Bartees Strange: ‘Some days I feel like God; other days I feel like a snail’

Forget genres: this Obama press officer turned noncomformist pop star is in the business of crafting entire worlds of music for a truly inclusive society

A minute in to recent single Hold the Line, Bartees Cox Jr – AKA Bartees Strange – tees up a wrenching slide-guitar solo. It is not caked in slacker scuzz, nor is it a knowing deconstruction of rock machismo – it is a lava-hot, grief-stricken blues lament. The song, from his new album, Farm to Table, is devoted to George Floyd’s daughter, Gianna, and it plays with a nurse-like closeness to its subject.

Cox’s emotional intimacy would be bracing in any genre, but in indie rock it is brazenly off-brief – just how the singer-songwriter likes it. In a scene that usually balks at grand gestures, he is here to rewrite the rulebook.

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Given his conviction, Cox presents a remarkably easygoing front. He is not the only artist to sweep into indie promising a borderless, post-genre future, but he may be the first to do so while rocking denim shorts and a floral summer shirt. Perched on the corner of a hotel bed, he bounces through stump speeches without teetering into overearnestness. “Some days I feel like God; other days I feel like a snail,” he admits at one point, equally amused by both extremes. “And it’s all OK! I’m lucky I can express it.”

Cox, 33, came to prominence in 2020 with an eclectic EP of National covers, swapping the Ohio band’s ennui for wide-eyed bombast. He swiftly signed to 4AD and released his debut album, Live Forever, by turns channelling anthemic thunder, punk abandon, lo-fi rap nihilism and ambient dislocation. He is an authentic bundle of contradictions: a DIY grafter who can blast arena-sized hooks; a self-mythologist with wobbly self-esteem; a business-savvy pragmatist with half a mind to tear down the industry.

Shrubber soul … Bartees Strange.
Shrubber soul … Bartees Strange. Photograph: Julia Leiby

Live Forever won tastemaker approval, including support slots with such indie royals as Courtney Barnett, Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers. Cox namedrops all three on his latest single Cosigns, another unfashionably forthright statement. “It’s something you never see in indie rock,” he says of the track, which proudly reels off his professional accomplishments. “People are super-humble. Oftentimes they’re like: ‘It’s not even about the money.’ But I’m not coming from that!”

He wants the song “to feel like you’re looking at a mirror and the mirror is talking to you”. Its playful braggadocio is complicated by some disembodied Auto-Tune, capturing what he calls the “two Barteeses”: one humming with bravado, the other spooked by his whirlwind career.

Cox recorded Farm to Table just months after releasing Live Forever, as though fearful that public interest could vanish overnight. If he is to juggle a music career with starting a family, as he wishes, he knows he needs to make his moments count. “There’s not a lot of Black examples of the National, who have built a thing for decades and aren’t going away,” he says.

In his 20s, Cox glimpsed another life. He sold his music gear and left his Oklahoma home town to work in Washington DC, as a deputy press secretary in the Obama administration, in 2014. He recalls thinking: “I’m gonna be Remy [Mahershala Ali’s lobbyist character] from House of Cards. I’m gonna dig into this world and make a difference.”

But the deeper he dug, the more he got lost. Disillusioned with back-patting fundraisers, he rekindled memories of his enlightenment moments as a country kid idolising Black indie stars; buying a guitar after hearing Bloc Party’s Silent Alarm; marvelling at TV on the Radio’s 2006 David Letterman performance. “That changed my life!” he says, beaming. “That was bigger to me than a march or protest.”

He quit politics to work in environmental campaigning, quietly saving to buy back his equipment. In spare evenings, he moonlighted in bands and swotted up on music production software. At recording sessions with punk groups, he suggested an R&B or 808-style bass sound. Some producers snorted. Others got it, and Cox brought them into his circle. Music, he realised, was as much about creating communities as songs. “I started to look at it as a revolutionary act: Black people, brown people, queer people, women, building things that didn’t exist before. That could mean something even bigger than the message in the song.”

Cox was born in the UK, in East Anglia – his air force engineer dad was stationed at RAF Bentwaters near Ipswich – before being shuttled around the US throughout his childhood. When the family settled in a mostly white part of Oklahoma, his mother, Donna Mitchell-Cox, a renowned Black opera singer, struggled to find work. She spent years teaching in primary schools, until she assumed a teaching position at the University of Oklahoma that had previously been occupied by her mentor, the Black baritone Thomas Carey.

Bartees Strange … not common or garden.
Bartees Strange … not common or garden. Photograph: Julia Leiby

Cox says his parents never hid their hardships “because they knew we, the kids, were going to live in a world where we might be the only Black kids in a space. We needed to know how to function.” Carrying their ethos into adulthood means not only “making sure the band is representative”, but also making songs that “span worlds of music”, rather than conforming to segregated genres.

Emotionally, too, Cox pushes beyond mannered indie rock, instead channelling the manic mood swings of a Future record. “I’m not gonna say I admire everything he does,” Cox says, laughing. “Future’s a pretty rough cat. But he expresses his vulnerability in a way that only he can. This dude has so much money, so many Grammys, talks about drugs and girls. Next bar: ‘Why doesn’t anyone care about me?’”

Part of the Bartees Strange project, beyond exploding genre into musical fireworks, is to reflect that emotional breadth from a spectrum of Black artists – from renaissance figures such as Moses Sumney to alpha males like Future. “Maybe a lot of Black people have vision,” he suggests, raising his palms. “And if that’s true, that means not all Black people just want to dunk basketballs!” He laughs with despair, both at the cliche and the fact it bears repeating. “The more we get used to people who aren’t white boys having more than one feeling, the better we can create art and policies and systems that accommodate all of us. I truly believe that.”

Farm to Table is released 17 June on 4AD.


Jazz Monroe

The GuardianTramp

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