The first time I heard a serpentwithfeet song, I was driving down the freeway alone late at night. When “four ethers,” the cornerstone track of his 2016 EP blisters, came on, it bubbled up quietly — first, a motif of muted French horns, then a murmuring voice: “Baby… it’s cool with me that you like to lie.” Slow and controlled, the song grew closer and more devastating with each measure until the climax thundered through my tiny car, its trembling R&B wail as vulnerable as it was assured, as accessible as it was grandiose. It was Nina Simone covering “I Believe I Can Fly”; it was Boyz II Men accompanied by the philharmonic. Its potency — musically, lyrically, vocally, emotionally — was overwhelming, palpable. When the record was done, I started it again.
Ask serpentwithfeet — also known as 29-year-old Josiah Wise, though he’d prefer you call him “serpent” — and he’ll insist he’s not doing anything particularly unique. Plenty of people would disagree. Since putting his first demo (“four ethers,” of course) on Soundcloud a few years back, he’s collaborated with Björk, been endorsed by Ty Dolla $ign, and opened for Florence and the Machine and Perfume Genius. And that was all before today’s release of his debut full-length album, soil, featuring contributions from Grammy-winning Adele producer Paul Epworth, The Weeknd, Clams Casino, and A$AP Rocky.
At once brazen, confrontational, and disarmingly intimate, soil steps out of blisters’ softer surfaces into territory that feels strikingly visceral. An even split among his gospel roots, classical education, R&B sensibilities, and frank poetry about the agonies and ecstasies of black queer love, soil fashions him as an iconoclast for a cynical digital era, in which earnest, messy vulnerability has become a rarity.
But arriving at the kind of honesty that can stop listeners in their tracks was no small feat. As he explains on a recent humid spring afternoon in a tiny, monastic tearoom in New York’s East Village, the precocious Baltimore native spent much of his musical life trying not to sound like himself.
“The voice was meant to spin,” says serpent, sipping a tiny cup of rare yellow-leaf tea. His beard is bushier now, with glitter concentrated into a striking gold splat on his chin. “I did boys’ choir for a few years, where a straight [vocal] tone was the standard, which was alien to me as a black kid growing up at church. To be told when I was 12 years old that my vibrato was an issue, and all of us black boys … there was only like four of us in like a sea of white boys.”
That experience — of trying to fit his uniquely tremulous voice into the boxes he desperately wanted to inhabit, from that boys’ choir all the way through his classical training at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts — almost ruined him.
“In high school, people would make jokes, like, ‘Your vibrato is so fast, you sound like a lamb.’ I actually love that now, but [back then] I was so embarrassed,” says serpent. “So I started doing weird vocal things, restricting my voice, which is the worst thing you can do as a singer, especially a young singer.”
Eventually, at UArts, a new voice teacher finally intervened, recognizing the physical damage he’d been inflicting on his throat. Wise would spend the better part of the next decade rebuilding, searching for a sound that felt authentic both to his classical passions and his personal realities (along with, sometimes, a stable place to stay). He sought out “fluttery voices that sound like mine”: Nina Simone, Roland Hayes, Tray Chapman, and (his favorite of late) Brandy. “I was like, ‘I really need to make a science with my voice now. I have fast vibrato, and I’m not going to hide it.’”
“There’s this Toni Morrison line from her book, Jazz, that I love, about how songs that used to fill the head slip on down and now fall below the belt,” he says now. We are the only customers here in the tea shop, and the smells and meditative sounds give it the feeling of a private spa. “I knew that I needed [soil] to be a very physical album, that I wanted things to hit and slam. I knew that I needed to confront the body in a way that the blisters EP did not. That was really important to me, because this does feel like a coming out, like a watershed moment for me.”
Serpent is quick to point out that he’s not the first artist to blend gospel, classical, and contemporary electronic elements; his work also fits in sonically with nü-R&B cohorts like Moses Sumney or FKA twigs (or even Frank Ocean, to some extent). But what’s so singular about soil is its inextricability from Wise’s identity: in addition to the album’s specific genre blend, nearly every one of its 11 songs features him singing explicitly and deliberately about his relationships with men. For a face-tattooed, septum-ringed, gay black man with classical training, hiding was never really an option, so he’s leaning into it.
“I stifled and I restricted, and I tightened, and I coiled for years,” he says. “For me, for my health, I needed to free myself. I needed to say things, to [let them] leave my mouth, and live their lives, and run around and be little trolls.”
On the record, that translates into phrases that stab outward as deftly as the clanging and banging of the record’s percussion:
“I don’t want to be small, small sad / I want to be big, big sad / I want to make a pageant of my grief / Cut our old bed in half and carry your side everywhere with me.”
“Because of him, lesser men have set their fathers’ homes ablaze / and as the smoke billowed, all those men became the boys they never got to be.”
“Boy, whoever reads about how much I adore you / I hope my words bring them something new.”
With soil, he not only wanted to challenge himself artistically, but to challenge his listeners to push outside of the labels that once constrained him and learn to sit with a little more ambiguity. After all, everything about him — physically, musically, emotionally — requires it.
“It’s always funny when someone says ‘It’s not a race thing.’ I’m like, ‘Well, that’s easy for you to say.’ It’s never not a race thing,” he says. “For me, I think that’s part of what the album is: it’s about always having to live in discomfort. As an adult, I don’t really have time for others that can’t deal with that discomfort.”
While getting the feel of the album right was crucial for his own self-expression, serpent is also acutely conscious of his audience, how he will be received — and by whom. “That’s something I think about every five minutes,” he says. “But it’s also why I needed to make soil the way that I made it. It could have gone down [as this] complete orchestral debut album, and I know that it would have gotten me [on NPR]… but that’s not what I see for myself in the long term.”
Instead, he says, “I would love to … see more black people in [my] audiences. There’s a difference when it’s a black audience who understand the cues, and I don’t have to explain, or develop a legend. I think black people in general, they’re watching and making sense of [my music]. They just needed to know what I’m here for. And I think it’s kind of beautiful.”