Bartees Strange Is Exactly Where He Needs To Be

Bartees Strange swears it’s only his second time bowling.

In perfect stance, he gracefully glides the ball as Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me” plays over the speakers in Northern Virginia’s Bowl America, a close-to-home spot where he occasionally hangs out for the cheap drinks. It’s only the game’s first turn, but Strange immediately fires a strike. He howls laughing and pulls out his phone.

“They told me I wouldn’t be shit; they told me I wouldn’t be anything! But read it and weep: I’m striking!” he jokes, recording himself for an Instagram story video, showing the screen with an X next to the name “STRAN.”

This perfect score is not even the biggest moment of the day for Strange (born Bartees Cox Jr.). A couple of hours earlier, he spoke with Apple Music’s Zane Lowe. (Strange recalls seeing his phone: “[Zane Lowe] FaceTimes you. I was like, ‘Damn!’”) The next day, the 33-year-old artist flies to Los Angeles, where he’ll perform his album release show at The Getty Museum and appear on Jimmy Kimmel Live!

While his debut album, 2020’s Live Forever, introduced Strange to the world, his recently issued follow-up, Farm to Table, finds him grappling with the immediate aftermath of that life-changing record. The day Live Forever was released, he headed back to the studio to begin working on the next project — a sign of his continual grind.

He already had a few songs ready to roll, including the heart-wrenching, country-tinged “Hold The Line,” in which he reflects on the trauma George Floyd’s eight-year-old daughter is facing after her father’s death. Initially, Strange imagined the new collection of songs as a transitional EP, but the full album poured out during the first session.

“The morning I was working on it, it grew and grew, and I had like 15 songs. And I had a vision for this other record I wanted to do after Farm to Table. I was like, ‘Okay, let me just stop here and finish this,’” he says over drinks between bowling turns. “Me and my friends last summer, we tracked the first six songs, and then in November we tracked the final songs, and that was it. And the next album, I’m getting into now. I’m very close to being done with it.”

A lot has changed for Strange since Live Forever. He’s achieved well-deserved success — including landing in the top spot on this publication’s Best Songs list and No. 2 on the Best Albums list in 2020. He signed to storied indie label 4AD this March, making him labelmates with his favorite band, The National, with whom he’s playing a series of shows on that band’s tour. It’s big enough of a milestone that The National knows who Strange is, especially after he covered the band for his 2020 EP, Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy.

But Strange’s next goal is to have Aaron Dessner produce one of his albums. “Maybe one day it’ll happen,” he says. “That’d be very cool. He’s also probably the most expensive person on Earth. I mean, I have no idea what he costs, but I’d be afraid to ask.”​​ He’s hopeful that now that they’re labelmates, there’s a better chance of it happening.

Strange acknowledges that newfound small-scale fame in the indie hip-hop track “Cosigns,” which became the new album’s lead single. He name-checks some of the artists who have taken him on tour: Phoebe Bridgers, with whom he hung out in 2021 before she enlisted him as her live opener; Courtney Barnett, whose music Strange enjoyed before touring with her; and Lucy Dacus, the first artist to extend an invite for his first national tour.

When Live Forever came out, Dacus’ bandmates Jacob Blizard and Dominic Angelella texted her, saying she needed to listen to the album. With her phone blowing up about this new artist, she decided to check out what all the fuss was about — and immediately became a fan.

In an interview shortly after, Strange mentioned being a fan of hers and said one of his favorite songs is “Trust,” a deep cut off Dacus’ debut album, No Burden. Dacus felt flattered and got in touch with Strange.

“I was like, ‘I’ve been listening to your record so much, I think you’re incredible.’ And then a couple of weeks later, I realized, ‘Actually, I need an opener and I want to see his show so badly,’” says Dacus. “It was cool watching the crowds be won over every night; I don’t think people knew what to expect. It was pretty much like every single city people were for him by the end of his set, just screaming and cheering for him in the middle of songs, which as an opener is a coveted sign that you’re doing a good job.”

