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Meet Serpent With Feet, the NYC Musician Leading the "Pagan Gospel" Movement


Say hello to the inimitable @serpentwithfeet 🐍🙌

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Armed with a rich voice and a presence that leaves you agog -- namely a large-gauged septum ring and forehead tattoo that reads "Heaven" --  Josiah Wise, aka serpentwithfeet, is revolutionizing New York's experimental music scene with his compositions that give classical music an avant-garde facelift. Known for creating the "PaganGospel" concept currently gaining steam, Wise melds his choir boy upbringing with a hefty dose of the taboo, candidly speaking about subjects like death and sex in his songs, all while infusing them with classical instrumentation and musical theory. Last week, the Harlem-based artist swung by our offices to chat about his polarizing presence and bent toward the morbid, detailing all of his future plans and past experiences for a conversation almost as unique as him. Read the Q&A below.
Can you tell me a little bit about the PaganGospel movement? 

It became this sort of this token term that I was using a lot. I wasn't taking it seriously until a lot of people started repeating it back to me, so I knew it was time to start aggressively using it. So PaganGospel is me trying to wrap my head around the esotericapocryphaand all of these lofty ideas, but over the years I've become a lot more base and a lot more visceral. So then [my own concept of] PaganGospel started moving that way. It's interesting to watch the trajectory of something I "created," but it's really just me responding to a lot of things that I've [consumed].

You had an earlier project called GodBodi, right? Did GodBodi lead to PaganGospel? Was it a prototype?

GodBodi was a band that I had for five years. It sort of disbanded because I wanted to move differently, honestly. I wanted to explore a different softness in my voice and it becomes difficult to do that when you have so many people. Because music like that had so much bravado and what I wanted to do is a lot more like what it is now: softer, nuanced, feminine... something more slithery. So one day it just clicked; I had to go solo. I had done it for five years and I loved them and it ended well, but I knew it was time to shift. 

You tackle a lot of "darker" themes like death and necrophilia in your music. What fascinates you about these topics and how does it relate to your spirituality? 

I grew up in a sort-of curious home. My parents were Christians but they had a rather expansive idea of what Christianity could look like, which I think is pretty healthy. My mom wanted to be an undertaker; she didn't end up being one but she loved death. And I remember a few years ago, waiting for the F train, I saw a guy commit suicide. His head was on the platform and his body was under the train, his jacket was ripped off of him. I remember being so moved...some people were crying, some people were laughing because that's how they deal with death, especially traumatic death. I remember having such a depth of emotion that wasn't sadness. And [afterward] I talked to my mom and before I even said how I felt she said, "Didn't you love it?" And it wasn't that I was happy that this man felt the need to die; to me, he just made a choice. Whether we choose to live, whether we choose to die is our choice, but I think I like the darker aspects, because often we're encouraged to be happy, and encouraged to be bright and I don't think one is better than the other. I think it's just important to explore all avenues.

Right, and not pretend that it doesn't exist. Your experience seeing the suicide -- I'm just reeling thinking about that. 

There was blood everywhere. I remember thinking, "This is really incredible. I'm glad I got to see it." I could get really graphic but I remember being really excited. I feel that same way as I do with my music, I'm always excited when I hear others do really dirty work, when they get dirt under their nails. I'm into that. 

Your compositions hint at a background in classical music or gospel as well, are you classically-trained?

I have a background in classical and gospel. I grew up singing in church, but my mom played a lot of classical music at home. I started singing in a boys choir...but there wasn't really an interest in black music or classical music with people of color. But in high school there was a strong classical program and the focus was on composers of color -- I started to understand that black people were making more than just jazz and blues. I think we like to create that narrative [about black musicians' histories], but it's such a flat narrative. And when I got to college, my teachers were all of color, so they pushed a lot of classical by black composers. So over the years, that has stuck with me. By my senior year of college, I got what I needed musically to go and start my own thing. So I think I'm responding to all of that information. 

So would you say classical music is one of the primary influences of serpentwithfeet's sound?

serpentwithfeet's sound is confrontational. Not necessarily like industrial, but I'm always trying to confront things which maybe deals more with the message. I don't want to say there's only one sound, even now I'm working with all sorts of producers but...I like the drama. Drama gets conveyed best in classical music but also, you know, all the stuff that's happening now with the kids. What they do now in the underground [with instrumentation and composition makes me] realize that I'm not the only one who has a classical or gospel background.

Is there something to be said about the fact that you're using styles of music that are not considered to be particularly fresh or young?

I'm an old person. I'm a nana, you know? I'm learning how to be young, so that's also why I think it's so important that I get in touch with my community here. It's very easy for me to be lofty and not really interested in my peers. My parents were older when they had me and I didn't really have any friends growing up, so I got very used to being around older people...in a very traditional family dynamic. So it's been important for me to be around people my own age, to keep me youthful -- so I think I can reference these old things because I have my peers to keep me spry. Otherwise I would just be old. 

Speaking of which, I don't think you have a full orchestra based, so it's safe to assume that it's all sample-based, right? 

Yes. Definitely sample based. People are like, "You should get a quartet," and that's too expected. Lets stick to a track, it's a lot simpler. Plus, it's not gonna work, no one in New York has a budget for that.

True. So do you do your own production entirely or do you collaborate? 

I don't. On some of the tracks, I do it mostly myself. Like "Four Ethers" and "Curiosity of Other Men" I did mostly myself, and I had people help me make it less DIY...but I always know what I want to loop. [What I'm not so good at is] when it comes to crossfading and adding shimmers here and there. But for the most part, I produce or play keys.

Tell me a little about the forehead tattoo. Is there a meaning behind "heaven"? 

Well, it seemed better than "basement." And "hell" would've just been trolling. I had also been exploring some dark [places], traditionally dark, and "heaven," in my mind, was something light to balance out my work. I'm going to get more [forehead] tattoos too. 

Oh really? What are you planning? 

We've been talking about a dead rat with the tail coming down my face and a dead black bird with a flower coming towards my face. 

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