“Some years ask questions, other years answer them.” It’s a paraphrased quote from American Author Zora Neale Hurston that Brooklyn-based Josiah Wise, known by his stage name serpentwithfeet, uses to describe the difference in approach to his latest album Deacon, “Some projects ask questions, other projects answer…I think this album might be an answer to previous work.”
Delving back into Wise’s discography, this makes sense. While 2018’s soil, Wise’s debut album, asked questions surrounding the validity of love through incongruent, experimental soundscapes, Deacon seemed to answer them through a more organized, simple, and “some might call it pedestrian” (as Wise says) structure, “I think I didn’t really feel like I had to say a million things,” Wise says of the release, “it was that I’m in love, this is the document of that.” The results are quietly-challenging pop songs quite literal in their lyricism yet honest in their outset. In ‘Fellowship’ Wise sings I’m thankful for the love I share with my friends. In ‘Same Size Shoe’ he sings Me and my boo wear the same size shoe.
Breaking onto the music scene with his debut EP blisters back in 2016, the simplistic approach feels new for Wise, complexity having always been present in his work. Most likely it’s because complexity reflects the multifaceted nature of his upbringing, one that revolved around strict religious parents, R&B influences, European classical music and the artist’s blackness and queerness. It’s a mix that has resulted in Wise producing a unique experimental R&B doused in themes of ceremony and church. A sound that, so far, has attracted praise from publications like The New Yorker, FADER, Pitchfork and NPR music.
Chatting over zoom this multilateral nature still shines through, and as we breeze through topics of stillness, finding love and honing identity, the simplicity and meaning of his latest album Deacon eloquently surfaces.
So I guess the first question I’ll ask surrounds the title Deacon, I read that roughly it can mean ‘servant’. Was this a purposeful choice, or what kind of meaning does this title hold for you?
Well, I wasn’t thinking so much about the literal meaning of the word, I was thinking about the energy that many deacons that I’ve known possess. Many of them have this sense of calm, they have this self-possessed nature that I wanted to employ for this project. I wanted to make something that felt really breezy and still. And that is why I chose to call it Deacon.
One thing I really loved about Deacon, is that it revolves around being honest with yourself, being patient, and savouring love, especially in your 30’s. Since entering your 30’s what have you learnt making music, compared to your 20’s, and why was that such a standout message?
I think maybe in my 30’s I’ve learnt to appreciate stillness. And I’d like to think that I’ve always appreciated stillness or the quiet, but I think it has a different role in my life now. So I think I was ready to make that a big part of this project.
Stillness does seem like a big theme – as well as softness and nurturing and warmth – do you think that was influenced by your move from New York to LA?
I think the geographic shift definitely has an impact on the music, but ultimately I knew that I wanted to know stillness is a way that I didn’t know it. I knew that I wanted to know peace in a way that I didn’t know it before. So yes, I guess it’s like a two-fold thing, I’m influenced by my environment but I also think I create my environment. I knew the kind of space I wanted to be in, even before I started working on the project. I’ve known this for years that I’ve wanted to do a project like this. But I knew that a lot of things would have to align and they did for this particular album.
And when you talk about stillness, is there a song off of the album that you think really epitomizes that for you?
I think all the songs have a sense of stillness and maybe I’m thinking more abstract, but I’m thinking about not trying to weave in too many ideas. The album is really simple, maybe some might even call it pedestrian, where I’m just talking about the joy of being in love with someone. The joy of not only being in love with someone but having that love reciprocated in ways that I can recognize, and not really feeling like I have to have some large, lofty concept that I have to make the album valid, or to make it seem brilliant.
I think the brilliance was just saying I love a man, he loves me, and I’m having a great time, and other songs basically do that, and to me that’s the stillness. Whereas I feel like in previous projects I am bobbing and weaving out of concepts, and trying to wrap my mind around what is romantic love, what does that look like for me in a partner. You know, there was a lot of navigating, which I’m glad that I did, cause I had a lot of fun with previous projects, but for this I was like well I think I know what healthy love looks like. I’ve experienced it with friends, with lovers, with family, and so I think I can speak from that more confident perspective now. So I think I didn’t really feel like I had to say a million things, it was that I’m in love, this is the document of that.
So you moved away from complexity to simplicity in this album?
Well I think different eras demand different things. Perhaps the next project will be super complex again. I’m not certain. This is a quote that I’m gonna paraphrase, cause I’m not going to get it correct, but the line was like, “some years ask questions, other years answer questions”, and I think the same thing comes from making work. Some projects ask questions, other projects answer, and I think I was asking a lot of questions in previous albums and EPs, and was like “Okay, I think I know what a healthy relationship looks like, because I’ve experienced it”, so I don’t have any questions right now. Maybe the next album I’ll have questions, you know. But I think this album might be an answer to previous work, and I think it’s nice to sort of jump back and forth.
