meta-scriptSerpentwithfeet Celebrates Black Gay Love With Delicate Devotion On ‘DEACON’ | GRAMMY.com
serpentwithfeet on album cover of 'DEACON'

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Serpentwithfeet Celebrates Black Gay Love With Delicate Devotion On ‘DEACON’

“I hope that people are encouraged to be soft, and to be gentle as they can be,” serpentwithfeet shared with GRAMMY.com about his new album, ‘DEACON’

GRAMMYs/Apr 2, 2021 - 09:52 pm

Serpentwithfeet is happy, and you can hear it even when his voice goes beyond language. Midway through “Same Size Shoe” from his new album DEACON, the Baltimore-born singer also known as Josiah Wise introduces a “trumpet” fanfare that’s his own voice layered several times over, heralding a love steeped in understanding and empathy. Released March 26, it celebrates Black gay love with a giddiness to rival pop hits from ‘60s Motown or ‘90s R&B, a pivot from the darker tones of previous serpentwithfeet releases.

The singer enlisted new collaborators like British singers Sampha and NAO (each of whom he had previously opened for in 2016) to attain the album’s bright sound, recorded between Los Angeles and London over the past three years.

On the phone, Wise raves about his current home: “Part of the reason why I love L.A. so much is that people in the industry are so kind. I think it's such a great city because I get to work and I can do sessions and all of this, but then also the people that I work with are so much fun to be around.” Even with 808s from “Mo Bamba” and “Panini” production duo Take A Daytrip, the music hangs in the air like a generous dollop of whipped cream atop a dessert.

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DEACON’s joy is a perfect fit for the beginning of spring, as people tentatively return to gathering together safely. “Malik” and “Amir” are composite character sketches of past lovers, while the closing track “Fellowship” celebrates friendship.

"I hope that people are encouraged to be soft, and to be gentle as they can be," Wise says in conclusion. "I think that that's all I can really wish for, is that people listen to this work, and maybe it will give them some encouragement to be gentle."

You just released the Apparition EP in April 2020. What was the development of DEACON like?

The thing is, I'm always working on music, and I like to organize; "Okay, like, this feels like it's part of this particular idea." The Apparition songs definitely didn't fit what I was going for on DEACON. I said, "This should be its own project." It's funny, because people have asked if this is a concept album, and I've never considered any of my projects concept albums, because that just seems really ambitious. But I do think I'm pretty good at knowing what the mood is, and I just knew the mood and the sonic palette for DEACON, so I try to stick within those confines.

The idea was to make something that felt really airy. I really wanted to feel and hear breath, and when I think breath, I think about space, the space to breathe, and about ventilation. That was my interest. Does this album have space? Does it feel loving? Does it feel gentle? Those are the feelings and the ideas I was in pursuit of for DEACON.

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Possibly my favorite part of the project is the “trumpet” line on "Same Size Shoe." Can you tell me about writing that fanfare but recording it as a vocal?

I had that idea very early on. And I was uncertain about keeping it because I didn't know if it was too campy, but actually I love the campiness of it now. I just wanted to do a vocal fanfare moment. It's just so apropos. I think that song is so much about celebrating, celebrating Black love, Black gay love, and I just wanted something that felt jubilant and jocular, and doing a vocal fanfare just seemed really appropriate.

Where did the concept for “Same Size Shoe” come from?

I was just thinking about being with someone that I can trust, being someone who I don't have to explain anything to. Being with someone who has a similar cultural reservoir or cultural experience as me—I was writing about dating and being in love with Black men, and just the ease and the trust that is there. When you ask someone to walk in your shoes, well, I hope they wear the same size shoe. Because it's pretty painful if they don't! And that's one of the last lines of the song, like, "You can walk a mile in my shoes, that's why I trust you."

As you're recording and working on music, do you have a set process to keep track of your ideas?

