According to Dazed Digital, seven years ago Josiah Wise was studying classical vocal techniques at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, exploring, but never truly becoming part of, Philly’s neo-soul scene.
Now he is serpentwithfeet, a New York performance artist with a glitter beard and head tattoos who is unafraid to be “violently [himself ],” as Wise put it in a 2016 interview with Pitchfork.
Wise sheds his former identity and musical stylings, trading in the cheerful neo-soul and gospel of Philadelphia for the dark and consuming alternative soul of New York’s queer underground.
Wise’s songs of praise, joy and contentment are replaced with songs of longing, infatuation and resentment. Mellow neo-soul and warm gospel are exchanged for atmospheric industrial orchestration.
Even so, Wise somehow manages to preserve his origins as a classically trained soul and gospel singer.
His vocals are tinged with years of vocal training. His runs at times sound operatic; his enunciation is effortless.
An element of reverence still persists in his new sound. Wise worships his former lovers as almost-deities in the track “Flickering”: “I raise my arms to you, boy…I offer myself to you.” The song “Blisters” is a captivating mixture of soul and experimental music that would not be out of place on a Björk album with its soaring violins, gentle harp melody and rattling percussion.
It is no surprise then that Wise worked closely with Björk collaborator and producer Haxan Cloak on the song.
Wise’s voice is powerful and fragile, growing with intensity as the song progresses, but also becoming increasingly vulnerable.
His pain is immediately felt by the listener, it is such a visceral and all-consuming pain. “Where is your concern?” he pleads to a lover who had abandoned him in an empty apartment infested with mice.
Wise’s love is violent and blind. In “Four Ethers,” Wise confronts a lover who cannot open up to him: “Baby, it’s cool with me that you like to lie / ‘cause I see the depression filling up your eyes.”
Wise showcases his incredible control over vocal dynamics. He sings in cautious whispers one second and erupts into primal belts the next, echoing the toxic up and downs of the relationship.
“I’m working on being a more gentle and loving person,” Wise said in a 2016 interview with The Village Voice. “During that time [of “blister”’s recording]I wasn’t using that language. I don’t think I was callous when I wrote those songs, but I was hurt and frustrated. Now, I’m just trying to exercise really violent love toward myself. I want to be aggressively sweet to me… Hopefully, that comes out in the new music.”
Wise’s future projects will certainly be noteworthy and innovative if they are anything like “blisters.”
Wise’s vocal talents, the experimental instrumentation of his work, and his queer experience create a distinctive and unique sound unlike that of any other contemporary artist, blending soul with the avant-garde like no one has ever done before.
photo courtesy of colinfsmithblog.wordpress.com