Bartees Strange Is 2020’s Breakout Indie Star

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Bartees Cox, Jr. — an instinctive pleaser who learned as a child to quickly assimilate while moving from home to home frequently — remembers the moment when Bartees Strange — a rambunctious, extroverted indie-rocker — was born. It is not a happy memory.

At the time he was a teenager living outside of Tulsa. His father worked in the military, and his mother was an opera singer. Before the age of 12, he had lived in England (where he was born), Germany, Greenland, and various points in the United States before settling in Oklahoma. His rootless childhood made him adaptable to various communities and social situations. But it also caused an identity crisis. Who was he, exactly? Did he really know his true self, or was he merely a series of affable facades designed to keep him protected in uncertain situations?

“I’ve never talked to anyone about this,” Strange confided during a phone conversation earlier this month, “because when I was in high school I was a pretty depressed person. And I tried to kill myself by taking a bunch of pills. I went downstairs the next day — I didn’t die obviously — and my mom, she says, ‘Oh, you look strange.’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And then I just went to football practice.

“That was where Bartees Strange originated,” he added softly. “That interaction and me being glad I didn’t die, and taking on this new focus of just really living my life the way I want and not putting limitations on myself just because someone may see me in one way.”

In 2020, the 31-year-old singer-songwriter has defined himself as one of most exciting emerging artists in indie by releasing two startling albums. In March, he put out Say Goodbye To Pretty Boy, a collection of mostly covers by one of his favorite bands, The National, plus a handful of excellent originals. In Strange’s hands, The National’s nervy, cinematic dirges are transformed — “Lemonworld” is remade as a melodramatic emo-rock anthem, and “All The Wine” becomes a glitchy, atmospheric electro-ballad. All the while, Strange’s casual prolificacy with melding guitar rock with R&B, hip-hop, and EDM styles is stunningly showcased.

Strange takes this approach even further with Live Forever, an album written entirely by Strange that he considers his proper debut. While Live Forever clocks in at a relatively brisk 36 minutes, it feels more epic than that, moving from the rousing synth-rock of “Mustang” to the murky space-soul of “Mossblerd” to the rambling, desolate folk of “Far.” It’s a showcase for an artist who seems equally capable of sounding like The National, Frank Ocean, James Blake, or the dozens of artists that fit in the wide-open space between those reference points.

On the eve of Live Forever‘s release, the Washington D.C.-based Strange is brimming with confidence, sounding like a man liberated from a life he did not want — before becoming a musician, he held an administrative position in the Obama administration — who now finds himself, finally, on his proper path.

“I see bands The National and I’m like, ‘These dudes, they’ve got families and relationships and great friendships and they tour the world and they make whatever they want. I want that.’ It took me years to be able to say it without feeling foolish but I aspire to that. I feel like I’m entitled to that.”

Why did you put out a covers album before Live Forever?

The National thing happened super organically. I was actually shopping Live Forever when I was meeting Brassland. I had the idea for The National thing, and I’d literally just gone to the show at The Anthem. I just pitched the idea pretty blindly. And I think two weeks later I sent him pretty much the whole EP. I called [my manager] Jamie and I was like, “Maybe we should rethink everything because nobody knows who I am and this might be a good way for people to get an understanding for me and my story and what I’m trying to do before my record comes out.”

Do you think reinterpreting someone else’s songs will influence your own songwriting?

I mean, it definitely allowed me to try some things. I love beatmakers and I love dance music and I love house music. That’s actually one of the reasons why I love The National so much, because of Aaron Dessner’s integration of low-tempo rhythmic electronic shit, I love that stuff so much. And I’d always wanted to make more songs that leaned on that and so with “About Today” and “All the Wine” and a lot of the songs on Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy, I was like, “Yeah, let’s explore this.” I’m producing my next record now, and there’s a lot of that Say Goodbye To Pretty Boy feel on those songs, mixed with all the rock stuff I do.

There’s a cliche about debut albums that artists spend their whole life up to that point writing them. Had you been thinking for a long time about what Live Forever would ultimately sound like?

A couple of his songs are definitely like that. I can listen to my songs and hear shit I was doing when I was 14 years old, you know? You’re just watching these songs grow with you. “Mustang” and “Boomer” and “Stone Meadows,” those rock songs, I’ve been picking at those songs for years but never really figured out what they were supposed to do until I had the unifying vision for what I wanted the record to be. “Mustang,” the first time I wrote that song it sounded like Gene Autry, super slow, big drawl. That was when I was 20 years old, first picking on that song. And then other songs like “Flagey God” and “Mossblerd,” “Ghostly,” “Far,” those songs I wrote specifically for this, that I had when I was in other bands and I was like, “No, I’m going to sit on this one for a while, I’m going to use that.”

Aesthetically, you’re working in many different genres and making them fit together. How deliberate were you about that? Was that a conscious goal — to make this musically omnivorous album – you had going into the project?

