Across the long stretch of the pandemic, with formal face-to-face interviews replaced by cosy conversations over phones and laptops, we have become used to images of kitchens, living rooms and carefully selected bookshelves. For today’s conversation, though, singer-songwriter Serpentwithfeet has offered up a far more novel setting in the current locked-down climate: an airport. After struggling to connect, he appears, most of his face covered with a mask, his neck tattoos just visible through the compressed video image. “Can you hear me?” he asks, before a disembodied voice interrupts to announce that a flight is now boarding.
The 32-year-old, who now goes by just Serpent rather than his birth name, Josiah Wise, is heading back to Los Angeles from Florida ahead of the release of his second LP, Deacon. It is an album that represents a journey all of its own. Serpent made his name with the 2016 EP Blisters and 2018’s debut album Soil, expansive works that used baroque-pop, R&B, gospel and operatic flourishes to bring to life themes of queerness, desire, grief and heartbreak. The sonic breadth of his output, as well as his almost ceremonial live performances, garnered him fans ranging from the experimental (Björk, with whom he has toured and collaborated) to the chart-dominating (Grammy-nominated singer and producer Ty Dolla $ign, who appeared on his 2019 single Receipts), and praise from the likes of Vogue and Pitchfork.
Yet where Soil and Blisters were emotionally wrought and often prickly, his new album is a diverted flight to somewhere gentler.
“I’ve done the heartbreak stuff, and I think I’ve done a pretty good job of at least saying that I was heartbroken,” he explains. So instead, with Deacon, he sought to write about “the joys of dating men, and dating Black men specifically. I’ve dated Black men and been in love with Black men, and there’s just a certain way I feel really taken care of and held by them. There’s a certain trust. It warms my heart just thinking about it.”
Deacon is an album that Serpent says he has wanted to make for four years, but lacked the emotional tools to create: “I think with some things you have to continue to live in order to do them. I had to live more.”
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Serpent was raised by fairly strict religious parents (his father owned a Christian bookshop) and spent a lot of time in the church, joining the choir at his family’s Pentecostal non-denominational church when he was six years old. While the scripture and sermons weren’t interesting to him, especially given the church’s conservative attitudes towards homosexuality, he was drawn to the ceremony of the church, especially when it came to the music.
“I was fascinated by the songs and the language in the songs,” he recalls. “That was mesmerising for me. Just how vivid the imagery was. There was so much passion.”
Both Blisters and Soil embodied this sense of grandeur, as well as Serpent’s affinity for classical music and opera. But the period during which he created those records was fraught with worry and creative anxiety. “I was constantly frustrated, confused and felt like nothing was working out,” he says. “If things didn’t go the way I expected them to or wanted them to, I would get feisty. I was on fire. I think I needed to be. I think I was making work from that place of fire.”
A move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles ended up being “a transformative experience”. In the sprawling expanse of LA, where he has lived for the past few years, he found peace. “My life is really chill, which is what I wanted.”
The new album, Deacon, is a direct result of this move, and the friendships forged with people there, whom he describes as “abundant” and “a balm”. One such person is the Kanye and Rihanna collaborator Ty Dolla $ign, who has become a creative confidant.
“Being around Ty, I think that I’ve become a better songwriter and a quicker songwriter,” he says, explaining how Ty encouraged him to tweak his music, rather than delete it, until he got it right. “Once I started doing that, I think I was able to have more fun, because it became less of this painful process. Before, I would get really neurotic about it, and Ty helped bring back the ease for me.”
At this point, Serpent looks a little panicked. His screen goes black for a second before he returns to tell me that his plane is, in fact, boarding at that very moment. After a frantic jog through an airport terminal, he hangs up as he boards his plane.
When we reconnect the following day, the environment could not be further from the hectic buzz of an airport: his apartment is bright and airy, and instead of a mask he is wearing a Burberry bucket hat. As he talks about Deacon, there is also a lightness and easiness, something echoed in the warm textures on the album, from the tender hum of a xylophone on closer Fellowship or the romantic plucks of a Spanish guitar on Amir.
“Deacon is something that I wanted to create in a tradition that I saw,” he explains, “which is Black people rejoicing anyhow. Black people living their damn life anyhow. Because nobody can take my peace or my joy from me. Not the government, not a random white person on the street. I just wanted to make an album that was a reminder to me: I get to enjoy this life that I have, no matter the trials or the mountains.”
The album was also informed by a reverence for R&B, especially the work of Janet Jackson and Brandy – “The archetypes for a certain kind of singing and a certain kind of loving and caring approach”. R&B is something he believes in passionately. “I don’t think that I’m the gatekeeper of R&B at all,” he says. “But one thing that I do get fiery about is people pretending that R&B is something that you can do without any care. The allure of a lot of R&B is that there’s a certain kind of sensitivity.”
Listening to Deacon, it is fair to say that Serpent has realised the softness found in the work of his R&B heroes. As a result, the world of Serpentwithfeet has been reformed and renewed. “Maybe it’s the blessing of my 30s. I’m spending less time worrying and more time recounting the love,” he sings on Fellowship. It sounds like a world we could all do with visiting.
Deacon is released on Friday 26 March