TOAs we cross the long stretch of the pandemic, with formal face-to-face interviews replaced by cozy conversations via phones and laptops, we have become accustomed to images of carefully curated kitchens, living rooms, and bookshelves. However, for today’s conversation, singer-songwriter Serpentwithfeet has offered a much more novel setting in the current closed climate: an airport. After struggling to connect, he appears, most of his face covered in a mask, his neck tattoos barely visible through the compressed video image. “Can you hear?” he asks, before a disembodied voice interrupts to announce that a flight is boarding.
The 32-year-old, now called Serpent instead of his birth name Josiah Wise, returns to Los Angeles from Florida ahead of the release of his second LP, Deacon. It is an album that represents a journey in itself. Serpent made a name for himself with the 2016 EP Blisters and 2018 debut album Soil, expansive works that used baroque pop, R&B, gospel, and operatic flourishes to bring themes of queerness, desire, pain, and heartbreak to life. The sonic breadth of his output, as well as his almost ceremonial live performances, earned him fans that ranged from the experimental (Björk, with whom he has toured and collaborated) to the chart-topping (Grammy-nominated singer and producer Ty Dolla $ ign, which appeared in his Individual receipts 2019) and praise from Vogue and Pitchfork.
Yet where Soil and Blisters were forged emotionally and often thorny, their new album is a deviated flight to a softer place.
“I’ve done the heartbreak stuff, and I think I did a good job at least saying I was heartbroken,” he explains. So instead, with Deacon, she sought to write about “the joys of dating men, and dating black men specifically. I’ve dated black men and I’ve been in love with black men, and there is a certain way that I really feel cared for and held by them. There is a certain confidence. It warms my heart just thinking about it. “
Deacon is an album that Serpent says he has wanted to make for four years, but lacked the emotional tools to create: “I think that with some things you have to keep living to be able to do them. I had to live longer. “
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Serpent was raised by fairly strict religious parents (his father owned a Christian bookstore) and spent a lot of time in church, joining his family’s nondenominational Pentecostal church choir when he was six years old. While the scriptures and sermons did not interest him, especially given the church’s conservative attitudes toward homosexuality, he was drawn to church ceremony, especially when it came to music.
“I was fascinated by the songs and the language of the songs,” he recalls. “That was fascinating to me. How vivid the images were. There was so much passion. “
Both Blisters and Soil embodied this sense of greatness, as well as Serpent’s affinity for classical music and opera. But the period during which he created those records was fraught with worries and creative anxiety. “I was constantly frustrated, confused, and felt like nothing was working,” he says. “If things didn’t turn out the way I expected or wanted, I would become a fighter. It was on fire. I think it needed to be. I think he was working from that place of fire. ”
A move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles ended up being “a transformative experience.” In the sprawling expanse of Los Angeles, where he has lived for the past few years, he found peace. “My life is really quiet, which is what I wanted.”
The new album, Deacon, is the direct result of this movement, and the friendships forged with the people there, whom he describes as “hearty” and “a balm.” One such person is Ty Dolla $ ign, a collaborator of Kanye and Rihanna, who has become a creative confidant.
“By being around Ty, I think I’ve become a better songwriter and a faster songwriter,” he says, explaining how Ty encouraged him to modify his music, rather than delete it, until he got it right. “Once I started doing that, I think I was able to have more fun, because it became less of this painful process. Before, I was really neurotic about it, and Ty helped me regain my cool. ”
At this point, Serpent seems a bit scared. His screen goes black for a second before he comes back to tell me that his plane is, in fact, boarding right then and there. After a frantic jog through the airport terminal, he hangs up while boarding his plane.
When we reconnect the next day, the atmosphere couldn’t be further from the hectic bustle of an airport – her apartment is bright and airy, and instead of a mask she wears a Burberry bucket hat. While speaking of Deacon, there is also a lightness and ease, something that resonates in the warm textures of the album, from the tender hum of a xylophone on Closer Fellowship or the romantic plucks of a Spanish guitar on Amir.
“Deacon is something I wanted to create in a tradition that I saw,” he explains, “which is black people rejoicing anyway. Black people living their damn life anyway. Because no one can take away my peace or my joy. Not the government, not some random white person on the street. I just wanted to make an album that would be a reminder to me: I can enjoy this life that I have, regardless of the trials or the mountains. ”
The album was also informed by a reverence for R&B, especially the work of Janet Jackson and Brandy – “The archetypes for a certain kind of singing and a certain kind of loving and caring approach.” R&B is something he passionately believes in. “I don’t think I’m the guardian of R&B at all,” he says. “But one thing that infuriates me is that people pretend that R&B is something you can do without a care. The appeal of a lot of R&B is that there is a certain kind of sensitivity. “
Listening to Deacon, it’s fair to say that Serpent has come to realize the smoothness found in the work of his R&B heroes. As a result, the world of Serpentwithfeet has been reshaped and renewed. “Maybe it’s the blessing of my 30s. I spend less time worrying and more time counting love,” he sings in Fellowship. It seems like a world that we could all use to visit.
Deacon is released on Friday, March 26
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism