There’s a certain nervousness that sets in before you interview a true iconoclast, someone who not only pushes against conventions, but obliterates them alltogether. Will they open up in conversation, or will they stay guarded and stick to one-word answers? It’s on me to read up on someone’s background and their work beforehand, but there’s a delicate dance that takes place when you have to simultaneously reveal new insights about someone and accurately portray their mystique.
All of this rushes through my mind when I head to meet Josiah Wise, better known by his recording name, serpentwithfeet, at my favorite neighborhood coffee shop. Wise’s music is dark and ritualistic, evoking esoteric imagery over churning synths and baroque string samples, but his arrestingly beautiful tenor cuts through all storm clouds.
Listen to Wise’s debut EP, blisters, out this week, and you don’t need a one-sheet biography to understand his innermost struggles with love and devotion. In the image of a friend or lover tucking his dick between his legs in shame, or covering their ears so they don’t have to hear what their father is saying, Wise intimately telegraphs all we need to know about where he’s been and what’s on his mind.
So you can imagine what a surprise I had upon meeting Wise, wearing a large septum ring and tattoos of a pentagram and the word “suicide” on his forehead, to discover that none of the alchemical darkness he conjures has slithered into his personality. Wise is warm, funny, open and comfortable, not interested in explaining the spiritual or philosophical themes that underscore the songs on blistering so much as learning more about them.
On one such song, the grandiosely orchestrated “Four Ethers”, Wise sings to someone coming from a repressed background about loving themselves while evoking the etheric philosophies of Rudolph Steiner. Steiner’s four ethers—warmth, light, sound and life—underscored Anthroposophy, his therapeutic spiritual philosophy that involves letting natural cycles of birth, life and death play out in your life and in all ecosystems, following the course of the seasons. Last fall outside Hudson I spent some time at a friend’s biodynamic farm, and he went deep in educating me about the idea that a healthy ecosystem has everything it needs to flourish, expire, rejuvenate and self-regulate. There’s nothing extra diluting the process—the four ethers take care of everything.
“I really don’t understand a lot of things yet. Romantically, I still don’t understand masculinity or youthfulness. I’m still trying to figure out sex.”
Wise tells me he never went that deep into the philosophy, and later suggests that he’s really quite shallow, but we disagreed. The difference between shallow people and deep people isn’t only about how much the deep people purport to know, but their willingness to learn. “I’m a method learner,” Wise says while sipping an iced matcha and looking me in the eyes. He goes on to explain that he believes firmly in immersing yourself in something to reap its wisdom, be it with Tarot, Soundcloud or the composer Franz Schubert.
When the arrestingly gorgeous blisters drops this week, produced by fellow Tri Angle Records brethren and deeply sought-after musician The Haxan Cloak (Bjork, HEALTH), you can hear the rewards of Wise’s self-education. His classical training and time spent in choirs have given his voice a tremendous, untreated power, but those subtle moments when he emphasizes a phrase with vibrato or pulls back and croons a different line to match Haxan’s rises and falls tell the stories of a man who is not done learning yet, comfortable in sitting with the unknown and unpacking it through song. Maybe this method learner is onto something.
We’re standing outside the Tarot Society by Little Skips, and you said you have a funny story about this place?
So this Tarot Society I found when I used to read…I’m not the only person in New York who reads Tarot or is interested in esoteric stuff, but also interested in not being only in sacred spaces. I was going through that phase where I was like, “I wanna read Tarot in the club, I wanna read Tarot at the leather bar, I wanna read Tarot at any freaky, seedy, unconventional spot like a train or whatever.” So I found this Tarot society.
When we were just inside you called yourself a “method learner,” and that’s kind of speaking to the same thing. If you really wanna study something, you can’t study it where it’s holy or sacred. So along those lines, if you really wanna understand Tarot why would you study it in a sacred space?
