SERPENTWITHFEET: THE REAL PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS
illustration by makan negahban
With tattoos and piercings framing his eyebrowless face, a wild wardrobe that seems he just rolled through a theatre costume closet, and almost always carrying his favorite Brandy-inspired doll, New York City-based Josiah Wise—a.k.a. serpentwithfeet—has a presence. After emerging with his 2016 EP, blisters, and growing into this year’s soil, that presence has bloomed into a voice with a thrilling capability for fearless expression. He met Tri Angle Records’ Robin Carolan in 2015, and Carolan signed him to the label and introduced him to Bjork, and Wise gave her a private serenade over brunch. In this interview, Wise shares details behind that encounter and ensuing friendship, as well as his thoughts on intellect, experience, romance, and of course, the many reasons to love Brandy ‘that-boy-is-mine’ Norwood. He performs Mon., Oct. 15, at the El Rey. This interview by Daiana Feuer.
soil as a concept makes me think of roots but also mess, dirt, worms, bones … what does it mean to you? How does it connect to these songs about devotion and love?
serpentwithfeet: I think you just nailed it. It’s about digging, worms, it’s about pulp and juice and growth—all of that. I’ve always been very inquisitive. Since I was a child, people have always let me know I was talkative. At some point most kids grow out of it but I’ve remained talkative through my adult life. I’m talkative. I also have a lot of questions. I also have a follow-up question always. I started to realize with the men I was dating that this wasn’t favorable for them. They would prefer if I wasn’t like this, because everybody doesn’t necessarily want to go down that spiral with me. I’m always interested in that one more question. What will be revealed or unveiled if we unpack this one more thing? I’m always interested in getting to the bottom of something. Not interrogate just to interrogate. I’m interested. I’m a chatty person. I enjoy unpacking things, even with friends. It’s exciting to me. So I wanted to make an album where I let my ideas loiter. What would happen if I let them stand around and be outside my door? What if I let my thoughts do their thing and not police them. This is a roundabout way of explaining but that’s how I ended up in ‘soil.’
Digging as deep as you want to go without holding back?
serpentwithfeet: Yeah and also letting the dirty ideas show themselves. Which [is] on songs like ‘Slow Syrup,’ ‘Messy,’ or ‘Seedless,’ where I kind of suggest that certain things that I want maybe aren’t the popular choice. But I want to give them space too. I also wanted to think about how with the guys I was dating, this isn’t necessarily the best fit for you, but I don’t want to shit on myself because we maybe aren’t a pair. I just want to observe like, ‘OK, you like your way and I like mine and that is OK.’
You’ve gone through a physical transformation over the last few years—more tattoos, more piercings. Is that tied to this idea of inhabiting yourself fully?
serpentwithfeet: It has been about unleashing and knowing that there is no such thing as what I’m supposed to look like. I don’t have to be so judgmental of myself, and I’m sort of challenging others to do the same. I can give myself space. When I got my inverted pentacle tattoo, people have different ideas of what it means and I’m not interested in explaining it anymore. I think before I got it, I was really concerned with ‘what if people think the wrong thing?’ Now I just chuckle when people ask me if I’m a devil worshipper. I haven’t thought about the devil being a real concept since I was 19. I’m just like, ‘LOL, I guess I know what they mean’ but it’s such a non-concept for me. I just want to give myself the space to do what I want. All my tattoos mean something specific to me. Like, ‘suicide’ means for me something different than it means to someone else. I’m not trying to trigger anyone or damage someone else’s feelings, but this is my body. It can be unpopular but I’m gonna feel what I feel and I’m gonna feel it deeply and be loud about it. You can always get in your car and roll up your window. I think this album is about that. I have my politics, I have my romantic politics, and you can completely disagree and, bye, walk away, go home.
Why is articulating feelings and being loud with expression important or necessary to you?
serpentwithfeet: Because I know what it means to be unnecessarily quiet. I spent a lot of years in silence and I spent a lot of years not feeling that what I had to say or that my feelings had merit. I love the memes and the tweets [where] a lot of folks talk about how white people can often silent Black people, queer people, and Black gay people, and they don’t think our experience is a reality or that we’re over-exaggerating. I think often about the micro- and macro-aggressions that I face daily and it’s important for me to talk loudly. This is happening to me. And even beyond me, this is happening to other people and that is the legacy that I’m part of. I’m always thinking about race. I don’t have the privilege not to. Every second. And I’m always thinking about the way the racial climate affects the way that I date—it affects the way that I love, it affects the way that I have sex. It’s a large ongoing conversation. Over this album I’m not specifically shouting, ‘As a Black man this is my experience,’ but I think it was important for me to talk to my experience and body in a way that I wasn’t before. It’s really liberating and it’s important to remember that I’m part of an entire conversation with a lot of people who have experienced similar things. I really enjoy documenting and I really enjoy reading documents because I think, ‘Life, we’re all here to enjoy life.’ I’m not religious. I don’t think there’s some big master plan or heaven or hell. I think we’re here to enjoy life and master the art of living. People become wine connoisseurs or learn the subtle differences in cheeses, or they become tea mavens, or all these things—they are people that enjoy the art of living. But a lot of people are robbed of that joy. They’re robbed of that opportunity because they’re trying to make sure they get clean water or that they’re not going to get shot walking down the street. So for me it’s important to talk about the art and joy of living but then also how a lot of people—myself included—you’re almost punished if you do start having fun. I just want to talk about the real pursuit of happiness.
