By Jordan Yeager
VANCOUVER – The artist known as serpentwithfeet is a deep well, swirling with paradoxes. He’s fascinated by the macabre, but carries toy dolls wherever he goes; he sings gospel, but has distanced himself from the church; he’s incredibly self-aware, but perpetually seeking to know more. Perhaps it’s this very duality that makes serpentwithfeet’s music so well-rounded and full.
Born Josiah Wise, serpent began his musical career as a child singing in his church’s congregation. Throughout high school and college, his obsession lay in classical music, and when he wasn’t accepted to grad school to further his classical education, Wise made the creation of original music his primary focus. It began with blisters, a debut EP comprised of five songs. Three had had previous incarnations on SoundCloud, where Wise’s manager discovered him, then had the idea to “take the songs down and add some shimmer to them, get them mastered, and release everything as an EP with additional music.” Where the listener base had once been small, it suddenly blossomed. Despite years of musical devotion, the success still came as a surprise.
“I spent so much time in the dark – and I say the word dark not being pejorative, because I think the dark is good – but I spent a lot of time not necessarily having people interested in what I’m doing,” says Wise. “I spent a lot of time working day jobs and wondering if I was doing everything incorrectly, because things weren’t moving. I spent a lot of time thinking I should be a different person – what if I started all over? The fact that people have responded so well, and the fact that I have a great team of people that are excited about what I’m doing – to have all this now, when I had literally the complete opposite, that is the most surprising for me.”
“Within the past two years, I’ve been able to get more clear about what I want,” he continues. “It’s interesting: there’s a fork in the road. I think when people aren’t watching, you move differently. Now that people are watching, I can stretch my wings a bit. I can do things that I didn’t know I was going to be able to do.”
For Wise, stretching his wings also means a return to his roots; with a greater sense of security, he’s able to dig deeper within himself and return to where he feels most comfortable. Having grown up in church, that comfort lies in gospel and R&B music.
“My work is absolutely informed by my time in the church, and I am able to tap into this incredible reservoir of stories and lessons and language about intimacy – the Bible and, more specifically, gospel songs, use such intimate language to talk about their relationship to their God,” he says. “I think it’s really funny that if you switch out a few pronouns, it could be a love song to anybody. As an adult, I notice that that language doesn’t influence the way a lot of Christians approach their love lives or the way they treat masculinity. It’s something to play with, and it’s something that influenced me, being a gay man: how did this kind of yielding influence me? Because I am dating men, and I’ve always been taught to surrender a certain way.
From his face tattoos of a pentagram and the words “HEAVEN” and “SUICIDE” to his collection of toys to his thoughtful, pensive manner of speech, Wise already has an assortment of artistic lives under his glitter-covered, paisley-printed belt. And he’s showing no signs of slowing down.
“I don’t have any definitive answers, but I definitely know that I have questions I’m exploring.”
serpentwithfeet’s debut album, soil, is due out June 8