serpentwithfeet's Josiah Wise Wants to Nurture His Inner LOL
Josiah Wise’s vision for his Red Bull Music Festival show in New York was simple: “Two moons, branches, and a bunch of dolls.” When the design team then asked him to delve into his artistic intentions for the Sunday night set, his first since announcing his debut album as serpentwithfeet, his response was equally brief though perhaps harder to execute: “I want to nurture my inner lol.”
The 29-year-old artist from Baltimore, who turns 30 in July, creates songs that mix dark, spooky electronic sounds with his own soaring R&B- and gospel-influenced vocals. His first EP, 2016’s blisters, was heavy and melodramatic, draped with scenes of decaying flowers and dying relationships. One thunderous song, “four ethers,” sampled Berlioz. This is not the kind of music that leaves much room for laughs, let alone lols.
“I was joking, and people were like, ‘Oh it’s so dark,’” says Wise of his EP one afternoon in New York, where he’s lived for the last five years. “And I’m like, ‘Yeah, but it’s also like, I’m ridiculous.’” This is a perception he is looking to correct on his soil LP, which arrives this Friday on Secretly Canadian and Tri Angle Records.
“I wanted that to come through with soil,” he says. “I wanted it to be funny like, ‘This boy is so crazy.’ I wanted them to think, ‘Either he’s crazy, or he’s cracking jokes.’ Either one is fine with me.”
Wise watched a lot of reruns of the 1990s sitcom Living Single for comedic inspiration while writing the album -- an estimated 65 episodes in about a month and a half -- but soil is not quite a knee-slapper. What it is, though, is a gorgeous exploration of how far you can take love, where devotion to another reaches religious levels.
Wise was raised in the Pentecostal church, and his mother, a former choir director, encouraged his singing from a young age. “She was hard on me,” he remembers. “When I had solos in church, I remember her coaching me and making me sing. She’d have me sing in weird positions and then be like, ‘Mm, still flat.’ She was really tough.”
Though he is no longer a churchgoer, he has fond memories of that time. “I loved it. But for me, it was the glitz of church that I loved,” he says. “Everybody singing. And you come to church dressed a certain way. There’s so much pageantry. I loved that. I don’t know any of the scriptures. I don’t know what party Moses went to.”
What he does know is that religion made him aware of the need to surrender to something. “Sometimes it’s boys, sometimes it’s songs, sometimes it’s an outfit,” he says. His favorite song on the album, “cherubim,” plays with this idea of adoration bordering on obsession.
“I love being with men that I trust. And I think with ‘cherubim,’ I experienced that in a real way for the first time with a guy. I was like, ‘This reminds me of something I’ve heard about in church,’” he recalls. “Being in a relationship was the first time I actually thought about being devoted to someone so heavily. And I was like, ‘This is how people feel with Jesus.’ ”
In a way, “cherubim” does sound like a church song -- if your church service was held in a creaky old house built on top of an ancient burial ground. “I get to devote my life to him / I get to sing like the cherubim,” Wise sings, his voice layered and shaking with distortion. Thumps and grunts keep the rhythm while a synthesizer bears down from above like some demonic organ.
Wise did some of the production himself, but he also brought in Clams Casino, Katie Gately, mmph and even Paul Epworth, producer and songwriter for Adele. Clams and Gately worked separately on the bulk of the songs, both connecting with Wise in 2016 through his manager, Tri Angle’s Robin Carolan. Clams, best known for his work in hip-hop with artists like A$AP Rocky, made Wise’s music heavier and more rhythmic. “I’ve never heard anything like it,” says Clams, who worked in a Brooklyn studio with Wise in December 2016.
Gately, an experimental artist and first-time producer, focused on processing Wise’s vocals and making things, in Wise’s words, “weird.” The collaboration happened mostly over email, and she used Melodyne and some guitar pedals to stretch and pitch-shift Wise’s nimble voice. She also added some of the weirdness that Wise wanted, like the sound of a growling monster, inspired by the movie The Babadook, on “mourning song.” The track documents a breakup and was one of the most challenging for Wise to write. “With ‘mourning song,’ I was like, well, I’m heartbroken, so I’m going to make good use of my pain. That’s the only way I know how to do it. I can’t grieve in silence. I’m gonna have to grieve loud.”
“He’s explosively vulnerable,” Gately says. “He’s really trying to include the bumps and the realities of love, and it makes his work to me feel like you could walk around it like some three-dimensional sculpture and see things from every angle.”
soil examines the bumps, but it also looks beyond them. While most of the songs were written over the last year and a half, “bless ur heart,” the album’s soulful, thankful, piano-driven closer and first single, has been with Wise for nearly a decade.
“The concept from the beginning was about learning to be more do-y and to be more receptive,” says Wise. He started writing it in 2009, and though the melody and song structure stayed the same, the lyrics changed. “I have this new thing now when I write where I’m like, ‘What do I want to say?’, not, ‘What do I think I should be saying?’ ”
Writing from such an honest place has led to a slightly skewed opinion on what Wise might be like in person. “Some people might think that because some of my lyrics might seem more pointed that I’m intense or that I’m this really austere person,” he says, his beard sparkling with gold glitter, which will linger on your black T-shirt if he gives you a hug. “There’s a part of me that is incredibly focused and erect. There’s another part of me that’s incredibly frivolous and obnoxious, and I want to explore that too.”