Artist of the Month is an accolade we award to an up-and-coming artist who we believe is about to break out. We turn our attention in March to serpentwithfeet, an R&B singer-songwriter presently creating out of Los Angeles.
When asked about any especially impactful messages from fans about his music, serpentwithfeet immediately recalls a tweet, regarding his Apparition EP, released last year. He quotes, “This project sounds like what happens in a dollhouse when the humans aren’t looking,” which he follows up with a hearty chuckle.
“That is such a great appraisal. And I thought it was a great compliment,” he says.
It’s also a more-than-accurate assessment, one that couldn’t be placed on just any artist’s work. Originally hailing from Baltimore — before moving to New York City and now, Los Angeles — serpent (aka Josiah Wise) has crafted some of the most striking R&B of the last five years, reflecting the influences of artists like Stevie Wonder, Janet Jackson, and Brandy, as well as gospel music. The first time you hear serpentwithfeet is a moment that sticks with you. (For this writer, it was the majestic “four ethers, off of 2016’s blisters EP.) His ethereal production and longing vocals — so captivating that a completely a capella serpentwithfeet record would be a resounding success — make him the perfect addition to any Frank Ocean or Moses Sumney fan’s personal playlist.
But serpent’s M.O. is not algorithmic approximation, nor is it to repeat himself. One doesn’t earn the co-signs of both Björk and Ty Dolla $ign by being one-note. His second album, DEACON, out this coming Friday, is as thoughtful and personal as any of his previous releases. But where those records were fraught with passion rocked by uncertainty and regret (sample lyric from debut album soil: “I’ve been naming our thorns for hours/ Hoping you’ll treat them as kindly as you treated me.”), DEACON is brimming with joy without any need to invoke tragedy. Nevertheless, listeners still might need to dry their eyes when it’s playing.
If it’s not already clear from the artwork, DEACON is about Black male love, and serpent’s lyrics bring this theme to the absolute forefront. “Don’t tell me the universe ain’t listening/ I went to bed single/ Now I’m kissing a man that was once a hyacinth,” goes the chorus to opener “Hyacinth” (one of many songs that puts his pop songcraft on display). Elsewhere, he beams over sharing a shoe size with a partner, embraces friendship and family, and longs to see another’s facial hair (on the aptly titled breather “Derrick’s Beard). Contributions from NAO, Sampha, and Lil Silva amplify the feeling of being beholden in gratitude for the people who accept and love you for who you are, even if so many forces are trying their damndest to keep you down.
During our interview, serpent talked about wanting to make something more accessible than previous releases, but there’s no sense of compromise or doing anything to fit into a certain mold. When asked about singing over more aggressive, hyperpop-style production, he expresses interest, but under his own terms.
“Even with production, I always tweak and adjust things. I’m definitely a co-producer. So, things gotta fit into my world. But I’m open to a lot of different sounds for sure,” he says.
Read on to learn more about serpentwithfeet and his thoughts on his artistic process, relationship advice, and other creative dreams.
On Shifting Between Styles
I think I always do what I want. I think when I was making sensuous, meandering songs, that was very intentional. I knew what I was doing then, too. I didn’t necessarily want to have super-strict choruses early on. But I’ve always loved pop music, and I will always love pop music. I will always love the radio hits. I think there’s a reason sometimes why songs are infectious. So, even early on, I was intentionally deviating from a pop format, because that was what I wanted to do. And now like, “All right, now I wanna play this thing,” so it’s all intentional.
I think I’ll always be doing a dance. I always want to challenge myself, always want to surprise myself, and those surprises come in different boxes. Sometimes, the box is a pop box; sometimes, it’s an experimental, super-at-the-edge-of-the-cliff box. Sometimes, you might have to jump off the cliff to get the box. I think I’m always gonna be doing that dance.
On His Lyrical Inspiration
All the scenarios are fictitious; all the names are fictitious. I just wanted an album, and I wanted to make songs that reflected the wonder that I’ve experienced in my life, and the wonder that I’ve experienced in other people’s lives, and the wonder of dating, the wonder of longing, the wonder of being vulnerable. I’ve experienced all those things, so I just wanted the album to reflect the breadth of my experience.
I see myself writing about gay love and Black gay love specifically for a long time. That’s what I’ve been writing about, whether people knew in the beginning or not. I was always thinking about Black men. I’m always thinking about dating Black men and that wonderful experience of dating Black men. I think I’ll be as honest as I can, and sometimes that honesty comes via a more gloomy song or something more melancholy, and sometimes that comes in a package that is very effervescent and highly spirited and animated. So, I think I’m always gonna be as honest as I can be and as vulnerable as I can be.
