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Bartees Strange’s surreal journey from FCC employee to indie rock star

Bartees Strange headlines 9:30 Club this month in Washington, DC, a city whose music scene he's long admired. "Maybe I'm an underdog at heart," he says, "but I've always felt drawn to do it from here."
Bartees Strange headlines 9:30 Club this month in Washington, DC, a city whose music scene he’s long admired. “Maybe I’m an underdog at heart,” he says, “but I’ve always been drawn to do it from here.” (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)


Bartees Strange references a lengthy text message inviting him to visit the Hudson Valley residence of Aaron Dessner, the prolific music producer and multi-instrumentalist known for his guitar playing at the National. Strange’s voice rises slightly in pitch: “I can’t believe I’m talking to these people,” he says. “Literally 2½ years ago I thought, ‘How do you become one of these people? How do you meet them?’ ”

A musician and producer himself, Strange references when he released his first project, ‘Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy’ in March 2020, an EP of reimagined National covers inspired by a concert the Grammy-winning rock band played in Washington, DC. the previous year. Since then, Strange, 33, has released two critically acclaimed records, “Live Forever” and “Farm to Table,” paving the way for him to enter the space he dreams of living in. He joined the National for a handful of dates on their summer tour.

Sitting in late September on the patio of Kramers, the Dupont Circle bookstore and cafe where he worked years ago after moving to DC as an intern, Strange exudes the mild disbelief of an indie artist whose star is rising fast and someone’s confidence. he knows he deserved it. He has the goods; often praised for his tendency to straddle genre lines – punk, rap, emo, country, whatever alternative rock may mean these days – Strange excels at bringing the listener closer before flinging them onto another plane entirely.

The next stop on Strange’s surreal journey is 9:30 Club, a historic venue with sentimental value for those familiar with the local music scene. He’ll be headlining there for the first time on Saturday, a remarkable feat considering he watched video after video of bands playing at the old 9:30 venue (and can immediately remember the first show he ever attended at the current spot on V Street Northwest: “Beach House. It was so sick. ‘Norway’ era”). While a public relations gig technically brought Strange to D.C., his deep-rooted love of musical acts thriving in the area first and foremost set his sights on the city.

“There’s a black star here,” he says. Chuck Brown was here. George Clinton made music here. There’s a history of black experimental, indie — prominent artists. People sleep a bit in the area. Maybe I’m an underdog at heart, but I’ve always been drawn to do it from here. I want to refocus the light.”

Born Bartees Leon Cox Jr. to a military engineer father and opera singer mother, Strange lived in England, Germany and even Greenland before his family settled in Mustang, Okla, during his tween years. Strange considers his mother to be a fundamental part of his life. musical life, referring to her as both his biggest fan and toughest critic. “I have a lot of respect for her,” he says. “How humble she walks among us.”

Strange, who grew up singing in church, grew up on gospel and soul. At home, he delved into his father’s funk collection, be it Funkadelic or Rick James or Prince, fascinated by the discovery that while most of the contemporary rock bands Strange knew at the time were white, “all of my father’s rock bands were black.” (He adds, “I didn’t think they were funk bands. I was like, ‘This is a rock band.'”) When Strange eventually befriended peers who could drive, he ventured out with them and started all kinds of cars to encounter. new music.

Among the artists he found alone? ’50 Cent,’ he says with a hearty laugh, adding that ‘Get Rich or Die Tryin’ was the first record I came across in a car. I was like, ‘Music is awesome. You can do this?’ ”

After a brief stint playing college football in Kansas, Strange graduated from the University of Oklahoma and moved east to DC. He worked at Kramers with three guys who were all on “Jeopardy!” — “several seasons,” he specifies — and worked his way through a series of public relations jobs that led him to the Obama administration, for which he served in 2014 as spokesperson for the Federal Communications Commission. Strange once aspired to a career in politics and romanticized the moving and shaking of it all. When he entered the FCC position, he realized he didn’t want that life at all: “I actually hate myself right now,” he remembers thinking.

