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Bartees Strange explores his journey from 'Farm to Table'

Bartees Strange.
Luke Piotrowski
Courtesy of the artist
Bartees Strange.

Anyone still waiting for their dream job will appreciate the meandering career path of Bartees Strange: As a teenager, he seemed to be destined for greatness on the football field in Oklahoma, then ended up... as a spokesman for the F.C.C.

"I was the deputy press secretary, so I did a lot of pitching for the chairman," he tells NPR's Morning Edition. "One of those things was pitching a lot and fielding phone calls from NPR – so shout out to you guys." More work in D.C. followed: "After that it was the labor movement and then the climate movement, for about 10 years."

Now, Bartees Strange is one of the hottest names in what you might call "alternative rock," the subject of glowing profiles and recognition from indie stars like Phoebe Bridgers and Courtney Barnett.

Stylistically, there's a little bit of everything in his music – a subject that he's covered in many interviews. But on a new album, Farm to Table, he explains that the subject of family has taken center stage.

This interview has been edited and condensed. The broadcast version of this conversation will air Mon., June 20.

Leila Fadel, Morning Edition: On this new album you're writing a lot about family, so first I want to get to know them a little bit. Your dad's a scientist with the military and your mom's a musician and educator?

Bartees Strange: My dad was an engineer in the military, but now he works at FEMA. My mom, she was an opera singer and an educator her entire life.

FEMA... that's not an easy job these days.

No, it's not. He works on the flood program – oh my gosh yeah, it's a tough gig.

So there's a song, "Heavy Heart," and in it you sing: "Sometimes I feel just like my dad, rushing around. I never saw the God in that – why work so hard, if you can't fall back?" Are you writing about becoming your dad?

Yes – I mean, a big theme of the record is becoming your parents. I remember growing up and my dad going on tour, or flying all over the world, always working on something. And he had reasons for it, but at the time I didn't understand those reasons. I'm just like, "Wow dad is always busy." You know, "Why work this hard if you can't relax?" And now I'm watching him get older and I feel the same way. I'm my dad. Retire, chill out.

But, I mean... you're always on the road now.

And that's what a big part of the record is – it's looking at people who came before you. When you're young you don't understand, but as you get older and you start to do the same things, you begin to understand way more deeply. You know why those decisions were made as you make the same ones.

Have your parents listened to the album?

They were the first people who did. I had a listening party at their house on Easter.

What did they say?

They loved it. I've been playing songs for my parents since I was 12 years old, so it's always a nice full-circle moment when we're all in the living room, and I'm standing in the middle of the room playing my songs, talking about them.

Your mom really started your musical influence, is that right?

If it wasn't for my mom I probably wouldn't have taken music so seriously. Mm-hmm.

Did you rebel against the sort of classical music that she introduced you to?

Yes – mostly because I couldn't see myself in it. It wasn't what really got me going, although I thought it was really beautiful and I did opera camp, you know.

What was opera camp like?

Oh my goodness. So, every summer the Cimarron Opera Company would have a camp, where kids from all over the state would go to the local college and learn an opera and perform it. It was the most fun part of my summers, for sure.

So you were doing high school football and opera camp?

Well, definitely through middle school and freshman year of high school, yeah. Opera camp straight to football practice.

When people write about you they always note your genre-bending, that you don't really adhere to any one style of music. I'm sure you're sick of hearing it by now – rock, hip-hop, country, soul. So I want to ask you: Is there a style of music you would never do?

Oh, that's interesting... the only things I would never do are things that feel extremely appropriative. I'm probably not going to pull up with a flamenco song, because that's not really my experience, you know. [Laughs]

You told the music site Pitchfork that you want to make things that are polarizing – what does that mean? Do you want to repel some people?

No, I just think that the music that I'm making, it's stuff where I feel like you either love it or you don't love it, you know? And that's fine. I want people who are into my music to be all the way in, into the world that I'm building, and also understand that what I make isn't for everybody. Like all art.

