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First Look Friday Features Performance Artist & Founder Of The Pagan Gospel Josiah Wise aka The Serpent With Feet
First Look Friday Features Performance Artist & Founder Of The Pagan Gospel Josiah Wise aka The Serpent With Feet

First Look Friday: Josiah Wise Is The Serpent With Feet

Performance artist and purveyor of the pagan gospel, Josiah Wise translates the traditions of the blues and the black church into the darkly magical language of all things experimental, primal and infectiously electric. Existing comfortably in the gray area, he describes himself as the lovechild of Kirk Franklin and Björk and stands at the cutting edge of fearlessness in black music. His insatiable curiosity and fierce individualism have taken him from life as a choir boy in Baltimore to collaborations with some of the most exciting rising producers and a recent stint in Copenhagen, where he wrote and recorded tracks for CHLLNGR’s upcoming LP at Red Bull Studios. Wise began to come into his own as an artist with the release of the paraboLA EP in the fall of 2012 as JosiahWise/GodBodi – an experience he describes as transformative and cathartic. Wise has since dropped a number of one-off's, remixes and heavy collaborations that delve into his fascination with the macabre and encourage listeners to take this open-ended trip with him into the unknown. Since the emergence of the band GodBodi, he has shed a number of monikers and musical outfits – Father Mercury Raphael included – ultimately landing on the Serpent With Feet. While this label is the most recent and probably most fitting nom de plume under his belt, it is also the working title for his next project. We sat with Josiah Wise to get the full breakdown on the man behind the serpentine movement and his master plan for the forthcoming project of the same name.

Okayplayer: What inspired the music on your 2012 release the paraboLA EP?

Josiah Wise: With most of the songs there was this idea of return or revisiting or re-examining. I didn’t realize at first that that was a motif in my work, but when I listen to it now I think that this is what its about.

OKP: What’s the story behind your track “Harvest Homicide?”

JW: It comes from embracing melancholy and darkness, understanding that it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are depressed. I’m really into death and necrophilia and for black people I don’t always feel like there’s a space for us to talk about our infatuation with death, but I think we’ve always been talking to our ancestors. We’ve always been reaching back into that metaphysical space, so that song for me was about reconciling those ideas. It’s about killing the ideas about what you are that you receive from other people in order to embrace your own.

OKP: How do you feel about paraboLA now?

JW: When the project dropped, I wept and hid because I felt like I hadn’t done enough. A friend of mine - a mother of three children - compared the feeling to giving birth, which comes with all of these emotions that you have to release. I knew that was going to happen, but I still shut down. It marks a period in my life and speaks to the way I was thinking then, so for that reason I wouldn’t change it. I’m glad I got that out. Now that I know exactly what I want I’m taking way more time with my work. I’m not really into simplifying anything, but I think I can make things sharper.

OKP: How does 90’s r&b, electronic, gospel influence your music?

JW: In terms of arranging, I ask myself what would Brandy, Björk or Bilal do? I feel like they’ve got it as far as that goes. They are my fairy godparents. I feel like they know how to make really mundane ideas and statements into these complex things with their arrangements. I think I always try to think like that and I guess I’ve listened to them enough, that I hope that it comes out.

OKP: How do you feel about the divide in music, where some musicians are really breaking the mold and the old rules, while others are still bound to the top 40?

JW: I have always found it interesting that both sides are so extreme and I think there’s a way to navigate the middle. There’s a difference between people loving your music and people not being able to deny it. There’s a difference between the person that gets 10,000 views and the person that gets 3 million views. I love the experimentalism, but I can’t eat this everyday for dinner. It’s too much for me, so I have to put on some Azealia Banks or Drake because I can’t always listen to this with all of the other stuff going on in my head. I think that’s the challenge. How can you make stuff that’s dense, but also something that people can eat everyday?

OKP: How do you feel about artists embracing eccentricity and experimentalism in the mainstream?

JW: I think its dope. Now that people are into openly questioning a lot of different things like religion, sexuality, politics, etc. I feel like music is going to move that way too. If you look at history it always moves to the left. We are essentially going to be battling ourselves and I think that’s always interesting. As human beings we are constantly trying to move further to the left of ourselves. I think that movement is going to let black and brown people know that they are full and they don’t have to be stuck making nothing but sexy music in order to be successful or adequate.

OKP: How did your collaborations with Sean Paulsen and CHLLNGR come about?

JW: I went to school with Sean and had been working on some ideas for a while. Playing around with a track he sent, I was interested in exploring a more industrial sound. That was my introduction to doing something bare. I met CHLLNGR through Spoek Mathambo. I hit him up when I started reaching out to other artists I wanted to work with. In the process he sent me a track. Then he introduced me to CHLLNGR, who does a lot of dark stuff. He asked me to feature on a thing he was doing for Gold Coast Trading Co. Then shortly after, Red Bull asked him to record his next album in Copenhagen. He mentioned wanting to work with me and played my music. They flew me out. I did about 5 tracks on that project. It was my first time traveling in that capacity - being taken care of just to work in the studio. I loved it. That was my first time recording abroad.

OKP: How did that experience affect you?

JW: It triggered a switch for me. I’m so glad it was recorded in Copenhagen. I think it was the first city that I went to that spoke to me. Usually I go places and I have so much to say about them. This city, I had nothing to say because it was speaking to me. The city became a character and I identified with it. It is scientific and it is clinical and I like that. To be in a city where people were more like me made me feel like I could make music that could be very cynical or tongue-in-cheek or very serious without worrying about whether people would be open to receiving it.

OKP: From GodBodi to Red Bull, do you feel like all of those experiences are informing what you’re doing?

JW: Before GodBodi, the original name of the band was Johnston Michaels & The Peppermint Orchestra. I really wanted to do this orchestral big band music. Then I scaled back a bit and tried to remove the fluff and started taking composition more seriously. That was the birth of JosiahWise/GodBodi. I took a break from that, moved to France, came back and took it a bit more seriously. Then I put out the project. One day I just began to move differently. To move my body differently. When the music I had made was not allowing me to do that properly, I felt compelled to change again.

OKP: Has anything you’ve been digesting manifest itself in your music?

JW: I read this Anais Nin article that discussed the neurotic man or the thinking man as the man of the future and I’m exploring that further.

OKP: Who's on your bucket list of artistic collaborators?

JW:Lil Silva, Sampha, Mykki Blanco - I like how aggressive he is and I also think he’s brilliant. I don’t know. Those are at least some of the artists I’ve written down.

OKP: What else do you have on your plate this year?

JW: The Serpent With Feet project, which is a project that explores nuanced masculinity and movement. Before we think about music or passion, we think about movement. Everything is derived from movement and I’m just interested in the different ways that black men can move. The ways they can adorn or view their bodies. I feel like there are a lot of black men revisiting that in terms of grooming or style. I think that’s great. This is just my take on that subject. It was sparked by a few different things, including Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. She discusses the idea of flight or fluidity and that’s something I dealt with a lot growing up. People have issues with femininity within the female body and the male body. That’s something I’m really interested in talking about through music and writing. I’ve been transcribing these conversations I’ve had with other black men about nuanced masculinity and I am interested in growing that into larger projects. To examine what that means. To look at the accepted norms and examine the idea that masculinity isn’t so black and white. We’re bigger than our dicks and our braun and I think it’s important to convey that.

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