Elliott Brown Jr.

Serpentwithfeet Sheds His Skin

Brooklyn artist Josiah Wise celebrates the growth that arises from trauma

Ten minutes after we meet for the first time, Josiah Wise hands me an excerpt of a love poem written by someone who died of cancer a week earlier. He’s written it out by hand in blue marker on blue construction paper, folded it into a square of leopard-print chiffon, and tied it in a red-and-white-striped cotton ribbon. “This is for you,” he says. “It’s nothing crazy, just my little thank-you for taking out your time.” The poet’s name is Max Ritvo; if Wise knows he is dead, he doesn’t bring it up. I won’t find out until later, when I google the name at the bottom of the page and find an obituary.

The poem is about the fear of losing yourself in loving someone who is hard to love. It reflects the elemental harmony that rumbles through the music Wise makes as Serpentwithfeet, whose first release came through Tri Angle Records this September. The Blisters EP crystallizes the dark baroque pop Wise has experimented with since he began publishing his own songs online about four years ago — first as Josiahwise Is the Serpentwithfeet, then simply the last word. The EP is lushly produced by dark-ambient producer The Haxan Cloak, and Wise’s classically trained voice sits like a jewel at its center.

As a kid in Baltimore, Wise sang in church and in the Maryland State Boychoir, and he later spent a few years studying vocal techniques at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts. He now lives in Brooklyn, where in 2014 he started writing the five songs that would become Blisters. He considers the EP a punctuation mark on the past two years of his life, a chapter that began shortly after he lost his day job and ends here with his debut project. Blisters collects experiences from that time in Wise’s life and wrings fable out of them. A breakup expands into a series of natural disasters: a drought that kills trees, an ocean that overflows, an earthquake that splits apart floors.

Wise sings in the present tense throughout Blisters, but his imagery commits to the language of myth. “Pretend the floors cracking in the shape of our names is not a big deal,” he sings on “Blisters.” “Pretend me loving you is not a big deal.” The moment plays as if already consigned to history, but the kind of history that can be tapped for visceral retelling at any time — like Saturn and his children, like Adam and Eve.

Wrapping his misfortunes in music helps him move on from them, Wise says — helps him feel new. He appreciates suffering for its transformative potential, but he doesn’t like dwelling in it. “I don’t want to be the person that relies on a certain kind of trauma to work,” he tells me. “The experiences that I’m talking about were traumatic: just not feeling loved in a certain way and not understanding why. I think that’s a very particular kind of trauma, and that’s not the place I want to write from anymore.”

Where he is now is less lonely. Wise describes “an abundance of extreme, exciting love” in his present life, and he has found community among other queer artists and performers in New York’s underground. That part — community — is relatively new for him. “It was easy for me to say, ‘I’m alone in this world. I’m an anomaly,’” he says. "Within the past year, I’ve realized I’m not an anomaly. There are people that echo me. I’m seeing myself all the time. That’s a different challenge. Before, it was like, I’m alone, how am I going to figure out the world alone? Now I’m like, I’m not alone, how do I figure this out among people that also want similar things? What is it like walking with people?

As a kid, Wise spent a lot of time by himself (his only brother is 10 years older than him). He recalls how his mother would order him to read in the corner to cope with his fear of thunderstorms. Even now, the vibrant, direct quality of children’s literature is something he relishes and aspires to in his own work. “I still buy kids’ books. I love that shit,” he says. “I just love how wondrous the world is. My mother also still loves kids’ films. My mother’s 67 and she still will cry over a kids’ film.”

Now he seems more interested in expressing that vivid inner life to the network of people around him, and to anyone who happens upon his music. To talk with Wise is to witness him contextualize himself constantly, meticulously. His music is deeply personal because it’s what he calls the “residue” of his personal work — his efforts to become better, happier, more fulfilled. In his life and music, he strives for immediacy, a quality he’s always loved in artists like Nina Simone, Björk, and Toni Morrison. He wants to make pop music that forces you to stop doing the dishes when it comes on, to look up and pay attention.

One song in particular, “Four Ethers,” was written after Wise binged on Adele and Sam Smith albums. He wanted to understand their ubiquity, to know why a song like “Stay With Me” or “Hello” had such broad reach. The result was a song named for an occult theory of matter, sung over samples of Berlioz’s 1830 Symphonie fantastique. It’s not exactly an analogue to Adele’s four-chord standards, but it echoes their wounded yearning. “Show me yourself,” Wise repeats to a partner who’s closed off completely. “I’m fine with you being a liar, I’m fine with you being a killer, I’m fine with you being suicidal / That shit don’t bother me none / But you gotta show me yourself.”

Wise has played with gender roles on a superficial level for much of his life — his mother let him wear whatever he wanted growing up, and he’s still playful with fashion. But his investigation goes deeper than the eyeliner and glitter he favors in photo shoots. He’s curious about human behavior, how it organizes itself along gender, where it’s supple and where it’s brittle and where the line is between the two. “I read that patriarchy introduced the idea of lines, and that matriarchy is more about circles,” he says. “I’m still learning. I aspire to be the circle. But in a lot of ways, I’m a man that gets my privileges, and sometimes I do think in lines.”

He describes the resilient love and open grief in his most recent songs — the urge to see someone no matter what it is they have to show, as in “Four Ethers” — as feminine qualities. “That whole thing, like, ‘Just show me yourself, whatever it is, just tell me,’ I think that’s something that is really beautiful,” he says. “You never see the ugly dog hiding because it’s ugly. The dog is just barking with the other dogs. I’ve seen dogs that look hideous and they’re still barking, singing their song. They don’t know. What would happen if we showed that too?”

Through the personal work that becomes his music, Wise has learned to let others see him. “It’s OK to let people in in a certain way,” he says. “It’s OK sometimes to let people rub off on you. It’s OK to be part of something, to be part of people’s lives — to be a bit more porous. I’ve always thought of myself as a structure, but no. I’m a porous being.”