Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Photo: Julia Leiby

From unknown to everywhere: Bartees Strange on being the musical success story of 2020

Photo: Julia Leiby
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

It’s rare for an artist to go from being unknown to becoming one of the most talked-about indie artists of the year within months, but Bartees Cox—who goes by the moniker Bartees Strange—has achieved just that. Strange introduced the world to his solo work with his EP Say Goodbye To Pretty Boy on March 13, 2020, a collection of reimagined The National covers. But even a month before the EP’s release, Paramore’s Hayley Williams tweeted that she was sold within the first few seconds into listening to Strange’s rendition of “About Today.” And the endorsements kept piling on: Upon the EP’s release, Strange gained Ryan Reynolds and The National’s Matt Berninger as fans.

But what turned Strange into one of the top artists of 2020 was his debut LP, Live Forever. It’s a genre-bending record that takes influences from folk, country, house music, and rap. It’s unlike any other release from last year, with each song feeling like its own world while still fitting perfectly with the other tracks. The record made it onto nearly every major year-end list, and the possibilities for Strange’s career appear vast, indeed. The A.V. Club talked to Strange over Zoom about the intimidating process of picking a new label, the big song that almost didn’t make it on the LP, and his FIFA soundtrack goals.

The A.V. Club: It’s wild to think that less than a year after you released your debut LP, you’re now in the position where you have your pick of whatever label you want for your next record. That’s a great predicament to be in, but quite a challenge. How’ve you been dealing with that?

Bartees Strange: It’s crazy. I just feel really grateful. This time last year, I was like, “Do I even put Live Forever out? Nobody knows who I am at all.” Now it’s the complete opposite. I guess the way I’m dealing with it is one day at a time; I’m doing a ton of research, because I’ve never had labels like these reach out. I’m just trying to make sure I know everything I need to know. And I’m watching out for red flags, trying to take care of myself and put my next two or three records in the best situation possible, because I’ve already got a lot of the music down that’s going to be coming out over the next few years—trying to figure out who’s gonna get to have it, who’s gonna get to push it.

AVC: You’ve already recorded enough music for the next few years? 

BS: Well, I have a ton of demos [that are] kind of done. If I wanted, I could record two and a half records now. So I’m just refining the demos and taking my time.

AVC: Your song “Mustang” recently played on Fortnite. How does the song come up in the game?

BS: My publisher, AJ Tobey, works at Rough Trade and he was like, “Yo, Fortnite reached out” and I was like, “That’s lit.” I’ve played Fortnite a few times. Basically, when you get in a car, there are radio stations in the car and you can swipe through them. “Mustang” is playing on the underground college station, you know, for the youth.

AVC: You’re one step closer to actually having your song in a Tony Hawk game.

BS: Oh my god. The dream is FIFA, or NBA2K or Tony Hawk.

AVC: The soundtracks to those Tony Hawk games were so formative for me. They have such great music.

BS: They really do. I remember growing up… My parents were super Christian, so I wasn’t listening to the radio that much. When I got Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1 that was like the first time I’d heard so many punk bands. I’d never heard any of them, virtually zero of them. I felt like that was a big deal, so it’s a big reason why I played a lot of Tony Hawk—because I wanted to hear the soundtrack.

AVC: What was your entryway to the music that shaped your own?

BS: My parents were super Christian, but they’re weirdos. My mom is an opera singer that also does a lot of Christian and soul stuff and my dad, he’s a music collector. He loves hi-fi audio equipment, speakers, and all that kind of stuff. And he loved R&B—old R&B, like Isley Brothers and Brothers Johnson. We always had a lot of records around the house. Even though I couldn’t listen to modern secular music, I definitely knew all secular music before 1991 that my parents were really into. I had a lot of funk. A lot of Prince, a lot of soul. A lot of Etta James.

