Bartees Strange has leaned so heavily into his idiosyncrasies that calling his music “genreless” is sort of a cliche. The Ipswich-born, Oklahoma-raised artist’s debut EP, Say Goodbye To Pretty Boy, reimagined five songs by The National, turning them into soaring, stirring, brand new things so arresting that Aaron and Bryce Dessner put it out on their own label. His debut album, Live Forever, released in the fall of 2020, capitalized on that success emphatically, collapsing indie, hip-hop, emo, and R&B into each other with such gleeful abandon that the critics who heaped praise on it seemed to have been caught genuinely off-guard.
His new album, Farm To Table, belongs in the same universe as its predecessor — the uniquely braggadocious “Cosigns” is, for example, a callback to Live Forever’s “Mossblerd” — but he’s still taking risks. Often that involves pulling back, as he does on the gorgeous acoustic track “Tours,” or even the mellow arena-country of “Escape This Circus’” first two-thirds — but what really lingers is the creative ambition of his lyrics — the leaps from imperiousness to gratitude and guilt, the meditations on his past and excitement for his future, the commentary on the industry he’s learning to navigate and the social injustices that often seem impossible to circumvent. No idea, musical or lyrical, is off-limits for Bartees Strange. What’s remarkable is how fully he realizes those ideas when they cross his mind.
Earlier this week, a couple of months on from our first conversation for The FADER Interview Live on Amp, I called Bartees at his home in Washington DC to talk about his creative restlessness, the inevitable costs of sudden success, and the next album he’s already almost finished.
This Q&A is taken from the latest episode of The FADER Interview. To hear this week’s show in full, and to access the podcast’s archive, click here.
The FADER: Last time we spoke, you’d just released “Cosigns” and announced Farm to Table. You were very excited. You had a whole cycle in front of you, plus you’d just released this hyper-confident song. How do you feel now?
Bartees Strange: I’m excited, but I’m nervous as hell — Like, “Oh my God, let this album come out already so I can sleep again!” Last album, I was just like, “Let’s see where it goes.” And now it’s all this press and all these lead-up things. At [my] core, I’m still just proud of the music. I’m proud we finished another good album and I’m excited to make another. I’m already like, “Cool, let’s do it again.”
Your debut was so critically acclaimed. Do you feel added pressure the second time around knowing that people will be watching?
Yeah, but I’m confident in what I do. I’m gonna do what I do, period. I’ve never been good at chasing the wave, doing what I think people are gonna like. That’s not how I got here in the first place. I still wantna make stuff I’m gonna have fun playing every night.
Wretched” is in some sense is the flip side of “Cosigns.” You’ve got this hyper-confident song, and then there’s this other side of gratitude to the people around you. Was it important to introduce that in advance of the record?
Of all the songs, [“Wretched”] was the one I’d wanted to write for [the longest] time. I demoed it for the first time probably three years ago, but I could never figure out what I wanted it to be about. Last year, as I was writing this record, I kept coming back to this point of gratitude… these key people that showed up and helped me get things done when they didn’t have to. At points I felt wretched, like no one was gonna help me figure this out, so I [thought] it was an important vibe to wire into the album, which is mainly about this transition I’m going through in my life.
Transition from what to what, exactly?
When I started making music in my teenage years, I wanted to be like Tunde Adebimpe or Kele [Okereke] from Bloc Party. I would see those guys and I’d be like, “Whoa, that’s me.” And then [I realized], “Ah, maybe that’s not me, maybe I need a job.” So in my 20s, I worked until I became really unfulfilled and started this seven-year journey of playing in bands and making stuff until I wrote Live Forever. When that album came out, I was able to quit my job and focus on this thing that I thought was impossible. All that happening during a pandemic, when there wasn’t a lot of movement in my life, [gave me an] opportunity to reflect on what my options [were] with music. This record is about that: Farm to Table, rags to riches, going from a place where nobody knows who you are to being at a table with people you’ve looked up to forever and feeling like, “How do I do this?”
There’s a flip side to that, too, and it comes up on “Heavy Heart.” Despite your compulsion to keep creating and writing and performing, there’s a human cost. You talk about being unable to be around people while they’re having kids or getting married. On a bitter–sweet scale, how much of that is bitter and how much is sweet?
Some days it’s more bitter and some days it’s more sweet, but I know that’s what life is. In my quest to have everything, I often realize I can’t. Songs like “Heavy Heart,” “Wretched,” “Cosigns,” “Black Gold” — it’s me coming to grips with that and [realizing it’s] okay, because the thing I’m doing right now makes me feel most alive. I’m serving my purpose, and I’m gonna figure out how to hold the relationships and be there for the people I care about, but I have to be more intentional now. Time is this thing I look at a different way now than I did a few years ago. I’m a lot more intentional with how I spend it.
When we last spoke, you said you’d always been a little dissatisfied, and that discomfort pushed you to quit your job as a spokesperson and to make Live Forever. How did you get to the point where you accepted that about yourself, and how did you figure out how to embrace that and channel it into something good?
There was a point in my life when it wasn’t a healthy thing. You can’t just move through life being dissatisfied with everything. You’ve got to eventually hit a point where you can hold something in both hands, like, “This was good, but I want more, but I’m grateful for this.” I used to feel guilty for feeling that, like, “Why am I the only one that wants to leave home? Everyone else seems to be happy staying here. I wish I could be happy… but I feel like there’s something else.” [Now] I count my dissatisfaction [as] my heart telling me to move on to the next chapter. That’s how I’m living so far. It’s fine for now; we’ll see how it changes.
How does that work in the studio? The conversation you have to have three or four times a day with guys like me is about how your music is genreless and how you’re collapsing lots of sounds into each other. But that speaks to you hearing an idea and going, “How can we push this further?”
