Unleash The Body: serpentwithfeet Interviewed

“I always follow the passion and that little light…it’ll lead you to parts of yourself unknown…”

Coming up on the avant-garde fringes, Josiah Wise has long explored aural and emotional dissonance in his work. Now, he’s embracing the poetic power of intimacy on his most febrile and inviting album yet.

“Haruko/Love Poems by June Jordan. That’s been wonderful to read, that’s the one sticking out to me at the moment,” serpentwithfeet says, in response to a question about stimuli. In an interview with Alternative Radio before her death in 2002, Jamaican-American writer Jordan, a contemporary of Alice Walker and Audre Lorde, was asked about the role of the poet in society. Jordan replied: “The role of the poet is to deserve the trust of people who know that what you do is work with words. Then the task of a black poet is to rally the spirit of your folks, who can use it to pick themselves up, to rally and to continue or, even better, to jump higher.”

The reference makes sense when you observe the poetic profundity in serpentwithfeet’s artistic oeuvre. Since his debut almost a decade ago, language has been serpent’s specialty. He writes about matters of the heart as both an inner sea change, and a vision of radical solidarity with his community. His compositions, at a level that feels almost extrasensory, explore veiled stories of love and longing. “What would happen if I phrased the verse like this? What would happen if I sequence the words in this way?” serpent muses from his base in Los Angeles, his morning voice its own kind of evocative hum. “I’ve always been open to where language will take me. I write about the heart, the spirit and the mind, but it’s not until later that I can see the larger mosaic.”

To listen to serpentwithfeet sing is to experience something akin to rapture. His choir-trained voice is acrobatic and supple, contorting within the span of seconds from a near, clear whisper to a riff-heavy euphony. In a profile piece for Fader, Björk – who collaborated with serpent on ‘Fossora’-era number ‘Fungal City’ – referred to him as “one of the most emotionally generous singers”. She’s not wrong. My own serpentwithfeet vocal awakening occurred when I came across his BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge rendition of Beyoncé’s ‘Love Drought’; the resonant chillwave original made spiritual and spare through a hallow piano-led hymn. I’ve not looked back since.

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Josiah Wise, the son of a Christian bookstore owner and a choir director, sourced his artist name from the prelapsarian snake that tempted Eve to sin. His work is a manifestation of his namesake; a study in the sacred and secular, desire and control, interior and exterior discord with all the ceremonial pomp and symbolism of the Gospels. There was tumult and ambiguity on debut EP ‘blisters’, released in 2016, and emotional toil and the labour of love explored with poise and precision on debut album ‘soil’, released two years later. These early works centred self-care and preservation in a demanding, unfeeling world. “Every work is a skin of mine, and ‘soil’ is one of my skins,” he shares, likening his creative practice to skins he lives in before the process of shedding between projects. “It gives me new tools, not just conceptually but also musically. I think with each album I let my curiosity or a sensation lead me. With ‘soil’, I was interested in excavating and exploring. Then I’m like, okay, I saw that I can do this and I did it, now I wanna take a detour. It’s then up to the audience to decide what each work means to them.”

‘DEACON’, released in 2021, was the pivot project that cast aside the turbulence for softness, a body of work deliberate in its exploration of the breadth and depth of Black queer love. serpentwithfeet made pledges to his fellowship: a love carving in a tree, a symbol of the permanence of bonds forged under pressurised struggle. On ‘DEACON’, he realised love’s quiet, archived moments, fashioning an auditory space for protection, interconnectedness and validation. “I was interested in airiness and effervescence,” serpent says of his sophomore album. “The whimsy of love, the security of love and the love that you can trust, when you can really enjoy the nuance and laughter. It felt like a turning point, and it’s led me here.”

