The first time we met Alex Fleming, COVID-19 was just starting to creep into Canada. “I heard stores have been selling out of toilet paper,” the singer, better known as Black Atlass, remarked bemusedly, hanging in his Toronto studio. Little did he realize that within a few months, the sultry album he was putting finishing touches on, Dream Awake, would bring warm bodies together during isolation and contribute to the impending post-coronavirus baby boom.
The latest signee to XO Records, Black Atlass traffics in steamy, spectral alt-R&B—nocturnal bedroom jams for the lustful and lovesick. “It’s definitely rooted in love and relationships,” he says of his music. “That’s a big part of what inspires me, and many other people too—it creates a path in a lot of people’s lives.”
Born in Montreal and raised in London, Ontario, Fleming began releasing his own self-produced music back in 2012, when he was still in high school. One tune, “Paris,” caught the ear of an exec at Louis Vuitton, who contacted the singer asking to use the song for a campaign. From there, Black Atlass has become something of a muse for the fashion world, regularly being flown out to runway shows and getting tapped to appear in ads by brands like Saint Laurent and Alexander Wang.
Along the way, he’s also piqued the interest of one Abel Tesfaye. Black Atlass signed with XO Records in 2018 after The Weeknd and creative director La Mar Taylor took a liking to his music. The Weeknd’s most recent advice to Fleming? “He just encouraged me to keep following my vision and stay in line with that. And to not worry too much about outside forces.”
Of course, outside forces have been a bit harder to ignore than usual these days. Black Atlass tells us that although COVID-19 thwarted his rollout plans for Dream Awake (which dropped mid-pandemic), he hasn’t let it deter him. In fact, he’s taken it as an opportunity to start working on his next album. “I’m just getting together a bunch of new music; really using this downtime to focus creatively on my process and on writing and coming up with the concept for the next project,” he says. (Take a peek into that process here.)
Watch the latest episode of Northern Clutch featuring Black Atlass above. Then scroll through for our chat with him about linking up with XO, entering the fashion world, and a potential collab with The Weeknd.
Tell us how you came to be a part of the XO family. Who discovered you?
Well, I met La Mar [Taylor] through a mutual friend. I actually met him at an AMA after party for Abel. I think it was when Beauty Behind the Madness came out, and that was my first initial like glimpse into the world they were living. Through that, La Mar just kept his eye on stuff. I ended up being out in L.A. about a year later. Stuff was slowing down in my career and I wasn't sure what I was going to do next. And I'd just gone through a breakup, so I wanted to just get out of the winter, out of Canada, and go somewhere that made me feel happy. La Mar saw that I was out there through Instagram and hit me up and was like, “Yo, would you like to get dinner while you're down?” I thought it was just gonna be us connecting for more of a casual meeting, but over the course of that dinner he talked about how everyone loves what I'm working on and that he and Abel would really love to have me part of the XO family. I can say that that was the craziest night of my life. [Laughs.]
What’s your relationship with Abel like?
It's great. He's been a mentor to me throughout the process. Obviously he's busy still crafting his own story, so we don't get to see each other too often. But when we do, he's always making sure to give me some feedback or give me some form of positive encouragement. It’s really like a family—everyone really supporting each other. While making Dream Awake, I sat with him a few times and played some of the music, and he gave me feedback throughout the process, which was definitely crazy. It's crazy even to go into the studio with him as he's working on his album—to hear some of that is energizing. The creative process can lengthy and draining, so just being around his energy as he is creating reinvigorates me every single time.
What does the title Dream Awake mean to you?
It’s a metaphor for a feeling of lust. I wanted a title that really captures that feeling. I feel like throughout that time you're just in a daze and you're going through so many emotional ups and downs, from fear to excitement to lust to potentially love. That's really the world I wanted to paint throughout the process of listening to the album.
What was the last dream you had?
Hmm. I don't know! My dreams are super random. Like, I feel like people always describe stuff that's so film-like, where they have this whole story unfold in their dreams. But I'll be at, like, my childhood house, out on the front lawn talking to Brad Pitt and then I'm an old man. It’s just so random. [Laughs.] There is no cohesive story at all. It's just like a montage of fucked up stuff. But it is fun to trying to remember them.
Billboard called you “Fashion’s Latest It-Boy.” How do you feel about that?
[Laughs.]I feel like you have to write something to get people going to click on the article.
Well, how would you describe your personal style?
I'm definitely kind of a mix between leisure, like sweat clothes, and then more traditional, European and Americana style. I like stuff that feels worn-in and that feels like it molds to you. I'm starting to get super into leather and denim, as well as old vintage T-shirts. I like stuff that feels like it's lived a little bit.
Did you always wear black, even before joining XO?
[Laughs.] I did, yeah. I actually went to a Catholic high school and there was a uniform. And the only uniform combo that looked good was the black sweater vest with the black pants. You can’t do the khakis. I mean, I guess you can, but I couldn’t.
You got your first big break when Louis Vuitton picked up your song for a campaign. How’s your relationship with the fashion world developed since then?
Well, mostly through a lot of collaborations musically between fashion campaigns or commercials using my music. Early on, through being featured in Vogue and a lot of fashion magazines, I was able to meet the designer at Dior Homme at the time, Kris Van Assche, and he flew me out and put me front row at Paris Fashion Week. He said that my music really spoke to him and inspired him throughout his creative process. So, yeah, that just opened up another world to me where I could see how my music could inspire other creatives to inspire their work in different ways, which I thought was something I really would like to keep incorporating into my music.
Damn. From London, Ontario to front row at Paris Fashion Week. How’d that feel?
It still feels surreal. Even just going from being out in L.A.—or Abel inviting me to the studio and being around all of these people that I've looked up to for so long and that I grew up listening to… To go from that to going back to visit my family in London, Ontario and driving by my old high school and everything, it just feels like two completely different worlds. It feels like I am coming out of the Matrix. [Laughs.] But I love it. I love the more laidback atmosphere of London—it just feels so peaceful and quiet. Even living in Toronto, you don't get a lot of that quiet; there's just constant hustle and bustle around you. So to just step outside and almost hear nothing is really soothing.
When can we expect to hear you and The Weeknd on a track?
I would love to make that happen. I want it to happen naturally. I want it to be something where we can really sit down together in the same room and work on an idea together and feed off each other's energy, rather than just sending him something with an open verse. You know, I feel like I really want to do justice to the process of having the opportunity to work with him. So I'm just being patient, waiting for whenever the right moment comes.