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2020 Was Bartees Strange’s Year

December 02, 2020

By Jerry Cowgill, December 02, 2020

Bartees Strange’s introduction to the music scene has been a measure of defiance. Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy, an EP of reimagined covers of The National, was the first taste of this new artist. It was released on March 13, or otherwise known as the last good day of 2020. His debut album, Live Forever, was released a few months later, and at a time when the music industry was in complete uncertainty. Despite a climate where artists at every level are navigating financial uncertainty without touring, Strange quit his day job and fully devoted himself to the industry. It can be said that Strange is one of the few good things to come out of this hellish year.

Shuffling around as a military kid, Strange, whose birth name is Bartees Cox Jr, spent much of his upbringing melding into whatever environment he found himself in, and he shares those experiences on Live Forever. Born in England, he did stints in Oklahoma, New York, and Kansas before settling in Washington D.C. Every musical experience—from singing opera with his mother as a kid, playing in hardcore bands in the Midwestern emo scene, growing up plucking country licks on the guitar, and eventually planting roots in D.C punk—led to the pioneering vision he put forth in his debut. Oftentimes, Strange masterfully glides between a myriad of these genres in a single song.

Just a week after the debut of Live Forever, Strange joined me via video from a secluded forest with a few friends. There he was already hard at work on his next project at a studio in Maine, and thankful for the hiatus from his quarantine in his D.C. apartment.

Do you consider yourself a beer guy?
Yeah, I drink beer pretty often. 

What’s your go-to?
I like Newcastle. I like brown ales. I like Spaten a lot. But, my walk around beer is probably a Stella.

What beer would pair well with Live Forever?
Oh my god, I would say it’s Mmmhops, the beer that the Hansons put out in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It tastes great.

It’s been a few weeks since releasing your debut, which has been getting national attention and was named Best New Music at Pitchfork. How are you feeling after the immensely positive reception?
I'm still really surprised. You know, me and my friends made it by ourselves. We tracked it in a barn and we mixed it. We tried to get people to take the record, and very few people were interested, but the team that we've built around it is really good. I'm just overwhelmed and grateful that people responded to it the way they have and that people keep sharing it so that, when we get back on the road, it'll still be timely and appropriate. I'm excited about being able to play those songs live.

You’ve never had the chance to properly tour any of your Bartees Strange material. Are you eager to get on the road? 
I’m pretty eager to get on the road, but, you know, safely. I don't want to go first. I want to let some other people go in and then be like, ‘How was it?’ Haha.

It may be that it's not the most strategic thing to put a record out during a pandemic, but, to people, it might be the most meaningful thing to do.”

The music industry is in complete turmoil, yet you were able to put out your first record and get national recognition. What have you learned from this unique positioning, starting your career in one of the industry’s unstable periods?
I've learned that there's always a reason not to do something. When you think about music and putting it out, there are two ways to think about it. You've got the industry side: Is it smart? What’s strategic? But then you also have what people are going through on a day-to-day basis and how much music means to people, regardless of everything else. I think about other tough moments in history, like the civil rights movement, Vietnam War, World War I, or World War II. People were making music, selling music, playing shows, and people were connecting. It may be that it's not the most strategic thing to put a record out during a pandemic, but, to people, it might be the most meaningful thing to do. I think that people are connecting to it because people see themselves in it. If I put it out after the pandemic, or before it, who knows, maybe it wouldn’t connect the same way. That's something I've been thinking about a lot. 

As touring is cut, most of the income of musicians has disappeared, resulting in artists trying to find new ways to survive. Meanwhile, you quit your day job and committed yourself fully to music. How have the first few months been going? 
They've been good. I'm doing some producing stuff for artists. I work in a studio now, so I'm getting bands, producing, and mixing records. I've been able to keep up the cash flow, but we'll see what happens. I know it's risky, but I've worked in the nonprofits and justice space for 12 years now, so I feel like if things get tough, I can always find something to do. I can always fall back on something. It's a risk, but a calculated one.

Has the situation we’re in right now affected the timeline of you quitting and doing music full-time?
Yeah, I mean the pandemic honestly made me do it faster. When you go to work every day, you’re giving that job a lot. Forty hours a week every week, that's your life, you know, that's time. I wanted to dedicate my time to myself for once. I felt like now is the time where I can truly own all of my time. I don't have any kids, I don't have a mortgage, I'm scrappy. I want to use all the time that I have to build this thing and make it what I hope it can be. I was just like, ‘I'm not coming out of this pandemic and going back to the office. I'm not going to use this time to just go back to the shit that I don't want to do.’ 

The inspiration for your EP of National covers came from seeing the lack of diversity while attending one of their shows. In your view, what steps can the industry as a whole take to rectify these issues and create more inclusive spaces?
If you look at these big labels that are pushing the culture in indie rock or the independent spaces, there are just very few Black people working on those labels. The Black people who are on those labels, they're not supported the same way that some of the mainstream white bands are. It’s pretty simple, I think it starts there. Your whole A&R team can't just be white guys, it has to be more representative of what's actually going on. That means more women. That means more trans people. That means more Black people, more brown people, more of everyone. I think it's the same way with signings. I'm seeing a lot of my friends who are Black getting signed now, which is great, but they're still like one of three people on a 50 person roster. That number needs to be a lot higher. 

A good parallel to this is like in the early 2000s or even in the '90s, hip-hop really took off as the culture creator of the Western Hemisphere of the world. It was a calculated decision to let Black people own that space and really do what they wanted to do to it. There are a lot of Black label executives in hip-hop. They're able to curate that genre and make it something that's always pushing culture, and the rock space is gonna have the same wave.

Your debut came out a week ago and you’re already in the studio working on more songs. 
Yeah, I got here the day that the record came out.

In what ways will the project you’re working on now be different than Live Forever?
It sounds like Fleetwood Mac, it's just totally different. I was like, ‘Fuck, everyone expects a TV on the Radio or Bloc Party record again,’ but it will probably sound like a Fleetwood Mac record. 

I don't know if anybody can really put assumptions on what's next for you yet, so I think it'll be a nice surprise, whatever happens. 
Yes, that's the hope. That’s the goal. Honestly, I just want to make what I want to make. Hopefully, people just like me enough to support it.

Photo by Julia Leiby

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