I met Josiah Wise, the 29-year-old who performs elastic, wildly experimental R&B under the moniker serpentwithfeet, on one of those precarious early spring days in New York. This is to say that the weather hadn't quite turned yet; the trees were still bare, and the temperature hadn't fully broken from its usual dance with winter. I'm certain we're still due for at least one more snowfall, though in recent years, those snowfalls are more like 12-hour nor'easters. But Wise and I met at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden on the ground of the Brooklyn Museum — an interesting location that proves oddly prescient. The hope was that its cherry blossom trees would be in full bloom, and thus make for prime photo-opps, and some of the trees were. For many trees, though, blossom buds were only just developing on that sunny 55-degree March afternoon.
I quickly learned that Wise, who strolled in from Bushwick wearing an iconic high-concept Japanese street-chic look, actually prefers to be called "serpent." (I kept calling him Josiah, to the point where he scrunched up his face and gently corrected me). And this individualism was one of many earthy qualities the singer-songwriter innately possesses. For starters, there was the open-shirted chest hair he proudly sported, a look that a scroll through his Instagram feed — full of content both hilariously colloquial and intimate — quickly reveals he rocks like no one else. Serpent is also grounded by a deeply spiritual upbringing in Baltimore, having grown up singing in church with a mother who stressed academics over everything — not uncommon among many Black queer people slash Black people in general — thus making him instantly relatable to many.
Serpent is inspired by tour-de-force singers like Brandy, aka America's Sweetheart of the '90s, aka the Vocal Bible, whose vocal technique and lyrics cast an impression that is both ethereal yet divinely down-to-earth. I also learned in our conversation that Serpent is inspired by literary giants and performers alike with similarly compelling duality, from Black wordsmiths like Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, to dance-performance icons like Geoffrey Holder, to musical innovators such as Bjork and D'Angelo. Serpent brings dolls onstage and on tour with him, including one named after Brandy in her likeness, and keeps them in sanctuary in his home, as if eternally and creatively connected to the playful nostalgia of childhood — a process he says isn't weird at all. And it's easy to agree: think of how many people see a tarot card reader or get their chakras aligned by self-proclaimed mystic visionaries without question.
Photography: Johnny De Guzman
Further driving the point home on all matters earthbound, after releasing several singles online and 2016's sweeping, orchestral blisters EP, Serpent is ready, like the cherry blossoms in bloom, to spring forward with his debut LP soil. Where past releases dealt in the abstract, relying more heavily on grand arrangements and his silken, godlike vocal prowess, soil is dealing in the realistic, murky, maddening, and exhilarating matters of the heart. As such, the debut has adopted a decidedly more stripped back synthesis; sonic architects Katie Gately, A$AP Rocky contemporary Clams Casino, and Paul Epworth (who was behind much of Adele's blockbuster 21) all help till serpentwithfeet's soil, creating a rich-enough sonic palette, that if you just add water, and some sunlight (or in cases of tracks like "bless ur heart" and "mourning song," tears, praise and worship), you'll surely feel like you've grown with him. Soil is, by-and-large, a self-assured cohesive emotional exercise, and a compulsively re-listenable journey that glowingly heralds serpentwithfeet's due time to blossom fully in the spotlight.
We walk through the grounds of the Botanic Garden and giddily reminisce about old Destiny's Child songs and the glory of Black '90s sitcoms, and it's like talking to a long-lost queer brother. Read on, as Serpent talks candidly with PAPER about the importance of being ever-more present, Black, and queer in his work and private life, ending his Return of Saturn period, his doll collection, Brandy's enduring influence, and so much more.
In interviews about this record, you've alluded to this recording being like a series of emotional exercises. What do you mean by that?
It felt important to come from my experiences more pointedly. I was afraid to express desire. I had been dating for years, but I never talked about it in my work. I think that for a lot of gay people, queer people, gay men, queer men, to be like "I just happen to be gay," like no, I don't just happen to be gay, I don't just happen to be queer. And that's fine if people feel that way, that's definitely not a read, but for me to not talk about it was a disservice to me, and the people I love. What I eat for breakfast and who I love is a part of how I move; I wanted to use pronouns, I wanted to say "man" and "boy." All the pop and hip-hop songs are forward about expressing desire for who they want, why can't I?