Yeah, and I think for me, I was in a space with my own spiritual practice where I hated the church, you know, not so much that I hated the people, but I hated the restriction. That was always something that I never, growing up I didn’t know how to articulate that? But as I got older, that was it. I enjoy the performance and the communing of people in a space…
But you don’t like what the communing was for.
Yeah! For us all to pretend that we all think the same thing about this one person or one thing, that’s just all really counterintuitive. So I found this thing that happens on Sunday evenings where there were a bunch of different Tarot readers, you give your donation or whatever, and you get readings from a lot of different people. Anyway, long story short, I came here and did a reading on the same day I got put out of my apartment in the Bronx! And that was really intense.
I’m glad I got put out, it was a terrible living situation. I lived at the top, way up by Pelham.
You could’ve gone to Yankees games all the time though.
[Laughs] I guess so, but I don’t know too much about sports.
Me neither dude, violinist by trade. And that’s kind of why I love the record, I mean these are borderline classical arrangements. Haxan’s stepping out of his comfort zone a little, too. But was that part of the decision, your classical training aside, to make this music that’s ultimately a rejection of the religious iconography to some degree a formal thing? Compositionally, was that a conscious decision, and how did you parlay it to Haxan?
Well, I already had some stuff on Soundcloud that our manager Robin heard, who runs Tri Angle. So I wasn’t doing classical stuff for a long time, but when I was experimenting on Soundcloud I realized that, during this time three years ago, I really wanted to make ugly stuff. That’s what I was trying to do.
The music work I was doing before was focused on beauty, and I felt like I was at a really ugly place in my life. So I spent a lot of time trying to make things that were really difficult, stuff that wasn’t as easy. And then I just got tired of it. I want to be pretty. I think now that I’ve educated my ear and educated my eye I can sort of go back to what I’m good at. I’m a singer first, not a pianist. Not an industrial guy. I grew up singing hymns, negro spirituals, r&b, you know…
But it’s not ugly…maybe some of the themes are, but your voice is really beautiful, and that’s kind of what fucks with us. The heaviness of your music is in its themes, like the casual mention of being cool with suicide. You have “suicide” tattooed on your forehead.
Yep, not going anywhere!
“And all the guys that I’ve dated, I don’t know that I’m ever really seeing them. I’m seeing myself, you know? They’re a projection of me. You can’t see the thing that you don’t also possess.”
It’s important to challenge classical conventions about art, what we impose on people, and if there’s a story or an arc to this album that’s very much about you, that’s where I reckon it’s going. I don’t need to read the press release to understand what you’re singing about in “Four Ethers” when you’re singing about the rejection of a mother to a lover, or to yourself. It’s not for me to say.
Well I think it is for you to say! [Laughs] I put it out, so people can say it’s about ants crawling one by one and I’ll be like, “Girl, that’s what it’s about!” What do I know?
The beautiful thing about this existing as a self-contained cycle and an EP is you can really go ahead and do whatever you want next. Do you want another self-contained project, are you writing an opera now or what?
I never try to seem that pretentious! [Laughs]
I’m just fuckin with ya.
No, I’m not trying to shade you for saying that! I think a lot of artists, me included, for a long time I wanted to be the different one and make stuff that was difficult. There’s a glamour in being difficult. That’s what bebop was about—white people wanted to play jazz, and black people were like, “we’re gonna play it faster and you can’t keep up!” Dorothy Ashby came through and said, “I can do bebop on a harp and you definitely can’t do that!” cuz her dad was like, “yo, don’t play piano cuz you a girl, play harp,” and who was seeing her when she was alive?
So I think, for me, that was a thing—you wanna be the best classical singer, the best jazz singer, hit the High C better than the other tenor, you wanna be able to arpeggiate quicker on piano that someone. I was into that. I was into the masturbation of music, how difficult and virtuosic… that word is stupid! I’ll say virtuositic, that sounds better! We should make up our own words and do this interview in gibberish. But at one point I realized it was good pedagogy to be into difficult music. I think it’s great to listen to Stravinsky or Steve Reich or whatever, it’s good ear training.
