Serpentwithfeet Is a Champion for Mindfulness
© Kate Owen
The multi-talented artist takes us on a trip to Rockaway Beach to discuss "soil," love, religion and Brandy.
It’s almost too perfect: serpentwithfeet appears at Broad Channel, the last stop before the A train carries you over the water to Rockaway Beach, with a suitcase branded "WISDOM." It’s a fuschia-colored statement piece of carry-on luggage that the artist born as Josiah Wise wields while batting away inquiries as to its contents. “Just my bag of tricks,” he demured.
Wisdom is certainly something that the 29-year-old carries with him. On record he is poetic and thoughtful; in person he is much the same. Wise talks easily in worldly soundbites, speaking from a considered point of view informed by personal experience and knowledge he has imbibed from his elders. He offers up references to figures of black excellence that have come before him: celebrated dancer and choreographer Geoffrey Holder; poet Gwendolyn Brooks; Harry T. Burleigh, a composer and arranger who Wise explains taught Czech composer Antonín Dvořák about African American spirituals. Oh — and Brandy. “I think she’s somebody else who so boldly made black music,” he said.
Wise’s own music, an expansive swell of R&B and gospel with a clear classical thread, is shaped by a path charted by many serpentwithfeet feature before this one: a devout Christian upbringing in Baltimore, resulting in an 18-year musical education in church. Time in Philadelphia studying music at the University of the Arts with an obsession with everything classical. Denial to the graduate-level conservatories of Wise’s dreams, spurring a flight to Paris. A return to America and an arrival to New York, where he focused on eking out an inexpensive existence in an expensive city and writing songs.
In 2015 Wise’s music made it to the influential ears of Tri Angle Records’ Robin Carolan, who came onboard to help shape Wise’s fledgling career. The following year, he released the grandiose yet tender “blisters” EP with production by labelmate, The Haxan Cloak, layered with orchestral strings, harps and horns. Wise asserted himself as an artist carving out his own space as a black, gay man singing about his world and desires.
“The people who are most successful, we understand what their politics are,” Wise said. “Now I think there is a kind of pressure — where do you stand? And personally, I love that.”
And now we are here, having relocated to the beach, talking about Wise’s debut LP, “soil.” (He wanted to be near water.) “I know what I know, and that’s what I sing about,” Wise said to me. “As time marches on, I get more clear about what it is I want to say.” The gentle clink of two gold bracelets around Wise’s left wrist punctuates our conversation.
As with all of Wise’s work, “soil” is inspired by events, people or feelings that he has personally encountered. The central theme of desire — specifically, Wise says, desire of other black, gay men—remains, perhaps this time voiced even more clearly.
The album’s regal single “Cherubim” reaches back into the religious language of worship he knows so well (“I get to devote my life to him”), flipping it into worship of another man, as Wise likens himself to the unearthly angel attendees of god. “We hear so many lyrics talking about how we don’t have time for people, specifically with men. And not just ‘I’m unavailable.’ But ‘I’m unavailable and I’m gonna treat you like shit.’ And we accept that music as the norm,” Wise said. “I thought it would be really fun to talk about the inverse.”
Wise has always had this knack for wielding language beautifully. From dicks to devotion, he can take any concept and breathe poetry into it. And he does so simply, but not plainly. “With my writing, I try not to be a bully,” he said. “I don’t want to use language that feels so lofty that nobody can get inside the work.”
Sonically, the 11-track album features the handprints of Tri Angle’s experimental producer mmph and sound designer Katie Gately, A$AP Rocky associate Clams Casino and Adele producer Paul Epworth. In tandem with them, Wise attacks things differently than his previous release — less strings, more drums and the introduction of a lower register that tempers his easy run all the way up to falsetto. He’s described “soil” before as “my roots catching up with me,” a ruminating on his origins. This comes out in the sound, of course with all the serpentwithfeet inklings and flourishes, but ultimately and in his own words, “soil” is R&B and gospel.
“In the same ways that we think black and gay are pejorative, I think we do the same thing to R&B or gospel,” Wise said. “We think those always need to be hyphenated — like avant garde R&B. And I think that’s so reductive. Those things are inherently expansive, so I’m much more interested in adding to that conversation.”
In July, Wise will be 30. As you approach a new decade and leave your twenties behind, it gets you thinking. Wise says he has been contemplating who he wants to be to a lot of R&B. And he has deduced that it involves slowing down, and being more intentional and mindful of everything. Taking stock of where he is, feeling rooted to a place. A dream, he tells me, of some place down south with a solid brick home. A solid brick home with five bedrooms, to be more precise, a nice refrigerator, and beautiful cream carpet. “I don’t know how much of that will happen in my thirties, but I would definitely like the nice refrigerator and nice carpet part,” Wise laughed. “I’ve been thinking about that.”
The Best Three Pieces of Advice that serpentwithfeet Ever Got (and Actually Took)
Make a science of it.
“The first piece of advice I've ever received and used, make a science of it. A while ago, I was into ... I thought I wanted to make a comic book and so I had a friend that was an illustrator and he told me that you can be a terrible illustrator if you make a science of it, whatever your characters look like. It can be oblong or strange just make a science of it. So I've used that for everything.”
Follow the sensation.
“The second piece of advice is from a voice teacher in college that told me to follow … to follow the sensation. Don't think about how it sounds. Don't think about what you think it should sound like. Think about how does it feel to follow the sensation, and go with that.”
Don’t make it okay for someone to do you wrong.
“The third piece of advice, maybe not so much advice, but it's this line in a Brandy song, her song called finally and the lyric is, ‘I would have made it okay for you to do me wrong. I would have stayed. I would have played the role one more day if I don't hear my conscience say ... ’ and she goes on, but I like the idea of ... sometimes we make it okay for somebody to do what's wrong, so you shouldn't make it okay for someone to do you wrong. So maybe not so much advice, but that line has stuck with me. It's advice to leave as if ... to, to, to, to depart if you've been done wrong by. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.”