Black Atlass: The anti-Justin Bieber

How fame found Alex Fleming

Elio Iannacci
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Photograph by Roger Lemoyne

Photograph by Roger Lemoyne

Thousands of musically inclined teens may dream of having the same career trajectory as Justin Bieber. Montreal’s Alex Fleming is definitely not one of them. In fact, the 19-year-old singer-songwriter deliberately skipped the now-expected path to a record deal, and decided to not post YouTube videos of himself playing cover songs. He also avoided entering talent competitions. Instead, Fleming—whose stage name is Black Atlass—spent most of his free time in high school producing and writing an EP of original material.

The self-titled six-track recording—made in his parents’ basement in London, Ont., and released in 2011—has won him a growing fan base. Even though it’s two years old, its adventurous mix of hip-hop bass lines, abrasive electronics and airy vocals continues to get reviewed on international blogs like a new release. “I wanted to make sure I already had a sound. I didn’t want to be discovered or moulded into something I wasn’t. So I didn’t rush into getting a manager until last year,” Fleming said via phone from his home in Montreal. “I’m glad I didn’t back down at the first sign of any money, either. I believe opportunities will come with time.”

Fleming’s first bout of fame came sooner than expected. His newly inked record contract with Brooklyn-based Fool’s Gold Records was barely dry when luxury retailer Louis Vuitton contacted him to license his current single, Paris. The song—which blends classical piano, electronics and ethereal soul—was used to score a film the French label made for the launch of a fashion exhibit at the Musées des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. The golden nod from LV caused a chain reaction. Vogue has praised his sleek approach in and out of the studio (his black-and-white video for Paris takes a page out of Antonioni’s stylish film of 1961, La Notte). And Fleming recently got entry into Christian Dior’s inner circle. The fashion house flew the Canadian teen to Paris, dressed him and sat him front-row for its Dior Homme spring/summer 2014 show. “They said they appreciate what I’m doing and talked about potentially making me be a part of what they’re doing, as well.”

“As far as tastemaker stamps go, it doesn’t get any better for a musician than Louis V and Dior,” says Toronto musician Isis Salam, who first heard of Fleming in Berlin while she was recording her upcoming disc. She sees Black Atlass as “a perfect example of youthful, artistic ignorance gone wild with technology. He is a reminder to people who get caught up in the industry to just keep making the music they feel like making.”

Fleming doesn’t find many contemporary heroes on the Billboard charts. “If you look at the past 10 years, there hasn’t been a dynamic field of male R & B singers,” he explains, citing a few exceptions: Drake, The Weeknd, Kanye West. He feels the songs are often “ridiculous”—guy-centric R & B either veers into “immature” terrain in hopes of nabbing a teen market or falls prey to what Fleming calls the “dirty, tacky, inappropriate and raunchy side” of the genre.

He avoids the obvious in both lyrics and production. “We’re thirsty for something artful and authentic in R & B,” he says. “So many are already gravitating toward artists like Frank Ocean”—a singer who represents a continental shift in R & B, with his cerebral approach to songwriting. Fleming’s musical education was shaped by his father, a social worker for Children’s Aid, and his mother, a researcher at the University of Western Ontario. Their combined music library included albums by Lou Reed, the Rolling Stones and Stevie Wonder, which Fleming considers his building blocks. “Kanye West has broken so many boundaries and changed what it means to be a rapper now,” he says. “I’m hoping to do the same with R & B.”

For his full-fledged album, he says he’s looking to female vocalists such as Adele and Beyoncé for inspiration. His next slew of untitled demos focus on Adele-like relationship issues (his muse is his long-time girlfriend, who lives in London, Ont.)—from a male perspective. He does have one thought about his famous countryman. “I don’t want to be Bieber,” he says, “but I’d love to reach an audience like his.”