You've had a really unusual career path. You went from high school football star with plans to turn pro. You grew up doing choir at church with your mom and then somehow you ended up working in the federal government during the Obama administration. And then ended up here. How did that path lead you to music?

Music has always been a huge part of my life. I think it was so much a part of my life that I didn't want it to be my whole life when I was young. I remember going to college and just thinking, "I need to get a job." I remember my mom, even being a musician, she wasn't pressing me to be a professional musician. She was like, "You should definitely get a job." And so that was what I dedicated myself to in college

I had like 10 internships – I left college early, I moved to D.C. for another internship and just kind of grinded. My aspiration at the time was to be like Remy from House of Cards or something, you know? But as I was doing it, I noticed there was something huge missing in my life, and it was music. So I quit that job, moved to New York, picked up another job that would give me some flexibility so I could play in bands in the nighttime and I just joined every band I could for like five years, until I wrapped my arms around what I wanted to do with music. It just grew a little bit every year until I came up with an album, took myself upstate and recorded it and put it out.

And then everything changed and I was able to quit my job and focus on it. But it was super incremental, over about 10 years of doing it one step at a time.

So in some ways you were running away from what you ultimately ran back to.

It's so funny, when I moved to D.C. from Oklahoma I remember selling all my music equipment, mostly because I was like "OK, I got to really focus on becoming a person with a job and being important and making money." And the more money I made and the faster I grew in my career, the more unhappy I was. I remember hitting a point in my early, mid-20s where I looked around and I didn't want to be like anyone that was in my office ...

I remember thinking, "Is this really going to be my life?" I don't know if that's what I want. It was less scary to do something I loved, and at the time I wasn't thinking it was going to be my full-time job. My aspiration wasn't to be a full-time musician, it was simply: "I want to work less hours and just play in a band on the side." That was the first thing I wanted. And then from there every year I wanted a little more, until it just grew and grew.

I want to talk about your song "Hold the Line." That one, it really stayed with me. I know you wrote this about Gianna Floyd – just 6 when her dad George Floyd's murder was filmed, sparking mass demonstrations around the world. I was in Minneapolis when protesters were demanding change in the face of police violence, when I watched Gianna smile and say, "Dad change the world." It broke me. Watching a 6-year-old looking for meaning in her dad's senseless killing, being told that her loss would finally change the world. Can you tell me about this song, where you wrote it, why you wrote it?

At the time I was working a full-time job and I was living in D.C., on H Street. I remember hearing the news and watching the video and eventually seeing Gianna speak, and my first feeling was how devastated I was, because here we have this 6-year-old child having to address the free world on how her father was murdered on TV. I wish she could have been a kid a little longer.

I remember when I realized that because I was Black, my life was going to be different than the white kids I grew up with. And every time I see Black kids have to grow up that fast, it just sends me all the way back. It's horrifying. It broke my heart and I wanted to write something that nodded towards that, but also recognized that, because of her, there was this huge movement brewing.

I remember looking outside and seeing all those out-of-towners flood D.C. in March, for days, and I just kept thinking, "This is us trying to hold the line and trying to fight for something." We don't know, like, exactly what to even call for. We're just so upset. That song is just a bundle of emotions,aAnd I think that that's OK. That's why I wrote that song and my heart goes out to that family, and especially Gianna.

How old were you when you realized life was going to be different for you, compared to the white kids?

I was 8 or 9. At the time, my parents didn't let me listen to the radio. They were pretty Christian, so if it wasn't classical music or gospel or like, a record my dad had ... I remember I was really getting into hip-hop and all this stuff, and I wanted to change how I was dressing, and I started sagging. And I remember my dad just being like "Hey, you may see everyone else doing this in your school, but you can't do this because you look different. You're tall, you have broad shoulders – someone might think you're older than you are." I didn't understand that at the time. I was like, "Why would it matter if someone thought I was older than I was?"

