Bartees Strange At the End of the World

The D.C. singer/songwriter/producer on staying productive, saving the planet, defying expectations, overcoming boundaries, setting healthy limitations, and doing the damn thing yourself.

(Image via Facebook)

We’re all just doing the best we can right now. It’s not easy waking up every day to face the apocalypse and carry on with some semblance of normalcy. We will ourselves to be productive, whether that’s working, folding laundry, exercising, being creative—anything.

Bartees Strange, born Bartees Cox, the D.C.-via-Brooklyn-via-Oklahoma singer/songwriter/producer/what-have-you, is battling two apocalypses simultaneously. For one thing, he’s a burgeoning artist releasing new music and trying to grow his career amidst the specter of an industry that is in a holding pattern. For another, his job at an environmental nonprofit tasks him with the small job of, you know, keeping the actual planet from literally dying.

But, he’s uniquely equipped for it. And when he tells me the troubling reason why over the phone, he’s … almost chipper.

“I always say this to my partner, which I’m sure she hates, I always say I was born in Hell, lived through Hell, grew up in Hell, learned how to drive in Hell, and now I’m walking through Hell. And I’m fine.”

Cox is talking about his life growing up against the racist backdrop of Oklahoma, but that experience has influenced his way of moving forward, especially now, when the world is impressing us all in its ability to find new ways to fuck up.

“I think Black folks, specifically Black folks in the South, are a pretty resilient little crew,” he says. “It’s hard, but we’re doing it. It is hard. I’m way too hard on myself. I think the thing I have to keep telling myself is like, man, you can’t do it all in a day. You’ve gotta sleep. What does your body need? Drink some water. Work out or something. You can’t do it all today. Or this week. Or this month. It’s OK to not be killing it all the time. That’s the thing that is the hardest about all of this. I love making things. And I love making a project move, whether it’s work-related or music-related or relationship-related, whatever.”

He is definitely making it move. Cox is still on track for a huge 2020, apocalypse be damned. Earlier this year, he put out Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy, technically a collection of The National covers, but that description hardly does it justice. It’s a full reimagining of the music. He eludes the expectations of a National song, like amping up a surprisingly powerful chorus on “Lemonworld” and taming “Mr. November,”—all with the appropriate faithfulness to the emotional framework of the source material and without being a contrarian for the sake of it. It’s an impressive trick to pull off, and it’s one of many Cox makes look easy in his genre-defying and wholly original arranging and writing style.

He followed that up this month with the single “Mustang,” a bouncing, bolting, capital-letters Indie Rocker reminiscent of The Killers, New Pornographers and TV on the Radio, named after the town in Oklahoma where he grew up. It’s already landed on multiple major publications’ “must-listen” lists and playlists.

After putting out Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy through National-related Brassland Records, he announced that his upcoming release would come out through Will Yip’s Memory Music label, putting him in company with established bands on the punk spectrum like Tigers Jaw and Anthony Green, and other genre-benders Caracara.

Yip, known to a lot of people for his production on punk-adjacent records, is much more than just loud guitar and drums. After all, he cut his teeth working with Lauryn Hill and was a drummer for Schoolly D. This all appealed to Cox when it came time to pick a label partner.

“My whole thing is that I want to make whatever I want to make,” he says. “I don’t like feeling like I have to make things within a certain genre. And that’s kind of the whole point of the music I make—I truly believe that genres can be so prohibitive, especially on Black people. So many types of music are so natural to our experience. So it was really cool to talk to Will about this and have him be like, ‘Yeah, I agree. Let’s build something new.’ That’s a testament to Will just being down to do new shit. It’s rare to work with people like that.”

Part of his decision to reimagine those songs by The National came from feeling out of place in the world of indie rock as a Black fan and artist. The music industry overall has done a frighteningly good job of minimizing the presence of Black artists beyond an “Urban” award category in the Grammys, but he feels like he’s a small part of an already existing collection of artists rejecting genre constraints and making names for themselves.

“There are so many other great artists that are fuckin’ just going off,” he says. “Moor Mother, Sammus, Shamir. There are so many Black artists that are doing so much mind-melting shit in every direction. And I haven’t even talked about NNAMDÏ. There is a wave passing right now. I don’t think it’s stretching the genre, but I think it’s redefining what the genre can accommodate. It’s more than what we all thought it was. And it’s not because these things didn’t exist. It’s just that now they’re punching through and it’s undeniable. I feel like, because the industry can be prohibitive and is mostly white, there’s a lot of pigeonholing, and people try to put Black folks in a box. But I think that after a while the box just gets full and everyone overflows. You can’t contain it all for too long. Eventually it’s going to go off, and I think that’s what we’re seeing across the space. All these Black and brown artists, all these queer artists, all these trans artists and all these people that felt like they’d been limited, now we’ve just hit max capacity. It’s pouring out. That’s kind of how I feel. And I’d like to think my music is just another drop in that overflowing bucket of really talented artists of color who are challenging what the genre even means.”

True to the hardcore history of his adopted city of D.C., Cox has taken on the DIY role with the world shut down. With an album on the way, he and his camp had to weigh the possibilities of going forward when touring became an impossibility.

Those driving lessons in Hell created a determined, collected, pragmatic approach. The music industry deck that was typically stacked against growing artists like him suddenly changed in his favor.

“We all decided we shouldn’t push the single back. We should try to stay on track and use the moment,” he says. “There’s so many cons about the period of time we’re in, but I feel like as an up and coming artist or someone kind of new, I’m kind of like, Oh, cool. All of the bigger artists are kind of in the same place that I’m in. Nobody can do anything. It was a good time to take advantage of this while the playing field is almost kind of equal. And that’s why I wanted to put the song out. And that’s why I push forward with everything, because I can take advantage of what’s happening. People are glued to their screens, so I want to put stuff out.”

Part of that approach meant changing attack plans, obviously. No one banks on a music video for a lead single self-shot on a phone camera from quarantine. But, it’s what he had to do. He had his director sharing his screen on Zoom, and just about one week and 4,000 views later, here we are.

And now Bartees Strange is in D.C., a city that he thinks has allowed him to become more reflective away from the conservative oppression of Oklahoma and operating at a slower pace than the white knuckle sprint of New York City. That room to breathe has influenced his music a little more.

“It’s more about my story, which I don’t think I could’ve written in New York.”

And it’s given him a chance to think about what it means to be productive right now. To be an artist. To do good work. To be healthy. To know when to challenge limitations and when to embrace them.

“People think, Oh, I want to be creative. I want to be an artist. I’m not going to be an artist until I’m an artist full time, or I’m not an artist until I’m creating something all the time,” he says. “But I really do think the best art and the best music and the best whatever comes from limits. You have these limits on yourself financially, physically, where you live, whatever. The art comes from that. The good shit comes from the challenges. People are going to make some great shit because of this. And there’s going to be a lot of cool things coming from this. I say that as 150,000 people have died, half of them people who look like me. But still, you know, gotta keep making stuff. I think things will be made. Powerful things will be made, for sure.”

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Today’s Snakes and Sparklers musical guest is Touché Amoré (feat. Andy Hull)