Early on in his career, serpentwithfeet, the moniker for 28-year-old Brooklyn-based artist Josiah Wise, longed to be an opera singer. “I spent a lot of time wanting to be the next Lawrence Brownlee or the next Ian Bostridge,” he admits. “I wanted to be this really respected tenor.”
This urge came after spending years in the Maryland State Boys Choir and time studying classical music at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, so it’s understandable that as serpentwithfeet, Wise’s music contains flecks of that rich musical pedigree. It’s also influenced by the gospel music of his childhood (Wise grew up in Baltimore and was introduced to music through the church) and draws influence from the RB singers he discovered as a teenager. It’s an arresting and playful combination that’s almost exclusively his own; a sound he once described as “pagan gospel,” although that’s not necessarily how he sees it now.
“I’m definitely not here to shit on past iterations or past skins that I’ve had,” Wise says. “But I think I’ve been able to get clear and focus on what it is that I love. A lot of the ideas that I used to take influence from four or five years ago, I still use now. There are some songs that I do love that are the same chord changes that I used five years ago. I’m really into recycling, so I guess those two words I just haven’t felt the need to recycle right now.”
Part of this recycling, of course, comes in the shape of mining past experiences. Wise explores the minutiae of relationships, sexual encounters, and domestic life with a Proustian level of detail and reverence; it’s where he says the magic of life can be found. “I think it’s in the domesticity; I think it’s in the backyard; I think it’s in the house; it’s in front of the church. I think that’s where the magic is. It doesn’t always need to be, like, in outer space in another time with aliens,” he jokes. “I think the magic is happening at every moment. When we kiss our boyfriends. When we kiss our mothers. That’s where, for me and in my life, I find the spark and the whimsy.”
While thematically serpentwithfeet’s music is focused, sonically it purposefully lacks definitive structure. The songs ebb and flow like the tide; lapping moments of calm juxtaposed against ominous waves of strings and percussion, with Wise’s devotional melodies buoyed by his fragile vocal delivery. And while the injection of classical influences might, on paper, feel disconcerting, they’re not. In fact, for Wise, they complement the lyrical themes. As he half-jokingly explains, the politics of classical music mirror the politics of his dating life. “With a lot of classical music and a lot of operas, you’ll find that the music is so melodramatic.”
Taking a deep breath, he shifts gear, suddenly becoming serious. “Classical music can take an idea and just amplify, amplify, amplify. The themes are just pushed to the edge of the universe, and I love that. That’s how I am in my dating life. I really enjoy the idea of taking that small little thing and blowing it out of proportion. Sometimes that works in my favor and sometimes not, but I really enjoy the idea of hyperbolic love and hyperbolic music. I think I am often brought back to classical music because of the permission that is given there to just amplify things all the time.”
On his five-track EP, the emotionally charged and honestly queer blisters, this becomes increasingly clear, as Wise moves a magnifying glass over his history, giving it an intense and melodramatic quality. Songs like “bisters” and “four ethers” are visceral and poetic, and his music is steeped with unwavering candor. And while the lyrics touch on topics of suicide, love lost and gay shame; the songs, Wise says, are a celebration of his experiences. “I think it’s a privilege to be able to identify things because for a long time I wasn’t able to identify what I was feeling; I wasn’t able to identify what didn’t work. To be able to say, ‘I want to be small today’ or ‘I want to exercise smallness, and I don’t want to be a big person today’ is exciting for me. I love that I’m able to say that, to name a thing, as that’s really the beast.”
This power, however, doesn’t give Wise a universal knowledge of all of life’s complexities. As a queer person of color, he understands how his body is politicized. “It’s interesting, but I’m not really sure exactly where I stand with it,” he admits. “But what I do know is that I’m going to be a full person. It would be easy to try and become a warrior or to feel like I need to not be expressive because I’m fighting this other power. But I don’t think that’s where my wonder lies. I think my wonder lies in being honest and open. I think that’s where I stand.”
Instead, Wise doesn’t necessarily view himself as an activist. “It’s not because I don’t feel like I am, but I guess my work is about reminding us all to leave the room a little softer,” he suggests. “After people listen to my songs, I want them to feel like they have a few more tools to be a bit more vulnerable or a bit more honest. I guess that’s my activism.” As he adds later, “I’m just out here playing. I’m frolicking, enjoying my body and what I can do.”
It’s evident that by being able to play with and take ownership of his, Wise has found an envious sense of liberation. But that doesn’t mean that he’s finished his journey trying to figure shit out, he’s just doing it now with a more sophisticated and focused energy.
“You know, I’m really into the idea of theme and variation. So, I think I’m constantly doing the same thing, but just variations of it. I have a lot more to say about the minutiae, and I really enjoy domestic life. I enjoy being in the house; I enjoy cooking, I enjoy candles, I enjoy making my own perfumes,” he says, emitting a childish joyfulness.
“I enjoy the quaint and the cozy; I just think there’s so much to explore there.”
serpentwithfeet’s blisters EP is available now via Tri Angle. You can catch him supporting Perfume Genius on his U.S. tour.