I think growing up in a home, like I love the way I was raised, but growing up I was encouraged to choose career, academic life, and spirituality first, and not really to think about my love life being part of my spiritual life. Sometimes [in the past] I felt that my desire was frivolous; that it didn't have a place. It's so easy to feel ashamed of loving somebody. We're in a world where it's easy to not respond to texts or to be busy. I think for black people, queer people, gay people, trans people, it's often something that's like "don't be available" and like, "I am available!"
I wanted to use pronouns, I wanted to say "man" and "boy." All the pop and hip-hop songs are forward about expressing desire for who they want, why can't I?
Photography: Johnny De Guzman
Yes, and I'm going to act like I'm available, too!
Yeah, I wanted to make songs that came from that place. I didn't have a dating expression in high school, and even in college, it was so perforated. I feel like my peers knew how to do it [navigate dating]; they knew when to text back, when to call. I just feel like I missed all those memos. Now I'm going to do this. I feel like I'm playing serious catch-up, which I'm actually enjoying. I think at 29, I have a little more ground beneath me now, so I'm not just some man-thirsty man. I can enjoy the process more.
How do you feel about the astrological Return of Saturn period and how that idea plays into where you are now and what you're willing and able to express?
It's a huge thing. I dreaded it during my incense and sage days, I was like "it's going to be so terrible." And it wasn't. It was really intense for me, and it was an identity crisis, but it was the most celebratory identity crisis and I recommend it. Please have a meltdown. My friends kept saying "this breakdown is for you, and I'm like, yeah, this breakdown is for me," but have all the breakdowns, because I get to be new, and I get to rebuild and choose how I want to do that. It's been so amazing for me, and my birthday is in July.
My birthday is the near the last week of July. So close!
Oh beautiful, so you're right on the Leo cusp. The album comes out a month before my birthday.
Was that intentional?
Sort of, I just said to my label that I'd like it if the record came out as close to my 30th birthday as possible. I'm glad it's coming out at the end of my twenties and not at the end of my thirties. It feels like a nice bit of closure to my twenties. It took me some time, but now I'm really proud of it. Now I'm curious to see what 30 is going to say.
Going in line with this, the record is very cohesive, and sort of wraps up everything you're experiencing in a really organized way. First track "whisper" feels like an opening in how it expresses a desire for emotional intimacy with a partner, and "bless ur heart" feels like a type of closure, possibly signaling the end of a relationship. Do you feel like the album took a natural arc from start to finish?
I worked with my manager quite a bit on the track listing. Whisper was the first song to be produced. I co-produced that with Katie Gately. It was the first song of the album. She co-produced six songs on the record. Katie was a huge fingerprint on this and in developing the sound. "Whisper" gave me a snapshot of where I wanted to go, but it did a lot of heavy lifting. I knew that I wanted to distort voices; that I wanted weight, heaviness. Much of the record feels like old-school gospel to me in that sense. I also wanted it to be heavily electronic. As far as storyline, there's not an exact beginning, middle, and end, but I did want it all to feel juicy, and I did want it to feel as 2018 as it could. I really like the marriage of electronic and synthetic sounds with organic and live instrumentation. But in this case, everything was synths, including the drums. I wanted live strings at first, but then I decided to strip the palette more. The [blisters] EP had so much more going on, instrumentally, which I love. But I wanted to strip this album to the point where it actually sounded "made." I almost wanted it to feel like it was its own reservoir, and not the whole ocean.
That kind of contrast is really interesting: the music is synthetic, but the message is in the voice and the lyrics, which draw your attention more.
That was intentional. Even with the mixing, I wanted to make the vocals as loud as possible without it seeming too self-obsessed. I didn't want people to read me and be like, "ooh, she's a diva." But the vocals and drums needed to be the loudest thing. I don't think I was hiding behind mixing. Just learning to take stuff and say that I wanted vocals processed and wanted them loud. One of my favorite albums as inspiration is B'Day by Beyoncé. I love the way that she processed vocals. I play that album on repeat, because it's such a role model for me, and an interesting coming-out for her — to do something so aggressive.
B'Day is certainly fast and furious.
It's fast and it's furious, then it's over! And then she gave you a little bit of Dreamgirls, then she went home and took a nap. She hollered in our face, and gave us a late-afternoon Brooklyn Museum brunch. She gave us a full experience at 3 pm, and was home by 4. Then she toured. I was also inspired by D'Angelo's Voodoo and how vocal heavy it is. And we know him for doing a million vocals, and we don't exactly know what he's saying. It's so syllabic. So I was really thinking about my favorite albums [when making soil]: Björk's Homogenic and how drum-heavy it is. So I went to the studio and told my engineer: B'Day, Homogenic, Voodoo — not saying I can compete, or even try to. But I really wanted it to be vocal heavy and have a lot of bottom. Even that too, I kept saying to myself, "think like a bottom, not like a top."
