In mid-March, just after the country shut down, Bartees Strange, aka Bartees Cox Jr., released Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy, an EP of re-imagined songs originally by The National. For him, it was a project of both appreciation and interrogation; it was inspired in part by seeing the band in D.C. in 2019 and noticing how few other Black faces he saw in the crowd. Critical while compulsively listenable, Say Goodbye is the work of an admirer of the source material and a visionary with something to say – and it was only an introduction.
Live Forever, out tomorrow, his expansive debut LP, is both inviting and uncompromising. Recorded earlier this year in Wassaic, N.Y., and later mastered by the prolific emo producer Will Yip, its influences are seemingly limitless. Each of its 11 tracks stakes out a new sonic claim, traversing explosive post-punk and acoustic meditations, incorporating glitchy samples and soaring choruses. At every turn, there's a new surprise, but throughout, there's a sense of cohesion, all because of the singularity of its creator.
Ahead of the release of Live Forever, Bartees spoke to NPR Music about his musical influences and ambitions, how living in Oklahoma and Washington, D.C. has impacted his sense of self and how he's building an entire world around his work.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Lyndsey McKenna, NPR Music: What was your musical upbringing and education like at home? I know you and your siblings performed with your mother, an opera singer.
Bartees Strange: It's funny, I didn't have much of a formal education. My mom, she's a singer and a great pianist, but she never was forceful about music, she wanted us to make our own choices and find our own way. She was always warming up every morning, there were always students in and out of the house, so I just kind of tagged along. I think I just absorbed a lot. I never thought of myself as an instrumentalist; I wanted to be a singer like my mom.
At church, me and my brother and sister would always get tapped to sing the solo or do the youth choir; every Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday, we were just bouncing around churches all over Oklahoma City, just watching her sing. It wasn't really until I got a little older that I found an instrument, which was guitar. No one in my family played guitar, so I just taught myself.
I also want to talk about your own musical discovery process. In interviews, you've talked about Tooth & Nail acts, plus Bloc Party and TV on the Radio. What was it like at that formative age, coming into your own musical education?
My parents are pretty Christian, so I didn't get access to secular music until I had friends with cars. My dad loved collecting music; he's not a musician, but he's got tape machines and all types of cool things to play music back. He would show me funk and Parliament and Bootsy and Rick James, so that was like my secular musical reference.
I remember seeing TV on the Radio play on Letterman and At the Drive In, and that s*** shook my world. Around the same time, I was starting to get into punk bands because I had some friends with cars. And at church, a bunch of people that really liked Norma Jean. I was like, "Whoa, this is crazy." Being a person that just wanted to fit in, I was like, "Well, I'm going to figure out why people like this, and I'm going to like it." Like, "I'm going to find my way into this."'
Every other time I'd been in musical circles, it was church or an opera. It was cool to experience music without rules that was messy and emotional. It was like all the things I liked about church, like when the spirit moves, I was like, "This is that."
I want to discuss your influences in terms of sound and lyrics. "Mustang" references The Antlers. "Kelly Rowland" is this amazing dream sequence. Your storytelling feels like the element of your music that diverges most from the understood "indie rock" space. Lyrically, how did you get to this point? Who have you looked up to?
I think lyrically, I've looked up to rappers and singers. I always felt like indie rock and rock generally missed a huge opportunity to grow with a changing culture as they've continued to limit the involvement of Black and brown people. Hip-hop leads culture because of the people that are in it; they're the people who are leading culture right now in America. It's why rock has waned. You can see it in the lyrics of rock and roll and in indie rock – a lot of stuff is just the same song. It's stagnated.
I love how rappers rap about dreams – money and cars and pretty girls and big houses and buying their mom a yacht. Expansive, out of this world, unbelievable s***, and sometimes they get it. It's like this very big Christian principle of like speaking things into existence in a way. When I look at rock music, it's like, "I'm sad." I'm like, "Yo, let's bring a hip-hop ethos to it." Like, I want to write rock songs about, like, "I want to be the biggest artist in the world."
It's an unsaid thing: Nobody makes the brash claim that they want to be the biggest rock band, but ostensibly, that's the ambition.
They all do. That's why we're here, you know? I mean, I want something out of this, and I didn't want to be shy about that, especially on my first record. I wanted to be clear about what I'm trying to do. "Kelly Rowland" has two huge samples in it: One is from Mansur Brown, the song "Mashita," which is just an incredible song. And then, of course, the Nelly and Kelly song ["Dilemma"]. I just wanted to be clear with what I want out of making music.
Related to this idea of ambition, I want to talk about your evolution from performing in bands to being in your own band, and how that ties into doing this full time – making music, and working in the industry. You announced that you were quitting your day job, so to speak, and now you're doing studio stuff full time. That feels like a huge personal moment.
The last 10, 11 years, I've worked in a very full-time job, running comms and political campaigns and labor campaigns and climate campaigns. I've grinded and worked on music just as hard in the background; I always told myself that I would hopefully switch over if I could figure it out.
Through this record, I came to the realization that if I'm going to do this, it's going to be my own way. I can't follow a plan; there's no plan for this. Everyone that does this figures it out differently. And for me, it was like, I need to build a new world around this music. I'm not going to pop in Brooklyn and get a million dollars and be able to live there. That's not how it's going to work. It's a continued journey of building a sustainable life around my music so I can continue to do this.
