Interview by: Kira L. Schlechter
Plenty of musicians have had unique life experiences that have made them the people and artists they are. But there are backstories and then there are backstories. And few are as compelling and wrenching and emotionally devastating as that of the Texas-by-way-of-Toronto band TULIP. Needless to say that life experience has made for a debut EP, a full-length album, and now another EP — their latest, “The Witch” — of great art.
Singer Ashleigh Semkiw and husband Colin Parrish, the band’s guitarist, had married young in their high school relationships. But when they fell in love, it didn’t fly with the strict Calvinist Baptist church in which they had both been raised. So when they eventually fled the church, they had to flee their families as well. “Our parents are all still very much in the faith, although Colin’s parents are in our lives”, Ashleigh says in a phone interview from their home in Argyle, Texas, outside Dallas. “My parents aren’t. It’s a pretty unnatural thing for myself, now as a parent, to turn your back on your child, but I understand”, she adds. “Unless my parents abandon their religious beliefs, which I had to, they really can’t have a relationship with me.”
They moved to Texas after their respective divorces (in 2018) and marriage (in 2019). Ashleigh has three children with her first husband (8-year-old twin boys and a 6-year-old daughter) ; he has one with his first wife (also a 6-year-old daughter) and they have a year-old daughter Zelda together. “The Bible says divorce is wrong and if a woman leaves her husband for another man, she is walking in perpetual sin forever. My parents still believe I’m married to my ex-husband ; they won’t recognize this union.” They share custody of their children with their former spouses, who are still in Toronto. Ashleigh says they will live with them eventually.
“It was a toxic environment to stay in. My parents would see me at my kids’ soccer game and turn their backs to us. It just became really untenable ; it was not a healthy environment. Everybody up there likes to say we ran away, but we just wanted to start a new life somewhere where we could make our own friends, where we didn’t have all of these expectations or any preconceived notions about who we are. Life is much simpler and happier”.
The name TULIP is both a nod to their past and an attempt to take ownership of the word. It’s an acronym for the five principles of Calvinism, a theological system developed by John Calvin described as “strong emphasis on the sovereignty of God, the depravity of humankind and the doctrine of predestination”, one that takes the Bible as literal truth as well. Ashleigh and Colin were taught the acronym as children in order to remember the principles:
T — Total Depravity
U — Unconditional Election
L — Limited Atonement
I — Irresistible Grace
P — Perseverance of the Saints
“It’s a lot less about grace and being a good person ; it’s more these are the rules and follow the rules”, Ashleigh says. “As terrifying as that is, that’s what you teach the kids — to memorize that you’re a totally depraved person. The first EP is exploring all of those things that we’re taught, wrestling with those ideas. And now we’ve kind of evolved and moved away from singing about religion, but it was a way for me specifically to heal”.
By writing about it in the way they do, it removes the power that those years and traumatic experiences had over them — it’s an exorcism if you will, of the pain — and by addressing it unwaveringly and fearlessly, beginning the process of putting it behind them. “That was something that was very important to me — we’re not trying to shit on it or anything, but we decided that we think it’s a very bad thing to teach to your children”, Ashleigh stresses. “When you’re in it, you don’t know how you’re ever going to get out of it and then now, on the other side, we’ve really deconstructed all of these things. I’ve done a lot of religious trauma therapy and you’d be surprised how many people there are like us that are out there. A lot of people from our generation are leaving and opening their eyes”.
The other part of the band’s backstory that’s fascinating is that Ashleigh has had no real metal upbringing. “Musical theater was how I became a singer in the first place — that’s how I got started”, she explains, giving the example of playing Leisl in “The Sound Of Music” in high school. “There was a retired opera singer who heard me and she approached my mom and asked would your daughter like to have some opera lessons. I fell in love with it pretty quickly and then that’s what I did for ten years.”
Colin, though, is a long-time metal aficionado and became her mentor and teacher. “When we were just friends, before we were romantically involved, we met at this crazy church we went to — I would sing and he would play in the band”, she remembers. “And he would say to me, I would love to make metal with you… because my voice can cut over an orchestra, because I have the training. I was like, I don’t like metal. I didn’t know what I was saying because I didn’t know what metal was — I’m thinking it’s like Ozzy Osbourne or AC/DC. He’s like, that’s more classic rock”.
So he made her a metal playlist that included bands like Born Of Osiris and Periphery — “a lot of the djent stuff”, she says. “And I loved that, because I like hip-hop — I really liked that you could move and dance to that stuff. He really got me into Meshuggah — that’s the grooviest drum parts I’ve ever heard in my life — I also think Gojira’s amazing. So we started going to shows across the border in Buffalo”.
“I just couldn’t believe how fun they (the shows) are, and also the community is so amazing”, Ashleigh raves. “The people that I’ve met in this community are the most incredible people I’ve ever met in my whole life! Classical is very dog-eat-dog — it’s very competitive, it’s back-talking, it’s jealousy. It’s a hard, hard life and you don’t know who you can trust. In metal, everybody wants to work together, especially in the female-fronted community. We will never make any other kind of music, because we’ve just really found a family. Everybody is just so smart ; we have all these thoughts about things and we like to talk about them with like-minded people”, she enthuses.
