Bartees Strange Takes His Seat at the Table
November 1, 2022 @ 12:00pm
“I’m headed to Phoenicia, the home of the Phoenicians, I guess,” Bartees Strange laughs.
He’s driving to the resort town in the Catskill Mountains for a little relaxation and a mini-writing retreat, and he’s earned it.
In last November’s local music issue, District Fray claimed Bartees Strange was “this year’s standout local artist.” One year later, after opening for artists such as Courtney Barnett, Phoebe Bridgers and The National, and releasing his second full-length record, the lauded “Farm to Table,” Bartees Strange is a bonafide breakthrough. The week before our conversation, he shot his first magazine cover in the Official 9:30 Club Hall of Records (serenading the District Fray crew between set-ups), and on November 3 he will kick off his first headlining tour across the U.S.
While driving to Upstate New York, Strange reflects on his latest album, how radically his life is changing and why he’s putting down roots in the DMV.
On March 13, 2020, Strange released his first EP “Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy.” Covering five songs by The National, Strange turned these tracks inside out, flipped them around and remolded them into something distinctly his own while paying tribute to his indie forefathers whose lyrics course through his sonic bloodstream.
Six months later, he dropped his critically-acclaimed, full-length studio debut “Live Forever” on October 2, 2020 from Memory Records. At just 35 minutes, the 11 original songs of “Live Forever” not only defy genre conventions but seem to question the very concept of categorizing contemporary music. The three singles from this ambitious and audacious debut demonstrate this aural diversity: “Mustang” starts with lots of synth and builds to a stomper, a song about violence, fear and being Black in America’s heartland; “Boomer” begins as a Bloc Party-esque party anthem before a bluesy breakdown; and “Free Kelly Rowland” (with Armand Hammer) is an R&B club groove over a stutter beat. “Live Forever’’ landed in many Top 50 Lists including NPR, Paste, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone and Stereogum.
The critical success of “Live Forever’’ caught the attention of several labels, with UK label 4AD taking on Strange for his next album — The National, Deerhunter and Future Islands are just a few of their clients. Recorded mostly at 38 North Studio in Falls Church where Strange works as a producer, he also traveled to London to record the last few tracks.
It’s hard to pin down exactly how this album sounds so different when Strange is already such a musical chameleon. But there is something even more raw and confessional in the lyrics, an exploration of newfound fame, family and nostalgia (“Tours,” “Black Gold”) and love and loss (“Heavy Heart,” “Wretched,” “We Were Only Close for Like Two Weeks,” “Hennessy”). There are songs about the murder of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter (“Hold The Line”) and an exasperated cry against all the madness of the last few years (“Escape This Circus”).
“[This album] is about a specific time in my life, a year-and-a-half ago, realizing and taking stock that things are about to change for me because of a series of choices I’ve made over the last 10 years,” Strange says.
Like Schrödinger’s cat, this is the last moment where Strange is/is not a major star.
“I just didn’t want to lose this moment. I wanted to memorialize it. This is what I’ve always wanted, so the record is kind of just looking at my life, taking stock of [everything] and being like, ‘Wow, this is real.’”
The glitz of Los Angeles pulses through the album. In “Cosigns,” Strange sings over an infectious beat: “I’m in LA / I’m with Phoebe / I’m a genius, damn,” name dropping recent tour mates and collaborators.
Strange fanboys for a second, “When you are literally hanging out with Phoebe [Bridgers], Lucy [Dacus] and Courtney [Barnett] and all these people you admire and you’re like, ‘Oh shit, we’re friends.’ That’s amazing, you know?”
But all that glitters isn’t gold. In “Mulholland Dr.,” Strange considers his first trip to L.A. after the success of “Live Forever” and meeting with “all these fancy producers who wouldn’t have been interested [in me] before.” He quickly realized “these people are not better than me, and maybe this isn’t what I want.”
The fakeness and fickleness of Hollywood fame are underscored throughout the catastrophic lyrics: “I’ve seen the ending / It’s all in your face and your eyes / I’ve seen how we die.”
In “Black Gold,” he thinks back to his boyhood home and misses his family while on the road: “Now it’s big city lights for a country mouse.”
The title “Farm to Table” has nothing to do with pasture-raised cuisines and everything to do with Strange’s rural roots and growing up in a small town in America’s Bible Belt as a Black queer kid.
“After ‘Live Forever’ came out and did well, I never thought I’d get to really do this. I used to literally paint fences, and I grew up in a really rural area in Oklahoma,” Strange shares.
Born in Ipswich, England — the son of a military engineer father and opera singer mother — Strange moved throughout Europe during his formative years before his family settled in Oklahoma when he was in sixth grade. In Mustang, a small town 30 minutes outside of Oklahoma City where less than 1% of the population is Black, Strange’s parents didn’t listen to local radio. Instead, he was raised on their records — soul, gospel and classical music.
His mother taught vocal lessons to students at their home and the young Strange loved music, but felt intimidated as his only exposure was to professional musicians. Strange joined his mother, who worked as the choir director at various churches in the area and would sing in youth choirs and praise teams.
“It was a pretty tough thing for me because I had a hard time grasping some of the basics. I never learned how to read music, but I knew I could sing,” Strange says.
Starting the summer before seventh grade, Strange became involved with two very different youth pastimes: sports and musical theatre.
“I was putting my makeup on in the van, going to [opera] camp and then taking it [off], strapping on my pads and hopping out of the van to go to [football] practice.”
