"I think tattoos are cute," Josiah Wise says with a slight giggle. Which would make perfect sense coming from someone with a colorful butterfly on his ankle, or a smiling cartoon character on his biceps.
But Wise's ink includes a pentagram and the words suicide and heaven – all prominently displayed on his head.
Wise, the strikingly singular R&B singer known as serpentwithfeet, seems to delight in confounding expectations. That's certainly true of his music, which takes elements from gospel, soul, jazz, pop, and classical music and twists them into an experimental soul sound with intimate, confessional lyrics sung with eccentric melodies over stark electronic backings.
As for the tats, which are accompanied by a large septum ring and a multihued beard, Wise will say only, "I have them. I needed these little inscriptions. They're reminders to me of the work that I'm doing, and they still help me."
Now based in New York City, Wise grew up in singing in church in his native Baltimore before coming to Philly to study vocal performance at the University of the Arts. He spent six years in the city, dabbling in the neo-soul scene, but was intent on becoming an opera singer. He focused single-mindedly on classical training despite encouragement from everyone around him to explore more diverse options.
"I loved those songs with all the melismas and ornamental lines, and I really wanted to sing these sweet songs," Wise says. "I really enjoyed music by Bellini and Handel and Schubert. But both my voice teachers in college were black men, which was amazing, and they encouraged me to embrace all of myself."
On serpentwithfeet's debut album, soil, Wise displayed a voice with stunning range and unpredictable pathways echoing his love of opera. It does embrace more of his self, though, from his gospel roots to his love of the eccentric Icelandic singer Björk, whose 2015 album Vulnicura made an enormous impact as Wise was discovering his voice.
"When I heard that album, it became really clear to me that I get to be all of myself," he says. "The first song I listened to was 'Black Lake,' which has brilliant string arrangements and these subterranean drums. I remember thinking, 'I get to do both. I get to do all of my luxurious and elegant stuff, but I also get to do stuff that really rumbles, as well.' Björk shares all of herself with us at different velocities, at different times. That planted a seed for me: I don't have to choose, because that's all in my experience."
The songs on soil are boldly revealing, showcasing that Wise was finding his identity as he was finding his sound. The lyrics confront religion and sexuality, reveling in and lamenting – often at the same time – the messy contradictions inherent in both. At the same time he was pursuing his opera studies, Wise was taking acting classes, which helped him overcome his shyness.
"Acting classes were therapy for me," he says. "I never felt like my teachers were trying to embarrass me, but they would always say, 'Don't come into this class being timid.' They would have me do these exercises where I would stomp around and be unbridled, and that changed everything for me."
Timidity no longer seems an issue for Wise, in his look or in his music. He rejects tags like "experimental" or "avant-garde" to describe serpentwithfeet, however, insisting that he remains part of a storied tradition. "I'm not really into the hyphenated life," he says. "Soul and R&B have always been at the front of the conversation. Hip-hop has always been wild, imaginative and exciting. I guess I see myself being part of that canon, from Busta Rhymes, Missy Elliott, and Stevie Wonder to John and Alice Coltrane. I've always seen black music being expansive. I think people mean well, but I'm not an anomaly."