The inscrutable, emotional sound of Bartees Strange

The genre-jumping indie phenom talks leaving a cushy 9-to-5 under the Obama administration to do music full-time, and his whirlwind of creative and familial influences.

Ashley Gellman
Culture

Bartees Strange just wants to be happy. It’s not a stunning confession, but it’s one searching for a simple kind of contentment — almost quaint in its simplicity, but revealing in its aspirations. “I’ve made money before and it’s honestly not all it’s cracked up to be. Be happy,” he told me over email. Strange was in a van somewhere between Washington D.C. and the open road, entertaining packed bars along the way. He’s had a lively few months during an era of idleness and impermanence. The moment multiple people were allowed in one place, and outdoor concerts resumed, he found himself booked and ready. In September, he graced the stage at New York’s City’s Governors Ball, and performed at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago while touring across the country with Phoebe Bridgers. “Truly the sickest shit I’ve ever done in my life,” he said of the experience. In November he will be heading to Europe for two weeks of shows, where he’ll also make another appearance at the Paris edition of the Pitchfork Music Festival.

The stars seem aligned for someone who spent years at a non-profit environmental organization, before an unexpected shot to work for the Obama administration shifted his frame of mind. “It was my wildest dream to get that far, that felt impossible. But I did it,” he said of his time working under #44 as the press secretary for the Federal Communications Communication. “So I thought well if that’s impossible, and I honestly am not having any fun at all, why not try something I love. That’s when I started to go deeper on music.”

In my mind there’s several things someone with the name “Bartees Strange” would be perfectly suited for: a supporting character in Purple Rain, a wizard, or a musician. “It’s my dad’s name. My great grandmother found the name, and basically raised my dad,” he told me. “It’s funny, on his birth certificate it’s actually Bartee. My oldest brother is also named Bartees. So if you meet one, they’re all mine.”

Raised by his oldest sibling, Strange is close to his family, and counts himself as “the least talented” among them. Born Bartees Cox in Ipswich, England (Strange is a stage name), the musician moved to Oklahoma when he was still a child. Movement would become a common thread through his life, with his geography mapped by the music he came across. “When I moved somewhere new, figuring out what people were listening to was a big part of making friends and having a good time.” While this musical osmosis made it easier to adapt to different cities, it’s also an indelible part of how Black artists have found their sounds, through the melodies around them.

Strange is just one in a generation of creators who have looked to their surroundings to find connections, making music that’s an amalgamation of indie, blues, rock, hiphop, and punk. When enslaved Africans touched the shores of North America, those from Benin, Nigeria and Ghana bought percussion rhythms and oral storytelling that would form the base of negro spirituals. In the 20th century, jazz was also shaped by the migration of Louis Armstrong who blended the textures of New Orleans , with his movements, first to Chicago, then New York, along the way meeting, working, and being inspired by Duke Ellington. For his part, Ellington brought the push and pull of D.C. into his sound, as well as Earl Hines and his Pennsylvania roots, plus Jimmie Rodgers and the weight of Mississippi. As Black people have built homes in places we ran to and those we stopped over, the regions' sounds pin themselves to our minds and help us see each other a little more clearly.

His first EP, Magic Boy, released in 2017 under the name Bartees & The Strange Fruit, has the ease of a recording made among friends, without the glossy overly-produced feel that’s ever-present on music charts. It has elements of folk, country, and unexpected house funk that defy easy categorization and land squarely within the borders of Strange’s own description of his music: “very emotional.” House is a distinctive part of his oeuvre and the product of his own love for a genre he feels incapable of truly embodying. “I listen to a lot of house music. I think it’s fun for me to listen to stuff I don’t feel like I'm capable of making,” he said.

Strange has put out two bodies of work since the EP, including his debut album, Live Forever, in 2020. On the album’s 11 tracks, you’ll hear influences of Erykah Badu, which he listened to while tinkering under car hoods with his dad, and gospel courtesy his opera singer mom. “My parents were religious and southern so I didn’t have a ton of access to “secular” music, unless it was jazz or soul,” said Strange. “My dad loves [Parliament] Funkadelic, The Dells, The Isley Brothers, Diana Ross, disco and rock n roll,” he continued. “I wasn’t able to really listen to the radio or buy albums until I was much older, driving or hanging with older kids who would show me music.”