When I was in middle school, people that were a couple of years older than me started getting cars. I had a friend who was just like, “Yo, let’s go to a show.” I’d never been to one. I don’t remember who was playing. But we went to a show and I remember it was like this hardcore punk show, there’s three bands. I’d never been in anything like it. But it was the first time that I felt like I could be myself. Because there were so many other people in the room that were so much weirder-looking than me. I was always the only Black person everywhere. But there, everyone looked crazy. I remember feeling like I could totally let my guard down. It also felt kind of like church in this way. It was like a super-high-energy peak, just very emotional. You can feel it in the air and my little seventh-grade brain… I was just like, “Oh, shit.” That was mine, it was something that I could go into by myself.

That’s why I went into [music]. I didn’t jump into it being like, “Oh, I want to be a guitar player.” I just wanted to go to shows. Then I saw At The Drive-In play on [The Late Show With David] Letterman. And then I saw them in real life, playing at The Green Room in Oklahoma City. I remember being completely shocked. Those guys changed my world. Seeing all those brown kids speaking Spanish and walking into a room full of white punks in Oklahoma City and just like, destroy us, and then just walk off the stage and go home… I was like, “Man, that was heavy.” I loved it.

From like seventh grade to college, there was a number of bands that just hit me; that made me feel like a human being, that I felt like I could see myself in the future. It was At The Drive-in, TV On The Radio, and Bloc Party. I remember watching that TV On The Radio performance, on Letterman, it might have been a rerun. They played “Wolf Like Me.” I remember grabbing a tape, and taping it as fast as I could, because I was like, “I’ve never seen anyone do something like this that looks like me in my life.” Something about the song “Wolf Like Me”… I was a loner when I was younger, and I felt like that—like a wolf, like a lonely person. They had huge impact on me in their career; it’s just always been something that I aspired to do. It’s the first time I felt like I could do it, when I saw them.

Then also with Bloc Party, I remember hearing “Helicopter” on FIFA, actually. I remember being like, “Yo, this is the hottest song ever.” And then searching around, trying to figure out what they looked like. They have Kele [Okereke], their lead singer and guitar player, and I was like, “Oh shit, another Black dude? This is amazing!” The wheels got turning and I was like, “I gotta get a guitar.” My parents got me one and I really went hard after I got that thing. I started learning everything.

AVC: Live Forever is such a hyper-specific album about growing up in Oklahoma. Were you initially concerned that people wouldn’t get it?

BS: Yeah, well, I never thought it would do what it did. I wanted to make something that I’ve always wanted to hear. The people that inspired me the most were people that I don’t think really cared if people knew exactly every detail of their life to understand the music.The biggest thing that really inspired me was Flower Boy, that Tyler [The Creator] record. When I heard it, I was like, “Oh, I can do whatever I want. This is actually a wild record.” As I wrote Live Forever, I felt like the sound was something that was nostalgic, but it was also really future- facing, too. That was also a reason why I put out that National EP right before it—because I wanted an on-ramp to my world, in a way. I was scared of the record. There are a lot of songs on the record that I didn’t want to record because I thought they were a little too much. Like “Boomer,” for example.

AVC: It’s funny you say “Boomer,” since it’s one of your biggest songs.

BS: I know. It’s the one song that I was like, “I don’t know if I want to record this one, it’s kind of weird.” Brian DiMeglio, the engineer, was like, “We’re not leaving until we record this song.” I’m glad that we did. That was a really good call. But I was intimidated by it. It felt very naked putting some of that out.

AVC: There’s so much going on in the lyrics, from you talking about getting high with your dad, to your own observations on your career. What’s the story behind it?

BS: There are a bunch of stories in the song. The big ethos of it is when I first moved to Brooklyn. I remember it was the first time I lived in a place where everyone was Black, and everyone was kind of like me. I had a really great community of artists that I was around and an amazing neighborhood that I felt like I was a part of. I was making some of the best music I’d ever made. I felt like I finally stepped into myself, and could be my full self, a person I couldn’t be when I was growing up in Oklahoma, or even the first time I was in D.C., when I was still trying to figure life out.

