The music of Serpentwithfeet is otherworldly. But His Message Is Practical.
“I didn’t want to go down in history as the sad guy, because I’ve just seen so much joy,” the singer and songwriter says on his latest album, “Deacon.”
“Soil,” serpentwithfeet’s debut album from 2018, was a mix of heartbreak, hopeless longing, and a quest for solace. But for his second album, “Deacon,” he chose joy over angst, with songs about flirtation, friendship, sex, and lifelong bond. “I rejoice the fact that I can love and that I have been loved,” serpentwithfeet said of the record, which is set to be released on March 26. “And I get to be as ecstatic as I want.”
He wore a T-shirt with “Kingston” in big letters over a cartoon sun, as well as a sunburst medallion, in a video chat from his home in Los Angeles. The album’s cover photo, which shows serpentwithfeet embracing another Black man, features the same medallion. They’re all dressed in white, as if for a religious ceremony or a spiritual ascension.
On “Soil” and his 2016 EP, “Blisters,” serpentwithfeet, now 32, grappled with self-doubt and faith alongside passion and lust as a Black gay man who grew up in a deeply religious family. “A lot of what I’ve tried to find out in my work is how to legitimize myself, how to justify my feelings,” he said, “and that hasn’t always been easy.”
“I know church music better than anything else,” he says, referring to the R&B and gospel music he grew up singing in a Pentecostal church. My natural cadence will always be that.”
However, the classical choral music he sang in high school with the Baltimore City College Choir, an award-winning group that competed internationally, inspired his songwriting. He remembered, “It made me clear about how I wanted to take up space musically.” “It was amazing to be 14 and have a Black choral director who said, ‘OK, we’re going to understand classical music.’ However, you will recognize the meaning and significance of Black composers, Black people, and Black opera singers.’ And we had to be able to sight-read and do solfège, as well as transcribing and musical notation — all of that.”
Serpentwithfeet’s music is instantly recognizable, combining his gospel and classical training with a startling emotional openness. He primarily performs as a one-man studio band, incorporating his own voices, instruments, and electronics. And he writes songs that are rhapsodic, pensive, harmonically complex, carefully arranged, and often layered with otherworldly vocals.
He explained that his phantom chorales are a way of looking past himself.
“I think of the operatic chorus, or the village chorus,” he said, “where I have my narrow viewpoint and the chorus has the omniscient perspective.” “When I write songs, I think of a culture. And I’m thinking about how I’m the community’s youngest member. Then there are the elders, or village people, who have more vision than I do.”
Nao, an English R&B songwriter, collaborated with serpentwithfeet on a song. She added her voice and writing to “Heart Storm,” a shimmering ballad on “Deacon” that imagines love as a deluge, after they wrote a song for her next album. She worked remotely, often through WhatsApp messages.
“He’d already built this prototype, as well as this stunning universe. “All I had to do was work my way inside,” Nao explained from London. “He doesn’t write songs in the same way that I do. He begins in unexpected ways, with poetic sequences I would never have dreamed of. I compose as if I were having a conversation with others. He sometimes writes as if he were Shakespeare. He’s the Shakespeare of alternative Black music, in my opinion.”
Sampha, another English songwriter, collaborated on three songs for “Deacon” with serpentwithfeet and producer Lil Silva, sharing studio jam sessions in London before the quarantine. “In terms of the way he can create vocal harmonies and progressions, he’s got an amazing harmonic brain,” Sampha said over the phone from London. “Watching him build stuff up was truly incredible. And it’s a real tool in terms of his voice. He understands how to manipulate it, how to bend it, and how to make it go straight as an arrow when necessary.”
Sampha also got to hear early versions of the album’s other tracks. He described it as “feeling like he was making a very conscious effort.” “Acknowledging the sun, not simply turning away from the darkness.”
The album “Blisters,” serpentwithfeet’s debut, ended with the songs “Penance” and “Redemption.” “You can put your burden on my chest,” he promised in the opening track “Whisper,” and later in the record, in the post-breakup throes of “Mourning Song,” he crooned, “I want to make a pageant of my grief.”
However, serpentwithfeet signaled a change in tone in mid-2020. He explained, “I needed a pivot.” He released an EP called “Apparition” with the aim of exorcising “any ghosts, spirits, or thoughts that don’t represent me at all,” he said. “Life’s gotta get easier/No heavy hearts in my next year,” declared “A Comma” at the outset.
He said, “I’m not sure how many people care about the trajectory of my life.” “However, I didn’t want to go down in history as the sad boy because I’d just seen so much joy,” he says.
The singles that followed “Deacon” pointed at a new level of fun in serpentwithfeet’s music. He transforms his voice into a scat-singing trumpet segment in “Same Size Shoe,” a song about discovering parallels with a lover. He, Sampha, and Lil Silva share a jovial refrain in “Fellowship,” shaking and tapping various percussion as they share a jovial refrain, “I’m grateful for the love I share with my mates.”
Three of the album’s songs — “Malik,” “Amir,” and “Derrick’s Beard” — are about men the singer lusts for. He described them as “men from my imagination.” “People always inquire, ‘What was the subject of this song?’ ‘Well, part of it was talking to myself, and the other part was talking to a person in my mind,’ I claim. People always assume that something is autobiographical, but for me, it’s more like, ‘Well, this happened to me.’ I’m curious what would happen if I added more to this situation. What would happen if I tossed this off the cliff’s edge?’ I try to use all of my experiences as a launching pad for new ideas or as the start of a question.”
Although serpentwithfeet’s own story is packed with unique specifics — Baltimore, the church, the classical choir, Blackness, and sexuality — he insists that none of them can prevent people from listening to his music. “The incredible thing about individual stories is that the more unique they are, the more universal they become,” he explained. “There are a lot of artists with whom I relate but with whom I don’t necessarily identify. But I can relate to the human feeling of love in the bar, or missing your girlfriend, or hoping to return to that country someday.”
“They say gay artists don’t make universal work,” he continued. That is a fabrication. I’ve spent a lot of time listening to straight songs. And being heterosexual is something I appreciate and can identify with. I’m not sure how that feels. That isn’t my story. Yet I also have the capacity to cry.”
He anticipates that his own songs will be heard by all. He said, “I want to be an amazing facilitator.” “I won’t call myself a storyteller because I want the audience to join in. I want people to feel like they’re a part of the process and that the thing they’re seeing is alive. I want to build work that makes people feel like they’re a part of it, as if “the serpent wanted me here.” Like, ‘This album does not exist if I didn’t listen to it.’ I want everybody to feel like it’s theirs, because this is such a unique art form.”
He said, “I’m not sure if I’ve succeeded.” “However, that is something I am pursuing.”