Love is in the air for serpentwithfeet. Sometimes literally. The 32-year-old experimental R&B singer’s second full-length album DEACON is all about Black gay romance, and on his latest single “Heart Storm,” that represents a force powerful enough to split open the skies. “Boy, when you and I get together, ’xpect some wicked weather,” he sings in the opening line.
“It’s about the ways that I feel, and I’m sure many other people feel, when you have a great relationship with your partner, and you feel like the world or the atmosphere is constantly responding to it,” he tells GRAZIA. “Your love is so powerful that it causes storms.”
The video for the track, which we’re premiering here exclusively, is a bit of a departure from Serpent’s recent clips. It’s a stripped down, minimalist reflection of the serene “deacon energy” he wanted to harness on the album, featuring just Serpent and English singer-songwriter Nao, with whom he wrote the track. Check it out below, along with our exclusive conversation.
GRAZIA: “Heart Storm” is the third single from DEACON. Why’s you decide to release this song when you did?
serpentwithfeet: Well, there’re so many different reasons. One of the reasons is, I love an R&B slow jam, and “Heart Storm” is that. And I’m also really excited that I got to work with Nao. I wanted to share it, I wanted to push it, because the song meant a lot to me and a lot went into it—into making the song.
Of course, it’s a duet with Nao, and you also co-wrote the song together. Tell me about working with her. How did that come about?
Yeah, I’ve known Nao for a few years now. We had been talking about working together for a while, and I am featured on a song on her album, and I asked her to be on a song on mine. Which was a lot of fun. We have a lot of fun working together. We just wanted something that felt grown. That’s how we came up with “Heart Storm.” Just talking through it and it’s where we landed.
What kind of conversations did the two of you have while writing the song? Were there certain themes, certain things on both of your minds that you connected over?
I don’t have so much to say about that, to be honest.
Does that extend to what the song is about? Can we talk about that?
Yeah, I…am interested in magical realism. And I love the idea of thinking about how… I enjoy writing in hyperbole. The first line is, “Boy, when you and I get together, ’xpect some wicked weather.” It’s about the ways that I feel, and I’m sure many other people feel, when you have a great relationship with your partner, and you feel like the world or the atmosphere is constantly responding to it. Your love is so powerful that it causes storms, the skies are cracking open. That’s the sort of wonder I was thinking about. This is a storm that we welcome. You know, the angels will sing about it, the lightning can’t help but dance when you and I look at each other. And so, that is sort of, I guess, my little dance with magical realism in the song.
Talk to me about the concept for the video. What did you want people to feel when then watch it?
Well, it’s a really simple video. It’s a performance video. And we just wanted something that felt really simple. I think my previous videos were so much about location, and this one just departed from that idea. Super simple, super stripped back.
You’ve called DEACON “a study rather than a story.” What do you mean by that?
I think oftentimes people may think that albums have a sort of black-and-white storyline. Sometimes that is the case for certain albums. This album wasn’t that. In most of my projects, I’m more interested in understanding the energy of a thing. That has always been the case with all my projects, and this one the same is true. I wanted to understand what I call “the deacon energy.” I wanted to understand what it means to be calm and self-possessed and how, some people, when they walk, they just seem to…just have all the assistance of the breeze. [Laughs] There’s, like, a certain airiness about them. I just wanted to understand that energy sonically. It was more of an energetic study.
That’s interesting. We were talking about storms, and I feel like the calm energy you’re talking about, and even the simplicity of the “Heart Storm” video kind of contrasts with the wildness of a storm.
I don’t see it so much as a contrast, because after a storm, during a storm you get a lot of wind a lot of breeze. I think the way that the song is written, there’s no heavy drums, there’s no evident pulse in “Heart Storm,” which was all intentional.
You wanted to exclude songs about heartbreak from the album. Why did you want to do that?
I just didn’t fit the palette for this project. Like I said, I’m really interested in getting the vibe right for the albums. I don’t know that I’ve ever gone into anything trying to tell a beginning-middle-end story. I’m more so interested in trying to understand a space or location or a mood. So, I know how to write heartbreak songs. I know how to write songs about disappointment. But that wasn’t the space for this project. It just wasn’t appropriate.
So, do you just sort of cordon off those feelings — the kind of things that would inspire a sad song? Or are you writing those at the same time and just saving them for later?
No, I think…I like to get in a certain headspace when I’m working. I think I’m pretty disciplined with the things I allow myself to read. Different people work differently, but for me, I get kind of super focused on an idea during album season— you know, album-making season, rather. I only want to focus on that sort of thing. I enjoyed reading a lot about romantic love and things that felt a bit more buoyant. Where on previous albums, I would read a lot of things about enormous grief or heartbreak, or trying to understand the intricacies of romantic relationships. I try to use language that can be of great assistance to what I’m trying to do. That’s always my pursuit. It’s not up to me to decide if I accomplished it or not. That’s the audience’s job — to decide if it worked or not.
Do you mind sharing some of the stuff that you read while working on DEACON?
I feel like I’m constantly reading Yrsa Daley-Ward’s Bone. I was reading Jericho Brown’s The New Testament. I was reading In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology, and just finding poems that felt loving. Poems that described the Black gay love experience in a way that I felt could — well, just because I enjoy reading them! I think, when I read other writers who talk about love in such a specific way, it gives me a lot of tools. I felt really supported during this project. I felt like I could really be myself. And maybe that’s, like, a very silly thing to say, because I’ve always felt like I could be myself.
I think a lot of people who don’t write songs often assume that a songwriter is writing autobiographically. But it sounds like you’re saying you don’t necessarily do that. You draw inspiration from works in other mediums.
I don’t think I’m every really responding to someone else’s specific work. I didn’t read a poem or a passage and say, “Ooh, I’m gonna write about this!” That didn’t happen on this project. But…I have three songs named after men on the album. They aren’t named after real men. But again, thinking about the energetic thing. “Derek’s Beard,” thinking about when I’m dating a guy, or someone’s dating a guy who has a great beard and you miss the fuzziness of it, and it’s three o’clock in the morning and he has to be at work at 10am, but you’re like, “Can you please come over?” You just have that moment when you’re pining. Thinking about that particular thing. I’ve never texted a guy at 3am named Derek, but I think many of us know that feeling when you’re missing your partner and you know they have to be up early and you don’t want to be inconsiderate. Things like that. I’m thinking about scenarios…yeah, a lot of it’s fictional, but I think it’s based in some sort of truth.