Artist To Watch: Bartees Strange

Julia Leiby

Artist To Watch: Bartees Strange

Julia Leiby

Meet the exciting genre-jumping DC musician and hear his new single "Kelly Rowland"

“You know, I’ve always been kind of busy,” Bartees Strange says over the phone. He pauses for a second, underscoring just how much of an understatement “busy” is — the Washington DC-based musician was, until late August, holding down a full-time day job directing communications and marketing at a climate change non-profit, all while releasing an EP and slowly trickling out singles from his debut full-length. That record, the staggeringly bold and beautiful Live Forever, is still a few weeks from its early October release date, but Strange is already pressing forward: He’s kept busy during the pandemic by writing and gathering inspiration for a follow-up. When Live Forever finally drops, he’ll be in the studio, tracking album two. “I just gotta keep moving,” he offers by way of explanation.

He quickly laughs off the comment, but his sheepishness belies a deeper sense of wonder he expresses repeatedly over the course of our conversation. Despite the growing support for his singles and the mammoth praise he’s justifiably received from Say Goodbye To Pretty Boy, his monumental EP of the National covers, the notion that he could pursue music for a living still feels novel and slightly untouchable. “It took me a long time to realize that I could build whatever world I wanted. I didn’t have to wait for someone to pick me,” he explains. “That was something that I never believed about myself until I made this record.”

Strange may not have envisioned success as a full-time musician until relatively recently, but music and live performance were constants in his life from a young age. The son of a military man and an opera singer, Bartees Cox Jr. was born in Ipswich, England and spent his earliest years traveling for his parents’ careers, making stops in Greenland, Germany, and several states across the US before settling in Mustang, Oklahoma, an overwhelmingly white bedroom community outside Oklahoma City. There, he began traveling around the state with his mother and siblings, performing in operas and singing in churches. Just how prolific were they? “If you asked 100 people in Oklahoma if they had heard Donna, Cory, Bartees, or Jordan Cox sing in a church, 25 of them would probably say yes,” Strange says with confidence.

If a childhood spent touring with the Oklahoma City Circuit Opera Company performing Gilbert and Sullivan might seem unusual, its peculiarity didn’t occur to Strange at first. “My vision of what a normal life was always included a really robust musical component. I was around so many artists and singers and piano players. I kind of just thought that’s how everyone was when I was young.” A 2002 article from The Oklahoman confirms this: “Donna Cox appears with her son,” the paper boasted, listing then-13-year-old Bartees’ multiple previous appearances. “Opera is for everyone,” his mother remarked at the time.

Those decades of vocal training shine through from the first notes of Live Forever: Backed by warbling synths, Strange traverses the octaves of opener “Jealousy” with ease, the thundering rumble of his lower register erupting like lava into his featherlight falsetto. “Come to a place where everything’s everything,” he sings, holding the final note like an open invitation. It’s a strikingly vulnerable introduction to the world of Bartees Strange, but one that reveals a life steeped in singing, one that made music an inevitability even as it seemed professionally out of reach.

But it was outside the confines of opera camp that Strange found the music that sparked his creative output. Having spent much of his childhood relocating to vastly different cities, he rapaciously consumed new music to quickly adapt to his changing surroundings. “Especially as a Black person, you just learn how to adapt and fit in and soak in the things happening around you,” he says. It was in the quotidian banalities of his millennial adolescence in Mustang — AOL Instant Messenger conversations, FIFA soundtracks — that he discovered bands like Bloc Party and TV On The Radio, crucial examples of colossal rock bands made up of Black and brown folks. “I remember when TV On The Radio played on Letterman, I literally taped over some church sermon and watched that thing over and over,” he says wistfully. “Those bands changed my life.”

The lead single from Live Forever, the aptly titled “Mustang,” captures that youthful exuberance and turns it up to 11. It’s hard to understate the power of its gleaming synth motif, a punch of quicksilver notes that recur like a victory lap before each chorus. “Is anybody really up for this one/ If I don’t hold nothing back!” he belts in its refrain, nailing arena-ready hooks even as he questions if anyone would even want to hear them. Strange’s trained vocal control is obvious, his yelp receding to a tempered growl to let driving guitars reclaim focus in the song’s verses. That sense of risking and hedging, of advancing and retreating, evokes Dear Science performed at the edge of a cliff: ecstatic ambition and sky-high riffs, reigned in only by the stakes at hand.

It was a similar search for representation in rock that led Strange to Say Goodbye To Pretty Boy, an EP of five covers that reimagine the National’s songs in his own image. Struck by the lack of diversity at a National concert in DC, he sought to carve out representation through reclamation. Rather than note-perfect covers, the EP envisions the National’s brooding “Lemonworld” as a bubbling synth pop song and the darkly charged “All The Wine” as an intimate moment of self-reflection.

