Bartees Strange has ignored musical boundaries his whole life, without even thinking about it. “When I played in hardcore bands, I remember writing songs and throwing in these R&B sections, or a melodic guitar section, and people would be like, ‘Bro, what are you doing? This is a hardcore band,’” recalls the 31-year-old musician. “And I’d be like, ‘You’re right, I’m an idiot, why would that work?’ But those were things that I always felt were natural to the songs. And it’s probably because I was always working on country songs and hardcore songs and pop songs all the time, and listening to that stuff all the time.”
This year, he finally found a way to put it all together. After garnering serious acclaim this past March for his Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy EP, containing five inspired covers of songs by the National, Strange just released his wildly eclectic debut album, Live Forever. Where many artists might try to smooth out or flatten the transitions between their influences, Strange celebrates the whiplash. On the punchy single “Boomer,” he starts rapping on the first beat (a direct nod to DaBaby, he says) over churning pop-punk guitar chords; by the time he hits the chorus, the song has cascaded out into heartland rock with Strange’s bellowing vocals, leaving the listener both enthralled and just the right kind of confused. Tracks like “Kelly Rowland” and “Flagey God,” which oscillate from party-ready trap and R&B to introspective techno beats and back again, are no different.
Born Bartees Cox Jr. in Ipswich, England, to a military father and an opera singer, Strange spent his early years traveling across Europe and the U.S. for his parents’ careers before the family settled in Mustang, Oklahoma, just outside the state’s capital. As one of the few black kids in an oppressively white suburb, he often felt like he had a target on his back. Nevertheless, his mother encouraged him and his siblings to join her onstage, and they began touring with the Oklahoma City Circuit Opera Company, performing at church services, festivals, and school events.
Strange is modest about his musical upbringing; he never learned to read music, and he says his mother never tried to force singing on him as a long-term career. Even so, he absorbed the vibrant diversity of sound around him from a very young age. At home, Strange describes his parents as “super-Christian” with an accompanying taste in music, yet there was always room for mid-century funk and jazz among their record collection. On weekends and after school, Strange would head to a nearby guitar shop to hang with a local country music veteran named Dale, who taught him how to play the instrument. “He was this old white dude who, in many ways, represents a time that is not kind to us,” Strange says, referring to black artists. “But he took the time and invested in me, and I’ll always be grateful for that.”
It wasn’t until Strange got his driver’s license that he was afforded a particular American teenage freedom — not of the open road, but of FM radio, basement shows, and Limewire-burned CDs. His musical horizons burst out into punk, hardcore, and Midwestern emo, all tied to the burgeoning indie-rock acts that proliferated in the mid-2000s. Even amid an overwhelmingly white era of rock music, Strange found personal heroes in bands like Bloc Party and TV on the Radio, the latter of whom left a lasting impression on him when they performed “Wolf Like Me” live on The Late Show With David Letterman: “It was amazing to watch people make harmony, and make music that sounded great to me, and [also] have it be messy.” In that multi-racial Brooklyn act, Strange remembers finding a new template for what a black musician could be or do, not least because he saw lead singer-songwriter Tunde Adebimpe making music into a vital piece of his identity that didn’t eclipse the whole picture.
Finding one’s true calling as a black artist is an idea Strange explores in full on the new album. The haunting “Mossblerd” — the title is a portmanteau of Mossberg, a rifle manufacturer, and “blerd,” slang for a black nerd — sees Strange confronting the creative and societal barriers placed around black people. “Keep us in our boxes/Keep us all from commas,” he raps wearily, over distorted noise production and cymbal crashes. On “Far,” Live Forever’s contemplative yet explosive centerpiece, his pleas carry ominous imagery: “Believe in me, if I’m staying safe or on a tree.” The song came about through a personal crisis of identity: “I spent a huge part of my life trying to fit into what I thought I was supposed to be doing — the types of jobs I had, the types of people I was around, who I was dating — trying to be the black Morehouse man,” Strange says. “But I didn’t go out to do the things I really wanted. And I think I created a person that honestly scared me.”
After spending years performing and producing in the Oklahoma emo scene, Strange moved to Brooklyn and later Washington, D.C., trying to collaborate with every talented musician on the East Coast that he could find while working a series of office jobs to pay the bills. (The “Strange” in his stage name comes from an early attempt at forming his own band, Bartees & the Strange Fruit.) Though his music collaborations seemed promising, his professional experiences left him discouraged and traumatized. At one white-collar gig, a couple that Strange was friendly with died in a double suicide, an incident that inspired the opening verse to the song “Mustang.” In another job, a PR stint at a climate change nonprofit, Strange grew tired of the disconnect between his white, Ivy League–graduate coworkers and the low-income communities of color that they were trying to save from environmental disaster. The soul-draining nature of his work there inspired another “Mustang” lyric: “I lie for a living now, that’s why I really can’t tell you stuff.”
Even so, Strange kept his day job there until about a month before Live Forever was released, and he doesn’t make an effort to sugarcoat the realities of being a working musician. “I was talking to someone a few weeks ago about this record, and they were like, ‘Why didn’t you write this when you were 23 or 24?’” he recalls. “I was like, damn, my parents aren’t rich! I have bills and shit! I had to learn how to run a session and use Pro Tools and how to play the piano. And also, good things take time — I didn’t really invest in myself, or prove to myself and everyone around me that it was real.”
A moment of recognition came after attending a D.C. concert by the National, where Strange found himself to be one of the few people of color in the audience. Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy, the covers EP that resulted, was Strange’s boldest artistic declaration yet, and a way to introduce his unique sound to the world by combining it with more familiar material. On the EP’s standout “Lemonworld,” originally a subdued track from the National’s High Violet, Strange moves back and forth between whispered melodies over electronic synths and screaming, balls-to-the-wall emo catharsis. As a whole, Say Goodbye is jarring in the best possible way, and it earned Strange a wide swath of new fans, from Hayley Williams and Ryan Reynolds to the National’s own Aaron and Bryce Dessner, who released the record on their indie imprint, Brassland.
Strange finished recording Live Forever more than a year ago, but as he says, good things take time; he waited until the album could receive a proper mastering from producer Will Yip, who released the LP through his Memory Music label. Despite largely known for his work in post-hardcore, Yip saw a goldmine in Strange’s idiosyncratic mash of genres. “They’re not like aliens next to each other,” Yip says. “It’s not like this thing where it’s disconnected. It all makes sense. It was this perfect melting pot.”
In the coming months, Strange is booked to produce several albums for other artists in his Falls Church, Virginia, studio, just outside of D.C., on top of already recording his own next album. (“Yeah, I just finished writing it,” he says with a laugh. “I’m about to go up to Maine for two weeks with the band to start tracking.”) What’s more, he recently signed with Paradigm, the same talent agency that books concerts for arena-level pop acts like Billie Eilish and Lorde. Covid-19 restrictions are still in place for the foreseeable future, but Strange is eager to tour “as much as humanly possible” when the time comes.
“A big part of why I make music is so that people who look like me can feel like they can do it, too,” he says. “I hope that when a black kid from Yukon, Oklahoma, picks up my record, they’re like, ‘Oh, this black guy, he doesn’t know shit about music at all, but look what he did.’”