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The Last Temptation of serpentwithfeet

An afternoon talking God, sex, and life's unanswerable questions with the Brooklyn-based songwriter.
September 9, 2016, 1:30pm
Sam Clarke

All photos by Sam Clarke.

During his first year of college, Josiah Wise was forced to confront the idea that if he made the wrong decision, God might not like him so much. He'd grown up attending a "non-denominational, pentecostal" church up to four times a week, but when he decamped to Philadelphia's University of the Arts, he decided to cut out that particular part of his routine. When he went back home to Baltimore for winter holiday break, his mother was shocked to find out that he wouldn't be staying for the New Year's Eve service.

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"She said, 'If you don't stay for New Year's Eve, your entire year is going to be cursed,'" Wise says, sitting in an Ethiopian cafe on a bright August afternoon. "I thought, 'That's bullshit … but what if she's right?'"

Speaking in excited, run-on sentences—even when he's talking about such heady subjects as existential loneliness, heartbreak, and self-discovery—Wise, now 28, offered that anecdote as a roundabout explanation for how his religious upbringing influenced some the darker fixations he's been exploring under the moniker serpentwithfeet. And even that name seems like a nod to one of the Bible's dark parts: the fall of man. Putting aside Christianity's obvious redemption narrative, Wise seems to acknowledge that there's an inherent gloominess baked into Western religious traditions. "I have a slight obsession with fairytales and the Bible is a really wonderful fairytale," he says. "And most fairy tales are pretty fucking dark. If you don't eat the wrong apple, things can be wonderful, but if you do, you'll be petrified."

Working with the British experimental composer the Haxan Cloak, Wise finally bottled that dark matter on an August EP called blisters, using classical instruments and death-defying kick drum drops to create five tracks that feel, by turns, grandiose, bruised, harrowing, and peaceful. Amidst the drama, Wise's vocals sit under a single spotlight at the center; it's a singularly emotive voice, one that whispers, croaks, croons, and moans with desire and anguish—often all at once. The Bible is, after all, a book full of death, destruction, chaos, revenge and prostitution, so it's understandable that Wise's songs feel so graceful and stained, built on sweet strings sagging under harrowing sentiments like the climactic line on "penance": "my evil has not been appraised."

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As Wise sits in the window of the restaurant, you can read these heavier preoccupations on his face—not just figuratively, but literally, too. Stretching across the middle of his forehead is a tattoo that reads "HEAVEN" in big block letters. Across his right temple is another: "SUICIDE." The hair on top of his head is shaved into an awkward circular pattern that could only be described as monk-like. Each detail seems a souvenir of his long history in and around the church—a tribute to the joy, pain, and the perverse love of a good spectacle.

Even in some of his earliest songs—published to SoundCloud but now deleted for reasons that Wise can't exactly put into words when pressed—he's made fragile, fluttering compositions that implicitly deal with life's biggest questions: Who am I? What is my place in the world? How do I go on? "There was a moment that I realized that if I wanted to continue being alive that I would have to have some hard conversations with myself," Wise says, placing his hands on the table and staring me in the eyes.

Growing up, Wise spent at least two nights a week rehearsing for the children's choir at his church. His estimates that the house of worship drew several thousand attendees each week. As far back as he can remember, he'd been sitting and watching, singing alongside them, absorbing the power of that many voices singing in unison, of the strange costuming that happens when all of his friends and their families stepped into their church clothes on a Sunday morning. It shook him.

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"It was the epitome of performance art, before I even knew what performance art was," he says. "The black church was so charismatic—it was the best performance anyone could ever witness. For some people it's like that going to a Kanye concert or to [Beyoncé's] Formation tour, but for me it's going to church. Every Sunday, that's a concert."

Looking back, Wise says he never had much faith in the more theological aspects of the Christianity: "Jesus wasn't really relevant to me, not as much as the pageantry."

Still, he says he sees it as a surprisingly welcoming space, at least as far as his own sexuality goes. "I always knew it wasn't okay to be gay in the church. But I can't remember any time anyone actually said it. We had lots of gay men in that church, myself included. They were down for me to be a little baby queen. I don't have the stories a lot of people have."

At his mother's insistence, Wise soon took his interest in singing beyond the walls of the church. When he was in seventh grade, he auditioned for the Maryland State Boys Choir. He got in, but, for a while he wasn't convinced that he'd stick with it. "At first I was not into it," he says. "I'm in this choir with a bunch of fucking white boys that don't sound anything like me. I wanted to sing Usher songs!"