That’s always been my goal, to be vulnerable in my music, which is always a risk, but which has proven to be very rewarding. I think it’s a blessing that I’m able to make music and that people find something in it that is worth returning to. So, I will always be vulnerable and honest. That is a commitment I can make.
On His Artistic Upbringing
I was so obsessed with trying to be a great singer and artist. I was in a lot of artistic and theater and music programs as a kid, and rightfully so. Kids are very competitive. And teachers are competitive, and I also used to compete, and I used to do competitions. All of my bandwidth went to trying to get better and trying to make sure that I was good enough to get that solo or whatever it was. I couldn’t even necessarily think about what I would be at 22, to be honest. I was just trying to make sure that I knew my part and could sing as well as the other kid that always gets the solos, because I’m like, in competition with that person. So, that’s where my heart was. That’s where my mind was.
On His Collaborations
It feels like a party. One of my favorite songs that I’ve ever worked on, created, was “Receipts”, which I did with Ty Dolla $ign. That was such a collaborative process. I had an idea. Ty added his ideas. Then, we went back, and we added strings and did all this stuff. It was definitely fully collaborative. I was there when he recorded his part. We were both in the studio when we got strings added on. It was such a beautiful process. And same with Nao, being in the room with her and working on songs. It was a lot of laughter and just a lot of fun. I want to do more. I want to do more collaborations. It’s just so exciting to do.
On Genre Classifications
I think genres can be very useful. I do consider myself an R&B artist. I do understand that perhaps my style isn’t like someone else’s who may be is on the radio, and people might consider calling me R&B confusing. But I think R&B is a very expansive genre. I grew up on R&B, you know? I grew up on R&B and gospel, and that is what I know better than anything else. So, that’s what gonna come out of me. I do think maybe I have this in different colors in the mix as well. But I leave that up to people, as well. I don’t get too involved in that conversation, because the audience gets to decide what they wanna call it (laughs).
On Improving Relationships
I’ve learned that it’s important to listen with friendships and romantic relationships, listen. One thing I try to do now — ‘cause I always have a lot to say, most of the time — but I’m practicing silence. I’m practicing waiting. Like, I might have really clear feelings immediately after someone says something, but maybe waiting until the next day to see if I really feel that way or to see if that response is appropriate or to see if it’s warranted. So, I think what I’ve learned about relationships is … I think relationships can flourish if people listen more. And that’s something that I’m definitely trying to get better at.
On the Goals For Albums and EPs
I think they’re all different explorations. It’s like appetizers versus entrées. Sometimes, you don’t need a whole plate of mozzarella sticks; sometimes, four is enough. And I think with EPs, it’s just different kind of exploration, where albums, I think, are an entrée, and it’s good to go into it with a different kind of sincerity. I think EPs and albums are both very important. I know a lot of impactful EPs that have changed me, have transformed me. I don’t think EPs are lesser on the spectrum of musical projects. I think EPs pack a heavy punch, too. It’s just a different kind of dance.
On Human Relations
What I was always taught is that people love you the way they want to be loved. People treat you the way they want to be treated. If I see that someone is being caring, it means they wanna be cared for. If I see someone being violent, well, it means you asking for violence. And I don’t have to participate in that. I think we also get to choose how we show up for people. Like they say, people treat you the way they want to be treated. And I think it’s a simple statement, but I think it’s so true.
On Alternate Goals
If I weren’t a musician, I would’ve definitely tried to be a dancer, 100 percent. I think dancers are brilliant. I don’t have the gift a lot of these dancers have, but I love dance. I’m a huge huge fan of dance, and that’s what I would do with my dance. But, I chose music.
I think I would’ve probably tried to be a contemporary ballet dancer and then make the switch to commercial (laughs). Like, I would’ve made that switch at 19 and then decided that I want to do music videos and tours with pop artists. That’s so random, but if I weren’t a singer and I had the skills, that would’ve been the life that I chose.
On Hopes for 2021
To be honest, maybe because we’ve been inside so long, I’ve just been looking for ways to dance. So, I just plan to dance, have a great time. Even if I’m inside, I am going to party this year. I am committed to dancing and partying for the rest of the year. Even if it’s by myself, that’s what I’m going to do.