It’s funny that you phrase it that way, because I’ve always thought of it the other way. I hear this song one way, a rock song with a hip-hop verse and a pop chorus, but no one’s going to get that so I need to just make it a rock song. I’ve always tried to walk myself back to make it more digestible for other people. And with this record I was just like, “I’m just going to make the stuff I like. These are the sounds that come natural to me.” I never go into the song thinking, “Oh, I want to rap on this and then sing on the chorus and then have a country outro.” I just write it and I take a bunch of shots at it. I remember looking at the record at the end and I was super intimidated by it. I remember we recorded “Boomer,” I didn’t want to record that song because I thought it was too much and I’m really glad we did. But it’s a part of the record thematically, too, letting yourself be yourself, letting yourself shine through.

Can you elaborate on that? What was it about “Boomer” that initially made you unsure about putting it on the record?

Because of the outro. I thought people would think it was corny. I loved it. I thought it showed that I didn’t take myself too seriously. I felt like it was true to who I am, where I’m from, the people I’m from. It’s just like a punk gospel country outro on top of a Thao & the Get Down Stay Down chorus and a DaBaby style rap verse, like starting right on the one when the song starts.

You’ve talked about how you moved around a lot has a kid. How do you think that shaped the person you became?

It taught me how to fit in quickly. If I wanted to have friends I needed to quickly assimilate. I’ve told my partner this all the time: There was a period of time really up until my mid-20s where I don’t think I even knew what I liked or enjoyed. I just did the things that I felt would fit me into the communities I thought I needed to be in. It was a way to stay safe and to keep my head down, you know? And I feel like that was something I learned moving all over the world, which is you get there, you figure out what people are into, and you do that. And that just makes it easier on everybody. I think that’s a good thing and a bad thing, in a way.

How did you finally get over that? Was there a turning point for you where you were like, “Well, I don’t want to just fit in, I want to be myself.”

When I was in Oklahoma I did everything I could possibly do to get out. Everyone knows me as a musician but in college I interned a lot. I was the kid who had internships every semester, working a full-time job, going to school full-time. I was dead set on finding a way out of there. And I got an internship in D.C. and just hit the ground running, I had a really hard time here just getting money and getting my first job and finding a place to stay. I was homeless here for a little while, just slugging it out, trying to make things work. And then I got a job that led to another job that was ideally like my dream job: I was working in the Obama administration, I was a press secretary at the FCC, I was working on net neutrality. All of these things that I thought I wanted and I just absolutely hated it and I hated myself. It was so miserable and I knew that I wanted to be playing music and I knew that I wasn’t letting myself because of all these, honestly, genres. All of these things that I told myself I’m supposed to be, or this person I’m supposed to become. And I quit that job about as fast as I got it and moved to New York and started playing in bands all the time.

You’ve talked about how genres can be limiting, and how you’ve always heard music as a combination of different sounds from different places. As a Black artist working in the indie sphere, do you feel especially susceptible to being narrowly classified? It seems that Black artists are almost automatically called R&B or hip-hop, regardless of what their music actually sounds like.

Yeah. And I feel like narrow definitions translate into actually painful realities. For example, growing up the only Black people I saw on TV were rappers. It was a crime, it was some horrible news story. It wasn’t always a super positive connotation, as much as I love hip-hop and everything around it. I think it’s powerful and super empowering, but it limits your worldview of what you think you can do with your life. I didn’t know any Black kids that were studying abroad or doing anything like that. I had a very narrow vision of what I could accomplish because of what I had seen.

I attribute a lot of that to genres, what’s being fed to us and how people are categorized. There’s a part in “Mossblerd” when I start talking about my nephew and I’m watching him, he’s just running around Hidden Valley, selling drugs, toting a gun. He’s 16 years old, he saw that on TV. He’s been fed that that’s his place in the world, is to be that person. And I feel like genres have a big role to play in that and how Black people see themselves and what we’re told we can accomplish and where we fit in.

So that song is about that, how in the industry, genres, they keep us in our boxes. I’m basically saying Tyler The Creator, he put out a pop record, the best fucking pop record to come out in 10 years, and he’s getting classified as this urban artist and it’s hitting his pockets. I think about stuff like that. It’s interesting. I think I’m still playing around with those ideas, how to clearly draw the line between genres and representation and how it actually matriculates into day-to-day life for the people who look up to these people. I did my best to explain that clearly, but it’s still hard for me to explain.

There’s such a long history about that thing you’re talking about, how genres are defined by race. I wrote a book a couple of years ago about classic rock history, and there’s a chapter about how classic rock radio, when that first started, just defined what classic rock was along racial lines. There were virtually no Black artists on classic rock radio. And it’s like, why aren’t the Isley Brothers on classic rock radio? Why isn’t Stevie Wonder on classic rock radio?

Or The Gap Band.

Ernie Isley is an incredible guitar player! One of the greatest of all time.

Of all time.

Or Funkadelic. Who from the ’70s rocks harder than Funkadelic?

Or fucking Rick James, man. I look at Rick James and Led Zeppelin, I’m like, “Yo, Rick James was a monster.” All those bands. It’s interesting to look at Diana Ross, and if you just thought of her as a singer/songwriter and you just put her right up next to Stevie Nicks. Their records, I feel like, are evaluated completely differently. Looking at her as an R&B queen or a disco queen, I feel like it limits the breadth of her genius. Like all of these people, it puts them in a little weird box.

Live Forever is out October 2 on Memory Music. Get it here.