Bartees Strange: ‘I thought I was too old to be a successful musician’

Ahead of tour support slots with boygenius and The National later this year, we speak to indie-rocker Bartees Strange about his second album Farm to Table, his stint as a political speech writer and his ambitions to “instil fear” as an artist.

Bartees Strange

“Full disclosure, I’m more scared now than I ever was before,” says Bartees Strange, who is going through something of a transitional phase.

Last year’s brilliant Farm To Table established him as one of the most interesting voices in the indie-rock scene, following tours with the likes of Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus and Courtney Barnett. When we speak, it’s backstage at Lafayette, at the start of a brief UK headline tour. The next time he plays London, Strange will be supporting The National at the O2 Arena.

“I’m trying to understand how five years ago, I would have done anything in the fucking world to get to tour and play my music,” he says. “Now, I’m thinking about how I’ll win the Grammy for Producer Of The Year.”

Bartees Strange

Photo: Luke Piotrowski

After releasing three records in as many years, 2023 is deliberately less intense for Bartees Leon Cox Jr. As well as an arena tour with The National, he’s due to head out on a North American tour with boygenius, Clairo and Dijon. “Even as things start to feel a little more real, it still feels surreal,” he admits.

Cox has always played music, but coming from a “pretty working class family” meant that when he hit his twenties, he traded in his rockstar ambitions for a so-called proper career.

He worked in Washington D.C as a deputy press secretary in the Obama administration before moving to New York to become a political speech writer. He enjoyed it but knew he couldn’t do it forever. Music was an outlet, with Cox playing in a variety of bands. “I just didn’t see a path forward,” he admits. “It seemed so impossible because all the people that seemed to make it, all looked the same. They all came from money.”

He kept at it though, with 2020 debut album Live Forever eventually turning Bartees Strange into an overnight success story, 11 years in the making.

“I wanted to be recognised with that album,” he explains, with tracks like ‘Boomer’ twisting confidently through hip-hop and rock n’ roll, while ‘Mustang’ delivered soulful, emo reflection.

“Every country thing, every hardcore thing, every rap thing, every indie thing I had done in indie bands, country bands, jazz bands,” Cox says of his genre-blending sound, “I’d played all those types of music my whole life, so it made sense to include it.”

Bartees Strange

Photo: Luke Piotrowski

Taking inspiration from how Kendrick Lamar, Megan Thee Stallion, Earl Sweatshirt and Tyler, The Creator view their songs, Cox says he just makes the types of songs he wants to hear. “I try things. If it feels good, I keep it.”

Cox was 31-years-old when Live Forever was released, and he wanted that record to prove himself wrong. “I thought I was too old to be successful as a musician. I thought no one would ever take a chance on a thick, Black kid from Mustang, Oklahoma.

“I thought the musicians I looked up to were these lofty, mythical beings that were also untouchable geniuses. I wanted to prove myself wrong, because I felt like if I did, it would unlock my true ambitions.” And it worked. “After that album, I realised I could do anything I wanted.”

That said, Cox had started work on the follow-up before Live Forever was even released. The original vision for Farm To Table was to make a four-track EP – but after turning it in, his label 4AD asked if he wanted to expand it to a full-length album.

“I wanted to make something that encapsulated my journey as an artist and a human. Live Forever was me saying ‘please notice me’ so when people did, I had to tell them about who I am, where I’m from and what I’m trying to do. I grew up in a pretty rural area and then found I had a seat at the table, which is where the name Farm To Table came from,” he adds.

The goal for Farm To Table was to make something that wasn’t as “flashy” as his debut. Instead, Cox wanted to “make a beautiful-sounding record”. There’s a polish to songs like ‘Heavy Heart’, ‘Escape The Circus’ and ‘Black Gold’ but it never tempers the visceral emotion behind each one.

“There’s something about Farm To Table that’s very grounded,” he tells me. “I want the things that most people want, a sustainable, safe, fruitful life. The challenges I face are things that a lot of people face, regardless of gender, race or whatever. By talking about my life, I think people recognise themselves a little.”

