Josiah Wise, aka the 27-year-old classically trained vocalist currently known as Serpentwithfeet, is sporting thick black lipstick. Today’s choice of make-up works well with Wise’s more permanent “adjustments”: shaved eyebrows, a huge septum piercing and facial tattoos which include a pentagram and the words SUICIDE and HEAVEN emblazoned across his forehead.
Even before you’ve heard a note of Serpentwithfeet’s music, you know you’re going to be blasted out of the ordinary. Released via progressive independent label Tri Angle Records, and with The Haxan Cloak contributing production, debut EP blisters is a sister record to Anohni’s Hopelessness and the avant-garde of Nils Bach, combining contemporary electronics with gospel, R&B and classical vocal stylings to make something challenging, spiritual and astoundingly beautiful.
It turns out that Serpentwithfeet is not only Wise by name but wise by nature, as we discovered when he served us infinite wisdom on black male emotional expression, freedom and growing up in John Waters territory, aka Baltimore.
How has Gospel music and growing up in church influenced you?
Gospel music felt like a safe space. Gospel and Christian music was about the grand size, how massive and overwhelming God’s word can be. I always got lost in that. I can’t remember the sermons but I can remember being six-years-old and dancing violently when the music was playing because there was so much gravity there.
I was thinking about the transformative power of New York and how so many great artists have ‘found’ themselves there. Has that been your experience?
I definitely had that transformative experience. You can come to New York and be what you want to be. You can be the fashion girl with the hair and the looks. You can be the Bushwick club kid with the tricks and the stunts. It’s a city where you can live any life you want essentially.
What does freedom mean to you?
Giving myself permission to feel deeply about all things. I have this mantra that is a paraphrasing slash reduction of many things I’ve heard over the years. Basically it says, “I give myself permission to feel deeply about all things. Even things that don’t exist. It exists because I have named it”. It’s a license to let myself be delusional.
Popstar Troye Sivan tweeted some of your lyrics recently. Were you surprised to see that?
I’m just a former Baltimore church boy, I don’t have a full perspective of who my music can reach. It was really rewarding to see that people who don’t look like me can also connect to things I’m saying, especially when we’re told that only a certain kind of black narrative or certain kind of queer narrative is palatable.
Is the queer presence in recent pop cultural history something you’re aware of? Has it had an effect on your own self expression?
The infamous Frank Ocean letter was a big deal to me. I think it was July 4th 2012. I had to be at work at 7am that day at this cafe in Philly. I was on a train at 6am reading this letter and crying. It was so important that he showed us a different mode of vulnerability. He was a mirror for all of us that love deeply and love intentionally. Frank Ocean gave all of us boys a little more love rope to climb.
It was around the same time I read that D’angelo GQ interview where he was talking about how he was choosing not be objectified or participate in this limited performance of black maleness. It was the same year I read Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, which has everything to do with black men learning to exercise their agency. My experience has always included me sharing and crying and releasing intentionally with my black women friends. I never expected men to have that same capacity.
The second half of 2012 forced me to change my narrow vision of myself and my brothers. In 2012 there was a disconnect between my own life and what I was expressing in my songs. I was making fake asexual music. I was talking about forgiveness and incense and meditations. I was violently queer but I wasn’t prepared to be specific about my experience yet. I was not closeted. I was dating and openly loving men. But when my heart was broken twice in that year by two guys, I realised that I wanted to have a more nourishing conversation about intimacy.
How important has your classical training been?
My mother saw classical music as an exit and a ticket out of a life of restriction and of poverty.
It ended up becoming a much more wondrous thing. Some people think classical music is the departure from black music or a disparate thing from black music because we think of classical music as being very white and European but that isn’t the truth. Classical music has helped me embrace my history more because black people have always been part of the conversation of classical music.
How did working with The Haxan Cloak come about?
At the time I was living in an apartment with way too many mice. I hated it but I also felt like
I was one of those mice and a lot of those nights when I couldn’t get any guys to come over, I could count on those nasty mice to greet me. When writing the song Blisters, The Haxan Cloak and I spent a lot of time talking about isolation and smallness and mice and being overlooked. Writing with him was deeply rewarding.
Your look is pretty amazing. What kind of wanted and unwanted attention does that result in?
I made these choices, so I don’t feel like I can ever really complain about the way people look or don’t look at me. When I first started shaving my eyebrows, I had some friends calling me and telling me I was going down the wrong path. At that time I only had my wrist tattooed, but people were like, “you’re shaving your eyebrows, you’re not going to get any dates looking like this, no guys are going to check for you any more”. My body is like my mood board. Some people love Tumblr, I love my tattoos. Some people need a Pinterest, I use my face. I’m no more weird than the person that’s wearing a white t-shirt and jeans. We’re both still performing something. We’re still making a choice and I don’t think either one is normal. I used to be like, “everybody’s looking at me”, but now I leave the house and I don’t see why people shouldn’t like what I have on. I’m no weirder than you. It’s not my problem.
What was it like growing up in John Waters country in Baltimore? Was it as bizarre as he makes it seem?
When I think of Baltimore I think of my physical house because that was where the real action was happening. My mum would let me experiment, try on her clothes in the house and even wear her clothes outside and to church. She used to get super long blonde braided extensions in the 90s. I used to love watching my mom get her hair done and when my rat tail wouldn’t grow like I wanted, she told her hairdresser to give me braid extensions. I went home with this long braided weave in the back of my head and the guys at church flipped! My birth name is Josiah. Josiah was a king in the bible that began reigning when he was eight-years-old. I grew up thinking I was going to be royalty. My mom would always make my dad and older brother put on this fake fan fare with her in the morning when I would come down for breakfast. It might sound like it was ridiculous or like she was putting ideas in my head, but my mom knew how bad it was at school for me. I was teased a lot so she always tried to make home a healthy fantastical world. I would literally get to school and be crying everyday, but she filled me with so much love in the house.
What does mum think of your music?
My mom hasn’t heard my new music, yet.