“Mercy is in retrograde,” Josiah Wise cries on “penance,” one of five arresting electro-soul songs on blisters, his debut EP as serpentwithfeet. The notes linger gracefully, barely dressed in twisting synth and a droning guitar riff. Over the course of the EP, Wise often blends esoteric and biblical language this way, as he diagrams a black, queer metaphysics of love. The language gives a bewitching richness to the song cycle, in which an emotionally closed-off lover becomes the focus of an extended spiritual meditation.
The songs began their evolution when the Philadelphia native started posting versions of them to Soundcloud. The new record is the result of that era and his subsequent collaboration with British producer The Haxan Cloak. Like the originals, which he’s since removed from Soundcloud, it’s beautiful but emotionally raw, touched in places by the grotesque, and radiant with love and pain.
On the tracks, Wise’s clear singing voice often sounds quite otherworldly, with its conservatory-bred diction; on the phone, his voice is warm and entirely human. Now settled in Bushwick and preparing to play his EP release show in Greenpoint this Thursday, Wise took a moment to tell the Village Voice how this beautiful collection of songs started from this time of loneliness and confusion, and how New York’s queer underground helped him find his voice.
What was your life like in New York when you started writing the songs on blisters?
I had recently gotten fired from my [retail] job, and it was very clear to me that the music needed to work. I went to Philly for a weekend to just dig. I think it was October of 2014. I listened to a lot of Adele and Sam Smith and was already in a place where I had to do a lot of introspection, so I booked as much studio time as I could afford and “flickering” and “four ethers” [came out].
I was going through a lot of transitions — my friend circle was transitioning and my love life was very…amoeba-like. I felt very alone and very confused. I had been working on music for a long time and I wanted to make music that felt like I was unearthing. I hadn’t done something like that yet, but I knew that was [where] I wanted to go.
Was it easier to find the freedom to do that because you were feeling alone?
Well, the reason I got fired and why my social and romantic circle were changing was because I decided that I wasn’t going to do and say certain things anymore. Up until that point I was fun-loving JoJo and very kind and sweet. I don’t think I was a pushover, but I don’t think my spine was so strong then. One day I was just done with all of it. I was, like, “Fuck all of this. I need to figure out who I am.”
With my job, it was kind of an ultimatum. I told them there were certain things I couldn’t do anymore and that were disrespectful to me and they were like, “You either deal with it or you leave” and I was like, “I leave.” I probably could have stayed but there was just no way I could thrive. It was a big death for me. I couldn’t make pretty music anymore.
I think blisters is lovely, but I understand what you mean. What was your process like while you were working on these songs?
From October 2014 to the last song, “Redemption,” which I did six months ago, the process has varied. “blisters” I wrote when I was living in Greenpoint in a mouse-infested apartment. My love life was not really existent, but I was trying to grab on to something that was very nebulous. I was trying to comfort myself, so I did that with this little fairy tale about how all these mice were trying to comfort me at night — how they were fine with coming and being sweet to me, but I couldn’t find any men who were that generous or that loving. That’s what “blisters” literally was about.
Were there aspects of New York music or culture that were inspiring to you at that time?
When I wrote “blisters” and “penance,” I was sleeping on my one friend’s couch. I think it was the summer of 2015. My SoundCloud still wasn’t getting much attention and my unemployment had run out. The friends that I had made then were in the queer underground scene, people that were more fringe. I was able to write songs like that because, at the time, the people that I was around were so interested in unhinging, going for the difficult answers and going for the difficult questions.
I want to say I was doing that before, but there was still a distance between me and my body and my queerness. The scene here is just so visceral, and I knew that was the way I wanted to go, so I was able to make music that felt so much more piercing.
How did that feed you creatively?
I got my voice back. I always knew what I felt and I was always exploring places that maybe seemed unattractive or seedy, but within the “queer underground scene” everybody was being very explicit about what they were doing. I mean, people talk about sex and people talk about partying and darkness, but the people that I was hanging around were very explicit. It was vile, but it was also beautiful to hear people be so honest.
Did that also affect your style, and how it relates to your music?
