serpentwithfeet is an avant-garde vocalist and performance artist whose growing body of work is rooted in dueling obsessions with the ephemeral and the everlasting – key components of his artistic journey from a childhood stint as a choirboy in Baltimore through his time at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where he studied vocal performance before relocating to New York City. His forthcoming debut full-length album soil is a return to the sensibilities and wide-eyed curiosity of his musical youth before symmetry and sterile soundscapes ruled the roost. With the release of soil the chameleonic serpentwithfeet (born Josiah Wise) rediscovers and ultimately returns to the unhinged version of himself he was sure he had outgrown.
“soil is about me returning home then realizing that i carry home with me daily.”
Following the release of Blisters – his 2016 foray into hybridized pop produced by Björk collaborator The Haxan Cloak – and two big tours, serpentwithfeet returned to the studio in 2017. There, he explored the fullness of his voice and became increasingly interested in playful singing which intrigued recording engineer Jason Agel. That vocal performance was only complicated by his feverish rumination on the dissolution of an impassioned love affair that left him stunned and speeding toward the inevitable – a more intimate relationship with himself. One in which he embraces and mocks his own flaws with abandon, lets an uncharacteristic shock of hair down over his infamously provocative forehead tattoos, makes room for his most pressing sexual desires and returns to the gospel that dominated his formative years. In this embrace of imperfection and romantic failure, serpentwithfeet has found soil; the forthcoming album is his first release for the label partnership between Tri Angle Records and Secretly Canadian.
soil features contributions from rising experimental producer mmph, sound manipulator Katie Gately, A$AP Rocky contemporary Clams Casino, and Paul Epworth – one of the Grammy Award-winning minds responsible for Adele’s critically-acclaimed album 21. The project recorded between New York City’s WhiteWater production house and Epworth’s London studio was co-produced by serpentwithfeet. On this outing he trades glossolalia and peacocking showmanship for intricately layered harmonies, a sumptuous bottom register that appears for the first time to challenge his fluttering tenor, and ballsy sonic experimentation encouraged by Gately, whose talent he describes as “making voices sound like elephants and elephants sound like car engines.” Together they develop an unctuous sound that suggests billowing clouds and the dense, plodding stomp of 12-bar blues. Once concerned with perfect execution of gospel runs and dishing up a gossamer falsetto, serpentwithfeet is out of balance and reveling in the concept of mess on soil. Particularly, what it means to part ways with sterility and the urge to uncoil himself in order to occupy more space. soil is the moment at which he unfolds himself with zero intention of closing back up.
“I’m constantly talking about how black men are always manspreading and pushed to be these super masculine, bovine – seven foot niggas. For a long time I was interested in what would happen if we rebelled against that and we were small. I was into the minutiae and then I realized I wanted to take up space again. I have practiced that smallness and quietness and that’s fine, but now I don’t want to be that delicate. I’m not interested in that right now. This album definitely pushed me in that way. There’s a certain naivete in this new music. With the blisters EP, I was trying to prove a point to myself and the listener. I was trying to string together a lot of ideas before. This time I wasn’t trying to sound smart. I was as crafty as I could be with the words, but I just wanted to keep my eyes open and be accountable for what I was seeing .”
Evocative of the stillness of lying down and feeling the gravitational pull of the earth beneath the body, soil is a writhing, electronic melodrama that pairs synth woodwinds and sinister transitions with serpentwithfeet’s extra-terrestrial timbre. The album elevates his most persistent weaknesses, and revisits the trinity of r&b, gospel, and pop that drove earlier projects. serpentwithfeet busies himself with a manic range of emotion which includes sobbing, laughing, mocking his own truculence and identifying his proclivity to smother lovers as a trait antithetical to the kind of intimacy they seek. He speaks as tenderly to the mythical men of his dreams as he does former lovers. His humor is apparent on songs like “seedless,” “messy,” and “slow syrup,” which poke fun at his overbearing presence in the lives of partners. serpentwithfeet tinkers with the extremes of his ideals to illustrate the ways in which past partners have felt oppressed by his needs; he likens them to unreasonable questions like, “Will you show up for me if I ask you to sharpen your teeth because we don’t have any knives and I need someone to cut this food?” “cherubim” and “fragrant” elucidate the connection between romantic obsession and the sentiments of church songs about unwavering devotion to god in statements like, “I get to devote my life to him, I get to sing like the cherubim.” In seeking to commune with a higher power across a number of bodies, from the individual self to the embrace of a lover and the sanctity of partnership, serpentwithfeet is responsible for a compilation that forces consciousness of the myriad intersections at which god exists.
At once whimsical and mechanical, soil traverses the depths of human emotion in search of love. The music inspired by “intense collaborative work” is an extension of the mourning ritual a crestfallen serpentwithfeet first created to grieve heartbreak. He cites influences as varied as lullabies, an affinity for pungent body odor, his doll collection, and his mother’s love of traditional hymns. soil conjures his early fascinations with Brandy and Björk as easily as it references the pageantry of anthemic compositions by Antonin Dvorak and the ecstatic praise of the black church; the abiding prayer house rhythm is established by industrial washing machines on Gately’s opener “whisper.” serpentwithfeet is explicit, however, in breaking with the condemnations of taboo subjects in order to deliver the language necessary to provide black, queer people with a heartfelt, futurist folk –– a new mother tongue constructed to override his prolonged inability to articulate his love life because he had no knowledge of an established standard for speaking about intimate experiences beyond the binary lens of heterosexuality. In being vulnerable enough to vocalize his journey, serpentwithfeet encourages a systematic dismantling of the shame that is appended to homosexuality through the creation of a sonic space buoyed by radical acts of love and sustained repetition of his innermost thoughts.
“I remember growing up there was language for how men and women interact. I don’t have a lot of examples of black gay men that are out here thriving. Because of social media we see more examples but at the time when I was thinking about this and dealing with my own relationship, I had difficulty articulating my feelings. I hate to say it , but I think there is still a lot of shame around two black men dating and loving on each other and I was very aware of that. While working on soil, i was exploring and trying to make sense of my needs and my love language. Because of this process, I’ve fallen in love with my idiosyncrasies. I’m growing my hair again. With this album I gave myself permission to let the leaves grow, let the flowers bloom, let myself be hairy and let my sound be hairy. I’m excited about the way things naturally come out of my body. I am always going to embrace discipline and streamlining. But I’m in a space at the moment where I don’t need or desire the corset. It’s time for expansiveness.”