Ashleigh Semkiw sat on the hardwood floor of the studio at the Shapes Fitness for Women in Flower Mound, thirty miles northeast of Fort Worth, and stretched her legs. The gym’s pink walls are covered with cheeky motivational slogans such as “Run harder than your mascara.” Typically, the 39-year-old mother of five would be here for workout classes, but the gym owner, a friend, has let her use the studio after hours.
Ashleigh checked her makeup in the mirrored walls and pushed wisps of her bleach-blond hair behind her ears. She adjusted her nylon shorts emblazoned with the Buc-ee’s logo. She had never seen anything quite like the iconic Texas gas station chain before moving to Denton County from Toronto a couple years ago. Now her home is full of Buc-ee’s swag; the beaver mascot has unseated an angel as her Christmas tree topper. She once would have considered this blasphemous.
Ashleigh’s husband, Colin Parrish, and their friends Ryan Claxton and Cody Casillas, arrived at the gym with their instruments—a guitar for Colin, a bass for Cody, and drums for Ryan. With Ashleigh on vocals, they make up Tulip, a heavy metal band she and Colin founded in 2018 when they were living in Canada and leading the worship band at their evangelical church.
In the dance studio, Tulip’s members prepared to rehearse; the next night, they would perform Dallas’s Deep Ellum neighborhood, at the iconic venue Trees, which has hosted everyone from Nirvana to Nick Jonas. It would be the band’s first show since the COVID-19 pandemic derailed its European tour. As the guys converted the studio into a rehearsal space, Ashleigh performed a conversion of her own. She swapped her sneakers for a pair of chunky black platform boots and did a few vocal warm-ups. Ashleigh was once a professional opera singer, and it showed as she hit a few high notes with ease.
Tulip stood in formation as Ashleigh gripped her microphone and launched into “Midnight in the Desert,” part homage to Texas’s beauty and part retelling of Ashleigh and Colin’s escape from their old world.
“Sink into this raylessness of night
The visions vanish
Symbols all around, don’t look down
So soothe and rock me
Arching vapors calm me down
The cord is broken.”
Ashleigh and Colin knew they were in trouble after they first met. One fall night, in 2011, they convened for worship band rehearsal at Westminster Chapel at High Park, the evangelical church in Toronto they both attended. Ashleigh, then 28, spotted Colin at the back of the sanctuary by his guitar case, and she bounced over to introduce herself. Colin, then 26, played it cool initially, but it wasn’t long before they hit it off and discovered they had a ton in common.
Both were children when their respective parents became evangelicals. In their twenties, Ashleigh and Colin became the first in their families to attend Westminster Chapel, which takes a more literal approach to the Bible than the churches in which they grew up and espouses more hard-line values, especially around sexuality. It was founded in 2008 by British reverend Joe Boot, who served in the UK with prominent evangelist Ravi Zacharias and ran the Canadian arm of Zacharias’s international ministry. (In 2021, Zacharias, who died in 2020, faced allegations of rape and spiritual abuse.) Ashleigh’s family members eventually joined the church.
Ashleigh and Colin had each married young, she at 22 and he at 21, under pressure they felt from their families and the strict purity culture of their church communities. Colin met his wife at a Christian summer camp. Ashleigh’s husband was her high school sweetheart.
And they both loved music. Ashleigh studied opera at Northwestern University, and she had performed with the Chicago Opera Theater and the North Carolina Opera. Colin took up the guitar after getting turned on to the Red Hot Chili Peppers in his teens. Eventually, he got into heavy metal and playing the drums, and he performed in bands through his twenties while working as a mechanical engineer. When a Westminster pastor heard about their musical talents, they were asked to join the worship band. Colin played the guitar and drums and Ashleigh played piano and sang.
As the worship band developed, they spent more time together rehearsing and preparing for church services, often late into the night. That commitment blended into socializing during coffee breaks and pizza runs. They developed crushes on each other. Sometimes they’d discuss their marriages and whether they had really wanted to marry so young. They both felt like they had married a sibling, not a life partner. They didn’t say it out loud, but they were falling in love. It was agony. “Immediately we were both like, ‘But there’s nothing we can do about this,’ ” Ashleigh said. Though they felt it was sinful, they nurtured their feelings.
Within a couple years, Ashleigh and her husband were expecting twins. The reality that Ashleigh would be even further out of reach hit Colin especially hard. She and Colin decided to disconnect. Though it was heartbreaking, they stuck with the decision. Ashleigh threw herself into women’s Bible studies, leaning into the role of Christian wife and mother. “It was hard to see her from a distance and think that everything we felt and been through was just going to be basically flushed down the drain,” Colin said.
A couple years later, Ashleigh had her third child. Colin and his wife had their first. By 2017, Ashleigh and Colin slowly floated back into each other’s lives, and their children became friends. They also started making music together again through the worship band, a way to spend sanctioned time together doing what they loved.