When I was in Philly, I was playing around, wearing skirts and putting on lip liner, and I felt like the anomaly. There were gay people, obviously, in Philadelphia but I [wasn’t] seeing a lot of things that looked like me. When I got to New York people were like, “You need to go to these parties. You need to go to these events and I was, like, “no, no, no,” because I was so used to thinking that I was the only one, that I was the exception to the rule.
When I started going out and found out I wasn’t the exception, I was so excited to find out that there were other [cis] boys wearing halter tops and low-rise jeans, and liner and lashes and nails. I felt like I was pulling back all the dead skin that was on me all those years. It was so exciting to see people that had better looks and could pump down the street better than me. I was like, “Wow, this is where I want to be.” Again, it was about finding my voice and not just wearing the clothes, but wearing the street.
What I saw at the parties and at the raves was a bunch of colored kids that were like, “I own everything a thousand miles from me, everything from here to a thousand miles is mine.” I don’t think I even knew that was a possibility before. All these kids were really smart. I was attracted to the idea that there was a community of smart, brown young people in New York that wanted to challenge everything, that wanted to push to the edge of whatever they could.
That definitely translates into the music and to how I feel. I don’t feel like I’m better than other people, but I definitely feel like I’m the only serpentwithfeet. You have all these personalities that are at all these events, but everybody is so unique. There are no two people that do the same thing. That’s what was so exciting. With all the singers and rappers and designers, everybody has something so specific. It really was a rainbow. That has just changed my life.
What are the questions you are trying to answer through these different forms of expression?
I’m always trying to explore how I can be the most seductive version of myself. I’m very aware that, like RuPaul says, we’re all in drag, and I do think we all are always performing, that gender is learned and that a lot of the things that we’re attracted to is learned. So, working within that framework, of rejecting some ideas that I don’t like anymore but also accepting some ideas that still do work for me. I’m just getting specific now about what it means to be a seductive person. Some days that means to be in a sequined robe; others days that means big shorts and strappy heels. I don’t wake up and say, “I want to look like a woman or I want to look like a man or I want to look trans or I want to be in drag today.” It’s more “How can I be the most seductive version of myself?”
The songs on blisters approach love from a very metaphysical perspective. Where did that come from?
That was intentional. Before I was doing the parties and the raves and the after-hours things, I was into metaphysics, ritual, following the lunar cycles and my tarot cards, and all of that. I thought of [my love life] as a very sacred thing, thought of the men I was engaging with as being like deities. I grew up Christian — they were kind of my Jesus. I was down to worship them and I didn’t think there was anything wrong with that.
We [often] think of vulnerability as submission. [Men I was seeing] viewed my openness as sickness, and I hated that. I felt like the one place where openness wasn’t seen as sickness was in the Church. People are so open to Jesus and to God and very submissive, even, and it’s seen as a good thing. Obviously, I’m not in the Church anymore, but it’s such interesting language and I wanted to imbue my music with that.
How did those songs evolve from what we heard on SoundCloud through your collaboration with The Haxan Cloak?
With “four ethers” and with “penance” he just added some more, like, stank to it. He made them a little bit sharper. With “penance,” he beefed it up a little and we re-recorded the vocals. “blisters” was a real collaboration — I would send him an idea and he would send me an idea and I would riff off that and he would riff off that. It took maybe six months of just bouncing ideas back and forth. It was really exciting.
We were listening to a lot of concert spirituals, [which] are basically like the negro spiritual but arranged for the stage. They sound more classical and operatic. It’s still like a negro spiritual, except you have on a nice dress. That what I grew up on, so that’s always in my ear. That’s what I ate. Those were my meals growing up. I’m also ways looking for ways to reference that, and then with [Haxan] responding with more industrial things, it was just like a beautiful marriage. “blisters” is my favorite song I’ve made to date.
And what kind of a place are you working from at the moment?
I’m working on being a more gentle and loving person. During that time [of the EP 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 towards myself. I want to be aggressively sweet to me. When I wake up, I want to be really kind to myself and to other people, and that’s language I wasn’t using six months ago. Hopefully, that comes out in the new music.
serpentwithfeet plays at the San Damiano Mission on September 8.