When I’m in the studio, I’m a vibe chaser to the max, like, “Let’s just go where the song is taking us.” With “Wretched” and “Cosigns” and some of these bigger songs on the record, it was just, “What’s the vibe? Is it gonna be a Life of Pablo, blown-out vocals thing? Okay, let’s go all the way there, hold nothing back, make the reference as clear as possible.” With “Black Gold,” I’m like, “Is this gonna be a 22, A Million, Big Red Machine, drum thing with a distorted vocal? Cool, let’s go all the way.” Once I smell the vibe… there’s nothing I won’t try. I guess I’m being described as a restless person in the studio, [but] I feel clear and slow and deliberate. I don’t feel shaky, like, “How do I one-up myself? How do I make this genreless?” It’s just, “What does the song wanna do? Let’s do that.”
I taught myself how to do all this stuff in my room, watching YouTube videos and learning about compression and saturation and how to use all this stuff, and realizing the people I look up to, this is how they’re getting these sounds. Along the way, these people I emulated as a kid, I grew into pieces of all of them. When I’m writing a rock song, it’s obvious I like The National and TV On The Radio and Bloc Party. You can hear that all over “Heavy Heart.” So when I’m in the studio and I’m writing, I’m confident because I’ve been doing this stuff forever. And I’m not just singing in the booth: I’m running the session, I have all the stems, I have the gear, and I know how to use it. It’s like, I can sell houses real good because I know where the wood is, how to build the house, what the window shades should be, how long the driveway should be — I’ve measured it a million times. That’s how I feel about music. I’ve done the 10,000 hours. After Live Forever, I had a lot of people [asking], “Are you scared?” And I’m like, “No, I’m not scared at all.” If it sucks, I’ll just make another record.
That complete understanding of the process from the ground up, how does that compare to playing live? I know you’ve been in a lot of bands, but playing under your own name now, there’s a lot of different moving parts.
Live is a new thing for me. I didn’t know how I was going to do “Wretched” and “Cosigns” live, [but] I’ve figured it out. And I’m like, “Oh shit, I know how to do this now!” Just like I’ve gotten so into recording and writing songs, I feel myself getting into the live production of the music. You hear a Bartees Strange record and it’s a lot of sounds: hip-hop, house, big rock songs, chill acoustic shit, whatever. I feel like the best way to make those records land is to perform them in all of their glory and transitions. People are gonna expect me to press a button and just run the song, but I’m gonna show them it’s way deeper than that.
[Radiohead’s] In Rainbows was the album that changed how I saw live performances. I remember hearing the drum loops and trying to figure out [what drum machine it was] for like two years. [Then I saw] them live and realized Philip Selway is playing those drums on a drum pad — it sounds like a computer, but he’s playing it. That shit messed me up. And watching the guitar players interact with modular rigs and then [go] back to the guitar, and then [play] piano and a little percussion. It’s all these little things that on the record, you’re just like, “nice song.” But when you see it happen in front of you, it’s like watching a magic show. That was something I loved about The National when I first saw them live: how you could see the choreography of the song. It brings even more depth because you see how much work these people are doing to create a crazy listening experience. They could have just pressed play on a backing track, but they were like, “No, let’s do it the right way.”
Does the chance that it might fail excite you?
Luckily we haven’t had a big live fuckup yet, but it’ll happen, and that kind makes it fun for us because when we pull it off, we look at each other like, “Nobody knows how close that was to a train wreck.”
You said you were starting to think about new music again. Have you actually started writing?
Yeah, it’s almost done.
Wow. When did you start? How much overlap will there be when I interview you later?
They’re related. Farm to Table is an excellent foundation for what happens next. I’m really excited about this whole little world these three albums will be. All of it’s interlinked to me. There’s some very deliberate connections between the next few.
The next few? You really are looking forward just a long way.
That’s why I’m so excited about this one, because I know what happens next.
The relationship between, say, “Cosigns” off the new record and “Mossblerd” from Live Forever, are these links in the chain?
Those are examples, but as it goes forward, it gets tighter. We’ll talk about that soon. Everyone at the label is begging me [to stop] talking about the next one. [laughs]
You released an album that you never suspected would be released while we were locked indoors, and everybody fell in love with it. Live Forever would’ve made a lot of sense at parties and in live venues, but instead, everyone attaches themselves to it while alone. And then you write this second album while dealing with the pressures of fame and acclaim, completely indoors.
Live Forever came out when everyone was indoors, but it was written when everything was normal, about a year-and-a-half before the pandemic. I could never find a label to put it out, so I just sat on it. [Farm To Table] was made after my first time touring the country, with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus. Like, what the fuck? Last time I made a record I took seven days off work and went to a cabin in Wassaic, New York with my friends. We brought our gear and tracked some music. Now I’m at a 4AD studio in London and the engineer is paid for and I can do whatever I want.
[Before] the next record, I want some time to pass. I want to get through this record and experience some shit before I stamp it. It’s similar in some ways, but it’s an exploration of its own. When I finished Farm to Table, part of me wanted to combine them, but Farm to Table spun left and the other one spun right, and I was like, “Okay, these are two different worlds. I’m gonna finish this one and it’ll set up the next one.
In all creation, time is the most important factor. When I look at the things I wanna do next, some of them I don’t know how to do or explain. The only way I’ll learn them is with time — time that’s gonna be granted to me largely because of this album. I take that very seriously. I also never stop writing. I love writing music, producing records, fiddling around with stuff, buying gear and seeing what it inspires me to do. These next couple years, [while I] tour this record, I’ll produce two or three albums, but I’m gonna let them sit for a while. People think I write really fast, but a lot of the things coming out are things I started a long time ago — I’m just good enough to finish them now because of time.