bartees strange

Bartees Strange: “I’m excited about the next things that I’m making forever”

At the core of his second album, Farm To Table, Bartees Strange poses a lofty question: Who do you keep close once you’ve become the person you’re meant to be?

Throughout the record, Strange sings of loved ones and home and tourmates; then the answer becomes clear. His circle comprises certified ride-or-dies, the type of people who wouldn’t bat an eye when he mentions that he’d like to sell out the 9:30 Club in D.C. or collaborate with Yves Tumor and James Blake one day. As he embarks on another stacked year, tapping into his community will be the antidote to self-doubt.

Read more: MUNA are entering a new era of radical vulnerability

“I never really cared if people liked what I made, you know?” Strange says from his home, having concluded a tour supporting Car Seat Headrest across North America a couple of days ago. “Now it’s getting harder and harder to do it, which I don’t love sometimes. But I still feel like I’m making the stuff I want to hear.”

Farm To Table is another testament to his relentless grind and reverence for possibility. Boiling over with influences, Strange traverses country and trap, alternative rock and gospel, all while bouncing between moods that range from braggadocious to melancholic. As he chases different sounds and emotions, it’s his desire to cover as much terrain as possible that remains both endearing and thrilling. Because with growth comes gratitude, and Strange wears his confidence like a pair of new kicks. With Farm To Table, Strange has crafted an album that celebrates artistic freedom as much as the people who stuck around long enough to see his music resonate with thousands.

Congratulations on the record! Things are really popping off right now, and I’m so happy for you. How are you keeping yourself grounded through it all?

I try to journal. I have a therapist. It gets overwhelming sometimes, but I’ve been trying to just focus on the people that actually know me and keep them close to me. I feel like now there’s all these new people, and everyone is telling me everything is a good idea. I need people around me who know me, you know?

I feel really grateful that I’m still with the same management team; they’re the same two people I’ve worked with this whole time. My band is people I’ve been playing with for the last 12, 13 years. As all these new things happen, I’m keeping a baseline of things that have just always been around so I don’t get too disoriented. I sit in this room, and I make music. That’s what I love to do. I try to remember that when I come home. I come here and I write, and that makes me remember, “You are actually good at this, and you’re not an impostor.”

Are you second-guessing yourself?

Not yet, but I almost did. I had a couple of moments on this album where I was like, “What am I doing?” Then I had to bring myself all the way back down to Earth and be like, “OK, I got this.” It gets crazy because I was working on this album, finishing it in London at the 4AD studios, and definitely had many moments of like, “Holy shit, is this real?” And it is, and that’s great.

Photo by Luke Piotrowski

Speaking of the people around you, I was curious to know what the reactions were when they first heard the record, like your parents.

Yeah, my mom and dad — they loved it. My parents, they’ve heard every song I’ve ever made since I was a kid. Some songs they heard me try many, many times and not land. There were songs on this record that my mom was like, “I remember this song from when you were 17.” It’s like me revisiting some of these ideas that I’ve been trying to express since I was a kid, but now I have the tools to do it. But it was cool. I was glad that they loved it. My dad liked it more than Live Forever. He goes, “This song sounds like you grew a little bit.”

Which song was your mom referencing?

“Black Gold,” definitely that song. I’ve tried to write that song so many times, and I could never figure it out, and “Hennessy,” the last song on the record. I’ve played with those two songs for years. “Hennessy,” there’s so many versions of that song that I recorded, but nothing ever really felt right. They were all a lot more ornate, way more produced and overdone. But I like how it turned out. The record has this fun palette of super-produced things and very raw things. It felt really good to end the record with a song like “Hennessy.”

What made it finally click?

Confidence, honestly. I could produce music, so it’s easy for me to overdo things when I feel tentative. If I’m scared of the song, I might add a lot to it to cover myself up. That’s what I’d been doing to “Hennessy.” Every time I had done it, it was a way more full arrangement, synthesizers, strings. I tried to doll it up because I think at the center of it, I was very scared and shy about what that song means to me. So to peel everything back in the song with it and be like, “This is who I am,” it was something I could have only done at this stage in my life, I think.

Is that why you ended on that song? 

Yeah. Kind of to be like, “Well, this is where I’m at now.” Over the course of the album, it’s about the last few years for me and this big transition in my life and all these new people and how my life has changed. I wanted this last song to be like, “I’m at peace with this. I’ve grown into this, and I’m excited about the next things that I’m making forever.”

