serpentwithfeet on “soil”

Tracing Roots

Nov 26, 2018 Photography by Ash Kingston Issue #64 -  Kamasi Washington
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In a small cafe in roughly the center of Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, serpentwithfeet's fragrance arrives just a moment before he does. In the milliseconds before he appears sporting a beige bucket hat, off-gold tanktop, and baggy, mustard-yellow gym shorts with the acronym "GOAT" running down the left leg, an infusion of comforting, disarming aromas fills the room. It's not a surprising arrival, given his well-documented fascination with body odor. This fixation is among the many idiosyncrasies that serpentwithfeet (whose birthname is Joshiah Wise) presents on his fantastic debut album soil, which is best described as the sound of standing atop a well and hearing that, at the bottom, a gospel-influenced singer with tremendous range and power is singing over beats ripped from Björk's Medúlla. The album presents him as one of R&B's deftest explorers of the intricacies and minutiae of queer romances, failed relationships, and unabashed sexual experiences.

Take second single "fragrant," for instance. Another document of Wise's unrelenting love of body odor, its narrator calls everyone whom his ex has dated and asks each of them if he can kiss them, with the specific goal of finding out whether he can sense the ex's fragrance on them. "I didn't actually do that, but I definitely wouldn't put it past myself," he says. "If I knew that they wouldn't have gone off on me, I probably would have done it.... That song is ridiculous, but it's how I felt."

His undercurrents of playfulness and innocence can be traced back to his formative years in Baltimore, where he began singing in his church's choir at the tender young age of six. He describes the ideals this experience infused him with as "loyalty, devotion, commitment, sacrifice, and surrender," all themes that appear on soil. He later relocated from Baltimore to study classical music at Philadelphia's University of the Arts; after he finished college, graduate conversatories rejected him unilaterally, and he began questioning whether his own creations could bear both his classical inspiration and choral roots. "How much do I want to let my interest in Schubert or Bellini or whatever bleed through? What is helping to tell the story?" he recalls thinking about his music, which began taking a more accessible, gospel-oriented form not long after he relocated to New York in 2013.

Shards of classical influence nevertheless arose on serpentwithfeet's 2016 debut EP blisters, on which he scattered ornate and booming orchestral arrangements around his songs' periphery. On soil, though, it's as though he's taken a broom to blisters, leaving only his voicewhich boasts tremendous range and emotive abilityand a minimal amount of other elements, mostly synthesized or built from his own claps, grunts, and other bodily sounds. He had two basic rules for the songs: "I wanted the only real thing to be my voice.... I knew I wanted everything to be really drum heavy," he says.

Perhaps soil's most striking success is how it deeply conveys Wise's oddities, passions, transparency, and sense of humor, all qualities that are especially exciting given that he formally came out to his family only a few years ago. The self-described "whimsy and wonder" in his songs is most apparent in the album's peculiar and vivid lyrics, which he aptly labels "adult storytime." Narrative pegs include begging a lover to stay for one last meal before he leaves for good ("seedless"), tracing a lover's location by followingagainhis odor ("waft"), and turning grief over a lost lover into nothing short of a pageant ("mourning song"). In these hyper-specific actions, which some listeners might describe as the undertakings of an insane person, Wise finds tremendous learning opportunities. "The difficult things give us our nutrients," he says. "The things that don't taste so good really help us." Even in casual conversation, he effortlessly maintains the analogy that ties soil together.

"I don't know anything about gardening, but one day I would love to," Wise says succinctly of the album's title and meaning. Pressed further, he elaborates: "I want to grow things and plant seeds and say little prayers when I plant seeds, and [I want to] write to my plants. I want to miss phone calls because I'm gardening. People [will] know that Tuesday's my gardening day." And then, in classic Wise style, a hilarious quip that could be misunderstood as the musings of a truly strange person: "You don't talk to me on Tuesday. Come talk to my plants."

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's Issue 64 (August/September/October 2018), which is out now. This is its debut online.]

www.serpentwithfeet.bandcamp.com

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Peter
November 28th 2018
2:21pm

Good interview and musician. I like listen his music.