“I think I overdid it,” says Christina Fleming. “Like always.”
She massages her skinny arms, still sore from the gym. Dressed in tight black workout pants and a gray hoodie, the soprano is tall and lithe, like a scrap of dark ribbon stretched taut. Her shoulder-length hair, bleached white-blonde and dyed a vibrant red at the bottom inches, licks the sides of her pale face like fire. Light shimmers from the dozen or so piercings that frame her face and adorn her nose.
The members of In Tenebris, fresh from the release of a full-length, self-titled album, are far from ready to lie down on the job. Pictured clockwise from center: vocalist Christina Fleming, guitarist JDavyd Williams, keyboardist Marshall Camden, bassist Nathaniel Acker and drummer Michael Johnson.
On this particular night Fleming is at band practice. I’m with her in the laundry room of her parents’ house. The washing machine next to me offers some distance from the litter box and the family cat’s latest gift to the world, so I hop up and hunker down to watch Fleming and the other members of In Tenebris set up their gear. The group is getting ready for a gig the following night—an S&M fetish party in D.C.
|Music Now: Listen to Chrysalis by In Tenebris:
The band’s setup is fairly straightforward: a female singer backed by guitar, bass, drums and keyboard. That last bit introduces a pop feel to a few of the group’s songs, creating a nice tension with the hard rock riffs that characterize most of their pieces. The band also avoids the use of standard amps, which combined with the half-acoustic, half-electronic drum kit, creates a distinctive live sound. The instrumental side of In Tenebris provides a solid show that can set bodies in motion, but it isn’t the reason I brave the litter box of doom. The voice is why I’m here.
A voice of her own
It’s quite a voice. Think opera with eyeliner. The alien diva from The Fifth Element, sans blue skin, tentacles and digital effects. Lucia Popp meets The Cure. Many listeners liken In Tenebris, with its female vocalist and dark, alt rock vibe, to Evanescence, but Fleming chafes at the comparison.
“I’ve gotten Natalie Merchant, LeAnn Rimes, Enya, Lacuna Coil. Evanescence. Blondie, I got that recently,” she says incredulously. “It’s like people can’t handle you existing in your own right and being your own thing.”
Fleming talks about music the way a tech support guy might talk about computers—underneath the public generalities lurk a zeal and technical knowledge that many people would be hard pressed to match. She’s studied voice with the same teacher, Tanya Kerr, for a decade, attending as many as four lessons a week, every week. She holds a music degree from the University of Virginia on top of that. Her education really shines through when she’s asked to talk shop, touching on subjects like French coloraturas and second resonators that would leave the average concertgoer just scratching his head.
Even the dark need freshening-up: The darlings of Outback Lodge’s goth scene rehearse in the laundry room of Fleming’s parents’ house.
To sit in on one of Fleming’s voice lessons is to be ensconced in a perfect bubble that the outside world dare not pop. The familiarity between teacher and student is evident as soon as they are together, but the conversation pivots entirely around the latest opera news and the health of their own throats and sinuses. The lessons, held in the living room of Kerr’s Charlottesville home, have something of the Old World about them, a sense of delicate precision and hard-won mastery.
Getting down to the business at hand, Fleming faces Kerr, who is seated at a grand piano—an antique Steinway—from which she tickles out scales and chord progressions in the middle ranges. Fleming, her sock feet crossing and uncrossing, begins to warm up. She holds her fingers to her diaphragm, like a surgeon seeking to dominate the minute vibrations of a fine scalpel in his hand. Her shoulders push forward. Her face tightens as she pushes the air from her lungs into her sinuses. The chords go higher and higher, and Fleming follows right along, reaching a high F-sharp.
The volume is unreal. I am agog that a human voice can produce so many decibels. Waves of air pound against my eardrums. From 6′ away, it is almost painfully loud. Later I learn that the technique, bel canto, was developed to bounce off the walls of the great opera houses of centuries past.
There’s a bit of elitism that comes with all that training. When I suggest taking Fleming to the opera in Richmond or D.C., her face takes on a pinched look, as if I had just asked her to take a bite from a sour lemon…studded with broken glass…and chased by a swig of drain cleaner.
“I’m kind of snotty when it comes to my opera,” she explains.
Sticks and stones
Fleming is an outsider, an Albemarle County transplant by way of Texas. Born to a Danish mother and an American father in Dallas, she lived in the Lone Star state until she was 12. Her childhood was spent in a small, Episcopalian private school where plaid jumpers and daily chapel services were the norm. She hated it.
“Mind numbing!” she exclaims. “I felt really guilty for being bored in chapel, but it’s like, ‘Wait, I don’t believe any of this! This isn’t how I think or feel.’”
When the family moved to Albemarle to get away from the crime in Dallas, Fleming was ecstatic about the fresh start. A seventh-grader in a new school, she quickly made friends with Lisa Williams, who is still her best friend today at age 25. By the end of eighth grade, however, Fleming started breaking away from most of her peers and began dressing in black.
“At the risk of sounding cliché or whatever, I think I felt like I was different in a way,” she says. “I always had this feeling that other kids kind of picked up on it too, whether I looked like them or not.”
She ended up eating lunch alone through most of high school. (“Totally fine with me,” she says in a staccato burst. “Preferred.”) Left to her own devices during one lunch break, she drove a safety pin through her own navel. It took a long time, she recalls, because it wasn’t too sharp.
“I remember putting pins through various parts of myself,” she says, pinching several inches of skin up and down her arms, “because it was interesting to watch.” She doesn’t elaborate.