I love being in the studio. But I think there's always an intention for sure, every time I go to the studio. The same way, with every project I've done, I knew what I wanted to do. I keep a little document of all the ideas of "Okay, so for this next thing, this is the territory I want to explore." Or, "I want things that are all above 130 BPM." I have to be pragmatic in that way. It doesn't mean that everything I put out is going to fit that criteria. But it's really helpful for me to start with a set criteria. Maybe that's the school kid in me coming out, like I need direction, and because I don't have a teacher, I'm the instructor. I have to be my own taskmaster.

Is it an emotional process when you're recording, to lay down these vocals, especially if you're recording by yourself?

 Well, I've never had a session and started weeping or anything. But there are moments when I surprise myself and I give myself a high five a lot. I forget which writer said this, but they said you aren't writing until you've scared yourself. And I sort of take that same approach to music making, like I'm not making my best music until I've scared myself, or cry to myself, or done something where I feel a little like, "ooh."

"Hyacinth," I think, surprised me the most. It was interesting to see what happened when I got in front of the microphone, where I would have things written out, and then I would start singing, like, “Yeah, this word doesn't work.” I ended up surprising myself. That particular song, I didn't weep or anything, but was very emotional, in a sense, because I had told myself years ago—before I dropped the first EP blisters in 2016—I knew that the next project I wanted to do, I said, I want it to be really loving, and I want to write a song about nature. But I just didn't have a gentle touch. And I think you can have an agenda but sometimes you have to live to execute it.

When I wrote "Hyacinth," I was like, "Whoa, this is what I said I wanted to do five years ago." I was really touched that I was able to write something like that. So, in that way, it can be an emotional or wonderful reflecting process.

Were there any other parts of this recording or the writing that scared or surprised you?

"Sailors' Superstition," with Take a Daytrip. They're genius. It was stepping out of my comfort zone, but in the most wondrous and rewarding way. There was nothing stuffy or uncomfortable about those sessions. I had a lot of fun. They're both also very quick.

I knew I wanted to do something that was more danceable, and we talked about some ideas. When they heard what I wanted, they said, “Okay, great. It needs to be this BPM, we need to have the kicks on the twos,” and they just had their producer lingo. I was like, "How are y'all working like this?" Within 15 minutes, we had an instrumental. Even when I was recording my vocals, I did different takes, and they were like, "Oh, do this one, 'cause you were more in a pocket," or "Use this one, because you'd like your inflection here."

Sampha, while working on "Fellowship," stopped me from singing. I was recording the chorus and he was like, "Stop!" and I was like, "Whoa, I've never had somebody tell me to stop." And he was like, "I'm gonna sing with you, but I want to sing at the same time as you." And then he was like, "Lil Silva, you come and sing too." But that was Sampha's idea, to have us all sing together. Because I was just doing it by myself, and trying to make a really pretty chorus, with my little vocals. And he was like, "Nope, that's not it." But I was open to it, because it's Sampha.

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The harmonies on "Fellowship" reinforce the theme of the song. Can you tell me about that song as a platonic love song?

I think friendship is such a wonderful, magical gift. And I definitely do feel like I have been gifted with friendship, and obviously, I've worked for it and all of that. "Fellowship," we wrote in 2019. And I was just thinking about how wonderful it is that I have people in my life that I can be my full self with, that I don't have to be around my friends and wonder, "Oh, can I not crack that joke," or "Can I not talk about my dreams, because they might sh*t on my dreams?" Or “Can I not wear this crazy outfit?”

My friends have seen me in so many different times in my life, and a lot of my friends I've had for years. I mean, I'm still friends with people from high school and college, and they're so, not just accepting, but they celebrate me and I celebrate them. And we also have lots of fun together now in the same way that we laughed and cut up when I was 16.

To me, this album sounds very happy and positive and upbeat. Are there any undercurrents of negative emotions, or bittersweetness to these songs for you?

I don't think so. So much of my previous work was about bittersweetness. The bittersweetness of grief, because grief means that you have loved, grief means that you have cared and you've been cared for. What I was talking about on [my 2018 album] soil, my grief was a response to having such a wonderful love experience.

