serpentwithfeet and Björk seek refuge in the sublime

For Document's Summer/Pre-Fall 2021 issue, the musicians examine the creative merits of spirituality, nature, and singing in the supermarket

“I believe it’s important to consider desire and spirit at the same time,” serpentwithfeet tells Document. “I want to live a full life; that means I must make space for the esoteric and the carnal.”

The son of a choir director and the owner of a Christian bookstore, serpent—born Josiah Wise—grew up surrounded by the divine. As a musician, he now draws on these influences to create a new mythology. Recorded under the moniker serpentwithfeet, a reference to the prelapsarian snake tempting Eve to sin, his music explores themes of desire and queerness with all the grandeur and symbolic language of scripture. In his 2018 debut album soil, the spiritual and sensual intertwine, depicting romantic devotion with a sense of religious reverence and operatic intensity; serpent’s latest album, DEACON (2021), sees him delve deeper into the nuances of intimacy with joyful abandon and newfound levity. From his gospel roots, serpent integrates baroque pop, soul, and R&B sensibilities to create a study of Black queer experience—one that departs from narratives of pain and loss and celebrates desire as sacred.

“Honoring tradition is another way to say thank you to my elders and ancestors,” serpent says, citing Nina Simone, Mary Lou Williams, and Harry T. Burleigh. “[They] reimagined form and style; it would be foolish for me not to ruminate on their music.”

serpent’s sound has garnered widespread critical acclaim and the attention of fellow musical innovator Björk Guðmundsdóttir. United by their reverence for the classics and penchant for experimentation, both artists draw on musical tradition to subvert and push the limits of genre. In 2019, they shared the stage for Björk’s Cornucopia tour, a series of multimedia performances that saw her backed by the 50-person Hamrahlíð Choir, which was partly responsible for her early musical education in Iceland.

With a sonic palette spanning avant-garde pop to trip-hop and Icelandic folk, Björk has become a pioneering force in experimental music over the course of her four-decade career. Integrating everything from birdsong recordings to flute ensembles, her constantly evolving oeuvre marries the electronic and organic to create a rich and unpredictable ecosystem of sound: songs that expand and contract, humming with life as her breathy yodel swells above unexpected chords or else weaves in and out of a mesmerizing digital soundscape.

In her 2011 concept album, Biophilia, Björk explores the interaction between music, technology, and the natural world—a lifelong interest and vital source of joy and balance in her own life. (In 2008, she partnered with an Icelandic venture capital firm on a fund for environmentally responsible companies.) “The days I manage to [spend entirely] in nature are sublime,” she tells serpent. “It gives me a sense of belonging…. It’s like your spirit, emotion, and body are forced to catch up with each other somehow.”

“I used to hate the concept of going with the flow. But now I live by it. Maybe ‘going with the flow’ is less about lacking ambition and more about staying in tune with the spirit and the body.”

Shirt, cardigan, and trousers by Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello. Hat and sunglasses serpent’s own.

Björk Guðmundsdóttir: Thanks for having this discussion with me. I want to say first what an incredible inspiration it was to get to know you, share musical ideas, drink bubbles in Harlem—and, oh my God, when you took me to the South Brooklyn Gospel Church, what the fuck! Just to be there in your presence and be allowed to witness, as a fly on the wall, a truly exuberant ceremony. I am forever grateful.

I’m still in awe that you took a month to sing with me for Cornucopia in New York. I listen to your music nonstop.

serpentwithfeet: Whoa, I love how much we explored New York. Those days were so amazing. We definitely knew how to find the fun!

Cornucopia was a dream. There is no way you could’ve told an 11-year-old me that I would have the chance to share a stage with you later in life. Every night during that concert, before I put my in-ears on, I pinched myself and quietly screamed backstage. That month was a true gift.

Björk: Could I ask you about the importance of sensuality in your music? And perhaps the weaving of sensuality and spirituality? I personally love where these two meet; it is a soft and wet coordinate [laughs]. It is rare but so rewarding when that happens.

serpent: I believe it’s important to consider desire and spirit at the same time. I want to live a full life; that means I must make space for the esoteric and the carnal. As far as marrying sensuality and spirituality, I love thinking about free movement. I used to hate the concept of going with the flow. But now I live by it. Maybe ‘going with the flow’ is less about lacking ambition and more about staying in tune with the spirit and the body. I’ve been working to be more intentional. I think fluff can get in the way of making great work.

Many of us spend too much time laughing at things we don’t find funny or pretending to have feelings that aren’t there. I often remind myself to be more incisive and honest. It’s helped my creative process for sure.

Björk: I am guilty of using music as a refuge to find sensuality and spirituality in everyday life. When all else fails, it can be an incredibly helpful crutch to help get you back on course. I try to add both [sensuality and spirituality] to the timbre of my voice, a secret target to probe with random success and failure.

“The days I manage to [spend entirely] in nature are usually sublime. It’s like your spirit, emotion, and body are forced to catch up with each other somehow.”

serpent: Outside of music, are there any hobbies that bring you great joy? Or a place you have to visit often?