Outside of class, her fellow students often screamed names at her. Sometimes they threw rocks. Once, they tried to push her down a flight of stairs.
Fleming finished her senior year of high school at Piedmont Virginia Community College, using dual enrollment credits.
A band brought to light
If high school yielded something good for Fleming, it happened in her freshman year when she met JDavyd Williams. Their chance encounter on the Downtown Mall led to a lasting friendship and laid down the roots of the musical collaboration that would become In Tenebris.
JDavyd was just starting to learn the guitar. A huge fan of Depeche Mode and Prince (check out his tattoo of the “Artist Formerly Known As…” symbol), his musical preferences were rather different from Fleming’s, which leaned more toward Bauhaus and Nine Inch Nails. But something between the two budding musicians just clicked, and soon they were practicing together every week.
Both of them tried their hands at songwriting and found that they liked it, with JDavyd penning most of the duo’s lyrics. “JDavyd is truly a songwriter,” gushes Fleming. “Even before he’s a guitarist, he’s a songwriter.” The addition of a bassist, along with JDavyd’s programming on a drum machine, fleshed out the group’s rhythm section, and In Tenebris was born. They adopted the name, a Latin phrase for “in darkness,” from the creepy descent into Hell in the space horror flick Event Horizon—though they later found out that they had misheard the Latin spoken in the movie. Still, the name stuck.
Their first gig took place at Western Albemarle High School, a short set at a battle of the bands. Despite the administration fussing at them after their sound check that they were too loud, they did get to perform, only to have quarters aggressively thrown at them by the teenage audience. One listener tried to unplug their PA system. Ignoring the interruptions, they played on. Fleming figures the band couldn’t have had a better first performance, since it was pretty much impossible to get an audience that harsh ever again.
The next gig, this time at a real venue, was at the now-defunct Bomb Shelter, the present-day site of McGrady’s Irish Pub in Charlottesville. Fleming, still a teenager, was so nervous that her hands and knees were shaking like a leaf in a hurricane. Her friend Lisa, watching from the front row, thought her vibrations were a bad attempt to dance really fast.
Since then, Fleming and In Tenebris have come a long way. They’ve played shows in California and New York, eliciting enthusiastic responses from crowds well outside their fan base in Central Virginia. After shows, people often ask for Fleming’s autograph. The group’s MySpace page boasts praise from far-flung places like Mexico, Spain, Italy and Germany. The band released a full length CD earlier in May.
The band’s sound has developed as well. The drum machine is gone, replaced by Mike Johnson, whose dreadlocks and unlined face belie the fact that he’s a father well into his 40s. There’s also Marshall Camden, who moved from Hampton Roads to Albemarle to serve as the band’s keyboardist. Nathaniel Acker, a senior at the College of William and Mary, completes the current lineup on bass.
Of the five, Fleming, who describes herself on more than one occasion as being “painfully introverted,” is the one who seems least likely to get onstage in rooms packed full of beer-fueled strangers. “You’re really naked in front of people,” she acknowledges. “It’s funny because I feel my most powerful and my most vulnerable simultaneously when I’m onstage.”
Words, words, words
More and more of Fleming’s lyrics have been working their way into the band’s play list. JDavyd still shoulders the majority of the band’s songwriting duties, but only just. The difference between the pair’s focus is pretty clear, at least to Fleming: “He tends to write the slightly more romantic, wistful and longing side of things.” She flashes a wry smile, her mouth skewed to one side. “A lot of my compositions, at least lately, have been a lot more angry.”
That much is obvious with songs like “Match,” a delightfully haughty, in-your-face challenge Fleming aimed at the men vying for her attention in the months after a major breakup last year: “I’m a match, always burning/you’ll see you can’t hold onto me/you’re too undiscerning/to stop the world and burn with me.”
Reading even more lyrics she sends in a 13-page e-mail of her “current cynical psychobabble,” as she calls it, I get the chilly, disquieting feeling of intruding on the confessions of someone confronting her own sense of self-worth: “I’m pulling pieces from myself/so I can feel like someone else,” she writes in the aptly named “Amputation.”
In “Chrysalis,” she assumes the role of a butterfly: “Fixating on my wounds again/pulling at my limbs just to see how far I bend/Pursuing every detail in my skin/I am self-dissection and I cherish every pin.” This is the teenage girl, grown up, still wanting to watch the needle sink into her skin.
I tell Fleming it’s hard to find joy in her songs.
“There’s a few that are written from a more positive perspective,” she replies. “I can’t think of any right now, but they’re there!” she says, laughing.
Then she gets serious. “I love life. I think it’s fantastic, but there are, you know, points of it that are less fun.”
Even for all the darkness of her lyrics—the points that are less fun—Fleming has managed to elude the tag of Tortured Artiste. She’s moved past idle play with safety pins and now runs her own business—a licensed piercing shop. A devotee of author Ayn Rand, she embraces a philosophy of independence and self-reliance, and unlike so many other musicians facing the limelight, Fleming doesn’t drink, smoke or do drugs. She fears it would affect her singing.
“I feel really alive when I’m singing, and purposeful,” she says, looking into the distance. “It makes me happier than anything else.”
Back in her parents’ laundry room, the band is speeding through its set when the wireless mic, that cheap piece of crap, cuts out. Fleming doesn’t skip a beat. She keeps singing. Her voice rises above the electric guitar, the pounding drums and crashing cymbals, the rushing sounds of the synth, and every syllable, every word is still distinct and audible. To call the vocal display impressive is an understatement. I am floored. This is the purpose, the power of pain.