“I don’t want to demonise parenthood,” Josiah Wise says, balancing a crystal between his hands with a serenity you may not anticipate from someone who has the words “Suicide”, “Heaven” alongside a pentagram tattooed on his head.
I’m asking him about the lyric “Baby, I know you learnt some fucked up shit from your mother,” which is sung in rich colours on his song The Four Ethers. I think of that often quoted Philip Larkin line about how parents fuck you up. Well? I ask him, do they? Do our parents fuck us up?
“You learn these particular habits and those things keep you from unhinging in the way you can,” Josiah says. “It’s essentially up to you if you want to unhinge or not. I love the idea of parenthood and that’s not necessarily a biological thing, I think we all shape each other.”
Last year, Josiah released the blisters EP as serpentwithfeet, which saw him collaborate with experimental producer and fellow Tri Angle signee the Haxan Cloak. The stripped-back record fuses RnB with warm gospel and, lyrically, there’s an intoxicating blend of queerness, occultism and a suave sense of humour. Despite the smoothness of Josiah’s vocals, his image is striking. With a constantly evolving array of piercings, tattoos and cloth, he drapes himself with the finesse of a couturier, creating a look somewhere between pagan high priestess, witch doctor and Victorian gentleman.
“I think when you limit a palette and only work with three colours you can do a lot more than if you work with five hundred, because it becomes a mess,” he says of his distinctive aesthetic. “I’ll always be doing the same thing ’til I die but I’ll always be finding new ways to make that red look more red.”
And Josiah traces the formation of these palettes back to the womb, seeing the EP as the current incarnation of a refinement process that began before his childhood growing up in Baltimore. “Even if our mothers aren’t singing to us, there’s music playing and we’re responsive to that stimulus. My first conscious experience was church. I was always aware of the wonder of community music making, I don’t think there’s a line between audience and performer, I always had this experience of how cyclical the music is and that call and response isn’t just a gospel thing, it happens in the classical world too.”
I tell him I feel the classical world often feels very patriarchal. After all, the great composers all stem back from a time where you’d of had to be male, white, affluently western and educated to be heard. “Those systems aren’t sustainable,” he says in a voice so gentle and calm he could be describing butter. “My mom never told me to be a man, she just let me [be]. If I want to cry she gives me that space. She encouraged me to wear colours, she encouraged me not to be limited, she encouraged me not to be a shell of a human being, and she never called it masculine or feminine, she just told me to be a full person.”
“I think people are very fluid,” Josiah continues, citing men he’s known who’ve shown more hidden sensitivity than their outer appearances might indicate. “There are a lot of people who feel a lot of things but don’t have the language. When you have access to different readings and different schools of thought, it’s easier for you to thrive.”
Half an hour with Josiah Wise is an experience I could have actually paid for; it’s as if I’ve just finished a consultation with a very modern kind of guru. At one with the music, as serpentwithfeet he weaves the personal and the cultural together, with a boldness of appearance and a gentleness of soul.
Photography: Joshua Gordon
Styling: Max Allen
blisters is out now via Tri Angle