But this time around, I didn't want that bittersweetness. I wanted to talk about maintaining and celebrating the love that I have in my life. And you know, I was very intentional about editing lyrics for a long, long time to make sure that there was no angst or bitterness. That took a lot of time, actually, to make sure that it actually felt joyous, and not fake joyous or half-joy.

Are there other works that fill that same space of celebrating Black gay love for you?

I'm inspired by so many different things. I think about TV shows, like I look at “Noah's Ark,” which I show a clip of actually in "Same Size Shoe." “Noah's Ark” is a TV show about a group of Black gay men. And there's the film Tongues Untied by Marlon Riggs, which is about Black gay men. I have so many different references, where I'm like, "Okay, how do I take that warmth from Queen Sugar and put it into a song?”

In addition to that, I was just thinking about loving songs that just feel like a balm. Like Janet Jackson's Damita Jo, specifically, the downtempo songs, like, "Spending Time With You," or Brandy's song "When You Touch Me" from Full Moon. I think I've had so many examples of how I can make a sweet song, like Musiq Soulchild's "Just Friends," which gave me a lot of information, when he says, "I'm not trying to pressure you, I just want to be your homeboy." Like, can we just be friends? So I was thinking about all those different artists that have offered such generous tunes.

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I love the word generous that you used, and I want to turn it around to you. Does it feel like you are offering a lot of yourself to the world, like you yourself are being generous in this album that follows in those songs' footsteps?

Absolutely. My goal is always to be emotionally available. And some days are better than others, obviously, but that's always my goal. With writing these songs, I was very intentional about wanting to be emotionally available, and also wanting to sing about men who are emotionally available. And I think emotional availability and generosity go hand in hand.

What is your day-to-day like in recent weeks now that the project is done?

I'm taking a moment. I think it's important to celebrate. I'm a big fan of celebrating. I'm still working, 'cause I have a [livestream] show coming up and all that. But, I do plan to celebrate, take a moment, reflect. That's all part of the process, too.

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Cimafunk’s sole release since his last album was the December 2023 single “Te tango en salsa,” which expands upon his self-designated brand of Afro Cuban Funk with accents of disco and grooves filled with New Orleans-style horns. Though the track hasn’t been publicly connected to any upcoming EP or album, one might presume that his impending run of concerts is a precursor to a complete body of new music. Perhaps Coachella will function as a testing ground, and considering the inclusion on El Ailmento of prominent artists George Clinton, CeeLo Green and Lupe Fiasco, who knows what other surprises might be in store at the desert festival known for delighting audiences with plenty of guest features.

L’Imperatrice

Through the years following their inception in 2012, French pop band L’Imperatrice have played primarily in Europe and surrounding regions, so it’s no small feat that they’re poised to make their second appearance at Coachella in two years. They first played the fest in 2022, a makeup show for Coachella's 2020 COVID-19 cancellation. 

Their slots on April 12 and 19, stops on their just-launched Double Trouble Tour, follow the 2018 release of debut full-length Matahari and performances at prominent festivals like Austin City Limits and Outside Lands. Self-produced sophomore album Pulsar arrives on June 7, and its infectiously groovy and sensual debut single “Me Da Iqual” promises a Coachella set sure to incite emotional release among the masses — ideally during one of the fest’s famed golden hours to match the music’s euphoric vibes. 

Skepta

Regarded as one of the most influential rappers in the UK grime scene, Skepta is set to commence his latest return to stateside stages with appearances at Coachella on both Fridays, which marks his second time at the festival after lauded dual appearances in 2017. 

Following a semi-secret DJ set at Austin’s South by Southwest festival in March, these shows will preview a run of summer dates in the UK and Europe and the release of upcoming sixth solo album Knife and Fork

With that record’s release date still in question but imminent, it’s a good bet that he’ll introduce new material to build upon the January drop of lead single "Gas Me Up (Diligent)," which adopts a flow and melodic structure more akin to popular American rap. To that end, Skepta’s previous collaborations with U.S. rappers like Drake, Ye and members of ASAP Mob could lead to a loaded lineup of guests during his Coachella set. It has the potential to be a huge moment, though his reputation for high-energy and rowdy gigs are reasons enough to prioritize his performance. 