If “genres keep us in our boxes” is the statement of intent on Live Forever, what do you think is the lyrical throughline of the new record?

With Live Forever, my question was, “What would it be like if we lived in a world where people just made everything they wanted to make?” Fuck the boxes, fuck what you look like, who you are, whatever. If you could be in a place where you could just do whatever you wanted to do, who would you be?

This record is zooming in on that and being like, “OK, you can do that.” So who are the people that are there with you when you do this? When you build this new world or you start being the person you want to be, who does that invite into your circle? How does that change your life? What are the steps to actually make that world real and maintain it? That’s the lyrical throughline of this record. Despite all the bullshit, despite all the changes, you’re in control, and you can do whatever you want. This is what it looks like if you do.

The lyric “I’ll never change” from “Cosigns” comes to mind because you have earned all this success. I feel like you’re the type of person who’s always going to stay curious and hungry but humble.

Yes, you nailed it. I think “Cosigns” is the “Mossblerd” of this album. I say very directly, “This is how I feel about everything happening.” That was the hardest song for me to write because there’s always this line — being humble and grateful, but also feeling like you definitely deserve what you’ve gotten. That’s what “Cosigns” is. I think in the first verse I shout out “Mossblerd”: “At the Beacon for a week/With the Mossblerd pointed at you, bet I know y’all heard of me.” Kind of tying it all the way back to Live Forever and just being like, “I’m still doing this. I’m going to keep doing this until you recognize me for doing this.” I just want more and more.

It feels like how stacked the year has been for you is reflected in the opener. The floodgates burst open with “Heavy Heart.”

I love that song. That song is specifically about guilt. When Live Forever came out, I had so many good things happening, but it was also the peak of the pandemic. There were no vaccines. People were dying. I had family that was dying. It was so hard not to feel a type of survivor’s guilt for experiencing anything good in that moment. That song is about like, “Even if that’s true, it doesn’t do anybody any good to feel guilty all the time.” At some point, you got to make a decision to do what’s best for yourself and find happiness and celebrate some of these things, even though it doesn’t feel right all the time. It’s OK to celebrate wins.

Did that feel lonely at all when you were experiencing those highs?

Yes, 100% because it was my wildest dream to get signed by 4AD. All these things that were happening in my life were things that I never thought would happen. I remember going through my phone and being like, “Who can I tell? I don’t want to make people feel bad or like I’m bragging.” It was hard to have all this good stuff, and you just can’t really do anything with it. I never really even had an album release party for Live Forever. I’m really glad I got to tour on it, though. I didn’t think that would happen. Eventually, though, I was like, “I still need to celebrate this just for me, even if no one else can with me. It’s still OK to recognize this and enjoy the moment, even though it’s hard times.”

How did you go about finding people to celebrate those victories with?

Well, I just fell back on my community, the people that I’ve made records with and been making music with this whole time. They were the people who understood what I’d gone through to get to this point because they’d been there with me. We didn’t have a huge party or anything, but people I made the album with, we talked a lot over that year just about how we want to do the next record and the one after that and how we want to keep growing as artists, as musicians, regardless of all the other shit, and really accepting the greater gift, which is we get to make music for a living, for now at least. We get an opportunity to really try some stuff. We just focused on that and each other.

That was what we did the last couple of years. We’ve been touring together for the last year. So, it’s been nice to watch people get excited about the music and the next record and feel like it’s real. 

You make so many interesting creative choices on this album, from the country influence on “Hold The Line” to ending on “Hennessy,” which is so different than how it began. Do you ever feel overwhelmed by all the options?

I don’t ever really feel overwhelmed by the music because I feel like some songs just live together in my mind. These 10 songs lived together, even though they sound different from each other. I can look at the record and draw the connections very clearly. I get excited because I feel like I have a lot of records in me, and I’m like, “Cool, these 10 songs are sick. That’s the album. I’m gonna just write more now.”

I’m never like, “Oh shit, what do I put on the album?” I’m always like, “Cool, let’s make another album. This is great.” I have friends who get really precious about records and are so meticulous. I’m not. I make the album, and I’m like, “Yeah, I could have done a couple of things better. I’ll do it better next time. That’s OK.” I think it’s just important to make things. Finish the thing.

This interview appeared in issue #407, available here.