26 Jun 2018

The Sampler: Soil by Serpentwithfeet

From The Sampler, 7:30 pm on 26 June 2018

Nick Bollinger has a listen to the moist and vibrant music of Josiah Wise, otherwise known as Serpentwithfeet.


Serpentwithfeet Photo: Ash Kingston

When it comes to African-American vocal music, you’re never far from church. Listen to even the most secular R&B singer and you’ll hear the same inflections and melismas you find in gospel, though the message might not be the one preached from the pulpit.


Soil Photo: supplied

Josiah Wise records as Serpentwithfeet, and the first thing that strikes you about Soil, his long-playing debut, is the voice. It’s a fine, weirdly androgynous sound, and it flutters around a lyric that imagines the physical journey his words will take upon leaving him.

Will my stories resist wings and grow feet and convince men that I'm boasting? Or will my psalms seek the company of lonely breaths?” It might be a long way from the hymns this Baltimore-born singer sang in the Pentecostal church when he was growing up, and yet even as he offers such unashamedly sensual images as these, he can’t help referring to his songs as psalms.

If there’s a gospel flavour to the singing, there’s something ecclesiastical about his accompaniments too. He favours sustained keyboard chords, reminiscent of a church organ, though usually underpinned by a steadying drum loop. But there’s no doubt that the voice is central; for some tracks that’s almost all there is, while Wise loops and multi-tracks that voice to produce great heavenly choirs of his multiple selves.

Devote my life to him… sing like the cherubim’. The words, once again, might belong to a hymn; that is until we get to the next verse, when it becomes apparent that the worship here is bodily more than spiritual.

The more you listen, the more the intimacy of Serpentwithfeet’s music creeps up on you. Some of these songs are disarmingly personal, especially when he sings about smells and body parts, over a breathy, steamy rhythm. Even the drum machine seems to be working up a sweat.

Wise may be unique, but he has kindred spirits. Moses Sumney, for one, toils in related territory, celebrating the sensual with his elaborate vocal orchestrations. As far as pure tone goes, I’m reminded of the singer Anohni – formerly Antony Hegarty of Antony of the Johnsons. And perhaps even Bjork fits somewhere into this loose affiliation too. In fact, the first I heard of Serpentwithfeet was when he guested last year on a remix of Bjork’s song ‘Blissing Me’.

Ever inventive with language, the Icelandic original praised what she refers to as his ‘balanced idiosyncratic pagan spiritual angle’ and went on to describe his music as ‘moist and vibrant’. Thanks Bjork. I couldn’t sum it up better myself.