That EP also marked a new sound for Strange, one driven by downtempo drum beats and pulsing synths. Working in electronic music is nothing new for a musician who began producing beats for other artists on the side years ago as one of his many hustles in the industry. But Live Forever marks a shift away from the heavily guitar-driven folk and rock he’s released under his own moniker and towards a broader conception of what Bartees Strange can be. Those early AIM conversations, it turns out, were also an introduction to producers like Burial and Jai Paul, whose influences loom large on Live Forever. “Flagey God” is a driving four-on-the-floor heart accented with shuffling beats; “Ghostly” vibrates with a constellation of synths that give way to thumping percussion.

“I want to have that type of career where I can just kind of move among spaces and do whatever I want in all of them,” he says after relaying his Aaron Dessner-inspired fantasies of DJing and producing for other artists. Live Forever simmers with that tension, vacillating between measured self-doubt and unbounded fantasy. His album’s latest single “Kelly Rowland,” out today, is a solipsistic exploration of the latter, filled with plush synths and lyrical bravado: designer jewelry, candy-sweet kisses, “Versace dreams. “‘Kelly Rowland’ is my peak hedonistic dream, if I had no rules,” he elaborates. “I was in Berlin, and I saw the most beautiful, talented, wealthy, amazing people, we partied all night and danced all night. And I was like, ‘I cannot believe people live every day like this.'” As he did with the National, Strange manifested his dream world by writing himself into it: “It’s this hyper-idealized vision of what I wish I could be, for a moment.”

Cross-genre experimentation has become somewhat of a calling card for Strange; “Mossblerd,” a shuddering and shuffling hip-hop cut, finds him expounding on precisely those artificial boundaries: “Keep us in our boxes, keep us all from commas,” he says, his voice heavy with the weight of external expectations. In reality, he seems amused by critical attempts to rationalize the multifaceted nature of his sound. “I think that everything I make is the same, because it all comes out of me.”

His emphasis on self-reliance stems from years of feeling misunderstood by other producers and engineers in the recording studio: “OK, I kind of have to learn to do all of this stuff by myself,” he realized eventually. “I gotta learn how to build patches, I need to learn sequencing, I need to learn how to build analog kick drums, how to really sound design and lock things to the grid and make it sound the way I’m hearing it in my head.”

Even still, he admits he had doubts about recording “Boomer,” the record’s whip-smart second single, which breathlessly traverses post-punk basslines, Southern-fried solos, and rap bravado without missing a beat. “I’m gonna get laughed out of the gym. No one’s gonna get it,” Strange recalls thinking at the time. But his co-engineer and bassist Brian DiMeglio insisted. “I remember playing it back for the first time, and I was like, ‘This is a great song, I’m an idiot. I should have just wrote 10 of those.'”

That interaction exemplifies the network of support Strange has slowly been building over the past half-decade. As someone who has spent half his life performing in bands ranging from post-rock to country, he’s developed a persistence and a patience that in turn led him to eager collaborators for his solo releases. Live Forever was actually completed over a year ago, in June 2019. “I think back to the conversations we were having a year and a half ago, and people liked us but just didn’t know where to place it,” he says.

But the wait paid off: Strange found the ideal partner in post-hardcore heavyweight Will Yip, who mastered the record and will be releasing it on his Memory Music imprint. Where most casual fans likely know Yip from his seminal work with bands like Balance And Composure and Circa Survive, it’s clear that Strange sees a kindred spirit in Yip’s diligence and range across genres: “In talking to him, it was just very natural. He could see how I thought these things come together, and he wanted to be a part of that — making music that was bigger than one thing.” Yip echoes that cosmic connection: “It feels right to my soul,” he says. “This music is a microcosm of everything I’m into, thrown into one project.”

Strange seems keenly aware that he is that very pillar of representation he once sought out in his musical heroes. “I’d love if there was a Black kid in Mustang, Oklahoma, or Muskogee, or Waxahachie, or Tecumseh, and when they hear my record, they feel like, ‘Oh, I can do that shit too.'” Though he’s exceedingly humble when he recounts the growing indicators of his professional success, he knows well that his debut is an indelible statement. Even its title is a declaration of permanence — “I felt like when I figured out the type of music I wanted to make, there was such a concreteness to it, and I had so much clarity, like I knew exactly what I wanted it to be and it just felt so immovable,” he says. “I was like, this is gonna live forever.”

His drive to build up other musicians isn’t lip service; after wrapping up at the non-profit, Strange is starting this fall as a producer at a studio in DC. He has bands booked through the rest of the year, and though he can’t divulge his future clients, his giddy energy is palpable through the phone. “Next year there will be a bunch of records out that I produced,” he says, almost in disbelief. “I can’t wait.”

His new gig is yet another manifestation of what he’s discovered along the route to Live Forever: If existing paradigms don’t work for you, create your own. “That’s the message of the record,” he says. “Black people, women, queer people, trans people, people who are underrepresented in the industry or are in systems that have worked against you — we can build new systems, we can build new things, and people will meet us there.”

Live Forever

Live Forever is out 10/2 on Memory Music. Pre-order it here.

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