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SERPENTWITHFEET: Josiah Wise's Mystical, Gospel-Inflected R&B Is Anything But Grounded

SERPENTWITHFEET: Josiah Wise's Mystical, Gospel-Inflected R&B Is Anything But Grounded


Josiah Wise is featured in our 'Sound and Vision' series in the June/July issue, where we're showcasing 12 trailblazing queer musicians shaking up our summer. 

Photography by Daniel Seung Lee. Styling by Michael Cook. Hair: Andrita Renee. Makeup: Justine Sweetman. Shirt by The Kooples.

Like most people on this planet, Josiah Wise still hasn't recovered from the myriad wonders of Beychella. He soaked in Beyonce's headlining performance at Coachella while touring across Europe to support soil, his debut album of ecclesiastical R&B, which he's releasing under his artistic moniker, serpentwithfeet, on June 8.

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"It was amazing," he says on the phone from Brussels. "She's number one, period. That's not even a conversation." He's also effusive about Frank Ocean, whose open letter recounting his unrequited love for another man changed a part of Wise's DNA. "It really touched me and shifted my consciousness, showing me the way I did and didn't want to inhabit the world."

While he's forthcoming about his idols and peers, he's less eager to divulge any details of his own life. Questions about his upbringing are politely batted away -- a shame, given that Wise's history, like his music, is so rich. Born in Baltimore, he was raised in a religious household, often spending time in his father's Christian bookstore.

At the age of 6, he joined his family's church, where he sang in the congregation. Music was a constant healing force; he studied classical at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, refusing to even conceive of dabbling in anything else. Afterward, he ventured to Paris before settling in New York in 2013. Retail jobs kept his head above water, but a year later he was basically homeless. It was at his lowest moments that he started to fuse together the various genres he loved, merging R&B, gospel, and orchestral instrumentation with lyrics that described his life as a gay man.

Though he spent his youth trying to blend in, this newfound creative confidence inspired him to finally present himself the way he wanted. He shaved his eyebrows, started amassing tattoos, and pierced his septum. Why? "Well, why not?" he says matter-of-factly. "I always think it's funny when people ask that because I measure myself against me. I don't measure myself against anyone else. For me, this is the standard."

If his 2016 EP, blisters -- a five-track collection that caught the attention of everyone from Bjork (the pair collaborated on a recent remix of her single "Blissing Me") to Troye Sivan -- was the sound of Wise stepping out of the shadows, then soil is a bold statement of intent. While the EP shrouded Wise's dexterous, hugely emotive voice in shards of electronics, soil pushes his voice to the forefront. He says he wanted the record "to feel like dirt," and he employed the likes of producers Clams Casino (A$AP Rocky) and Paul Epworth (Adele) to help foster his vision. As for his apparent aversion to capital letters, he simply says, "I think lowercase letters are cute," before giggling softly.

soil is a dizzying heart swell of an album that manages to zoom in on that liminal space between fantasy and reality. "I'm interested in treating songs like a good cake," Wise says. "You have layers and layers, and icing and sprinkles, and more layers," he says.

He always intended to create a proper body of work -- one anchored by powerful visuals and honest songwriting -- and he's well on his way to hitting his target. "I think my generation has a lot of headspace for albums," he says, "but we're interested in full projects because the dialogue around them is just as vital." He's especially keen to continue exploring that latter element, buoyed by Ocean's brave revelation in 2012. "It's important for artists to document how they feel about queerness," he says. "I really enjoy thinking about language. I think living can be frustrating if you don't know how to talk about it."

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