But Colin also had something else in mind beyond the confines of traditional praise and worship: he felt Ashleigh had the vocal chops for heavy metal, specifically symphonic metal. She was skeptical, but open-minded. They could never have foreseen how drastically metal would change their lives.
Symphonic metal emerged in Europe in the nineties and combines traditional heavy metal characteristics, such as distorted guitar and pounding drums, with aspects of classical music; tracks often incorporate full orchestras, and many bands feature classically trained female vocalists. Among the best-known symphonic metal bands are Nightwish, Within Temptation, and Apocalyptica. Colin was drawn to the genre’s catchy yet expansive chord progressions and bone-crushing drums, and to how metal tackled philosophical questions.
He showed Ashleigh, a devoted hip-hop, jazz, and R&B fan, that metal could be groovy, even danceable. She was an easy convert and loved the intense emotionality and the juxtaposition of symphonic and metal sounds. “He started playing me a bunch of stuff that I really liked which sounded a bit more hip-hop-ish, which is this [metal] style called djent, once I figured that I can dance to this, I can move to this, it’s not just screaming . . . I really fell in love with it,” Ashleigh said.
Ashleigh and Colin formulated a Christian metal project and named their band Tulip, an acronym for the five principles of Calvinism.
T: total depravity (the Calvinist conception of original sin)
U: unconditional election (God chooses who will be saved, the “elect”)
L: limited atonement (Jesus only died for the elect)
I: irresistible grace (how God brings the elect to salvation)
P: preservation of the saints (the elect cannot lose salvation)
They also started to openly acknowledge their mutual romantic feelings, though they didn’t act on them. They could only envision being together later in life, when they were older and free from the bonds of child-rearing and, perhaps, their marriages.
It was essentially a love affair by this point. But then, in the spring of 2017, Colin’s wife discovered social media messages between them. They were affectionate messages, nothing more than that. But it was enough for her to alert their families and the church. A bomb had exploded.
Colin and his wife left Westminster at the request of church elders, who, Ashleigh says, demanded that she never speak to him again. Tulip was disbanded. Ashleigh says she was mandated by the church to attend Christian counseling sessions. Divorce was not an option except in limited, dramatic circumstances. It was not presented as a possibility for Ashleigh, a prominent member of the church whose marriage the elders upheld as an ideal example.
Despite the church’s demands, Ashleigh and Colin didn’t stop communicating. They messaged back and forth. Someday, they wrote, they’d move to a warm, isolated place together, maybe buy a plot of desert land. Texas kept coming up. They exchanged photos of Terlingua, a tiny town near Big Bend. As a dual American-Canadian citizen, Ashleigh could possibly get them there.
They spent some time hatching an escape plan. On New Year’s Day, 2018, Colin left home with just a backpack. He rented a commercial space behind a strip club outside of Toronto. It was cheap and he could pay with cash. The first night, he slept alone on a cot using his winter parka as a pillow. Ashleigh eventually told her husband it was really over. They would continue living together until they could figure out an arrangement for their children. She went to Colin, often late at night, after the kids fell asleep.
Making music became their way of coping with the trauma. They were praying for answers for how to fit all of this into a Christian framework. They revived Tulip. Colin had his guitar, drums, computer, and recording hardware. They laid down the tracks of their first, self-titled EP over just a few days. Colin composed the instrumentals while Ashleigh wrote lyrics and melodies, finding inspiration in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Puritan and Calvinist hymns. Colin had to keep the lights low or off to avoid being seen, as the rental space wasn’t allowed to be a residence. Most of their compositions were written in darkness. The neighbors weren’t around at night, so Ashleigh felt safe pushing her clean and refined voice to a rougher place.
“Fallen, fallen! World on fire,” she sings in the chorus of the opening track, “Total.” “And on account of His anger, will we be ashamed of our harvest? / And you will ask yourself, ‘Why have I been so sure of all that’s been given to me?’ / You can’t escape it, this total depravity.”
Ashleigh and Colin still held their religious beliefs and were terrified of the spiritual implications of their relationship. When the church found out they were finalizing their divorces, the elders made a final push over the next few months. Ashleigh received calls, emails, and impromptu visits from church members imploring her to return to her husband and the church. Her family urged her to forget about Colin and reminded her of her obligations to God. She didn’t listen. Having their relationship thrust into the light ended up convincing them that they were meant to be together.
In March 2018, the church sent her a letter. “It is with heavy hearts and deep regret that the elders of Westminster Chapel write this letter to you as a final call to repentance.” The church accused her of violating church oaths, including one about upholding “sexual purity.”
The elders demanded she “repent and renounce all contact and involvement in this ungodly relationship.” If she did not respond within a week, they wrote, “we will have no choice but to implement church discipline.” It was the most devastating thing Ashleigh had ever read. She was still devout and was terrified for her soul. She and Colin had failed to convince the church to see their side. She realized she was about to lose her family and the community into which she had poured a decade of her life. But even after church elders showed up at Ashleigh’s home in a last attempt to convince her to repent, she refused.