But in Brooklyn, I really hit my stride. And I remember thinking about as I was writing the record, all the songs on the record were about something I’d lost or something I was trying to find or looking for myself. But “Boomer” is the song where it’s like, “Oh, I know exactly who I am.” That song is a sonic encapsulation of who I’ve grown to be, where I started, and where I am now: This country kid who loves rock music and loves hip-hop. Each verse kind of zooms in on a different part of my life, like smoking weed with my dad, and him telling me he’s proud of me, or selling drugs when I was younger—whatever, we’ve all done it if we had to do it. Then going into the end and zooming in on how I have this fascination with curses, like generational curses, and the country and being Black. I’ve been buried alive by the devil that’s in those hills; my grandparents live near the Appalachian Mountains. They love white liquor— what we would call moonshine. It comes from those hills and actually talking about alcoholism, like I’ve been buried alive by this generational curse of “Oh, I’m probably gonna fuck my life up. It’s already been decided, so I’m just gonna do my thing.” It’s a cheeky thing. I’m not an alcoholic, but it was something I think about a lot, how families can fall prey to like the same thing, the cycle over and over again.

AVC: When you played “Boomer” on NPR’s Tiny Desk, you changed the arrangement of it—as well as every song you played off Live Forever. It’s fascinating how easily you can turn these songs into something completely new. What’s your process for deciding how you want to play them? 

BS: Well, it helps that I wrote all the songs. When I wrote them all, they didn’t sound like they did on the record. “In A Cab” was, like, a jazz standard; “Mustang” was a country song; they were all kind of different. I like to use those smaller performances, like Tiny Desk or any of these other ones, to show a different side of the song, and to show people, like, “Yo, I really be writing shit over here. It’s not just beats. We can do a lot.” I use those opportunities to show people that I can play and I can stretch a song and I can do it a hundred different ways. I’m a big believer that a good song is going to be a good song, no matter how you play it.

AVC: Have you been thinking about how you’re going to play them when you finally get to tour?

BS: Oh, my god. It’s all I think about. Literally, all I fucking think about. I’m pumped though; I’m so hyped to play live. It’s gonna be so lit. I already know ’cause our band looks like freakin’ Radiohead on stage. I’ve got my whole station. Grant [Richman], my synth player, got a Rhodes piano. It’s like synth racks. And we were getting to a point that every time we played a club, I had to literally apologize to the sound guy and be like, “Look, I’m sorry. We have like, four pianos, three guitars, two background vocalists…” But we ride with five or six people and everyone does like two or three things. If you watch the livestream we did, we play all the songs on the record, front and back. Moving from “Mustang” and “Stone Meadows” to “Flagey God” and “Mossblerd,” it requires a lot of technology. I’m pumped to do it live and figure out how it’s actually gonna play out.

AVC: Are you planning on playing The National material, too?

BS: I love playing those. “About Today,” “Mr. November,” “Lemonworld”… Some of my favorite songs I’ve been a part of. So those will definitely get played. We only got to play them once. We played a record release show for that on March 13 last year.

AVC: Wow, that’s the day the pandemic officially started, isn’t it?

BS: It was at the Sultan Room [in Brooklyn]. People came, and I look back and I’m like, “Dang, that was so risky and wild.” I remember talking to the bookers, and we were all just like [shrugs]. The day before we played it at WNYC, we did this online thing. They were like, yeah, this is gonna be the last one we probably do for a while. And I went, “Word? Damn, well, we have a show tomorrow.” I remember loading in for the show and there was a line around the block that Key Goods had for toilet paper and stuff. When New York is on crazy mode, you feel like you’re like in a movie.

AVC: It must feel strange to make it as an indie artist in the middle of the pandemic.

BS: I think it is. But you know what, I’ve been working really hard for a really long time. I am just excited that my music is in a place now that’s different than it’s ever been. When things come back to normal, I’ll have a different experience. That’s the silver lining, and I’m sticking to it. It is a bummer that we didn’t get to tour, but I’m ready for when it comes back. I’ve stayed busy in the interim. I’ve produced a lot of music; I’ve got to demo out a lot of music. I feel very confident in what I’ve made, and I’m building a good foundation for the next however many years, so I’m trying to make good use of the time.