So Strange did what many creative, ambitious, dissatisfied twenty-somethings did before him: he moved to Brooklyn. He filled a room in his tiny Crown Heights apartment with tape recorders and other recording equipment, channeling his energies into an activity that was often squeezed between his work shift and lack of sleep each night. He learned how to produce music by watching online videos.

It worked for a while, until Strange came to the conclusion that he probably wouldn’t make it in New York. There were too many other musicians pursuing the same goals, too many wealthy people who had the luxury of playing music all day, too many New York University students who had access to much better facilities, he says.

In 2019, Strange moved back to DC, where he found a cheaper apartment in Northeast and renegotiated his salary so he could work four of the five weekdays, reserving the last one for music. “Baby step vibes,” he says. “A lot of people say, ‘How did you quit your job and make music?’ I’m like, “More than 10 years.” I’ve done both forever.

During a 30-minute set at DC’s All Things Go music festival in October, Strange and his band played “Boomer,” an upbeat song from his first record that opens with the playful greeting, “Aye bruh, aye bruh, aye bruh.” The curious crowd listened as the steady music – with its bouncy drums and bright guitar – built into an explosive chorus. As Strange shouted, “That’s what we’re dancing for, Lord, I’m going in,” many of the festival-goers gathered in the Merriweather Post Pavilion pit began to wave and bounce to the beat.

Until a friend convinced him otherwise, Strange thought about shelving “Boomer” because he was concerned that people would find a black man rapping over a bluesy indie rock track too “corny”. Instead, it became his most popular song. Strange’s second album, the powerful ‘Farm to Table’, released in June, suggests he’s learned to trust his instincts more. (Some outside validation certainly doesn’t hurt; on the track “Cosigns,” he shouts out the support he’s received from fellow indie rockers Courtney Barnett, Lucy Dacus, and Phoebe Bridgers, as well as Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and record company founder Martin Mills. who owns Strange’s label, 4AD.)

Strange likens his storytelling on “Farm to Table” to a symphony, the 10 songs loosely grouped into movements. The greatness of his music often reflects his emotional intensity. The horns on opening track “Heavy Heart” go berserk, hitting the listener with as much impact as Strange’s emotions hit him. As his career took off in the first year of the pandemic, Strange felt a kind of “survivor guilt” that he eventually translated into a powerful work ethic. The lyrics to “Heavy Heart” explore how untenable it can be for guilt to be a primary motivator: “Sometimes I feel just like my dad / Rushing around / I never saw the God in that / Why work so hard you can’t fall back ? / Then I remember, I trust too much / My heavy heart,” he sings in the chorus.

Rich and vibrant in sound, the song is ultimately hopeful, according to Strange, who says his position as the opener suggests he’ll find a solution to his struggles later on. In life, he finds strength in community, a constant reminder that he doesn’t have to go it alone. He moved back to DC to pursue that feeling.

“I wanted to be a band from here,” he says. “When I was in Brooklyn I really enjoyed it, but I’m not a band from Brooklyn. I didn’t come from there like that. … I wasn’t part of that community like I was when I was in DC”

Throughout the conversation, Strange, who now lives just outside of town in Maryland, tosses around the names of DC bands with the same fervor he remembers when he first discovered them. He was familiar with Scream and Fugazi early on, but can pinpoint the exact moment in his young adulthood when someone recommended he listen to the indie rock band Smart Went Crazy, which then led him to band member Chad Clark’s next venture, Beauty Pill. .

Also a versatile black songwriter and producer, Clark has been a North Star for Strange, who hopes to create a space for other inventive artists to thrive. For Strange’s first national headlining tour, he says, he was deliberately putting together the kind of diverse billing “that I’ve always wanted to see.” He will bring along the artists They Hate Change, Pom Pom Squad and Spring Silver, the last two of which will play at 9:30 p.m.

“I want to be the person who pulls you in and gives you something, because there are people who have given me something,” he says. “It feels good to broaden my shoulders and say, ‘We belong here too.’ ”

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