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Mandy, Indiana

English-French noise rock upstarts Mandy, Indiana make music that isn’t necessarily easy to digest. Minimalist and chaotic compositions, primarily from their widely celebrated 2023 debut album I’ve Seen a Way, resonate as tunes tailor-made for technically minded music nerds. Still, danceable moments emerge among the sonic helter-skelter, which combines experimental elements of industrial, classic house music and samples aplenty (think Death Grips with more palatable melodies and exclusively French lyrics). 

So far, the dynamic four-piece hasn’t played much on this side of the pond — their debut shows at Coachella arrive on the heels of a handful of U.S. appearances in 2023 that included the SXSW Music Festival. Which means Mandy, Indiana’s sets on April 13 and 20 will mark relatively rare (and therefore must-see) chances to embrace their overtly wonderful weirdness in the desert among the more prominent pop-leaning artists on the roster.

The Last Dinner Party

If you’re not yet keen on British indie rock band the Last Dinner Party, it’s time to get with the program. With only one album under their belt, Prelude to Ecstasy (released Feb. 2) — which echoes various influences ranging from Siouxsie and the Banshees to Kate Bush and ABBA —the quintet has already earned multiple awards and accolades, including topping the UK Album Chart. To boot, they opened for the Rolling Stones in London’s Hyde Park two years prior to putting out their record.

The band’s performances are reportedly jaw-dropping, further evidenced by the complete sell-out of their current U.S. tour. That jaunt wraps with their April 20 appearance at Coachella (they also play during the first weekend on April 13), so, unless you want to pay ridiculous resale prices for one of their club shows, this is a prime chance to see them live with the added benefit of catching many more amazing acts while you’re there.

Young Fathers

Young Fathers are often categorized under the umbrella of hip-hop, but it would be wrong to pigeonhole them that way. True, one can pinpoint elements of a spitting, old-school style — especially on debut album Dead (winner of the prestigious Mercury Prize in 2014.. However, their sound spans the landscape of many genres, often weaving in threads of electronic, industrial, and trip-hop. It should be telling that they’ve collaborated multiple times with Massive Attack.

The music clearly resonates with a substantial audience. They’ve reached prime positions on the UK Album charts, their fourth and latest album Heavy Heavy (released Feb. 3, 2023) won them their third Scottish Album of the Year Award, and this year marks their second invitation to Coachella (catch them on Sundays: April 13 and 20). With a full year gone since putting out new songs, there’s no telling if they’ll serve up anything fresh. Regardless, fans of heavy-hitting experimental music, assuredly energizing at any time of day or night, should prioritize seeing their set.

Oneohtrix Point Never

It’s a wonder that Oneohtrix Point Never has never played Coachellal until now given his string of consistent releases since emerging in the early 2000s (with never more than three years between albums) and Coachella’s penchant for historically championing experimental electronic artists. Following the Feb. 29 release of his latest EP “Oneohtrix Point Never - Ambients,” he debuts in the desert on April 13, with his second weekend encore on April 20. 

The Massachusetts-bred beatmaker’s music swings from sparse to compositionally complex. It's not geared toward a typical EDM dance party, but always cinematic and hypnotizing, creating a space where listeners can truly lose themselves in the sonics. Given his style, it’s safe to assume he’ll occupy an evening time slot, so if you’re the type who prefers something a little more raw to the mainstream big-timers topping the bill, Oneohtrix Point Never might be just the ticket.

Mdou Moctar

If there’s one artist on this year’s Coachella lineup that will truly thrive in a desert setting, it’s Mdou Moctar. The Niger-based musician plays rock music steeped in the style of Tuareg, guitar-based blues-rock fusion that originates in the Sahara region. However, Moctar’s music decidedly transcends the traditional sound, often reverberating as sublimely psychedelic.

His performances in Indio on April 14 and 21 precede the release of his sixth album Funeral For Justice (arriving May 3). Based on the two singles made available from that record so far (title track “Funeral for Justice” and “Imouhar”), the people of Coachella are in for a true desert trip.

Atarashii Gakko!