Last year serpentwithfeet previewed new music as part of Heart Of Brick, which opened in Hamburg before transferring to New York. A performance piece comprising music and dance, serpent moved between the immersiveness of a theatrical experience and the audio-visual world of new album ‘GRIP’; both enlivened by the inter-dimensional expanse of a Black gay club. “I was working on both in tandem,” serpent shares. “The album is not a narrative, but the anchor and spine for Heart Of Brick. I performed nine of the ten songs during the show, and wrote some additional music also. They’re companion pieces for sure, and it was such a wonder working on this project.”

serpentwithfeet teased the ‘GRIP’ experience with the Nosaj Thing-produced club excursion ‘Damn Gloves’, featuring Ty Dolla $ign and South African artist Yanga YaYa. Gone are the shrines, inanimate objects, totems and cloaks. This era is vamped-up glam grandeur: metallic-dipped leather gloves, snake-eyed lenses, chains and jewelled adornments. ‘GRIP’ is a paean to the gay nightlife that raised him; an elevated pursuit of stimulation in a nocturnal haze. “I wanted to create something that felt physical and immediate,” serpent says. “There’s nothing greater than being able to let it all loose. That for me is supreme; dancing and being indifferent to what’s around you. There’s nothing better than leaving the club drenched in sweat. There’s something beautiful about your clothes not being as fresh looking as when you walked in. We love a sweat stain!”

“I wanted to make something that felt like now,” serpent declares. ‘GRIP’, conceived mostly with producer collective I LIKE THAT, skirts the underground but has mass appeal. It’s a work more attuned to the modern RnB resurgence – serpent’s subdued strain complimenting the works of Destin Conrad, Ari Lennox and Victoria Monét. These tracks don’t barrel into one other; momentum is decelerated, build-up is sustained. ‘Humming’ – the most seductive number in the collection – could have been a song on Brandy’s underrated opus ‘Afrodisiac’, with serpent evoking her sultry, shaded alto. Lyrically, serpent leaned on the genre trope of elevated fantasy. “I was thinking of the neighbourhood handyman we see in films,” he says of ‘Humming’s’ genesis. “What comes with somebody who everybody thinks is hot? I was imagining that my car needs to get fixed, but I don’t trust this guy. He’s too smooth, he’s too charismatic, and I’m not getting spun in his web. But my car needs to get fixed. So, I imagine he came over, fixed my car, and also fixed something else too. My bird can’t sing anymore, he helps that bird sing and he helps something else sing too…”

‘GRIP’ is a deft balancing act between quotidian tales of domesticity, and the thrill that comes with pursuing a paramour across a sweat-stained dancefloor. serpent doesn’t shy away from teasing out frisson through touch with lines like, ‘Kisses on my shoulder replace that chip, if God is a God at all he lives in your grip’. serpent coos into his airy upper register on self-proclaimed centrepiece ‘Lucky Me’, a guitar-licked contemplative calm painting acts of intimacy between partners as sacrosanct: “I wanted to ruminate on physical closeness; the moments with a partner in the morning when they pull you closer in the bed, or when you’re dancing with somebody at the club. You feel like you could dance for three more hours. I hope as I get older, I never lose that excitement about a hand touch.” On ‘Ellipsis’, featuring Orion Sun, serpent evinces the elongated silences and hidden symmetries in lived-in relationships, when “you either don’t have the language, or you don’t have the courage to communicate. The three dots do the heavy lifting…”

As we approach the end of our allotted time, it dawns on me how calm and stately the serpentwithfeet of today is. Living comfortably in his mid-thirties, with a trifecta of album releases under his belt – roving between minor-key ambient ballads, esoteric soul, gospel-infused interludes, and now a deeper, more open exploration of after-hours RnB – serpentwithfeet is crossing the musical border with a smile on his face and an outstretched hand. How does a seasoned musician like serpentwithfeet keep the spark alive? What guides him from one creative quest to another?

“I always follow the passion and that little light, because you don’t know where that’s going to lead you. At the start of my career, with the limited perspective I had, I saw a little light and wondered if I should be looking for another one. At some point I gave myself room to follow that little light. It’ll lead you to not only the next chapter but it’ll lead you to parts of yourself unknown; new friendships, new books to read. It’s the greatest lesson I’ve learned.”

As seen in CLASH 127. Order your copy here.

‘GRIP’ is out now.

Words: Shahzaib Hussain
Photography: Keith Oshiro
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers
Fashion: Lateef Abdullah

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