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Besides the artists Strange has a professional relationship with, “Cosigns” features one unexpected name-drop: Bon Iver‘s Justin Vernon. Strange, a huge fan, sings that he’s “on FaceTime with Justin” and that they’re “already friends” — though he admits to SPIN that the part is a bit embellished.

“It was kind of like a hip-hop thing, of, ‘I don’t have a Bugatti, but I’m going to rap about it.’ Justin Vernon’s the Bugatti,” he says.

But Vernon is well-aware of who Strange is. He’d reached out to Strange’s team asking if he’d be available to join him on tour. Strange unfortunately couldn’t: “The fact that Justin Vernon was like, ‘Oh, let me check and see what Bartees is doing’…for me, it was just like [mimics explosion],” he says.

On top of celebrating these accomplishments on Farm to Table, Strange describes the difficulties of finally achieving recognition for your art. On “Tours,” he makes the connection between his professional decisions and those of his father, who was in the Air Force while Strange was growing up and was often away from home. This also meant that Strange and his family would bounce around Europe while he was a child, until settling in Mustang, Oklahoma. (His parents now live in La Plata, Maryland, not far from Strange’s current home.)

“I remember growing up and being like, ‘Oh, I’ll never do that when I get older,’ wanting an opposite life,” he says. “But as I got older, I understood why he did it more. It was because it was his dream; it was something he really wanted to do. He wanted us kids to see him doing something that he loves to do. I look at my life now, and I’m making similar decisions.”

He realized he desires the same thing as his father: “I want my children to see their dad doing something that he loves to do so they can feel like they can chase things that they want to do.”

Along with often being away from his family and partner, another downside of Strange’s newfound acclaim is that some listeners fail to understand his musical range. Farm to Table‘s tongue-in-cheek closing track, “Hennessy,” pokes fun at the stereotypical concept that Black people love that brand of cognac. At the same time, it’s his way of asking to be accepted as he is.

“I feel like as a Black artist, it’s tough to be multi-dimensional and it’s tough to feel multiple things at the one time and explain yourself without people just putting you in a category or being like, ‘This is who you are,’” he says. “On ‘Hennessy,’ I’m kind of making fun of that. I’m saying, ‘Y’all say Black people like Hennessy, but what I really want from you is love. I want you to just see me as a person that’s just like you, that feels many, many things and is trying to sort it all out and just exist​​.’”

But the track also serves as the album’s connective tissue, tying back to those concerns of newfound attention.

“The song ends with me kind of talking to my partner and myself, being like, ‘Never shake, never fold, stay true to yourself. Trust your gut. Don’t get so caught up in reviews or what people say about you or the monikers people will put on you,’” he says. “If my family is close, my relationship with my partner is good, and my dog is eating every day, my life is fine.​​”

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Strange is a magnetic live performer, radiating immense joy and an obvious chemistry with his bandmates. Plus, his songs — which blend indie rock with R&B, country and hip-hop — appeal to an eclectic range of fans. That scope makes sense when you consider his background.

He’s been making music since way before Live Forever, playing in post-hardcore band Stay Inside and other projects. His mother, Donna, is an opera singer, allowing Strange to grow up in a musical household. But his journey into the music industry hasn’t been traditional: Over the past decade, he’s worked at several environmental nonprofits like Groundswell, done stints in public relations, and even served as the press secretary for the Federal Communications Commission during the Obama administration.

“I worked there for six months and I hated that job,” he candidly admits, laughing. “I think it literally drove me to pursue music. Like, I’m honored. It was cool. But that job was the job that showed me that it was not what I want [to do] at all.”

To Strange, the timing for his music career taking off is just right.

“I don’t think I was making music that was good enough when I was younger. I also didn’t have that aspiration for myself when I was in my early twenties. I just wanted to make music because I needed to,” he admits. “When I was working [at those previous jobs], I thought that was going to be enough to fill me. But the more I did it, the more I lost touch with who I was. Eventually, I was like, ‘I’ve really got to make time to make music or else my life is going to be miserable, regardless of it being successful.’”

