Jun 01, 2021
By Jasper Willems
Photography by Braylen Dion
I’ll never forget the image of serpentwithfeet (whose birth name is Josiah Wise, but who often just goes by serpent) standing in the middle of the Paradijskerk, four years ago during Rotterdam’s Motel Mozaïque festival. The saintly, seraphic imagery of the church seems to amalgamate with the artist’s striking appearance: head shaven and brandishing the inked words “HEAVEN” and “SUICIDE” like arcane incantations. The big golden chandelier hanging from the ceiling reflects serpent’s black-crimson attire, with matching high-heeled boots. During the performance, serpent cradles a worn-out doll tenderly in his arms that has several limbs missing.
“Larger than life” is one way to put it. Never mind that voice. A soft, nebulous voice, one that flutters like a hummingbird above a great yawning canyon. Despite it becoming a solitary, highly intimate performance, the breadth of serpentwithfeet’s influences were on full display that night: the incandescent mastery of his gospel choir upbringings, and the dramaturgical gravitas of his extensive classical background. His first two releases, the EP blisters and first full-length soil, definitely entertained notions of immenseness and possibility. Working with abstractionists like The Haxan Cloak and Katie Gately created a huge echo chamber for serpentwithfeet to operate within, but peculiarly enough, his voice remained one of shyness and tenderness—one intent on drawing you near.
On serpentwithfeet’s latest LP, DEACON, the cold, cavernous sonic deviations have evaporated in warmth and humidity. The hummingbird that once floated above that big canyon has now perched on top of an impressive flower below, enjoying its sweet, nurturing nectar. Indeed “Hyacinth,” the first track off of DEACON, picks right up where “bless ur heart,” the final track on soil, left off. “Much like ‘bless ur heart,’ ‘Hyacinth’ is a celebration,” serpent comments over the phone. “It’s a celebration of discovery; of discovering something new about romantic love. And about Black love. There are delicate moments, and larger than life moments. To me, that’s just how it feels when you find that person you can really connect with. When I find that person that I really connect with. It feels intimate and sweet, and the world around me is being shaped and reimagined. That became the decision for me to make it feel like my experience.”
You hear that experience as much in the production as in the performance: about 50 seconds into “Hyacinth,” the listener is blindsided by a vocal swell that perfectly encompasses that fawning sense of vertigo one feels when passion is rife. Like in the movies, it’s like this slo-mo swoosh: a brief moment prolonged excessively to accentuate a desired impact.
Seeing serpentwithfeet perform in that church back in 2017, he acted like the most benevolent of chaos agents. But on DEACON (a title inspired by the unflappable nature of the deacons he encountered in church) he seeks comfort in calmness and tranquility. It’s a four-year transformation that’s as drastic as it is effortless: even the moniker serpentwithfeet shapeshifted from something biblical to something light and coy in nature, which attests to the fluidity of serpent’s art. Everything on this record seems to be handled with care, joy, and deliberation, like wild strands of hair being tangled into an elegant braid. The clattering percussion on “Fellowship” tingles the senses like freshly cut grass. “Same Size Shoe” is a superimposed confession of Black gay love, tracing the hallowed relief in the act of sharing. The shoes both lovers can wear and stretch out for each other become sacred, totemic objects, just like the books by famous Black authors and poets stored in the closet. In the video, we see Toni Morrison, Emily J. Lordi, and Virginia Hamilton.
Instead of treating love as an abstraction, serpentwithfeet courts both its sensory intricacies and its many permutations on DEACON: unspoken love, physical love, flirtatious love, spiritual love, platonic love. “Malik”—a chronicle of mutual attraction in a fluorescent-lit nightclub—sounds like a gospel song untethered from its God-fearing guilt, its cut-and-dry piano flourishes skipping in seventh heaven delirium. “In my daily life I try to be a full person,” serpent says. “And in my music I try to express that fullness in the best way I know how. So if it’s translating I’m thankful and happy about that. But that’s always the pursuit. To be as full as I can be at all times.”
DEACON is definitely a record that rather shows than tells, with songs that resonate like anonymous carvings on a tree left by vagrant lovers. Throughout the phone conversation, serpent is rather ambivalent on how his ideas manifest exactly. But he does divulge how collaborations—ranging from Björk to Sample to Ty Dolla $ign—have broken his process wide open. Moving from New York to LA has slowed things down, and the warmer climate also helped. The silence, and the proximity to nature compelled him not to take detours across other musical stylistics, but write from a more visceral place. Though ever curious and talented enough to seamlessly absorb other forms, the gospel choir he spent years singing with in his youth, but also the late-’90s and ’00s work of Brandy and Lauryn Hill, were big touchstones for DEACON.