Going back before you were serpentwithfeet you had this really interesting upbringing that seemed to journey through these multiple clashing ideologies for example being very religious and being queer, to being trained in European classical music, so I was wondering while navigating all of these things that make you who you are, what was the turning point when you found your sound to become serpentwithfeet? How did you hone all of these things into that?
Well, I wouldn’t say that I was trained predominantly in classical music, I studied it and yeah, a lot of the repertoire is European classical music. But my life was in church and my family and friends played a lot of R&B, so that was a big part of my life as well. And I played R&B too as a kid, I grew up on Brandy and Destiny’s Child, and Sisqó. But I think maybe, arriving at serpentwithfeet was less of an arrival and more just flowing through it. This is gonna sound like I’m trying to be deep but I’m not really trying to be deep, but I think I’ve always been serpentwithfeet. I think this has always been what I’ve been made of. Since I was a kid I was studying classical music and doing R&B, and doing gospel and jazz and musical theatre, and theatre, so I think it’s always been a part of my life. And I think finding a language for my gayness and queerness as an adult helped to maybe create some life or some roadmaps but I think I’ve always had a pretty expansive life experience, as most people do. I think a lot of people have a lot of different influences so I think it’s not like I changed overnight I think for me as I started making this music, my question was how can I be all of myself because I don’t know if I will succeed just being a fraction of myself. So yeah, that was the question. How can I do all of it and do it with intention, and that’s something that I’m figuring out the formula every day. And I don’t think that ever ends. So I think arriving at serpentwithfeet is more about moving through serpentwithfeet, you know, maybe serpentwithfeet is more of a channel and not so much as arrival.
So you’re constantly evolving as you figure out ideas and yourself?
Well I think that’s kind of the beauty of the name serpentwithfeet, it’s giving myself permission to move like a serpent. I was thinking about movement.
One thing I find really interesting about you are your tattoos. On your face you have the dagger, the words’ suicide and heaven, the pentagram. Do they have specific meanings for you?
Of course they have specific meanings. I won’t go into depth but I think it’s important for everyone to have their own symbolism that means something to them. I think we all have our own sacred texts or sacred moving visual. For somebody, it might be their favourite tv show or their favourite line from this one episode that they live by, or someone might have a favourite song lyric from some incredible legendary singer. I think we all create our sacred texts to live by and within those texts, you have your sacred symbols. So I think my tattoos are just a part of that for me, and I think people express that on their body like I do, and some people just keep it in their journal.
It’s funny that you mention sacred texts. I know that you have a couple of favourite poets and writers like Nikki Giovanni and Toni Morrison, and I was going to ask, is there a specific piece of text or a line from a poem that sticks in your mind or has influenced you that you could share?
There’s this line from this Danez Smith poem, “I am is the centre of everything/ I must be the lord of something”. I love that line so much.
Thinking about some of your biggest influences in general, what have you been taught by someone or what’s kind of stuck with you throughout your life or your career?
There have been two people that have been such a big part of my career and my life and I really admire them and think they’re so brilliant. One of those artists is Bjork and one of those artists is Ty Dolla Sign, and one thing that they’ve both said and encouraged me to do, and one thing I’ve seen them both do in their life is just be creative as possible and to Explore. Explore. Explore That’s the best, or some of the best advice anyone could give you. And having known both of them for a few years I just watch them explore all paths with their work and I watch them move into territory with so much brilliance. It’s really amazing watching them work, and I think it’s inspired me to keep pushing, keep pushing myself and I think that’s what I want to continue to do as an artist.
What do you mean by explore?
Well, they’re both huge music lovers. And I can’t think of a time when either has been like, “Oh, I don’t listen to this kind of music, or this kind of music isn’t for me.” I just think they listen to everything and they’ve put me on to so much new music. And I guess I’m thinking about the craft, and how just being into lots of different music is always a benefit. So when I say explore I mean they just have such an expansive vocabulary and library.
Who are some artists you’ve been listening to?
There’s this singer from Brazil named Luedji Luna, I love the music that they’re making. I really love the music out of Brazil, it’s just so fantastic.
Last question, do you have a trajectory for where you want music to take you or do you try and avoid thinking too linearly about your future?
Well, I guess I like having a plan, and plans do change, but like I said my goal is to keep exploring. I think getting closer to myself, everything else will come from that. When I’m close to me, everything I need comes my way. I just plan to stay in tune with me.”
Follow serpentwithfeet here for more and stream Deacon below.