Serpentwithfeet Is No Performance Artist

Blended with soul and R&B, the traditions of the Black gospel churches that serpent grew up in flourish on his debut album, soil.

The dolls that the musician who performs under the name serpentwithfeet carries onstage are not a schtick.

He primarily carries them around offstage, thinking of them as animate beings. But Josiah Wise, who prefers to be called serpent, considers it deeply personal — so he’s taking a break from sharing that part of himself on stage.

Much of what he does — the talking to concert-goers and the improvisational music — he considers “honest performance” rooted in the musical traditions of his Baltimore childhood that doles out vocal might in a spiritual frenzy.

“They might think it’s performance art,” Wise says of his audiences. “What I’m doing is the tradition of the Black church. It’s what I grew up in.”

With the release of soil in June, he intentionally used his operatic voice not in a classical manner, but for music that Black people could recognize as for them. Although he no longer identifies as Christian, serpent’s first full-length album digs into the music of his musically impressionable religious upbringing with the earthy, poetic feel of soul and R&B.

Though it’s grounded in religious tradition, he’s singing about men and relationships in his bed and doesn’t necessarily have to change the pronouns. Referring to God, serpent simply changes “He” to a lowercase “he.”

“Christian music is very erotic. It’s very sensual, and I love that about it,” serpent says. “I wanted to blur the lines — am I talking about God or the man that’s sleeping in my bed?”

“Cherubim,” a haunting track about devotion and love with references to “him,” can cause such confusion. Although the album feels as though a deity channeled it, serpent grounds it down to earth with gritty drums. In fact, he wanted it to feel like dirt.

Soil comes two years after the acclaimed EP blisters and one year after serpent collaborated with Bjork on the remix of “Blissing Me.” A notable element of the not-performance-artist that is serpentwithfeet is in his wardrobe expression, which is notably toned down to match his essentialist songwriting style.

The oversize septum piercing remains, but largely missing is the glitz expressed through corsets, sequins, and massive false eyelashes. He points to last year’s tour as a huge shift, in which he pushed himself to dress more boldly while simultaneously gaining the trust in himself not to need certain garments like three-inch heel boots.

“I don’t know if I was always interested in being so flamboyant, but something in me knew that in order to achieve what I needed to, you have to apply certain things to your body,” Wise says. “I hate clothes that take work. I don’t have the patience anymore.”

But stripped away from the sparkles and ethereal ornate string arrangements is a singer with relationships on his mind.

“We don’t want to show our more shadowy parts, because we think it will be a turn-off,” Wise says. “But I’m interested in the shadow.”

serpentwithfeet, Sunday, Oct. 14, noon-12:40 p.m., on the City Stage.

See more from SF Weekly’s Treasure Island Music Festival issue:

A Decade of Postcoital Bliss, With Cigarettes After Sex
Years after it began, Cigarettes After Sex suddenly became a breakout YouTube sensation. Songwriter Greg Gonzalez got to the bottom of it.

Soccer Mommy Embraces ‘Chill but Kinda Sad’ Vibes
Clean follows the 21-year-old’s ‘very depressing and cool’ experience of moving to New York for college in indie heartbreak-style.

Courtney Barnett Is a Millennial Courtney Love
The Australian singer-songwriter speaks to the stereotype of the lazy, navel-gazing generation — and in doing so, sees rampant success.

Pusha T, Perfectionist
He’s back from Wyoming with a clear perspective of his place in hip-hop.

George FitzGerald, Mr. Burns
An early-afternoon set rather suits a Londoner who finds himself at the center of the underground music scene.

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