Some say writing is like a muscle. It needs to be exercised or it gets weak. How do you keep your tools for expression sharp? Do you have a habit or a bag of habits when it comes to that?
serpentwithfeet: I do! And I completely agree with that statement. I think it’s important to constantly be sharpening the tool. I’m constantly writing, I’m constantly thinking about writing, and constantly working out ideas in my head. Most great writers are obsessed with writing. I remember reading that Toni Morrison told her students that even when you’re not writing, you should be thinking about writing. If you’re in a room, you should be finding the thread between all the items in the room. You should be constantly working on an idea. You need to stay dexterous in that way. When I read that I was like, ‘OK, got it.’ So when I’m on a train, when I’m walking down the street, I’m working out ideas. That’s kind of what happened with soil. I would write down little ideas and then revisit them, until I could figure out how to make them work.
Is reading as important? People read less books these days. But if you don’t read about ideas, is that going to make you less likely to engage in them?
serpentwithfeet: I think people have different ways of reading. In this generation as we figure out our relationship to intellectualism, some people say ‘I’m anti-intellectualism.’ I say that’s stupid. You need to be intellectual. There’s a battle going on. A lot of it is in the name of the Internet. There’s all different ways we can read. You can read online or you can read a physical book. You can read stories, articles, e-books, poetry, scholarly journals. I love JSTOR. Or maybe you read body language or tarot or between the lines. Maybe that’s how you read. Some people may be book-smart but socially they might be inept. They might not see that the person at the bar was actually flirting with them. They think, ‘Oh, nobody likes me, nobody talks to me,’ but actually someone has been trying to all along. Those are important ways of reading. I saw online the other day that this disabled woman’s dog ran up to someone and was trying to get their attention. Her owner had an accident and couldn’t get up so her dog went for help and people were swatting the dog away. She made a post: ‘General announcement, if you see a service dog come up to you, and it’s trying to get your attention, I’m in need of help and it’s trying to find a human that can help.’ Luckily she was ok. So yeah—even knowing how to read animals. I’m really interested in the many different ways that we can read.
Let’s talk about Brandy. Why Brandy?
serpentwithfeet: Oh—why not Brandy? She’s brilliant. She is. She is one of the architects of modern R&B as we know it. This generation of R&B folks, there’s many people we owe so much to but Brandy is definitely one of them. Her work on a textual level is always incredibly generous, so emotionally accountable, so sweet, so clever. Obviously ‘I Wanna Be Down’ and ‘Sittin’ Up In My Room’ from the first album, but the second album, Never Say Never, I’m thinking about how clever the songs were. ‘Angel In Disguise,’ ‘Learn The Hard Way,’ ‘Have You Ever,’ ‘Almost Doesn’t Count,’ these are heavy hitters emotionally. They aren’t just saying ‘Boy I miss you, you didn’t call me.’ She was really exploring the nuances of love, which she was also doing on Moesha, playing this young, middle class Black girl in California. Navigating being an A student, liking boys, juggling everything and having a social life. And then moving on to Full Moon, Afrodisiac, and Human. There was always this extreme emotional accountability, which I think is incredible. And the singing—she’s unrivaled. She’s a singer of a different ilk. It’s sensitive. In the classical world we have this thing called bel canto singing, and Brandy is that. Sweet singing—the lyrics are always sweet. She might be saying ‘I’m not fucking with you anymore,’ but it’s still really compassionate. It’s influenced me as a songwriter, as a vocalist. Even on my most inflammatory days I still want to be able to say, ‘I really don’t like you and I don’t want to ever see you again,’ but I want to say it with a certain elegance. There’s a line on ‘Finally’ off Afrodisiac where she basically says, ‘I would have made it OK for you to do me wrong. I would have made it OK to play the role one more day, if I didn’t hear my conscience say …’ and then she goes on … and I just think it’s so amazing. It’s that line, ‘I would have made it OK for you to do me wrong.’ It’s a different spin on saying, ‘You done me wrong.’ That particular elegance is just amazing and incredible to me.
Why the dolls?
serpentwithfeet: Because I like them. I don’t think there’s much more to it than that.
Bjork called your music ‘moist.’ You sang to her. How did this even happen?
serpentwithfeet: I met her before my EP came out. I met her physically in February 2016 and my EP blisters came out in September. We met, hung out, and then she said to me, ‘If you would like to come over and workshop one of your songs, I would love to have you.’ So that’s what I did. I came over. It was her and her engineer. We set up shop and had a session. We had a big brunch, and we ate, and then she kind of gave me a recording master class. I recorded right in front of her and I sang it over and over and over and she gave me really wonderful critiques and suggestions and different ways to articulate and it was really exciting and terrifying. I have been a fan of her since I was 11 years old. To have her right there sitting across from me and listening intently to each song … I was terrified. I finally relaxed into it. She took notes! I will never forget. She had a purple marker. She was amazing. She took notes on each take and wrote out the things she liked. We just tried stuff. Since then she’s come to my shows and afterwards she gives me her pleasant notes. She is a mentor to me. I always tell her, ‘Please give me feedback. You aren’t here to say “that was amazing.” I want to hear what you think.’ I don’t have a legend around just to tell me I did a good job. I want to get better. It’s been beautiful having her in my life.
serpentwithfeet ON MON., OCT. 15, AT THE EL REY, 5515 WILSHIRE BLVD., LOS ANGELES. 8:30 PM / $20 / ALL AGES. GET TICKETS HERE! serpentwithfeet’s soil IS OUT NOW ON SECRETLY CANADIAN AND TRI ANGLE RECORDS. VISIT serpentwithfeet AT SERPENTWITHFEET.BANDCAMP.COM.