Björk: I try to spend at least a couple of hours a day outdoors if I can. It gives me a sense of belonging and equilibrium. The days I manage to [spend entirely] in nature are usually sublime. It’s like your spirit, emotion, and body are forced to catch up with each other somehow. My friends and family are also extremely important to me. I have felt wonderful [even during] the pandemic being surrounded by them.

serpent: I love nature too. Hiking is one of my favorite activities for sure. I’ve also been dancing a lot more. I have so many TikTok videos saved because I intend to learn all the new moves.

You once told me that it’s important to let the pendulum swing when creating. You were saying that we don’t have to be bound to one way of making music. How do you prepare in between albums? What is the process like for creating new concepts? I love the idea of starting from scratch each time. I feel that. Every time I work on new music, I aim to surprise myself. I also try to read a lot of poetry between projects.

Björk: Perhaps because I started to do my own albums quite late—my first came out when I was 27, after being in bands for 14 years—I promise myself, before each album, to absolutely ‘tune to zero,’ or núllstilla, as we say in Iceland. Which kinda means to start from scratch or drop everything, to only bring to the table what you are at that particular moment and leave all else behind. It seems cruel but, in the long run, that kind of emotional truth is kindest to everyone and helps you make the best music you are capable of at any time.

Do you have ways of warming up your voice? Is it a spiritual experience? The small humble prayer of the day?

serpent: I don’t know if I have any special warm-ups. But I tend to sing along to anything, no matter where I am. My favorite place is the grocery store. I could walk around for an hour and just sing along to whatever’s playing on the speakers. You know how they have Carpool Karaoke? I would love to do grocery store karaoke.

Björk: [Laughs] Count me in. The sound in supermarkets is actually very inviting for a voice, or at least for a little stroll on the trolley.

serpent: Back in 2017, you told me to make sure I have a Bluetooth speaker in my dressing room before shows so that I could really let loose. So now, before my performances, I have my speaker with me and sing so obnoxiously. I love it.

Björk: I am always trying to unite my yoga and my vocal warm-up somehow, but I’m still failing. That should definitely exist; can someone invent it please?

Here is a question from the magazine: What is your relationship with different types of self-exploration, such as experimenting with your creative work or sexual identity? Are there aspects of yourself you feel can only be explored alone?

Top and pants by Homme Plissé Issey Miyake. Hat, sunglasses, and socks serpent’s own. Bracelet by Cartier. Shoes by Ermenegildo Zegna XXX.

serpent: I spend a lot of time having creative meetings with myself. I’m constantly relearning myself. And it’s fun. The solitude is great. But it’s very important for me to collaborate too. I learn so much from other people. I need community, and I don’t ever want to lose that.

Remember in 2016 when you did a studio coaching session with me for my song ‘penance’?

I recorded at least 30 takes of that song, and you gave me notes on each take. Then we had lunch and recorded more takes. I learned so much from that, and I am beyond grateful that you wanted to take that time with me so early in my career.

I also really enjoyed the creative process for DEACON. I knew I wanted the album and visuals to feel sweet. But I didn’t realize how much the process just needed to be fun. My team and I spent so much time laughing on set, and I think it colored the work.

Björk: Yes, you can definitely feel that. It is loose and sublimely sunny, very open and genuinely happy. Perhaps your New York music was more ‘serious’? I mean, I love both. I listen to a lot of serious music at home, but it’s super important to have room for deep joy and humor too. Oh my God, having you fill my living room with your wonderful voice that day was such an honor and pleasure!

I feel the speed or tempo of my sexual life sometimes gets mirrored in my songs, unknowingly? Or perhaps it sometimes becomes the opposite, if that makes any sense. Either way it seems to be connected. I have always walked a lot outdoors alone and that solitude is where I form most of my melodies. And, to be honest, 80 percent of my albums are me editing on my own, on my laptop. But one million percent agree with you on the importance of working with people. I learn so much from collaborators, and it keeps me humble and open, and saves me from myself.

serpent: You have such incredible style. What has been the most fun thing to wear over the years? May you tell me about that?

Björk: Oh my God, thank you. What a compliment, especially coming from you. For some reason nothing comes to mind? Maybe buying clogs at an airport in Holland as a present for a friend—very bad humor, sorry—then running through a whole terminal to the gate, pretending to almost miss a flight? Or when I made the cover of an Icelandic business magazine as a rich lady, and my best friend and I bought meters of plastic pearls and weaved them around our necks and went bar-hopping in downtown Reykjavík, paying for our drinks with them, moaning, ‘Ohhhh, I’m so rich!’ That was fun, but I guess you kinda had to be there.

serpent: [Laughs] Using plastic pearls as currency sounds like something I need to try! What I wore for the DEACON album cover was so comfortable and it made me feel so grown. I could wear that entire outfit every day.

Groomer Anna Bernabe at The Wall Group. Production Director Madeleine Kiersztan at Ms4 Production.