Yearning For A Reprieve: serpentwithfeet Interviewed
Whether you are a casual listener or devoted fan, it is immediately evident when listening to serpentwithfeet that he is an open book. He muses on love, loss and spirituality with humorously subtle candour. The avant-garde musician is now back with ‘Apparition’, a three-track EP that serves as his first release since 2018’s ‘soil’. Produced alongside Wynne Bennet (Janelle Monae, Twin Shadow, Tayla Parx), it is a document of personal transformation.
The project is about facing the many ghosts that lay dormant in our psyche. The self-imposed, the voluntary and the unwanted. Trading the religious-based imagery of his previous work, ‘Apparition’ instead sees serpentwithfeet call on the supernatural to articulate a new chapter of self-discovery and reflection.
He comments: “I was thinking about all the different things we carry with us. We all have ghosts in our lives and it's really important to figure out which ghosts we have chosen to be tethered to, and which ghosts, other people have assigned to us or that we've inherited from our parents.”
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A warning to be cautious, he is speaking to the urgency of understanding the implications that can occur when we allow other people’s ghosts to make space in our lives. Yes, there is an undeniable splendour and joy that can arise with the transference of energies, but it can also prove to be dangerous and sometimes to our detriment.
“I'm thinking about how you can be hanging out with someone and when they leave, you're left with some sort of residue of a feeling and you feel a little bit heavier. Or maybe you feel a bit more buoyant. And what is that? What is that feeling?” The ghosts in question are the baggage and the demons that make a home in our minds. Lingering day to day, manifesting in varying forms of self-deprecation, self-harm and mental abuse.
For an artist like serpentwithfeet, who straddles between the struggles that come with being both black and gay, he is particularly familiar with these isolating sensations. As the child of a father who owned a Christian bookstore and a choir director mother, it would be hard not to internalise the homophobic rhetoric that is so commonplace within the church. Inheriting ghosts that waged a long-lasting war on his conscience.
He explains: “I think for black people and for gay people, it’s really easy to start accepting shame, doubt and fear. And you're like, where did this come from? This isn't my stuff. This is somebody else's stuff that I'm now claiming as mine. So why am I feeling this pain?”
This epiphany provides a stimulus to the key takeaway of the EP’s lead single ‘A Comma’. A downcast track with emotionally evocative lyrics. “I'm dressing wounds I cannot see. Someone else's beasts are riding me. I know this pain isn't mine. Yet I feel it all the time”. Reckoning with the years of pain that have crippled him, the track at the same time showcases a man in the process of healing. Addressing the realities of where his head is at, he sings, “I pray for punctuation, Lord, be a comma or a sweeter situation”.
Yearning for a pause and some reprieve, he is actively accepting the inevitably of bad days. Rather than looking to a potentially destructive source of escapism, he is now more in tune with his feelings. “It was such an exercise for me because I grew up in a house where I was taught even when things are awful, you still smile. Even if the world around you is on fire, you still thank God. You don't actually express your grievances”.
What’s intriguing about ‘Apparition’ is that while it can be received as dark, sombre and emotive, it is ultimately optimistic. Each of the tracks are brimming with a semblance of quiet and muted self-assurance. Most notably heard in the refrain of ‘The Hill’ where like a chant he sings “I’m better now. I finally cut my giants down”.
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It is also markedly inward in its totality. serpentwithfeet’s work has always been introspective but the tracks that made up ‘blisters’ and ‘soil’ tended to feature his romantic partners as the primary subject. This go round; he is the subject. serpentwithfeet himself is at the apex of each story being told. “I was very invested in what my lovers were doing. Now there’s a little less investment in that. I’m really interested in what I’m doing”.
With the focus shifting from other people to himself, listeners can bear witness to him taking responsibility and holding himself accountable. “I think I’m pointing less fingers,” he muses. “When I listen back to the old stuff, I can see that I was definitely in a headspace where I was pointing a lot of fingers. Especially on ‘Four Ethers’”.
Part of that new responsibility requires being more intentional with who he decides to engage with romantically and this was inspiration for ‘Psychic’. The EP’s closing track, serpentwithfeet is treading familiar terrain in its dealings of queer intimacy.
This time however, it is apparent that the man we knew on tracks like ‘fragrant’ and ‘messy’ is absent. Whereas before he was wilful with who he decided to navigate sex and relationships with, ‘Psychic’ is about the glory of being equally yoked and truly compatible. “I think in the past maybe my standards were a little low. With ‘Psychic’, I’m being clearer. I want a man who’s intuitive. I want a man who does his own spiritual work”.
Despite, a love interest being the song’s anchor, it is clear that the song is equally about him and his spiritual journey as much as it is about the qualities he’s looking for in a partner. They are parallel to the man he himself is trying to become and wants to be. Its placement as the final song on the EP was a deliberate choice, consolidating his personal growth and maturity. “I think going from ‘A Comma’ to ‘Psychic’ is my way of being very clear about what I’m interested in”.
‘Apparition’ serves as a bridge; between the old and new and the dark and the light. serpentwithfeet doesn’t want to solely dwell on melodrama, indignity and repentance anymore. “I wanted to use this EP, sort of as a pivot for what the new things will sound like and feel like”.
Teasing his sophomore album, he confirmed that the music he created with Wynne Bennett is only a sample of what they have worked on. “It was really easy to create songs with her. And we have more, this is just some of it”.
He has laid his ghosts to rest and is ready to show the multiplicity of his musical influences and who he is as a person. “I just want to show people that there’s a lot of colour here. A lot of icing.”
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'Apparition' EP is out now.
Words: Sope Soetan
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