Across the record, there are moments of heartbreak, fear and self-belief. The swaggering ‘Cosigns’ sees Cox telling himself not to be humble – “a reminder,” he says, “that sometimes you gotta talk your shit” – while ‘Hold The Line’ was written after Cox saw George Floyd’s young daughter Gianna talking on the news about her father’s murder. “I needed to write it to help process another dark moment,” he explains.

“I love political music and I really care about race relations because it’s a thing that impacts my life, every single day with every interaction I have,” he continues. “I think a lot of things are political, whether you want them to be or not. Just existing if you’re queer, Black, trans or doing something your own way is political.”

Growing up and seeing non-white artists in bands like At The Drive-In, Bloc Party and TV On The Radio was hugely important for Cox. “I was amazed people could be themselves that loudly and I needed that,” he says. “I was so afraid to do that for such a huge part of my life. That’s probably why I’m so comfortable saying ‘fuck you, I’m good’ now because I spent so much of my life saying, ‘I’m happy to be here, thank you for letting me be here’. I was sick of being so grateful all the time.”

“Now I know you don’t have to be like everybody else,” says Cox, who hopes people listen to his music and understand they can “do whatever they want to do.”

He continues: “From what I hear, it means a lot to people who look like me, that I am who I am and I’m talking about the things I’m talking about.”

Bartees Strange

Despite being worried about releasing Farm To Table, Cox feels like he really proved himself with that record. “When I go make something crazy again, I know I can make it sound really good as well,” he explains, already deep into album three.

He tries not to give too much away about the work in progress, but lets slip that it won’t be out this year but is “amazing”.

“I want to take my time with it and be really thoughtful with everything, just because everything’s been so fast lately,” he adds. As for his ambitions, “I’d like to instil fear,” Cox says.

It’s no secret Cox is a huge fan of The National. His debut release as Bartees Strange was a reworked covers EP of some of their tracks, and when it was confirmed he’d be supporting them later this year, he instantly went and looked up every stop of the tour. “I can’t believe I’m going to see The National play at those venues,” was the instant reaction. “Then it hit me that I’m going to play there too.”

Over the past few years though, The National’s Aaron Dessner has become one of the most in-demand producers around, bringing indie’s relatable warmth to huge pop artists like Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift.

“It’s the most inspiring thing in the world,” says Cox. “The first record Aaron produced was Sharon Van Ette’s 2012 album Tramp and he did the whole thing in his garage, when he was 36-years old. That’s the shit. Usually when you get into your 30’s, it can feel like it’s time to make your dying bed. Instead, he decided to start work on his illustrious production career. He’s the best, an indie Michael Jordan.”

Bartees Strange

Photo: Luke Piotrowski

“It’s the same with Jack Antonoff,” says Cox, of the lead singer of Bleachers and producer who’s worked with Lorde, The 1975 and Taylor Swift. “Jack came up in Steel Train, which is a very local, New Jersey rock band. Now he works on the biggest records in the entire world. It’s cool how the music landscape has changed. Pop stars want workers and people like Aaron and Jack – they work.”

Similarly, Cox wants to break out of the indie bubble. “I never really saw myself as an indie artist,” he admits. “I grew up on that shit but it’s not the only thing I grew up on. That’s not where my ambitions lie either.”

“I want my music to represent to people that you’re never boxed in. There’s no problem with having chapters in life and you don’t have to do any one thing forever. You probably shouldn’t,” he adds.

Despite never playing an arena before, Cox has no fears about touring with The National. “I feel like my songs are made for big rooms like that,” he says.

“I remember seeing Courtney Barnett open for Blur in Madison Square Garden,” he continues. “The crowd kinda sucked, because they were talking the whole time. I’d never heard 18,000 people chatter like that and my only thought was ‘I wonder if I‘ll ever get to experience that’. I guess we’ll find out later this year,” Cox adds with a grin. “It’ll be fun either way.”

Leave a Reply

More like this