How serpentwithfeet Quieted Himself To Make His Transcendent New Album
Living with a love ethic can feel holy. On his sophomore album DEACON, polymath musician serpentwithfeet explores the allure of queer romance from a fresh perspective, upholding it through hymns and a reclamation of spirituality. A move from Brooklyn following the release of his 2018 debut album soil gave serpentwithfeet time to settle into the quietude of Los Angeles while reaching a new tier of vulnerability in his music.
DEACON explores the merriment of passion and respects the impermanence of short-term flings; serpentwithfeet’s silky vocals glide over the production with pure anointment in service of a creative vision that is hyper-specific yet transcendent. In alignment with the divine, he is at peace — you won’t find any songs of betrayal or strife on the 11-track album. To celebrate the tranquility of his new album, the singer sat down with Stereogum to discuss embracing his “softer” side, his appreciation for novelist extraordinaire Toni Morrison, and reimagining safe spaces for Black queer men.
It’s been almost three years since you released your debut album, soil. Since then, what experiences led to your vision for DEACON?
SERPENTWITHFEET: I knew for quite a few years that I wanted to do a project that felt really gentle, that felt in communion with nature. I knew that when I released my first EP back in 2016. What I think I lacked, though, was the gentle touch. I think there’s time for a rough palm, but I just don’t think I had the skills yet to do an album like DEACON. I needed some life skills, to be honest — I needed to learn how to be a better listener, I needed to learn how to be quiet. Not so much like shutting up, but learning how to quiet myself.
Moving to LA was a part of that process — I knew that I wanted to make gentler music and I knew that I wanted to be a gentler person. For me, environment dictates a lot of that. In New York, it’s hustle and bustle — not that you can’t be still in New York, because you can be — I just think for me, I wanted to know a lot about life where I was less compressed. I knew before moving here that I was going to make work that was softer. That was an intention I had. So when I moved out here, I was like, “Alright, time for the gentle shit.” [laughs]
Where did you go in Los Angeles — or California, in general — that helped your process?
SERPENTWITHFEET: There’s so much nature around. [Take] a 20-minute drive and you’re in the middle of the woods. I can walk near my house and I’m in the middle of the woods — I don’t hear any streetcars. It’s really a gift, and it’s something I was really transformed by. The first song I wrote for this project was “Dawn,” and it’s more of a rearrangement because it’s an African-American spiritual “My Lord, What A Morning” that I rearranged to be my own thing.
I remember waking up and seeing the sunrise outside my window, seeing the palm trees sway, seeing the lizards do this little thing they do. I guess they’re not backing out on chest day, so watching them do push ups. I’m like, “Y’all are really getting buck.” [laughs] Then, watching the hummingbirds every morning — hummingbirds, lizards, palm trees. I would go take a hike then work on the album.
The first song I had was “Dawn,” so once I did that, I was like, “Okay, I’m keeping this.” That was in 2018, so it’s been three years since I started and I knew that was the guide for the rest of the project.
You’re a huge fan of Toni Morrison. Did you read any books of hers, or were there other books that you read or revisited, while creating DEACON?
SERPENTWITHFEET: Yeah, I’m actually currently reading this anthology of her interviews called In Conversation With Toni Morrison and it’s fantastic. She’s just spilling all the tea on her novels — Beloved, Song Of Solomon, Tar Baby, and Sula. It’s just — she’s hilarious. I just love how funny she is, I love how pointed she is, and to me it’s so amazing that her work is so transformative. It’s been such a balm for me and my life.
I’ve also been reading a lot of poetry books [by] Yrsa Daley-Ward, Jericho Brown, Phillip B. Williams, Donte Collins. I love, love poetry, specifically by Black poets, and that has been illuminating.
You’ve specified that you create intentionally with Black listeners in mind. Do you feel discomfort when your music is being performed or critiqued in front of white audiences?
SERPENTWITHFEET: Like you said, I’m making work with a Black person in mind. That’s the opinion that holds the most weight to me, that is the gaze that I care about. I’ve noticed that when I do shows that are predominantly Black, it’s a different kind of energy.
One of my first shows — even though I wasn’t the headliner — one of the many beautiful experiences I’ve had on stage was opening for NAO. This was early on in my career, this was 2016, I [had] just released my EP a week before. I [was] just like, “Lord, what am I doing?” I was in a full look, I had makeup on, I had on heels and I was like, “Jesus — these folks are with their girlfriends, they are going to roast me when I get on stage.” I was so shook. I got on stage and five seconds in [I heard], “We see you glowing with that shea butter!” The crowd was so warm and I got so much love. They weren’t phased about how I was presented, I saw the posts online and nobody gave a fuck. [laughs]
What I have learned over the past few years of making music, is that Black people are always going to lift you up and hold you down in a good way. That’s who I’m in conversation with. Anybody else, I’m like “cool, I guess” — you get to engage with it, but I’m thinking about my Black audience. I’m not here to handpick my listeners, but I’m always thinking about my Black audience.
Singing about past relationships is your way of eulogizing them. You took that one step further by titling a few songs from DEACON after former lovers. What went into that decision?
SERPENTWITHFEET: Actually, all the names are fictitious. I guess the project is doing its job, people are thinking it’s about real men. I don’t know any men with these names and I made sure of that, like “I don’t want nobody saying the song is about them.” “Malik,” “Amir,” and “Derrick” — I’ve known Black men to have these names. That was very intentional, I wanted to take a moment to sing about the joys of sharing romantic spaces with Black men.