He mentions Brandy’s “Almost Doesn’t Count,” a song that takes a similarly sultry, close-mic’d approach as “Amir,” embellished by supple guitar plucking. Words seem to melt away in tentative innuendos, while the unspoken passion surges like electricity through the wires. Even after people connect deeply and declare love, serpent draws inspiration and comfort from what has yet to be addressed, and the virtue of drifting along life’s natural pace. “Something I learned is that we can all have huge agendas,” he stresses. “And we always want to be the sage friend in the group. But I think we have to take it one day at a time. And one lesson at a time. Some of these lessons might take seven years to learn. Other lessons might take two weeks to learn. I think when I was in my teens, and in my early 20s, I definitely wanted to be someone who was wise, and someone who took up space. Someone who knew themselves. But I don’t think that happens overnight. I’d say if we knew about love and wanted to know love, you’d have to be open to experiencing heartbreak. Or experiencing periods of not really knowing what’s going on. All the different things: open to experiencing immense satisfaction and bliss and all that. All the little lessons add up to the big lesson. Whatever insight or wisdom I have now is just from years and years of little lessons adding up.”
In his early 20s, serpent decided to live in Paris for a few months. “I love traveling, and I lived there right after college,” he enthuses. “And to be honest, I was still trying to figure out how to do this music thing as a college graduate. There was no rulebook handed to me. I think I just kind of figured it out. I really appreciated the French: living in other places is fantastic and seeing how other people live in other countries and other continents, it can transform us if we want it to. And my life was transformed after living in Paris. It’s like a video game: you level up, you get the magic bread or whatever you find under the trees. I think Paris was very much that for me: I grew so much. I became a lot more independent, and also became more comfortable talking to strangers. Even if my French was bad, because they would just correct me. I developed a lot of courage. We were talking about writing things down: well, I used to carry a notepad around with me, and if there was ever a French word I didn’t know, I’d write it down.”
Hearing serpent talk about the breadth of new experiences and lessons he enjoyed in Paris, I couldn’t help but think of Miles Davis when he went there at age 22 in 1949, absorbing culture with a similarly vigorous disposition. At one point, serpent talks about immersing into French chanson and Música Popular Brasilia, which in hindsight seems very informative of the sensitive, lush cadence in which his own voice operates. “Chansons rely heavily on lyrical delivery. And in many ways I’m sure I was impacted and influenced by that, because I do love that music. I love the intimacy and directness of that,” he explains. “I found a similar thing in the Brazilian music of Antônio Carlos Jobim, how important the text is. Not that it isn’t in other musical styles, but when you think about the storytelling in ‘Girl From Ipanema,’ it’s just brilliant. There are times where I carry that sensitivity in my own music. To make work that’s close to the heart.” It’s easy to draw another Miles Davis parallel with Sketches of Spain, which he recorded 11 years after his trip to Paris: another record that blurs boundaries between musical dogma’s with a tender, inquisitive spirit.
In these travels, there’s always stuff artists pick up intrinsically, and serpent insists on not overthinking it, which allows these influences and experiences to permeate naturally. In the chorus of “Sailors’ Superstition” he coos “Don’t whistle on the ship/We don’t want to rouse the ship.”
“There are several sailors superstitions; there is one that says you shouldn’t kill the albatross if it follows the ship, because the albatross are seen as good luck,” he elaborates. “So in other words, you want them to follow that ship. There’s a poem about a sailor that shoots the albatross and has to wear its corpse around his neck. Another one is, ‘You shouldn’t whistle on the ship’ because of this thought that you will be encouraging the winds and the storms to come, ‘cause it’s bad luck. And I was thinking about how we maybe shouldn’t whistle on new romantic relationships. We shouldn’t brag on them early on. I don’t know if you should ever brag, though? But I think that we can be proud of it. I can be happy and grateful for the love me and my partner have romantically. But I don’t think we should be having ‘relationship goals,’ things that I think the internet encourages you to say in public. In this fictitious scenario, I was thinking about ‘waiting at least a year’ before you start making those kinds of posts on Twitter or whatever. Just like, ‘Let’s wait a moment. Because if we whistle now, the winds might start coming and we won’t be prepared for them.’”
Though serpent generally enjoys the internet, he acknowledges that the act of oversharing can be potentially toxic to relationships of any nature. “I love the internet, but I think there’s an incentive to share everything. If it’s not a problem for somebody then it’s simply not a problem. I just think that sometimes there’s a benefit in not saying everything. Or not making everything a parade or a pageant. Because even when people try to destroy what you have, maybe the mischievous spirits will.” He lets out an accordingly mischievous chuckle. “Maybe that’s me being a little melodramatic. But I think there’s use in not sharing everything. It’s sort of like winning the lottery. If you stumble upon ten thousand dollars in a park I’m not sure if you need to tweet: ‘Hey I just found ten thousand dollars!’ That may be alright for you, but maybe people will be trying to find out where you live. Sometimes when you find that gold, it’s better to just keep it to yourself.”
On DEACON, serpent treats that pleasure zone of love and intimacy as a proxy for the divine, or spirituality in general. Taking tiny baby steps, one loving gesture at a time. In many ways, we have met a more grounded serpent. “How long does it take?,” I ask. He stumbles, apologizes for not being able to answer, instead responding with a pronouncement of his own. “I think it’s important to be in love with yourself first, and to act from that space. I’m not sure if it’s a question of how long it takes, but maybe a different question to ask is: ‘How can I be in love with myself first? How can I live inside of love, so that I’m never out of love?’ And everything begins there. Maybe that’s the question.”