Weight, you know? Like, if I fall, it should really be thunderous. I feel like I was able to extend my wings more than I ever have with this project and I'm really happy.
"I feel like I was able to extend my wings more than I ever have with this project and I'm really happy."
In terms of representation, what you are giving voice to feels so important, especially in these times. I saw on Instagram, you shared about how you wanted to become more forward and open about your experiences. Why do you feel that's particularly important?
I think in regards to the emotional exercises, what's important about that is acknowledging that it's easy for me to abbreviate, to get small, and go internal. I really enjoy being internal, I do think I'm mostly an introvert. But I'm also like a peacock — l I do have colorful feathers. But I think the most sinister side of that is feeling like you should apologize when you do want to come out and show your feathers. I used to feel like I would take up space and then I'd become overly aware of doing so. I'd become aware of my presence, and it would frighten me. I know that's something coming from me, I know that's something I made up. But it's really systemic, from society, from my upbringing, from all the things we hear all our life, like: "don't let people know how much you know," or "don't turn people off," or "don't bite the hand that feeds you," or "don't be extra" — all these things where we're taught not to push the needle. We're taught that over and over and it's always for straight feelings, white feelings, white male feelings. So I was never comfortable doing that, or comfortable period. But I'd rather be a little uncomfortable taking up space, than go home and be like, "I wish I'd spoken up for myself," "I wish I was louder," "I wish I didn't get pushed around today."
So for me, I've been revisiting a lot of Geoffrey Holder interviews. He's Black Dance Excellence. He was Alvin Ailey, painter, designer, six-foot heaven, Trinidadian, large, robust voice. He was saying in an interview to bring atmosphere wherever you go, you don't wait for the atmosphere to be there. You take it with you. He talked about how he was uncomfortable in front of crowds. It's hard to believe that with how he speaks. There's no hesitation, but he talks about how he used to hesitate, and how he got over that. I love watching him. I love watching him take up space, and I've been thinking about that. It would be so counterproductive for me to do this work which requires me to show up. I can't go on stage and then be quiet. I could be, but I'm not interested. It's not a read on anyone, but it's important for me to be louder and to stomp and to know that everything can have weight. So I've learned that when I'm wrong and need to apologize, that I don't apologize 500 times. To say it once and really mean it. Otherwise, it's distracting: like saying, "Oh, air, I'm so sorry for breathing." Everybody else is breathing. Taking other people's breath, too!
Photography: Johnny De Guzman
Do people let you know how your work connects to them?
First thing that comes to mind is somebody posted an Instagram story doing these little church runs at the end of "bless ur heart" and that for me, I sent it to my brother, and was like yes. That was the intention. It was a praise and worship song for me, like stuffed-animal praise and worship. I have to say what my intention is, but I want to let people decide what my music means to them. So it's really beautiful that the person who posted that really connected to what I was hoping to convey.
That makes sense that spirituality plays such a big role in your music. I read you grew up in the church, right? Like every other Black person I know.
Yeah, like every other Black person I know! [Laughs] Unless you grew up in Brooklyn and had parents who were atheists or activists. And like, you were eating eggplant and such at age 12. I know it was spaghetti and fried chicken on my end on Sundays. Wednesday, too, for Bible study. People have been very expressive, they've written cards. In fact, Brandy Doll was a gift from someone.
What Brandy era was the doll from?
The Mattel brand made lots of Brandy dolls back in the day.
That's right! Remember when she was America's Sweetheart?
She was like then what SZA is now. I would assume the doll came from Brandy's Moesha, Cinderella with Whitney Houston days. She had the micro-mini braids and the laid baby hairs.
Do you have a favorite Brandy album?
"A Capella (Something's Missing)" from Human and your song "whisper" have some sonic similarities in common to me.