It was also in seventh grade that he was exposed to a new world of music through his classmates and their older, cooler siblings: punk rock. It was the start of many years of trying to please others, to fit in while also knowing that he was meant to stand out. He convinced his mother to let him attend a Christian rock band playing a nearby show; the band just happened to be the hardcore group Norma Jean (whose lyrics are often about salvation and faith but obscured under screaming vocals and slashing guitars).
“And that was kind of my first taste of a band that wasn’t a classically-trained group of musicians,” Strange recalls. “They were making something people are really reacting to in a powerful way. And I just kind of fell in love with that little scene of people.”
Seeing Black-led rock bands such as Bloc Party and TV on the Radio afforded the teenage Strange to envision himself as part of the scene, slaying onstage and not just cheering from the audience. Strange kept up with sports, too, playing both basketball and football throughout high school. He was even accepted to Kansas’ Emporia State University on a football scholarship. But his guitar was always with him, and he played with country bands, punk bands — any group that would have him.
While majoring in public relations at University of Oklahoma, Strange was offered an internship in Washington, D.C. He felt this was his best opportunity to leave Oklahoma while also heading to the home of one of America’s best hardcore scenes. But it was a devil’s bargain. He had to sell all his musical gear to afford the move. He hustled for several years, working long shifts, finding places to crash and working his way up to a dream job in communications.
“I thought I wanted to move to D.C., get a good job and ultimately work for Obama, the first person I voted for. I remember thinking, ‘I want to meet this guy one day.’ And then when I got that job [as Deputy Press Secretary at the FCC], I realized how much I hated my job. It was weird. As soon as I achieved all that and eased into it, I remember looking in the mirror and asking, ‘Who am I?’ This was never who I wanted to be.”
It reminded Strange of his earlier existential crisis while playing college football. Strange knew he couldn’t be shoehorned into others’ expectations of what he could achieve or what success looks like.
“I wanted to be Kele [Okereke from Bloc Party] or Tunde [Adebimpe from TV on the Radio]. I wanted to be Matt [Berninger from The National]. These are the people I listened to and grew up idolizing, but it just seemed impossible.”
That’s when he followed the dream. He quit the federal position with all the health and retirement benefits. He left D.C. and made the required young artist pilgrimage to Brooklyn, where he answered Craigslist ads to play with various bands, such as post-hardcore outfit Stay Inside, while busting his hump at various forgettable day jobs until he established enough of a reputation and community that he could focus solely on music. It was a long, hard journey and just as Strange was establishing himself in Brooklyn, D.C.’s often overlooked but vibrant creative scene lured him back.
“People don’t give D.C. the respect it deserves, discounting what the city means to the artistic landscape of America, especially with guitar-driven music. I want to be a part of the story of the city going forward to refocus the attention on the artists who come out of the Mid-Atlantic because there are a lot of really talented players here,” Strange shares.
He cites power-pop bands Grady and Bad Moves, as well as multi-instrumentalist Donovan Duvall as just a few of the many great artists playing shows and appearing on tracks all around the District.
“I kind of always felt a sincere connection to this city. I connect with that vibe and there’s not a lot of mostly Black areas in the country that are affordable, chill and creative. It’s a special place to create from.”
Strange — who currently lives in Suitland, Maryland with his siblings while house hunting — is looking to make a home in the DMV with his longtime partner and their border collie/black lab mix Bobby.
“Now I’m at the table with people I’ve really admired as artists and producers and on my favorite label,” Strange says. “I grew up being the only Black guy playing the guitar. And now I look around and see all sorts of people of color in bands, getting signed and getting opportunities. I see Black artists who are producing, running labels, working in art galleries, putting out interesting music. I feel like it’s a wave.”
The title of his album recalls both Solange’s stellar “A Seat at the Table,” a sonic study in Black excellence, and history maker Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm’s declaration about making space for Black women in politics: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”
In his first headlining tour, Strange is extending the invitation to that next wave of BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ artists. Pom Pom Squad, Spring Silver and They Hate Change will open for Strange during the tour.
“What does this tour mean to me? It’s building the world you want to see, you know? All the bands I’m bringing on tour, [they’re] queer and people of color. They’re incredible artists. They deserve the world and every opportunity that white bands would get.”
The tour will bring him back to Oklahoma, his childhood home, but also a place of caution and conservatism. Strange is ready.
“I didn’t really get to be my full self when I was in Oklahoma. I was like a shell of who I grew to become. So it’s exciting for me to come home, fully formed in a way and hopefully inspire more people to take adventures.”
And he will also take the stage at 9:30 Club on November 19.
“Even living in D.C., I never thought my first headline tour would include playing the 9:30 Club,” he says. “I’ve seen so many of my favorite bands play there over the years, and I watched countless YouTube videos of my favorite bands play there before I moved to D.C. I am going to try my best to hold every second in my mind.”
The storied music hall looms large for Strange, and like his album, this tour and the last few years, he plans to take a few steps back, savor the moment, then move on to the next project.
“I got a few [new songs] I’m just working out. I don’t want to give too many clues about what’s next, because I don’t even know what’s next.”
Bartees Strange takes the stage at 9:30 Club on November 19. Listen to Bartees Strange on all major streaming platforms and learn more about his music by visiting barteesstrange.com or follow him @bartees_strange.
9:30 Club: 815 V St. NW, DC; 930.com // @930club
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