Unlike many of us struggling to get out of bed in the morning recently, serpentwithfeet has been waking up at 5am to go and watch the sunrise over LA. His favourite place to start the day? “I like the feeling that I’m the first one to see the sun rise! I’ve seen mornings in lots of different places, but seeing the sun rise over the beach? That’s kind of next level.”
Moving from his “second home” of New York after finishing 2018’s emotionally-raw, gospel-indebted debut album ‘soil’, Los Angeles has provided the background for serpent to explore not only the numerous sunrise hot spots, but a different side of himself. His new trait as a “morning person”, he explains, has helped reshape his outlook; the result is second LP ‘DEACON’.
“I knew that I wanted the next project to be much more porous, much more breezy, much more gentle than my previous work, and I couldn’t make that work living in New York,” he explains. “I want to know who I am and how I take up space when I’m not compressed. I’d written so much music about being compressed, about being agitated, that I wanted to explore a side of myself that wasn’t agitated and that felt completely loose and soft.
“I think it’s important for us to know all sides of ourselves,” he continues. “Sometimes we try to relegate certain feelings to the basement, like anger isn’t as valid as joy, and I just don’t think that’s true! I think anger is important. I think rage is important. I think bliss is important. I think all those things need to have real estate. I’ve explored rage, I’ve explored disappointment, I’ve explored sadness, because I think those were feelings I was told not to explore.
“I think as a country we do a terrible job in America of grieving and we do a terrible job of dealing with pain. We’re so interested in this fleeting happiness that I think we forget it’s OK to grieve, it’s OK to fear, and I think in my first few projects I explored that because I was like, ‘I need to get into these feels that I haven’t got into for years!’. I did that, that was its own science project, and now I’m like, ‘OK, I’m ready to be joyous again’.”
“In my first few projects I explored grief and fear, and now I’m like, ‘OK, I’m ready to be joyous again’.”
Manifesting that joyful feeling and sense of calm, ‘DEACON’ acts as an exploration into serpent’s new outlook. Its title, calling back to the singer’s church upbringing, also mirrors this new calmness, inspired by what he calls “deacon energy”. “Deacon is the office in the church that holds the church together, and there’s something really beautiful about that,” he explains. “All the deacons that I’ve known have had this quiet spirit and quiet strength, so I wanted to tap into that deacon energy, and that peace.”
Musically mirroring this, serpent drew on techniques from icons past - stacked harmonies and the “airiness” of Janet Jackson and Brandy’s vocals - to aid the softer sound of the record, whilst playing more with synths and delays too. “Typically with my music, if you have a scale of one to 10, I let myself go to 11. I go off!” he laughs. “This time I was like, everything needs to sound really calm and like it’s inside the cup of your hands, and it needs to be really sweet, so I didn’t let myself go past a six. I spent hours and hours trying to be more relaxed, which is actually very difficult.”
Calling the album “a study rather than a story”, ‘DEACON’’s heart lies in its exploration of Black gay relationships and companionships. “I think people recognise that I am making work with the Black gay listener or viewer in mind,” serpent says. “That really touches me because that’s the intention; I intentionally used pronouns where I use ‘he’ or ‘him’ rather than being ambiguous. Black gay people have been making space since before I was even born. I think about all the legends: Marlon Riggs, a Black gay filmmaker, or Essex Hemphill who is a brilliant Black gay writer. I think about what Patrik-Ian Polk did with Noah’s Arc, which was a huge show showing Black gay love on TV and we haven’t had that so much since then. If anything, I’m responding to all the work that I’ve seen and hopefully standing on the shoulder of those legends. I don’t wanna make myself like the Black gay saviour - it’s been done before me - but I do hope that my audience feels like I’m adding to the canon because that’s my intention.”
With the first half of ‘DEACON’ exploring the feeling of butterflies from meeting someone new, and the latter about maintaining relationships, serpent hopes that the numerous ways he talks about affection on the record will encourage people to embrace the way they process their own emotions. “I felt like I’ve already done the heartbreak thing, and I felt like I did a pretty decent job at it. I don’t wanna go down in history as the sad boy because that’s not who I am,” he smiles. “I never wanna be a one trick pony. I don’t even wanna be a two trick pony, I wanna have a thousand tricks!”
‘DEACON’ is out now via Secretly Canadian.
As featured in the March 2021 issue of DIY, out now.