When Japanese “girl group” Atarashii Gakko! make their Coachella debut on April 14 and 21, anticipate the unexpected. The four singers’ have a stated goal of “redefining what it means to be a girl group.” They’re technically categorized as J-Pop, but among the many catchy choruses, their music also incorporates shades of speed metal, trap beats and alt-rap à la Rage Against the Machine, all of which you can hear on their latest album ICHIJIKIKOKU.

What you can certainly expect is an outrageously high-energy show chock-full of nonstop, self-designed choreography performed in colorful sailor-fuku uniforms (essentially sailor suits worn by Japanese students in the ‘70s and ‘80s … think Sailor Moon but intentionally less provocative). If you need an adrenaline boost on the final day of the fest, look no further than Atarashii Gakko!.

Olivia Dean

Dear America, it’s time to give a proper welcome to an artist destined for stardom:  Olivia Dean. With only a handful of U.S. shows in the bank, the 25-year-old British neo-soul singer’s debut at Coachella on April 14 — arguably her biggest U.S. gig yet — will serve as the most well-deserved of receptions. 

Sure, her nominations for the 2023 Mercury Prize (for debut album Messy) and 2024 Brit Awards (Best Pop Act, British Artist of the Year and Best New Artist) should merit attention enough for those who don’t know her. But even a few moments of listening to key album tracks “Dive” and “The Hardest Part” (don’t sleep on the alternate version featuring Leon Bridges) are the real deal-sealers. The richness of Dean’s recorded vocals are absolutely arresting, evocative of and equal to top-tier divas who preceded her. It’s thrilling just thinking about the impact she’ll make at Coachella — do yourself a favor if you have the chance and go witness it firsthand. 

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Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker play instruments and sing under red lights during a performance on the set of the Jimmy Fallon Show.
Sleater-Kinney perform on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on March 15.

Photo: Todd Owyoung/NBC via Getty Images

interview

On 'Little Rope,' Sleater-Kinney Still Wear Their Hearts On Their Sleeves

Sleater-Kinney's latest album delves into profound vulnerability, crafted in the wake of personal loss and global upheaval. 'Little Rope' showcases the band's enduring spirit, close friendship, and the approach that's kept them relevant over time.

GRAMMYs/Apr 10, 2024 - 03:29 pm

Using lively, raw instrumentals as a vehicle for emotional catharsis, Sleater-Kinney’s Little Rope takes the lead as one of their most vulnerable projects to date. 

The "Dig Me Out" singers approach their 11th studio album with a fresh perspective, influenced by their experiences during the pandemic. Despite the departure of drummer Janet Weiss in 2019, the band maintains their iconic post-riot grrrl take on rock music. Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker infuse Little Rope with reflective lyrics and raw energy, mirroring their personal growth and resilience. 

While working on the album one day, Brownstein received a call with news that nobody ever wants to hear, nor expects. She had been informed that her mother and stepfather had been involved in a fatal car accident while on vacation in Italy. Faced with grief and a sense of unfamiliarity, the band turned to something that always brought them comfort: making music. Little Rope was born.

Despite such a tragic, major life change and trying to make it through a global pandemic, Sleater-Kinney’s motive remains consistent.

"We hope to find people where they're at," Tucker explains to GRAMMY.com. "And it seems like we have, in each stage of someone’s life."

After hosting a GRAMMY U SoundChecks event with the Pacific Northwest Chapter of GRAMMY U, Sleater-Kinney sat down with GRAMMY.com to talk about their perspective on the ever-changing industry and the legendary bands they pull inspiration from.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

It has been almost 30 years since you all released your first album. In what ways has Sleater-Kinney changed since then and what has stayed consistent? 

Corin Tucker: We still try to write songs that are emotional and that reach people. Our songwriting has developed over the years and I think we have different methodologies for writing. But, really the most important point of a song is that it makes people feel something. We still try to judge what we do by the same metric as we did 30 years ago.