The next month, Ashleigh learned she had been excommunicated in absentia. The elders, she said, held a meeting after a service. She heard that the congregation was told to no longer associate with Ashleigh and that doing so would be like inviting Satan to continue to “infect” the congregation. Within a few months, Ashleigh’s sisters and parents cut off communication with her. They have barely spoken since. (Westminster Church officials didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Ashleigh and Colin left Toronto for Texas shortly after that, hoping for a clean break to rebuild their lives. They chose to settle in Argyle, about forty miles northwest of Dallas, and bought a spacious house on a winding country road surrounded by pecan trees. The first time Ashleigh saw the house, she remembers, her entire body relaxed.
At the same time, however, Ashleigh and Colin still feared for their souls. They tried attending a local Baptist church. But one night, as they were about to say grace, they stopped and looked at each other and wondered: Are we just talking to the air? She and Colin finally had each other. They decided they didn’t need God anymore.
Still, Ashleigh felt torn between choosing her own happiness and violating God’s will. She had believed her whole life that unless you had Jesus as your savior, you were destined for hell. The journey to peace meant unlearning her Evangelicalism, which she did through religious trauma therapy, and by committing to Tulip. To really do the latter, she also needed to unlearn opera.
For that, she turned to Melissa Cross, the renowned Texan vocal coach known as the “Queen of Scream” who specializes in training metal singers to scream in a “healthy” way that avoids vocal-cord damage. (One of her signature exercises involves the student singing while holding a pencil between their teeth.) Cross hails from San Antonio, once known as the “heavy metal capital of the world,” and is now based in New York. She has coached many metal heavyweights, including the lead singers of Slipknot and Disturbed.
Cross, a classically trained singer herself, had never had a professional opera singer as a client and was delighted to take on Ashleigh’s voice. “Working with an instrument like that is the highlight of my life,” Cross said. One of the first ways Ashleigh challenged her operatic sound was to keep her vibrato at bay. That meant projecting clear notes instead of flourishing them with rapid pulsation, a hallmark of opera. Cross knew Ashleigh had truly begun to transition to metal when she stopped microanalyzing her voice and instead allowed the act of singing to become a sensory experience. Ashleigh stopped mimicking the ideal sound she thought she had to produce.
“What she’s definitely helped me do is to find my real healthy belt, which, as an opera singer, is very counterintuitive,” Ashleigh said. “It’s more present, more powerful than just . . . pretty.” There’s still a hurdle: actual screaming. While Ashleigh has begun working on screaming and growling, cornerstones of heavy metal, they’re not perfected to the point at which she’s comfortable performing them. They might never be. “Ashleigh does not feel comfortable going ‘RAAHH,’ ” Cross explained. “I told her there’s no pressure to do this sound. Because if you do this sound, it needs to be part of a genuine expression.”
For Ashleigh, dismantling her spiritual beliefs and building up her vocal training were intertwined. She was rejecting what she had been taught about the primacy of purity over passion and recognizing that a strict adherence to dogma and discipline had cost her personal and creative freedom and fulfillment.
Ashleigh’s transformation in 2018 yielded a new life and mindset. The year culminated with the release of Tulip, the band’s EP. That, combined with music videos that garnered tens of thousands of views online, put the group on the metal map. Tulip embarked on its first tour in 2019, opening for Swedish metal band Evergrey across Texas and the U.S.
In April 2019, with their divorces finalized, Ashleigh and Colin got married, in Marfa, under a blanket of Texas stars, just like they had imagined. In July 2020 they welcomed their first child, Zelda. That year, Tulip reached new heights. The band was set to tour Europe, opening for Finnish metal star Tarja, the former lead singer of Nightwish, who’s also classically trained. But the pandemic delayed the tour until 2023. The extended time at home prompted Tulip’s most intimate album, The Witch, which dropped last fall. Each track delves into the conflict between Ashleigh and her family. On October 21, the band will release its latest single, “The Hanged Man,” from its forthcoming album, The Perpetual Dream, which will drop in early 2023, around when Tulip finally embarks on its long-delayed tour with Tarja.
For Ashleigh, a self-described “stage animal,” playing live shows is when she truly feels immersed in the metal community. “The energy is nuts . . . the people are so warm and supportive,” she said. “They look really scary, but they’re big teddy-bear people.” After concerts, other ex-evangelicals sometimes approach her to share their own stories about leaving the faith.
In Texas and in metal, Ashleigh and Colin finally found salvation. Now, instead of prayers before dinner, they’ve started singing Willie Nelson’s “Beautiful Texas” with Zelda. Their children from their previous marriages, who make regular visits to Argyle, are often at the table, singing along too. As for Tulip, in addition to finishing The Perpetual Dream, the band is planning shows in Texas in the near future. Selling tickets and albums is ideal, but for Ashleigh and Colin, it’s their journey forward that’s paramount.
“It doesn’t matter if nobody listens to it, and it doesn’t matter how much work it takes to complete it. It’s something that we can do together,” Colin said. “That’s the way we live our life. A future of building things together.”