Thank you, that's a huge compliment. But yes, that album is so soft, it's so gentle. She's singing a little bit higher, it's very melodic. I think that I was aware for the first time that so many gay Black men — I've noticed that so many gay Black men meccas like Harlem, DC, Atlanta — the girls knew all the little Brandy riffs. I was 20 when that record came out so I was just more aware of stuff we could all identify with. But then when it's such a community around this album, this woman — everybody would sing her songs or we'd dance around in our underwear and cook — it's so tender. The reason I love her so much is obviously her singing, but really, it's the text. The text has always been really loving, and about her being emotionally available and accountable. That's really amazing for Black women, for dark-skinned Black women to be emotionally available in a pop-sphere, in an R&B-sphere. She set the standard for that. For me, it wasn't only that I wanted to sing that way, but I wanted to emulate how she made her text so generous, so forgiving, so redemptive. Her work has been that for me. I love folks like her and Toni Morrison who can read folks but there's so much expression and redemption in the work itself. I really like thinking about that. I'm in pursuit of that. Afrodisiac is the same way, it's fierce, but it's still tender. She's never like "you wasn't laying it down." It was more like — take "Finally," for example, she says: "I would've made it OK for you to do me wrong. I would've stayed one more day." We've all made it OK. But she kept it on her. It's such wise writing, and has influenced me so much.
I love recording, but I want people to know me as a stage queen. The album is cool, the recording is cool, but I want you to see me live. That's where I thrive.
What do you feel like you're most looking forward to in your thirties, starting this summer with the album dropping?
I love this question. I think it's always the same: performing. I just want to keep taking up space and doing what I want to do on space. I know it sounds generic, but for me, it's so specific. I had three months of touring last year, and that gave me so much information about what I want to do. I love recording, but I want people to know me as a stage queen. The album is cool, the recording is cool, but I want you to see me live. That's where I thrive. That's where it all comes together: the stage is so porous, it's literally an organism. It's the most supreme dinner party: You don't know who's going to crack what joke, you don't know who's gonna read you for not putting enough seasoning on a song. Geoffrey Holder, Nina Simone, Bobby McFerrin are my favorite people to watch live. All these people spiral on stage. Nina Simone is a tornado. I can imagine the stage for them is where they get nutrients. It's good for me also to see what people do and don't respond to. I'm not making work for myself. It's still a service. If nobody likes what I'm doing, then I'm out of work. The dolls get their own round of applause, which is really funny, but that lets me know, "OK, I can lean into this more."
Photography: Johnny De Guzman
A doll is like an inanimate container for ideas we have about the world, and they become whatever we want them to be. How do dolls factor into your artistry and what you want to put out into the world?
I used to have little friends in 2009. I think they have their own personalities. It's like how children come through you, but are not of you. They grow up with their own ideas. When we think about crystals or the healing properties of herbs and oils and lavender and mint, they all do different things. If you use lavender to meditate or for sexual arousal, dolls are the same way in that they have their own properties. I've had some dolls in the past year who've had to leave because they serve their purpose and then no longer work with what's going on here. I don't think of my dolls as being different than how I'd use my tarot decks. Some tarot decks work better than others. I remember reading that there was one deck I had, and it was heavy in a sinister way, and it created a thick atmosphere in my house. I've had some dolls that I've had to swap out because they don't play well with others. Some couldn't find their way. I had one doll, Teeny Simone — like Nina Simone but tiny — and she told me that she wanted to leave. She was like, "I'll stay if I get some family." So I gave her two little sister dolls she could look after. I remember Toni Morrison was talking about her book Song of Solomon and she had this character Pilate, and she said she couldn't give Pilate too many lines, because she would take over the story because she was such a strong character. Pilate, a fictional character, spoke to Toni Morrison's imagine similarly. It sounds silly, but it's not any more silly than someone getting their palms or auras read or seeing someone who helps you align your chakras. We believe in people to tell us about our throat chakras, and it's a lofty thought process, but I translate all those years of embracing similar ideology to the dolls. If Brandy Doll decides she needs to go to LA, I'll need to honor that.
How does that translate to your dating life?
It's helped me in my love life. If I'm dating a guy, and sometimes people consider me femme, because I carry a lot of feminine energy, and will label me as dramatic or petty, or I dig too much or ask too many questions. It's all these stupid things Black women have had to deal with all their lives. I'll get accused of doing too much when someone says they don't like flowers and I ask why. It's like, I'm just asking a follow-up question! Seeing how men might respond to that is one thing, but then seeing how they respond to the dolls — my new thing is how do you treat the inanimate objects in my house: the plates, the blankets, the flowers, the dolls? If you don't say hi to all of them, goodbye!
Photography: Johnny De Guzman