The music of Serpentwithfeet is Otherworldly. His message, however, is down to earth.
The singer and songwriter made a strong pivot on his latest album, Deacon,: "I didn't want to go down in history as the sad guy, because I have just seen so much joy."
The 2018 debut album of the singer and songwriter "Soil" mingled a heartbreak, anxiety and a desire for comfort. But for his second album, "Deacon," he chose to be pleasure over anguish, full of songs that taste flirtation, romance, sex and a lifelong connection. Serpentwithfeet said about the record, due March 26, "I rejoice my love, and I was cherished. "So I'm as joyful as I want to be."
In a video chat from his home in Los Angeles, he wore a "Kingston" t-shirt with a sun burning medallion on a cartoon sun. The same medallion appears in the cover picture of the album, showing snake feet embracing another Black man. Both are clothed in white, like a rite or a heavenly climb.
Serpentwithfeet, a 32, Black gay man who grew up in a profoundly religious household, grappled with self-doubts and faith amid passion and longing at "Soil" and his 2016 EP "Blisters." "Many of the information that I have explored in my work is about figuring out how I can legitimize myself and how I can justify my feelings."
His music draws on R&B in a very individual way and gospel music in a Pentecostal church, where he grew up singing: "I know church music better than anything else. That's always going to be my normal cadence."
However, his song-writing was also influenced by the classical choral music he performed with the Baltimore City College Choir, an internationally recognized band. "It taught me clearly how I wanted to musically take up space," he remembered. "It was brilliant to be 14 and to have a Black Choral Director like that, 'OK, we'll understand classical music. But the meaning and importance of Black Composers and Black people and of Black Opera Singers will be recognized. And we had to read and do our solfège and know how to transcribe and write music—all these things."
The music that makes serpentwithfeet is distinctive instantly, making use of its gospel and classical training to establish unexpected emotional transparency. He works primarily as a studio band that fuses his own vocals, instruments and electronics. And he produces songs that are rhapsodic, thoughtful, harmonic, carefully arranged and often layer by layer of vocal vocals from around the world.
His fantastic choirs, he said, are a way to look beyond himself.
"I think of the idea of an operatic chorus or a village chorus where I can take my narrow view and then the chorus has an all-knowing view," he said. "When I make music, I think of a culture. And I think of myself as the younger person in the group. And then there are the elders or the people of the village who can see better than I can see."
Nao, an English R&B songwriter, had a serpentwithfeet collaboration. After they wrote a song for their next release, they added their voice and writing to "Heart Storm," a shimmering ballad on the "Deacon," who sees love as a flood – worked remotely, mostly through exchange of WhatsApp message.
"He built this template already and this beautiful world. I just had to work my way into it," said Nao from London. "He's not writing the linear way I do. He begins from dark places, I would never think of these poetic series. In a conversation, I write the way I say. And he's writing like Shakespeare. He is the Shakespeare of alternative black music, I would say."
Sampha, another songwriter in England, collaborated on three songs for "Deacon" with serpentwithfeet and producer Lil Silva, sharing the studio jam sessions in London before quarantine. "He has an unbelievable harmonic brain on how he could create a vocal harmony and progression," said Sampha from London by phone. "It was a marvel to watch him create things. And it's a real tool in terms of his sound. He really knows how to use it, how to bend it, how to make it go straight, if necessary as an arrow."
Sampha also heard early versions of the album's other tracks. "It felt like a real conscious effort," he said. "It doesn't actually turn away from the dark, but recognizes the sun."
"Blisters," the first version of Serpentwithfeet, had ended with "Penance" and "Redemption" songs. He opened "Soil" with "Whisper," which had promised, "You may put your burden on my chest," and later on in an album, he crowned, "I want to pageant my sorrow" in the aftermath of "Mourning Song."
But serpentwithfeet signaled a shift in tone in mid-2020. "I had to have a pivot," he said. He released an EP, "The appearance," which exorcized "those fantasies or those minds or ideas which do not serve me," he said. It began with "A Comma," saying, "Life must get easier/no heavier heart in next year."
"I'm not sure how many people care about my life's arc," he said. "But I didn't want to go down in history as the sad boy with my own personal document, for I just had so much fun."
Singles published before "Deacon" revealed a new playfulness in the music of serpentwithfeet. In 'Same Size Shoe,' which enjoys seeking resemblances with a lover, he transforms his voice into a trumpet-sung segment. In "Fellowship" he, Sampha and Lil Silva are shaking and tipping on all kinds of percussion as they exchange a joyous refrain.
The singer likes three songs on the album – "Malik," "Amir" and "Derrick's Beard." They are "children of my imagination," he said. He said. "People think, 'Who's this song?' And I'm like, "Well, I spoke to myself partly, and I spoke to someone on my head partly." Often, I think people think it's all autobiographical, but it's like for me, 'Well, it happened. I wonder what if I increased this scenario? What if I throw this off the cliff's edge?' As a dive board or the start of a question, I try to use all my experiences."
Although Serpentwithfeet has a very unique history – Baltimore, the church, the classical choir, blackness, sexuality – none of these can, he claims, separate anyone from his music. "The great thing about each story is that the more specific you are, the more universal it is," he said. "There are many artists I associate with and I can't necessarily identify with. But I can relate with the sense of love in the club or I can miss your partner or hope to visit it again."
"They claim homosexual artists don't do universal work. That's a lie. That's a lie. I've heard a lot of straight music, actually. And I like it, and I can be heterosexual. I don't know what this is like. I don't know. It's not my story. But I still can throw a tear."
He hopes to hit everyone with his own music. "I want to be an unbelievable facilitator," he said. "I'm not going to tell storytellers because I want the audience to join me. I want people to feel like it's part of the process, and I want people to feel that what they witness is alive. I want to do some work that people feel like 'serpent wanted me here.' Like 'If I haven't heard this song, there won't be any.' I want everybody to believe like it's theirs, which is a very unique form of art."
"I don't know if I've done it," he said. "So that's what I'm looking for."