The Elegant Panic of serpentwithfeet
The Brooklyn artist's new 'blisters' is an avant garde five-song EP that swells and glistens. How did he get here?
"I brought you this."
At an Ethiopian cafe in Bushwick, Brooklyn, Josiah Wise—known as serpentwithfeet—hands me a small package wrapped in a shimmering blue ribbon. Inside are two pieces of paper. One reads "I appreciate you" and on the other is written a quote from Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Tracy K. Smith along with a child-like drawing of a tree. The quote reads:
"I feel like the older I get, the truer it feels that I'm only going to have an investment in a poem if it allows or forces me to bring something that's supremely me onto the page. I used to think that the speaker of a poem was talking to someone else, to some ideal reader or listener, but now I think that speakers—poets—are talking to themselves. The poem allows you to pose questions that you have to ask of yourself, knowing that they are unanswerable."
Wise has dedicated the past few years of his life to answering his own unanswerable questions, something he tackles constantly in his first EP, blisters. It's a five-song avant garde opera that swells and glistens and allows the listener a 20-minute intimate window into the life of Wise. At the very heart of it is "four ethers," a song that creeps and marches along like Billie Holiday backed by an orchestra. "Going into it I just knew I needed to make something that had to be honest," says Wise, who admits he is the subject of the song. I ask about the line about suicide ("Baby, it's cool with me that you want to die/ And I'm not going to stop you if you try") and if he has ever considered the route for himself.
"There have been times when I have been suicidal, but fake suicidal, where I was like 'I will walk very closely to the door before it closes to see if my hand gets shut.' And not to trivialize people that do feel that way, because I'm not making a joke out it. I think for once I wanted the attention for myself. I wanted to have a pity party. I think that's what it was."
Wise is tall and black, dressed in baggy jeans paired with what appears to be an apron worn as a halter-top, tied in the back. His large septum piercing threatens to be the main focus when you look at him, save for the four small black tattoos that adorn his hairline: an inverted pentagram, SUICIDE, HEAVEN, and a dead bird. At first, SUICIDE was meant to be a dead rat, but he felt the choice of a dead rat would be too safe. He has a soft demeanor, hugs when greeting strangers, but dominates the conversation as if he does interviews daily. He knows what he wants to say, but his tendency to ramble often gets the better of him; his tangents often give the impression that he enjoys hearing himself talk.
Wise operates on a plane perpendicular to ours. A kind of ethereal calm surrounds him and softens his words, though they do not need much softening. He is hyper-aware of identity, both as a person as an artist, though he admits there is no difference between the two. The concept and act of mourning is one Wise deals with not just in his artistic life but in his personal life as well, which he says are one and the same. "A lot of my music birthed out of panic. But I like to think it's elegant panic."
"I have a friend that always asks me how's your heart? How's your spirit? Did you cry today? And I used to always laugh at that," he explains to me over a lunch of keysir selata and misir wot. "I think I always feel like I know myself, and then all these new things come up."
"Every day is a killing of what I think the self is," Wise says, paraphrasing the French philosopher Michel Foucault. "It's easier to believe I'm ugly and nobody wants me or I'm too brilliant or I'm too smart or too complex or too simple. It's easy to create division between something that you envy. I always envied pretty people or beautiful people but I think what pretty people have that I didn't have for a long time was the gravity."
Wise has always had strict boundaries, most of which he claims are self-imposed, as if he lives in a constant state of anxiety that he is trying to escape from. He loves rules, but knows he must break them in order to grow as an artist and as a person. You can hear that hesitation in his music: while the strings and drums swell and attack, serpentwithfeet moves along timidly. His music and artistic life is the way he convinces himself to move forward. It's what motivates him to be constantly renewing himself. As he speaks, the 28-year-old projects an air of a second adolescence, as if he is trying to convince himself that what he says is what he really believes. Whether or not he does, though, does not matter. He is confident and poised the way someone who is constantly searching deeper within themselves would be.
"I'm happy with how my life has turned out but I realize I have to negotiate with how open I want to be moving forward. I never want to crystallize and become this boring adult but I also realize I have a lot of personal safety nets that I've made for the things that I will and will not accept in my personal life."
Blisters is not Wise's first musical endeavor. He wrote and shared several songs in 2010, but soon after deleted them, for reasons he would not disclose. In 2012 he moved to New York from Philadelphia and found himself with a full-time job at a teashop, but was fired soon after starting. In line with his love of boundaries, he had set up in his mind the Ideal Him, a person whose existence included a job, benefits, the whole American Dream. Had he not been fired, he would probably still be working at that teashop.
"When I got fired that was the gas really—I didn't have more gas in the car but I had spiritual gas. And I realized that I'm going to have to make a living off of being creative. Which obviously was a goal but at that point I had to be more violently myself. And that is my day job now."
A few weeks after our interview, I see Wise again, this time while surrounded by hundreds of others at his official release show. Serpentwithfeet's first NYC show is in a Catholic church in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The effect of sitting in a gorgeous, decadently decorated place of worship while listening to a powerful album of self-reflection and self-discovery is not lost on the crowd, who willingly play along as Wise asks us to turn to our neighbor and declare to them that we will be kind to ourselves. He asks us to love and to accept love while recounting the story of Diana Ross's 1983 performance in Central Park, one of his favorite performances and biggest idols.
At the beginning of the performance, which lasts about an hour, he enters quietly from the church's entrance, moving through the crowd and quietly sitting down to the piano. He begins the evening with "flickering," a somber ballad whose notes seem to hang in the air, pregnant with meaning. Whether it's his professional vocal training or background growing up singing in a church choir or something else entirely, Wise is a performer and he shines brightest while in front of a large crowd.
"Repeat after me" he commands before his final song, and like the good churchgoers we are that night, we heed his command. "Tonight I will continue to be soft with myself. Tonight I know I am surrounded by love and I'm not going to reject it because it's sexy."
Wise sings and speaks as if every moment and every step is calculated—every movement is a specific artistic expression. As I exit the show, I can't help but feel —our interview, his performance, his outfits, his quoting of French philosophers—even though it might be easy to assume it's all performance. Maybe it's bullshit. Maybe it's not. "What I intentionally do try to express is how urgently I feel I need to figure this shit out," he told me earlier. "The songs become like a life rope to help me."
All photos by Jessica Lehrman
Annalise Domenighini is a writer based in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter.
Jessica Lehrman is a photographer based in Brooklyn. Follow her on Instagram.