So rather than associating themselves with a specific subgenre, TULIP has created its own: “apocalyptic musical theater”, a term Colin coined. “When Colin’s writing the music, he likes to do full cohesive albums where there’s a theme — he writes the songs in order, he likes to take you on a journey”, hence the term, Ashleigh details. She has high praise for her musical and life partner. “He is such a good writer”, she raves. “Little things will inspire him — there’s a song on the new record that is modeled after, believe it or not, Megan Thee Stallion. It sounds nothing like that, but it inspired him to go and make a couple noodles and then experiment with different beats and sounds. I like performing, he likes creating. The creation process for me is not as fun; I don’t really like recording that much. But if he could just sit in a studio and mix and engineer and produce all day, he’d be so happy”.
The songs of “The Witch” are directed both at several individual people and at her former insulated community as a whole as well. “It’s a little on the nose”, Ashleigh says, “There are different archetypes of women that have been in my life that I know, that I think everyone can relate to, broad themes of betrayal and loss. It’s for sure the most personal album — I am actually going through the pain, crying beneath the songs. I’m forcing myself to be vulnerable with our listeners and I’m trying to be brave enough to call these people in for their bullshit. So I think there are some pretty angry people out there — I’m sure my mother is one of them”.
The opening track, “Sidewinder”, is about leaving the community in general, but it’s also specifically about “somebody that I still have hope for”, a person who was, however, “instrumental in my betrayal”, Ashleigh explains. “She felt God was telling her to out me, essentially, because I was in love with another man — in the end, her convictions trumped her loyalty to me”. But she’s not bitter. “That’s why it’s saying ‘I’ll remember you’ , because I know that person is not living a happy life” she muses. “I believe that she feels trapped the same way I did. I hope that she listens to that song and is like, OK maybe I can be free or one day she and I can be reconciled.”
“Clone”, on the other hand, is a pointed rebuke to someone who is “totally unapologetic about what has happened to me and thinks that I created this whole problem and they have done absolutely nothing wrong”, Ashleigh says. It bears an implicit threat, spoken from the viewpoint of that person: “Sitting across the table / Barely old enough to trust/ Cause it’s about the mission / She swears to turn us to dust.” “I still get threats from the community, reminding me ominously that I’m eventually going to come crashing down. I’m like, well I guess we’ll just keep waiting for that to happen.” Those warnings came even from her own mother. “The last thing my mother ever said to me was: God will not be mocked, Ashleigh. You think you’re going to go and have this happy life with Colin and be a rock star and live your life in Texas. But God’s going to get you, I promise you that.”
The snide, cutting “Proxy” is based on “someone much younger“, who “doesn’t follow it (the religion) as strictly. She’s actually very liberal, open-minded — she is a believer, but she takes the Jesus part of it seriously”, Ashleigh explains. “She has a good heart and is a good person. But there are strings attached to her relationship with me and she’s not able to reach out without essentially having to give stuff up. I think she doesn’t want to give stuff up. I’m trying to appeal to that side of her too, that when you grow up a little bit more, you’ll understand that I had to make these choices for my own mental health and my benefit,” she adds.
“The One” is much more personal — “it’s a love song to little me” Ashleigh says. “I’m singing that to little Ashleigh because of the things that I experienced as a child that I’ve had to process now at 35”, she admits. “That one is hard to get through live — I get pretty emotional singing it. I also think a lot about Zelda, my one-year-old, how we’re able to raise her fully, the way that we want and the want that we wish we had been able to be raised. I’m singing to little Ashleigh, but I’m also singing to Zel because all we’re ever going to try and do is fight so she can have a great life and never have to be part of any of this stuff”. Ashleigh quietly admits the title track is directed at her mother ; it’s a biting imaginary dialogue between them where neither is giving ground. “I have zero hope for that relationship and I think I make that pretty clear — it will not be possible to mend that” she stresses. “As strongly as I feel about living my truth in my life and being happy, (that’s how) strongly she feels that I cannot have any of these things. We’ll never see eye to eye on this and I had to make my peace with that”.
The EP ends with a cover of Sia’s cathartic “Bird Set Free”, which really is, oddly enough, the perfect ending, lyrically speaking. “She’s one of my favorite writers and that one has always been one of my favorites. Colin also really liked it — he hears pop songs all the time and he’s like we should make this into a metal cover. My voice and Sia’s voice are in the exact same register, so it was a no-brainer. But lyrically, it’s the way we felt. People love that song live too and people sing along — it’s an anthem. I wish I had written that song, but I’m happy to borrow it”, she laughs.
TULIP’s first post-Covid show happened at Trees, a Dallas, TX club, in September. A laptop mishap (it fell off the stage and was totaled) and unplanned intermission allowed Ashleigh to get up close and personal with their audience. “I got to just spend time talking to people and meeting them while they were trying to get everything booted up again. I got to take pictures with people — like I said before, the community’s so amazing. We had never played Trees — it has the best sound system we’ve ever gotten to play, they have great staff there. It ended up being great, even though we had that minor technical difficulty that will never happen again”, Ashleigh vows.
And hot on the heels of “The Witch” is another full-length album, due out next year. Doing everything in-house helps things move faster for the prolific and deeply creative band, rounded out by bassist Brandon White and drummer Ryan Claxton. “We have a lot of music; we’ve got a lot in the pipeline”, Ashleigh looks forward. “Because we do everything ourselves, it’s fun and easy for us to do and we can crank stuff out faster. We’re working on a single right now — we’ll probably put that out in maybe a month or two and the album will be later. Thematically, we want it to be about more positive things. It’ll still be really heavy, but thematically it maybe won’t be as dark as this one”, she reveals. “We’re in a better place now, we’re in a different place, and we’re always growing. There’s still bad shit that happens, but for the most part, we’ve come through that period and now we’re onto something else.”