The pleasure of listening to an artist like serpentwithfeet is that you know that nothing — themes, titles, inflections — is there by chance. In each step of his career, the Baltimore singer’s accounts of navigating through his tendencies (both productive and otherwise) are so emotionally gutting that they force the attentive listener to also look within. That work on the self is rarely easy, but it is necessary for growth, and on the his new three-track EP Apparition, serpent continues on that trajectory.
The songs are stitched together to demonstrate the process of shedding unwanted emotional weight. As the narrative progresses, the EP also shows what life starts looking like when someone grants themself the permission to live without the burden of performing socially. In Apparition (a title that may suggest that the singer’s old self is dead), when serpentwithfeet does that internal work, he’s able to claim the type of love and connection that he desires most — romantically and otherwise — without shame. The project also builds (and adds) onto the paranormal sound that’s become his calling card. “A Comma” feels like an epic screenplay that builds in tension throughout while “This Hill” feels a bit more airy and ambient than most are used to hearing him. Then there’s “Psychic,” which has an optimism that’s bolstered by its dreamy production.
I spoke with serpent to delve into what emotional spaces he was in while crafting each track on the EP, but not before we spoke about Sisqo, another Baltimore native whose artistry has been sitting on his mind of late.
The FADER: So you said you wanted to talk about Sisqo and that’s something I’d never turn down the chance of doing. Is there a particular way that he’s been inspiring you lately in a way that he hasn’t before? Have you been revisiting his work?
serpentwithfeet: I’m re-familiarizing myself with Sisqo’s work: his musical work, his sartorial work, Sisqo’s movement. I’m constantly fascinated by how Sisqo presented himself. He was so churchy and he was loud, and he took up space. He really paved the way for so many of us. So often when we think about the fashion legends for men, we think about Lenny Kravitz, Prince, Michael Jackson — and they’re all brilliant — but I think for something that’s a little more closer to me geographically, I think about Sisqo. He was giving looks, okay? On the red carpet, on the stage, in photoshoots. And even beyond that, the music was just stellar. I think oftentimes Black men think in order to be sensuous, in order to be sexy, you have to restrain or you have to not do. And I think Sisqo’s thing was all about doing. That’s exciting to me because I feel like oftentimes in entertainment we see women taking up a lot of space and we see men doing the bare minimum. And that is sooo lame. I’m really interested in men who do the most too because that’s exciting and that’s a possibility. We saw it with Prince, we saw it with Michael, we saw it with so many people. And Sisqo was definitely one of them.
When I listened to your new project, Apparition, and specifically “A Comma,” when you say, “Life’s gotta get easier, no heavy hearts in my next year,” it strikes me. Was that more of a looking into the mirror and telling yourself, “Whatever this is that I’m carrying, I have to shed it” in order to move through life the way you want to move? Or was it an affirmation that you’re giving to your listeners to say that life does get better?
For “A Comma” and that line particularly, I was thinking about how much weight I carry from day to day as a Black gay person. Often I talk to my friends about how I realize that when I’m outside of my house and out in public — obviously before this quarantine — that I’m always on. When I’m around straight men I’m constantly aware of my body and the way that I look at them: am I making them uncomfortable? Do they think I’m tryna hit on them? Straight men will share their sexual stories. Should I share mine too or is that gonna weird them out? I often feel like I’m acutely aware of myself with simple things. Like, am I looking at homeboy too long? Does the guy in the grocery store think I’m flirting with him when I’m just asking for help? That kinda shit. And that’s TIRING. That’s exhausting.
I don't see straight men being as careful. I don’t see straight men being as thoughtful in their engagement with gay people, with queer people. I wrote this song at a time in my life when I was tired of putting on. I think it’s kinda like in church when they say, “be careful who you sleep with” or “be careful who you hug” because the energy transfers. I do think it’s a lot of truth in that. I think it’s really important to be shrewd about who we text with, who we FaceTime, who we fuck, who we go and get drinks with. Not to be extra spooky, but I do think it’s important to be shrewd. What I realized before I wrote this song was that a lot of this heaviness and pain that I’m feeling isn’t necessarily mine — this is somebody else’s shit that jumped on me. Like somebody else’s discomfort has become my own and I told myself that I’m not carrying this shit no more. And this thing also happens in dating. This thing happens in gay clubs, where I have definitely experienced gender policing or performance policing and I wonder, am I dancing too saucy? Am I too interested? It happens all the time and I feel like I’ve done a lot of work with that, but just recently within the past year, I was thinking: You know what? There’s some more shit I need to excrete. Not to sound foul, but it’s true.
Thank you for all of that. I think that's something I relate to in a sense of being mindful of what I’m carrying around. I’ve been trying to be on top of my own actions and emotions as much as possible, as well as what got me to those places. Which is why going into “This Hill” is interesting because there you say, “I feel better now.” Was that an intentional follow up to “A Comma” in the sense that it’s like a victory?
Absolutely. “This Hill” was definitely an intentional follow up. I don’t think my life has been any more difficult than anyone else’s but I do think it was important for me to express both sides of that coin. Like, shit was rough, but now it’s not. And that’s what I wanted to say.
Did that song feel playful for you? Because that’s what I feel as a listener. The way your vocals are arranged and the repetition. It’s a fun listen.
For sure, “This Hill” was so much fun. Because to be honest, the stories that we all love are very dynamic. When we think of The Wiz or Fievel Goes West or any of these movies, it’s always friction. I think “This Hill” is evidence of a well-lived life. Some days are difficult as fuck and some days I could not be anymore blissed out.
“Psychic” is the track that challenges me the most mentally because I’m not quite clear on who the “he” is in this story. I think it can be interpreted in so many ways. This person sees you and sees your future and initially, the easiest thing to assume is that this is a love interest. But what makes me feel like it may not be is the “future” piece. I was wondering if you were talking about your relationship with yourself because I would assume only we really know what our futures are. Even we don’t always know what our futures are, but in some cases have a future that we wanna work towards.
Well let me ask you this: have you ever gotten your cards read before? Have you ever had an energy reading, a tarot reading, or your palms read? And my next question would be, have you ever had someone in your life that you thought was incredibly intuitive? That’s what the song is about — meeting a psychic who is incredibly intuitive, so tapped in, so long-seeing. And I’m just smitten by him. And I’m like, Damn maybe this is the one. Maybe this nigga is for me.
There’s a lot of humor in the song because physics are supposed to see everybody and see a lot of things. So the fact that I’m taking it so personally like, “he must really be into me,” but it’s part humorous and part based in reality. I really am interested in men who are rooted in some sort of spiritual work and this song is about me being more honest about what I find attractive in men. Obviously, I exclusively date and have romantic encounters with Black men, but more than that, I want my Black men to also be anchored in some type of esoteric practice — something. It’s gotta be something. Whether it’s reading tea leaves or praying to the north wind, brother I need you to be rooted in something. And that’s what the song is about: meeting a brother who is rooted in his practice and me being like, “God damn, this is him. Maybe we’re meant to be.” And I definitely think you’re onto something. This song is about self-love because it’s about me stating what I find attractive and it’s about me stating what my standards are.