Before we wonder why Josiah Wise paints his fingernails a shade of blue that exists only on bowling balls, or why Sisqó’s “Thong Song” reminds him of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” let’s cut straight to the most important thing. The music that Wise is currently making under the alias Serpentwithfeet is probably the most astonishing balladry we could reasonably hope to hear in these unreasonable, hyperbolic times.
To say that Serpentwithfeet’s songs are unlike any that have come before would be wrong, and right. Wrong because the 30-year-old Baltimore native draws deeply from the elegance of classical choral music, the warmth of church hymns, the throb of Baltimore club anthems and the general ardor of the great American R&B songbook. Right because Wise sings with a self-possession that momentarily tricks you into thinking he just invented all of those things.
When his debut album “Soil” materialized in June, it felt like a fresh reconciliation between Saturday night and Sunday morning. Here was a self-described “post-church boy” using the ornate language of Christianity to discuss an array of human desires in mysterious ways. Plus, on top of making all those sacred words do things that they weren’t intended to do, Wise knew how to embed them in melodic spaces where they weren’t supposed to go.
Now, hearing him sing such oddly phrased verses in his trilling vibrato evokes an impossible intimacy — a sensation of specificity that feels as knowable and unknowable as true love, God’s love, or both.
Over lunch one October afternoon in Brooklyn — at an Ethiopian spot just a few blocks from where Wise once lived before relocating to Los Angeles in the summer — it becomes clear that his musical vision is rooted in his committed study of the voice. He’s excited to talk about the speed of Maria Callas’s vibrato and the power of Lawrence Brownlee’s high C, and how the group Take 6 blends tone, and how Brandy keeps her runs in tune, and how Antonio Carlos Jobim studied bird song. And although Wise speaks about his craft with worldly erudition, when his hometown accent begins to bend certain words — “do,” “move,” “roots,” “blues,” “perfume,” “YouTube” — you can tell he’s from Baltimore.
He grew up singing in the Maryland State Boychoir, but his connection to classical music didn’t jell until his high school years at Baltimore City College, where Wise began tackling the work of black composers, including Moses Hogan, William L. Dawson and Nathaniel Dett.
His home life was strict — no radio, no MTV — but pop songs still found their way across his ears. He loved Destiny’s Child, Kelly Price and, of course, Sisqó. “Growing up, it was just really beautiful to see this man with blond hair, and then platinum, and all the jewelry,” Wise says, wistfully, of the Baltimore-raised R&B star responsible for the “Thong Song.” “I just loved watching him perform. He wrote a national anthem for our city.”
What Wise wasn’t learning in school choir rehearsals or from forbidden airwaves, he was learning in church. “I grew up in what you would call a megachurch,” he says, declining to identify which one. “So everything had to be excellent all the time, which I loved. Everything was just so big. Big choir. Dance teams. . . . You came dressed right. And it was the kind of church where you could wear jeans, but you’d still show up fabulous.”
As fondly as he savored that weekly pageantry, Wise decided to spend his first Sunday morning at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia sleeping in. He never went back to church. And although he says he’s “not a Christian anymore,” the path he ended up following didn’t feel like a renunciation, either.
“I could have gone cold-turkey, but I don’t think it would have been very true to who I am,” Wise says. “I’m drenched in this language, and I don’t necessarily want to dry off. I think it’s fun being a post-church boy, the same way I think it’s fun being gay. I would never want to convert, and I would never want to be straight.”
After college, Wise says the biggest lesson he still had to learn was how to accept the sound of his own voice. His instructors had always told him that his vibrato was faster than that of most leggero tenors, and by the time he began working on the songs that would eventually be released as Serpentwithfeet, he had stopped trying to slow it down. Figuring out what he could really do with those brisk vocal trills opened him up to who he could be — as an artist and as a human being.
“One thing I like about Björk’s career is that she gave herself permission to be a very full person,” Wise says. “You expect her to be whoever she wants to be that day. I give myself that same permission. . . She even said to me, ‘It’s a healthy thing to let the pendulum swing. You want to get tired of yourself and do the next thing.’ ”
Wise counts Bjork as a mutual admirer and occasional collaborator, and the production on “Soil” runs parallel to the Icelandic singer’s high-def futurism, something you can hear particularly well during the 22nd-century thunderclaps of “Cherubim.” “I get to devote my life to him,” Wise bellows during the refrain. “I get to sing like the cherubim.” It’s a delicate balancing act, framing carnal desire in the language of Christian devotion, and Wise knows it. Having grown up around so many people who funneled God’s righteousness into their own self-righteousness, he aims to be mindful of the words he’s chosen.
“In all kinds of spiritual practices, people weaponize the information,” he says. “And I’ve definitely been that person — the person who feels like he has more access to goodness. I don’t want to write music like that. I want to be careful about how I use language.”
It’s evident in his lyricism, which feels breathtakingly precise, even when the scenery is mundane. Listen to the third verse of “Mourning Song,” in which Wise bleats, “I’m annoyed with clothes today/I’d rather swaddle myself in sorrow today.” That first line is a setup for the second one, but it steals the show with its peculiar banality. His sweet-and-sour grief has permeated everything, even the laundry.
And Wise walks that walk outside of his lyric sheet, too. “When I’m sad, I want to look sad, I want to smell sad,” he says. “I make my own essential oil blends, and [after a romantic breakup] I’d make really pungent smells. I went home to Baltimore, and my mom said, ‘What is that you’re wearing?” And I said, ‘It’s my grief perfume.’ She said, “It’s giving me grief!’ ”
A couple of nights after our lunch in Brooklyn, Wise returned to his native Baltimore for a performance at the Ottobar, a roughed-up rock club which, tonight, feels as cozy as a chapel. Up on the stage, there’s a table, and up on that table, there’s a framed photo of Sisqó flashing his abs, placed next to a laptop computer and a stack of novels and poetry books — some of which Wise reads from between songs, the way a friend might show you something they’re excited about.
The singing? It’s paralyzingly good, and Wise seems to know it, so during “Messy” — a song that opens with an incredible lyric: “I’ve been sitting alone for hours, waiting for you to bring your ugliest parts to me” — he eventually coaxes the crowd into singing the refrain, a sort of love spell wrapped in a mantra of self-acceptance: “Each time you deny my mess, you’ll find yourself closer to me, closer to me.”
He stretches out his other ballads, drifting into little monologues about loneliness and longing. “You text someone and you get the bubbles,” he sings in clipped chirps, describing the romantic head games that tend to unfold on smartphone screens. “I see these three dots, but where are the words?” A few moments later, he’s still reminiscing, still improvising: “Every pancake looks like them.”
The crowd laughs at these lines, and you can hear all different kinds. Knowing laughs. Nervous laughs. Delighted laughs. Confused laughs. The differences among each type sound unusually distinct, which feels surprising, and then sensible. These are songs that speak to the micro-tones of human emotion. We know what they feel like. This is a singer who can teach us what they sound like.