Yo, I'll be honest: This studio worked out because of Chad Clark [of Beauty Pill]. Anyone in D.C. that wants to do anything in D.C. knows, Chad Clark is the guy. I remember growing up listening to Beauty Pill and being like, "Black dude, D.C. punk rock." I wanted to live in D.C. because of people like Chad. Chad introduced me to this studio and was like, 'Y'all should help him find a place to work so he doesn't work at his day job and waste his time.'
I'm so stoked to do this in D.C. D.C. has such an incredible legacy of music that people don't think about. It's like people forgot what D.C. represents in the rock space, especially with Black people. This is a historically Black, hardcore, punk a** city. And it's still here. People ignore it, they gloss over it. This is a legendary city and I'm just so pumped to contribute to the sound of what it can be. I want to build something here.
I'm fascinated by that sense of place. Growing up in Oklahoma, then leaving, then you interned in D.C. and then you were in Brooklyn, and now you're back in D.C. – I feel like there's a sense that place sort of informed your artistic evolution.
Because of my previous places, I didn't know what I was capable of. I remember living in Oklahoma and thinking I was not a smart kid. I worked hard, but I was definitely one of the kids that took the placement test and they're like, "Great, trash delivery man." I had really low self-esteem and I didn't know if I could do anything with my life.
In Oklahoma, there just weren't a lot of opportunities, coupled with the fear of not wanting to stand out or attract much attention. I would've much rather just quietly move through life. That's what a lot of Black people are taught, just don't make trouble for yourself or for your family, you know? And that's a real concern.
When I moved to D.C., I had to relearn who I was. When I moved to Brooklyn, it was the first time that I felt like I caught up with myself: I was like in a mostly Black neighborhood with a lot of queer Black people, trans people, artists. Working with them and making music with them, I realized that I could do it; it was like, "You're not just a dreamer, you can do this."
It's been years of believing in myself before anyone got it. Sometimes you're the only one that knows for a while. Place played a huge role in it: once I was in the right place and around the right people, I just went for it.
There's a statement of purpose right at the center of the record, the thesis, "Genres keep us in our boxes." Live Forever feels emblematic, in terms of creative control and legacy and identity. What does it mean to you to have that statement right at the center of the record?
I mean, that's what the record is. I was very deliberate with what I wanted it to say, and that's what I wanted to address. It's insane to me, like, I know the contributions that Black people have made to Western music, through my mom, through our legacy, my mom's uncles and grandparents, Chitlin Circuit players and Jubilee singers all through the South.
It's funny that I could be expected to make one sound. Like, how? I remember Igor and Flower Boy and "Old Town Road." People were up in arms, people didn't know what to do. In my mind, it was like, "These are the best pop records ever. It is everything." In "Jealousy," the first song on that record, it's saying, "Come to a world where everything is everything," because like when I look at like Tyler, the Creator or Solange or Felicia Douglass of Dirty Projectors, they're doing everything all the time – pop songs with rap hooks, country structures. They're doing it all, and they're Black, and that's why, and that's important.
In a world that is trying to be colorblind instead of acknowledging what race does culturally, systematically, economically, socially – those contributions to art are so important. That's why the art is good. That's what I wanted to do with this record – these songs make sense because I'm Black and because my voice ties these songs together. My legacy, my history, my ancestry ties this together. Sonically it doesn't make sense, but it makes sense because it's me and I think that's like an important part of music – the person.
It feels like people in the music industry are really using this time as a moment of reflection. And now, you're releasing your debut, you're stepping into full-time studio work. What's something that you would like to see moving forward from the industry?
Oh, you know, like Issa Rae says, "I'm voting for everybody Black," like, you know, Oceanator, Poolblood, Shamir, Nnamdi, Tasha, Melanie Charles. People are excited about my music, but it means nothing if I'm the only one. That's not the point; the point is I'm hoping that people are like, "Oh, Bartees, he's friends with these fools." There's a world of people that are way better than me and way more inspiring than me, and I would love for them to get shots because I think it could really blow this up and make it better for everyone.
It's not about it just being better for Black people, but for more of us to get in, this form can change. We can rejuvenate this world of music and make it something that everyone can contribute to in a more equitable, comfortable and exciting way. That's the mission. Like Nipsey said, the mission continues, the grind continues. It's that s***. I really believe it.
Is there anything that you want to be a guiding principle or takeaway going into the record?
We live in a world where things are increasingly more and more polarized, which I understand; in some ways, I feel like I may have contributed to it because of my work. But I feel like some things can be everything; not everything has to be black and white, and I think that my music is a good example of both. There's something on this record for everybody.
I hope that it's just encouraging. I want people to feel like they can do what they want with their lives. I know so many talented people that are grinding it out in day jobs and trying to take care of student loans. It's so easy to get caught up in this circle, like, "Yeah, I'm just going to grind it out for 10 more years," but there are other options that you can consider. You can do whatever you want with your life. It took me a long time to realize that I could make these changes and build something for myself that worked for me.
And especially for Black people, you know – things can just feel insurmountably huge and hard to navigate for so many reasons, and I just want them to know that there are some things they can control. Not everything's out of our control. That's what Live Forever is all about to me. I remember when I had the vision for it, it felt it was really huge for me. I was like, "I'm going to live like this forever. This is my new thing." It saved me.