After leaving the environmental justice world, Strange is still thinking from the activist perspective in his music. One overarching theme in Farm to Table is grappling with people’s lack of concern over the state of the world. His song “Mulholland Dr” addresses the emphasis on superficiality that he noticed in Los Angeles while the city faces a climate crisis.

“‘I’m probably hypersensitive to it because I’ve spent so much time working in the climate sphere,” he says. “It’s not like people in L.A. don’t know that the forests are burning down and the water is drying up and there’s no alternative. They all know. They’ll look at you right in the face and be like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re running out of water, but it’s L.A.’, and that’s it.”

Strange says one concept encapsulates Farm to Table: trying to enjoy everything while knowing that nothing gold can stay. “So much of [what I’m experiencing] is new to me, but I don’t want to live every day afraid of it going away. I want to enjoy all of it while it’s happening and to maximize it. And if it goes away, that’s okay. But I’m not going to live every day afraid,” he says.

Though he’s trying to maintain a carefree attitude, he admits he was nervous about sharing Farm to Table with the world. After such an acclaimed debut, he knows expectations are high across the board. His team warned him to not read everything about the album and to steer clear from negative reviews. He reads everything anyway — even the unfavorable criticism, not that much exists.

“At the end of the day, as long as I’m creating the things I want to make and I feel like I’m staying true to myself, it’s okay what people say about it,” he says. “[That mentality] is what I’m trying to walk in with now, because it’s hard.”

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Strange is still getting used to all this attention. Living in Virginia means that when he’s not performing, his experience at home is low-key. He’s not stopped by strangers as much as he is in New York City, where he briefly lived before moving to the DMV area. But he admits it terrifies him when he’s approached by people he’s never met.

“Every time someone does it, I think they’re trying to fight me,” he confesses. “When someone runs up on me and they’re like, ‘Yo!,’ I’m immediately like [lowers voice an octave] ‘What’s good?’” It’s happened often on tour, where he’d think someone is trying to rob him, only for it to be an eager fan wanting to say hi.

With all the attention also comes the responsibility of using his platform for positive change. On social media, Strange unabashedly speaks on the realities of being a Black artist in the music industry, including being transparent about a prominent indie label telling him it “found a different Black person to run with” so it couldn’t sign him.

Through both his earnest tweets and lyrics that recount his experiences as a Black man from the South, he’s letting a new generation of people who may not feel easily represented have someone they can feel seen by. He also constantly champions other Black artists on social media, like Elise Okusami, who performs under Oceanator; K Nkanza, who makes music under the moniker Spring Silver and is joining Strange on his upcoming headlining tour; and Devin McKnight, the former Speedy Ortiz guitarist who now has his own solo project, Maneka.

“Bartees was one of the easiest friends to make in music, mostly because we’re two Black people trying to achieve the same thing,” says McKnight. “When fitting in seems hard, I just remember when he told me that not fitting in was actually my strength. We get to exist inside the box and out. The sooner we embrace that, the sooner we can be more of our full selves.​​”

Strange proudly takes on this new role: someone who both fans and industry folks can see themselves in and look up to.

“I really hope that [for] Black kids, queer kids, people that grow up in places that where they feel like they don’t really fit or they don’t know if there’s a future for them, my music is a home for them like it’s been a home for me,” he says. “I’ve always felt on planet Earth, there’s not a lot of places where you can just be yourself as a Black man. There’s not a lot of safe places, and a lot of those safe places might not have all the things I want.

“Music has always been how I could have my safe spot,” he adds, somberly reflecting on his teenage years looking up to bands like TV On The Radio and Bloc Party. “When I talk about all these issues and all these things that I go through in my life, it’s just another way to kind of signal that there is a person that is thinking about these things that looks like you and I grew up in a place like you did and you’re not alone. ‘Cause that’s how I always kind of felt growing up.”

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