AVC: Going back to Say Goodbye To Pretty Boy, beyond the musicality, you changed some lines in The National’s songs too, shaping them to be personal to you. How did you pick which songs you wanted to be on the EP to represent who you are as a National fan?

BS: First of all, the entire catalog… I can make an argument for any song on any National record for why it is good. I’m in too deep. I can’t even hear the mistakes anymore. If they put out something that was horrible, I’d be like, “Yeah, this is pretty good. I’m hot on the National.” Obviously, they’re humongous now. But when I fell in love with them, it was because of Alligator, Boxer, Cherry Tree, High Violet. Those were the four that hit me between 15 and 22 years old. I wanted to do some deep cuts, because those hit me the hardest when I was growing up. I was like, “Okay, I’ll cover these classics that I like, and then I’ll be able to get a bunch of other people into the National.” Because they’ll be like, “Oh, I’ve heard Sleep Well Beast, but I don’t know what ‘All The Wine’ is.” And then, boom, I’m making a new fan and so are The National. Boom, everybody wins.

AVC: I found that it was difficult to be vocal about my love for The National because their fanbase is heavily made up of obnoxious white men who think they’re the authority on the band. Did you ever feel similarly, where the fanbase was a bit alienating despite being a huge fan?

BS: Yes. Actually, the funniest shit is, since [Live Forever] came out, people have been like—literally someone DM’d me the other day and they’re like, “You should check out The National.” Obviously, it was someone who had heard probably like two songs. But you know, definitely, having to prove yourself and literally prove that you’re qualified for something, or prove that you’re good enough for you to actually know your shit in the music space for a person of color or a woman in so many ways… it’s literally like waking up every day. I always have to prove that I know exactly what I’m doing. That’s, unfortunately, a part of the game.

I know a lot of The National fans and they’re not all bad. But, you know, there’s definitely a type. And that’s kind of what inspired me to write that EP. I love the National, I love this music, I think it’s incredible. But I don’t love that there aren’t more bands that look like me that have had those types of careers, like, multi-album, multi-year Grammys; they built it from the bottom to the top doing the shit; they want to do no big radio hits, just consistent, step-by-step artist development over like a decade and a half. In my mind, that’s kind of a dream career. A band that didn’t pop early, but just really built something super solid. It’s something I’ve always wanted for myself and my music and my future family, to have a sustainable, healthy music career.

AVC: It must have been gratifying to have Matt Berninger himself recognize your music.

BS: Yeah, he’s cool. We don’t like talk every day or anything. But they were all very receptive. They liked [Say Goodbye To Pretty Boy]; they totally agreed to put it out on their label. We haven’t talked a lot, but every time I have interactions with them, it’s super positive. They get it and I have such an immense amount of respect for them. I hope they feel that, as I talk about some of the challenges I face in music, none of that’s directed at The National. I think they’re great. It’s a bigger thing about the industry as a whole, and we’ve got to be conscious about who we’re putting up in front, that does have repercussions. We’ve got to make space for people.

AVC: Live Forever was released just a few months after the entire country went through a racial reckoning. This extended into the music industry, where non-Black people were realizing that Black artists are still struggling to be given the same attention as their white peers. There seems to be a bigger attempt at covering Black artists, but have you noticed a substantial change in how you and your Black peers have been treated in the industry since then?

BS: It definitely heightened the attention on art that was being made by Black people. But I don’t know if that explains why Black people are getting attention now for making music. Honestly, I think we’re getting like a critical mass kind of point where there are so many great Black artists that are making music right now. It’s an undeniable amount of great music. People are talking about it; it’s unavoidable. NNAMDÏ put out like three records last year, each of them equally incredible and expansive, and inspiring. People are taking notice, he’s got Kacey Musgraves shouting him out. You’ve got younger people like Jhariah and my homies Proper. and Oceanator, and you got M.A.G.S. on the West Coast, and Christelle Bofale, Shamir, Poolblood, Mint Green, and Mia with Pom Pom Squad. They’re everywhere. We’re everywhere now. We’re loud. We’re really good. It’s gonna be hard to ignore all of this. It’s bubbling over and people are taking notice in there. It’s a movement. For real.