But the following Christmas, the choir learned to perform "Carol of the Bells," which a young Wise knew from its appearance in one of Home Alone's more dramatic moments. He was smitten. The Leontovych composition, he says, scratched the itch for a pomp and circumstance that he'd come to appreciate from his church choir days. The human voice can be a powerful thing, and here he was learning to weaponize it. More than anything else, classical training seemed to him to lend a steady self-possession to vocalists, one that's crucial when you're dealing with operatic themes of death and destruction. Not entirely coincidentally, those would be the same subjects Wise would become obsessed with years later, in his own work.

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He eventually joined a competitive high school choir that had him practicing five days a week and travelling around the world. After four years of intense training, which he describes as something of a "boot camp," he moved to Philadelphia to continue classical voice studies at the University of the Arts. He struggled a bit along the way, but he soon stumbled upon the idea that would come to shape his future work. "I wanted to be an opera singer really bad," he says. "But I wasn't the best. My teachers were like, 'Don't beat up on yourself, do what you can, but you're not going to get into a masters program right out of undergrad. You're good at R&B. Maybe you can find some intersection between [that and classical music].'"

For his senior recital, he wrote string sections to accompany his bombastic vocal performances, doing renditions of Tchaikovsky pieces and pop songs. The inspiration, he says, came from Björk: he'd heard her songs on a cassette mix his brother made for him as a kid, and began to think of her synthesis of pop music and classical string parts as something to aspire to. Though he describes his efforts as "terrible," it was the first spark of what would become serpentwithfeet.

Few of Wise's works from the period directly following college have survived, but the ones that do demonstrate the beguiling power of his vocals. Whether he's dwelling on a single note, echoing his own phrases like a mantra, or divebombing through more complicated runs, he's able to conjure a sort of cautious confidence. His is a voice you trust, even when what he's espousing are questions rather than answers—and he often is, because life doesn't offer too many straight answers.

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Some look to religion for security, a stable center in chaotic times. But Wise was never involved in the church for the dogma, and he doesn't think life is that simple anyway. He realized that humans are always attempting to service an "affinity for the greater," and slowly came to terms with some of the uncertainty and discomfort that comes from grappling with your own existence. His music, as a consequence, has often revolved around the idea of searching for something beyond oneself.

Old habits die hard, and though it's been years since Wise has attended church regularly, God has always hung there in the background, waiting to reemerge. When Wise sings, "take this body as yours" on "flickering," it's hard not to hear it as a prayer or a call to communion. Wise extends the same line of thought to a lover. "Those are things that I heard growing up," he says. "Eat me. Take me. Let me be all around you. Let me shroud you with my love. I would love to descend upon you and cascade down your spine. I've noticed that I really enjoy overwhelming [others] and being overwhelmed by things."

Wise has long admired the way that sacred music, and even the Bible, talks about the creator—the way it exalts and enthrones him, and begs for the faithful to (literally!) consume him. On blisters, Wise uses that language to untangle some of the complex connections in his own life, to lend meaning to insignificant moments or to magnify the importance of the life-changing ones, by talking about every situation as a manifestation of the divine.

These songs don't just make Christian phraseology sound surprisingly sexual. They suggest that sex itself can be holy. Romantic connections are slight, wispy, and "gossamer." Lips can give "water," and can cause oceans to overflow. Romance, like God, can move mountains. Such wordplay isn't an answer to the big questions that loom over Wise, but it does offer him a way of dealing with the uncertainty. Elevating human struggles to divine relations makes these struggles seem eternal, hallowed. Each moment is imbued with an unshakeable significance.

"I do think my love life—the sex that I have, the dates I go on—is sacred," Wise says. "I think sometimes with gay men it's like, 'We're just going to jerk off in the bathroom and it doesn't mean anything.' But the card I make for you is not frivolous. The kiss I give you is calculated—but still passionate. All the guys I've hooked up with … it all means something to me. I love the idea that everything is important."

Just a couple of days after we meet up, I notice that Wise has announced a release show for blisters at the San Damiano Mission, a Catholic church in Greenpoint first built in 1911, but recently restaffed with the idea of providing for locals who "may feel abandoned, alone, or […] disenfranchised by the church."

I think back to something Wise told me the afternoon we met, about a day a few months ago when he went to church for a proper service for the first time in years. He was scared to go back, but it felt like home again. Or at least the strange power felt familiar. "I was nervous," he told me with a laugh. "I didn't have any church clothes. I had my [fake] eyelashes on and everything. But nobody even looked twice. There was such a gravity—a blanket of really heavy energy. I remembered all the songs, but I left after the choir sang."