All things considered, 2020 was a banner year for Bartees Strange. In March of last year, the D.C.-based musician released “Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy,” an EP of covers by The National.
At the start of October, he released “Live Forever,” his first full-length album. Widely lauded, Strange swept the end-of-year lists, landing high on roundups from outlets like Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker and many more – including District Fray. The record popped up on Wilco’s hand-selected list of favorites, too. When he released the album into the world last fall, Strange never expected it to be this way.
“I liked the record, but I definitely thought it was going to be more of a risky record to put out,” Strange explains. “I thought some of the songs were a little adventurous. And I was like, ‘Hey, I’m going to just trust that the audience can understand what’s going on,’ which is a weird situation to be in. When you’re putting out music, you always have to walk this line between what you know people are going to like, and what you and the band like – and it worked. I was grateful that so many people found it, liked it, shared it and are going to keep it with them in the future.”
Strange isn’t the first artist to grapple with releasing a standout record in the midst of a pandemic, and by the state of things today, certainly won’t be the last. Alongside his band, he’s performed songs from “Live Forever” through virtual appearances, most recently on “Late Night with Seth Meyers” and a livestream show late last month, featuring the album played in full for Strange’s birthday. It’s easy to wonder if there’s a bittersweet element to the fact that the record can’t be shared in a packed club or during the summer festival circuit just yet.
“The way I see it is that things can only happen one way,” Strange explains of this challenge. “I don’t see much sense in belaboring the fact that I can’t play this album live yet. On the other hand, I’m so hype that for the first time in my life, more people have heard my music than ever before. In many ways, it’s changed my life. I know that next time I do go on tour, it’ll be way different than last time. That’s enough for me – to know we made something that’s going to make my life different.”
Prior to “Live Forever,” Strange and his band made waves with “Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy” and their inventive spins on favorites and deep cuts by The National. Long a staple in Strange and his band’s musical diet, they’d tossed around the idea of covering the band but understood “it’s really hard to cover a band like The National for so many reasons.” After seeing the band at The Anthem in the summer of 2019, this abstract idea led to the EP that came to represent much more than a simple homage to a beloved band.
“I definitely didn’t go into it being like, ‘Oh, I’ve always wanted to cover The National.’ It was more like, ‘What does The National represent to me?’ They’re my favorite band, but I’m at this show and there’s no people of color. There’s also not a lot of bands like The National comprised of people of color – bands who have had seven albums [and] grown over the course of 20 years to win Grammys and work with Taylor Swift, who are [also] Black. I wanted to do something that reclaims the contributions Black people have made in the rock space, and use a very successful band like The National as a conduit to make the case for a more diverse music scene.”
As the band whittled down songs to include on the EP, Strange reflected on how the lyrics took on other meanings and perspectives drawn from his lived experiences. Take The National’s “Mr. November,” the frenetic, political song that serves as a closing track to the band’s 2005 album “Alligator.” It was written in part around the anxieties of the 2004 election and resurrected as the band campaigned for Barack Obama in 2008 – and in the before times, often served as a denouement of the band’s live shows. It takes on a new meaning when a young, pioneering Black musician sings it.
“It’s interesting how lyrics can change in their weightiness, and that was what I was drawn to. Songs like “Mr. November” [with lyrics like] ‘I’m the new blue blood, I’m the great white hope’ play into the mantra of the album. A person like me should be the new great hope of this genre, and that’s what I was trying to get across with these selections.”
Since the release of both that EP and “Live Forever,” Strange shifted to doing music full-time. He says despite the lack of traditional touring, he’s busier than ever. In keeping with the momentum gained in 2020, he’s working as a producer for bands in the District and beyond these days.
“I’m learning a lot about what my life could look like,” he says. “It’s interesting, because this is something I’ve been working toward for the last 10 or 11 years: Playing in bands, producing, learning how to engineer. And now, I’m really diving into it.”
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