Carrie Brownstein: One thing we set out to do is to have a unique sound and I think we created a sonic language with each other that we've tried to maintain, but also push the narrative forward and challenge ourselves with each album. That's been consistent from the beginning, we never — even in the early years — wanted one album to sound like the last one. Things change and the industry changes. We just try to stay true to ourselves, but also adapt.

Are there any of your early projects that you feel still resonate to this day? 

Corin Tucker: The funny thing about streaming is that people are finding some of those older songs and really getting into them. We found out at the end of last year that people were really into one or two songs off of our very first self-titled record. A really nice thing about having your music available digitally is that it's available to everyone all over the world. 

Path of Wellness (2021) was self-produced, as it was made during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic and Little Rope (2024) was produced by GRAMMY-winning producer John Congleton. What was it like going from a self-produced project to having John on the next project? Was there a certain reason you chose to work with John? 

Carrie Brownstein: Self-producing for us was very anomalous. We've always worked with producers and one of the reasons is to just have an outside perspective — somebody to come in and be the tiebreaker or to just bounce ideas off of. So, it was kind of a no-brainer to return to a producer after the solitary of the pandemic. 

We have always been fans of John Congleton's work. We come from similar backgrounds and have been in talks to work with him for a while. Fortunately for this album, it worked out and we felt like these songs would be really well served by his productions. 

Could you tell us a little bit about your dynamic as a music duo? When writing songs, do you both try to work on them 50/50 or is it on-and-off, where one of you may take the lead for certain songs? And what was this collaboration like specifically with Little Rope? 

Corin Tucker: Our goal is always to make the song as strong as it can be. We’ve worked together long enough to know that that's the most important thing. Sometimes a song is more an idea of one or the other, and you need to wait until they’ve fleshed it out to come in with your parts. We have a bunch of different modalities and we just try to keep the conversation going. It's a lot about communication – it's an ongoing constant conversation between the two of us on where the song is at and what we think it might need.

Can you share any standout memories or experiences from when you were writing Little Rope?

Carrie Brownstein: My friend has an apartment in Downtown Portland and he was out of town. So, he let us use the space as a writing studio. And neither of us live in Downtown Portland, so it was interesting to be in this highrise in Portland looking out over the city — sort of being in conversation with the city and changing the landscape in which we were writing was nice to have.

As Pacific Northwest natives, how do you see your Pacific Northwest roots stick out in your music? 

Corin Tucker: A lot of the sounds from the historic bands you can hear in our music. You can hear Nirvana, you can hear the Fastbacks, so you can hear so many of those Pacific Northwest musicians. They were bands that we grew up with and bands that we still try and emulate with what we do.

I feel like a good number of Sleater-Kinney fans have stayed fans and grown with you all over the years. What about your music and your brand do you think resonates with people even in different stages of their lives, and how did you foster this dynamic? 

Carrie Brownstein: Sleater-Kinney’s a very earnest band. We wear our hearts on our sleeves and I think our audience appreciates that rawness and vulnerability. It's emotional music.

We have a lot of younger and newer fans. I think they relate to the emotionality and the honesty in the music, so that’s what we try to stick with.

You have said that The Showbox is one of your favorite venues to play at in Seattle. How does it feel being back at The Showbox for two sold-out shows? 

Carrie Brownstein: We really enjoy the intimacy of a smaller venue, allowing the fans to get a little closer to the stage and feeling more connected with them. It's just nice to feel a sense of history, a through line with our career and our relationship with the city. We're really excited to be here. 

I’m curious to know how your fans reacted to Little Rope. Have you noticed any common reactions to the project? Or any particular responses that have stood out?

Corin Tucker: People really relate to the emotion in the music. We've gotten a lot of people saying that it helped them through a hard time. Having that impact on people is pretty special when they feel like it's okay to be emotional and process things with music.

Lastly, you have the rest of your international tour to go, but what else is coming up for Sleater-Kinney? 

Corin Tucker: We're very excited to play shows internationally. There may be some cool stuff coming up that maybe hasn't been announced yet, but we're looking forward to more touring.

Carrie Brownstein: For an album cycle, it's almost two years and so, for the most part it will be, it'll be touring and then we'll write something else.

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