Time spent in Brooklyn and D.C. also shaped his debut, and the cities’ musical calling cards are present in its old-school hip hop sensibility and moments of hardcore punk. The paranoid, anti-establishment lyrics feel improvised yet still sound as familiar as the standards. “I told my girl I’m working, that’s a lie I’m in trap/Told my momma I was savin’ fuck I spent that shit on wax,” are lines riddled with festering anxiety from the track “Boomer.” Singles such as “Jealousy,” “In a Cab,” and “Mustang” are both brave and perceptive in their lyricism and delivery, hitting less like three-minute songs than a literary triptych on longing and displacement.

“Philip Roth’s American Pastoral is one of my favorite books,” Strange said, noting the character depiction of Seymour “Swede” Levov, a golden-boy high school athlete whose life falls apart during the political turmoil of the 1960s, as especially moving. “I felt like I knew a lot of people like him growing up. Pretty boy, popular, but in the end sort of loses everything. Almost cursed by his perfection and righteousness.” Strange also pulls from the literary abandon of hip-hop, where the best writers can create entirely different meanings with subtle shifts in cadence and pronunciation. “With hip-hop you can make a word do whatever you want. Form and intention can dramatically change the meaning of pretty much anything, so I try to have fun with it.” Lines like “You’re screaming, And cursing/I’m smiling, You’re killing me” speak of an artist invested in tales, with a flair for adding color to precision.

A deluxe version of Live Forever was released in late September featuring the new single “Weights,” and a retooling of the single “Kelly Rowland,” retitled “Free Kelly Rowland.” A bombastic track packed with brags, ambition and the ageless glow of its namesake, the original had sampled parts of “Mashita,” by Mansur Brown, a 24-year-old multi-instrumentalist producer and artist from Brixton, England, whose radio sessions, and 2019 debut album Shiroi, have drawn listeners moved by his instrumentation and creative production.

“I remember hearing the intro guitar line and I heard this song so clearly,” said Strange. Various attempts to connect with Mansur and receive clearance for the sample went unanswered so Strange went ahead and released his version of the song — only to need to take it down again. “I thought I’d be able to just give him a significant portion of the song but it turns out he simply just didn’t want my version to exist,” said Strange. “That really hurt me.”

In recent months, sampling has emerged as a tumultuous issue for artists — some appreciate the act as one of reverence, and others relegate it to theft. When it comes to Black music-making, the issue is a lot more complicated. All types of Black artistry exist on a foundation where one builds over another. Like a passing of the baton, each iteration offers something different while paying homage to what came before. While unscrupulous players have undermined the kinship necessary to safeguard Black art, at its most fruitful, sampling looks like M.O.P. taking the first chords from Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s “Be Real Black” for their track “World Famous,” or Biggie Smalls reworking Mtume’s “Juicy Fruit” on “Juicy.” More recently, Mariah the Scientist took a cue from the Isley Brothers, placing “Making Me Say It Again Girl” on her single “Aura.”

For Strange, this refusal to have someone build upon your art is something he’s found difficult to wrap his mind around. “Artist to artist, Black person to Black person, I never understood that energy,” he said. “So when I made the new version I decided to call it ‘Free Kelly Rowland’ because it’s truly unfortunate that the other version of this song can’t exist. No knock on Mansur, people have their reasons for doing things.”

Early this year, Strange graced NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts, jamming from home with his band. “That whole day was wild,” he said, and full of the technical glitches.. After spending hours in rehearsal, their perfect take only came at 2:30am. “It was the best we'd done. I had a nasty letter from the neighbors the next day, but it was worth it.”

This pandemic has required all of us to make uncomfortable changes, and it’s sheer grace and patience that makes the growing process one to remember and appreciate. When listening to Strange, even at his most tortured, there’s a yearning for the other side of disaster to be worth the trouble. If not immediately, then at the dead of morning when it’s no one but you and those next to you still wide awake.