The modern composers are funny, because my whole thing as a violinist is that you can play the work of a dead white man, perhaps a sexually repressed dead white man, to perfection, but—
—Everybody thinks Schubert was, which I think is kinda poppin’!
—You could play it to perfection, open the gates to heaven or hell and let the angels or devils in, but it’s still a dead white person’s work, and there are no fingerprints on it! My love of the instruments and the sounds and the work stayed, but why join an orchestra where you’re a speck on a stage in a cold auditorium, you know?
Well, that’s one thing that excited me about Schubert! I sang a lot of his stuff in college, and again, I’m not an expert—my knowledge is perfunctory at best, but I love Schubert. He died young and made 600 works or some shit like that, such a prolific composer, and people question his sexuality. But work like “The Millers Daughter” song cycle is about a delusional man, who’s in love with this girl that does not even see him. A lot of his work is about not just unrequited love, but a fantastical love that doesn’t even exist. It’s like unrequited life! It really inspired me.
What’s unrequited on your record?
Oh, I hear that. There’s a lot of really intimate themes in this. You seem to incorporate grappling with queerness and how that relates to family as a sort of darkness. It’s heavy, this inner voice. It wears on you.
At this point I think the inner voice, when people talk about “the god inside” or whatever, is your mother. For me. I was talking to my mom about that stuff this week actually. At this point she doesn’t chastise me anymore. She’s raised me. I grew up in the house 18 years, and was around a few after that, but at a point she saw I have a strong constitution, she raised me right, no matter how “avant-garde” or transgressive I pretend to be. I still have the values. And she tells me, “Josiah, you can be less hard on yourself,” but I’m like, “No! I can’t believe I made that silly mistake. I should go and pick myself apart.”
We’re really removed from the sacred feminine as a culture, and from treating our mothers with respect. A very old idea of god, female energy giving us life, so to hear that be something that you value is really refreshing. Our whole American culture is really—
Anti-woman and anti-parental respect. I mean in Japan people bathe their grandparents and shit.
That’s hot! I’d wanna wash them with a nude leotard. Sort of how Beyonce went to the MET Gala. You could wear a nude dress. I think for me though, I really do love my mom. I love mothers. I love men that are mothers. Through all those voices on the EP and things that I’m talking to, I’m talking about all of the voices inside of me. My dad’s voice, which is much more quiet than my mother’s voice. And all the guys that I’ve dated, I don’t know that I’m ever really seeing them. I’m seeing myself, you know? They’re a projection of me. You can’t see the thing that you don’t also possess. I don’t really know how to justify that.
You mean “see” in the alchemical context?
Yeah, there’s just certain sounds we can’t hear because we aren’t dogs or dolphins. I feel like the same thing exists emotionally—I can’t really understand compassion unless I’ve been compassionate. I think for a long time growing up it seemed like my mom hated me, because I didn’t really understand love.
We put that on our parents when it’s ultimately our responsibility to discover it.
Yeah, we have to figure that out.
What are you figuring out on “Four Ethers”? It’s super deep and alchemical and centered in the middle of the EP; it has an added kind of resonance.
I’m not sure, I think I’m actually really shallow in some ways. I have a hard time grasping things, and I think all those songs are about my difficulty to grasp. I really don’t understand a lot of things yet. Romantically, I still don’t understand masculinity or youthfulness. I’m still trying to figure out sex.
You said “yet,” though. That’s the difference between you and someone who’s not going to learn anything new. You don’t want to stop at being shallow, because you’ll put yourself or your listeners in an uncomfortable place if it means figuring something out together. What’s the Hebrew on your arm?
Oh girl, someone said it might be Yiddish, too. It’s “mayim rapha,” water heals. I got it in college. I had this Jewish friend and he wrote it out for me. I was gonna get it on the left hand, but he said the right hand because in the Torah God does important things with the right hand, and I was like, “cool.”