISTEENE walking around all day long. You’re not like — who’s a method actor?
Paul: That Daniel Day-Lewis shit.
Jibz: Yeah. Like, “Paul, you want some dinner?” [Does a CHRISTEENE voice,] “Yes, I want a turd on a hotdog bun…” Like, you can’t do that. So then it almost adds to this mystique and power, that you can just switch it on and then you’re there. And I was like, Oh, Paul is just a fucking showboat, theater queen lunatic.
Paul: Yeah. Like you!
Jibz: We’re both just these, like, theater fags who just want to be on stage, and will fire it up immediately. And I love that.
Paul: I have the same love for you. That is why I will drop anything to get on a stage with you, because you go from zero to dipshit in, like, one second, and also have the same rules regulations for yourself outside of it. And there’s nothing better than getting on a stage with someone who needs no script and can turn it on that quickly. You’re keeping the boat afloat. My favorite thing in the world on that stage is keeping that fucking room afloat with this jackassery that we do. That is the biggest joy I have with you. It’s really nice to meet the theater faggot nerd behind the madness. It’s a special breed. I really am glad we’re in the same kennel club together.
Jibz: We come from the same rotten cabbage patch, we do!
(Photo Credit: left, Steven Harwick; right, Indra Dunis)