I wanted to express the joy that I’ve had even when you meet a guy and you don’t meet him again. You meet him at a restaurant or wherever and you flirt for 20 minutes, you exchange numbers, then he ends up going out of town and you never see him again in your life. That moment is so magical, and I just wanted to capture that.
On “Malik,” specifically, the moment when you see a guy at the club and you’re like, “As soon as I get through security, I’m going to try to get his number.” Like, what does that moment feel like? I wanted to capture that, which is also why I cited being in Atlanta or DC, where there’s a lot of Black gay men who show you a lot of love. That’s a very specific experience that I’ve had, so I wanted to find a way to document that in three minutes.
Noah’s Arc ended 15 years ago, but you also played the show in the video for “Same Size Shoe.” What did the visibility of Black queer men [on television] mean for you?
SERPENTWITHFEET: I’m just so happy thinking about it. It gave me courage, it gave me the gumption, it inspired me to have a large imagination — to imagine a world where I can have Black gay friends or we can talk openly. Noah’s Arc is about Wade, Noah, and their love dance, but it’s also about Noah and his friends and them giving good advice, crazy advice [while] dealing with their love tangos.
Now that I’m in my 30s, I have Black gay friends and we go shopping together, we go get drinks together. Seeing myself now, I didn’t know when I was 15 that I’d be able to do that. Shows like Noah’s Arc and work like Marlon T. Riggs’ Tongues Untied inspired my imagination to want that for myself. All this work that has been created as a compass, as a sacred document for the next generation of Black gays to take notes from.
Is there anything about gospel and R&B music from your upbringing that you feel is missing today?
SERPENTWITHFEET: The gospel artists that are out now are phenomenal. I think they honor the past, too. I think about The Walls Group, who I love and I know that Kirk Franklin has definitely given them his blessing. I think about Jonathan McReynolds, who does praise and worship music — I grew up in a church where praise and worship was a big thing.
I think the gospel artists of today are doing such a great job of making current music, but also sticking true to sangin’ and creating wonderful compositions which I think is what happened when I was coming up with Mary Mary, Kirk Franklin, Trin-i-tee 5:7, all the different gospel groups that were hot. I’m really excited about the gospel that’s coming out now.
What about R&B? I always see the [online] debates where people say “R&B is dead.”
SERPENTWITHFEET: Jazmine Sullivan came back, swooped in and reminded the children. The singers are here and I think it’s more so about the industry being ready for that. The gifts and the abundance of brilliance is here, it’s like, is the industry ready for that? H.E.R. is an incredible musician, incredible singer. I don’t even need to say this, because I feel like sangin’ is almost condescending, but they’re both virtuosic performers — what they do is not easy to do.
When I think about the R&B “golden years” — the Faith Evans and Brandys and Kelly Prices and Carl Thomas and folks who are virtuosic, that’s a lot of skill. I just think the industry has to be ready for it, because the listeners have been.
How have you redefined your relationship with spirituality?
SERPENTWITHFEET: I still use a lot of the language from church, which I think we see [on] the album title. I was given advice years ago [which was], I don’t have to get rid of everything that I’ve learned every time I renew myself, I can use that as information. My friend was like, “You don’t buy a new pair of shoes every day because you wore a pair yesterday.” You can still wear those Nikes tomorrow, you don’t have to get rid of everything because it’s a day old. All of the language that I accumulated growing up in church, I don’t have to get rid of [it]. I can transmute it and transform it to fit my new life, which is why it was really important for me to think about the idea of a deacon in a new way.
I was thinking, “What does a deacon look like outside of the Christian institution? Where else do we see deacons?” I think about Overton on Living Single, where — to me — he has deacon energy. He is super calm, a mixture of everything that’s good, and that’s a bit of what I wanted to explore energy-wise. I’ve taken everything that I’ve learned and repurposed it for my life now.
You were given a highlight on Ty Dolla $ign’s last album, Featuring Ty Dolla $ign. What wisdom have you gotten from him?
SERPENTWITHFEET: He always drops nuggets. One thing that I’ve learned from him is the importance of exploring, the importance of being limitless. When I’ve spent time with him, we play a lot of music and he’s put me onto gospel musicians. He’s into so many different styles of music and he’s reminded me and taught me the importance of leaving no stone unturned.
Did you record “serpentwithfeet Interlude” knowing that you’d have an interlude on the album?
SERPENTWITHFEET: I found out a week before. [laughs] I was honored and flattered and humbled, but I recorded that song with him in the studio a while back and then he told me he was going to put it on the album. I was like, “I’m so touched!” It was really kind of him to do.
How has Afrofuturism shaped your identity and aesthetic as an artist?
SERPENTWITHFEET: It’s taught me to be curious and to ask a lot of questions. What I mean by that is, getting ready for a music video or a photoshoot for the album, asking, “What would happen if we did this?” and not adding a lot of periods, just changing the punctuation [and] adding a question mark to it. Instead of “we need to do this,” saying “what would happen if we do this?” That has given me permission to explore and I’m really thankful for all the Afrofuturist artists that have schooled me with that.
On DEACON, love sounds a lot more like being a place of refuge rather than an ongoing struggle. What do you want Black men to know about navigating relationships?
SERPENTWITHFEET: I think every Black man should read All About Love by bell hooks. It’s such a sacred text.
What did you learn from that book?
SERPENTWITHFEET: Ooh, what didn’t I learn from that book? I learned that it’s important to live with a love ethic, to have loving space in everything. Not just with your boo or your partner, but in the workplace, at the market — that you want to have loving exchanges with people. I learned that it’s important and beautiful to want that and I learned that it’s less silly now to want my work environment to feel loving and caring.
DEACON is out now via Secretly Canadian.