Cover art for Bartees Strange's album <em>Farm to Table</em>, released June 17, 2022.
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Cover art for Bartees Strange's album Farm to Table, released June 17, 2022.

And then he just started to break down what he went through when he was a kid and the friends that he had lost, or been killed, or put in jail or whatever. I remember getting older and seeing it happen to my world of friends, and seeing how people would treat me. Being a kid was kind of taken from me, I had to grow up a little fast. And especially, you know, I grew up in an all-white, conservative, big football town in Mustang, Oklahoma. We faced a series of challenges living there, like all the way from who you date to how you can be out to what you're driving and everything. Fear becomes the motivating factor for all of the decisions you make as a young person. That's no way to live.

OK, so the title of the new album – Farm to Table. When I hear that, I think of bougie restaurants with overpriced grass-fed beef. Tell me, why this title?

There's a few reasons. Like I said, I grew up in a really rural area, right? I used to work on a farm, I used to paint fences on a farm actually, by my house. I was kind of recognizing this shift in my life, from being this kid that grew up in the country to finally being at the table with all of these people I admire and have thought were so special for so many years. And now I feel like I have this decision, like "OK, I'm at the table now and I can do some stuff, but there's still some stuff from the farm that I want to keep – I don't want to change too much." This record is about ... how I'm trying to retain myself throughout the entire transition of it all.

When you talk about being at the table, what table are you at? And are there other people that look like you at that table?

So no, there's not a lot of people that look like me at the table. But that's OK for now. That's just how the table looks today. I think it'll change, the longer I sit there.

The table I'm at is this kind of weird alt-rock, indie, alternative space. Historically, there's not a lot of people that look like me at this table. Especially not ones that have long careers like the artists I really, really admire. So my aspiration with my music, this record and beyond, is for more people like me to be at that table. Not just Black kids or queer kids, I mean people from different places – I'm from Oklahoma and I think it's special to be a Black person from Oklahoma that makes music and is being recognized for it. And I think there's a lot of kids like me that could do something with the shot.

When you make your music, do you make it with a specific audience in mind? Or do you just make what you like?

I just make what I like. The only song I think on this record that I made and was like "I think this is going to be a wild song for people to hear" was probably "Cosigns," because I'm shouting out all these people who have gone hard for me in the last couple of years, like Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus and Courtney Barnett. But most of the time when I'm writing, it's stuff that I wish I heard more of.

That video was really strange. Like, what is happening here?

When things are going well, everybody eats, you know – and that's kind of how me and my little team operate. Me, Chris, Dan all the people that I make records with it's like, "Yo, when we pull this off it's going to be big for all of us." That video is playing with this idea of everybody eating, but also nobody being able to quench their hunger, and how out of control it can get. That being one of my bigger fears – you got to rest some time, you can't be so hungry all the time. All the things that used to annoy me about my parents, I am now.

You've also talked about being really comfortable in talking about being good at what you do, being successful, but you also have some guilt about the people that aren't doing so well.

Yeah. I think it really hit after Live Forever, my last album, came out in Oct. 2020 – before we had vaccines, after the George Floyd marches. It was a really intense time in D.C. and across the world, and my grandfather had died and he had a funeral, and people got COVID at that funeral and they died. It was just, like, so much heavy stuff all the time. It was really hard to celebrate anything, because I wanted to be there for other people.

I also just didn't feel like it was the right time to be like, "Hey, my life is going great, you know." So that was something I really struggled with. But through this album and through making it I came back to this very common phrase, 'joy being an act of resistance.' Celebrating something even when things are dark. I think, definitely in the Black community that's something that we're good at doing, and there's a reason for that. I took all of that guilt and all of those feelings and things that were really triggering for me and channeled it into this album.

Shout out to my therapist.

Have you finally found your dream job? Is this it?

Oh my god, yes – for now, it is. I say that because I think it's so important for life to have chapters, you know? I don't regret the time I spent doing other things, I think it prepared me so beautifully for this. I used to pitch Morning Edition at my day job for years, I used to put people on the Diane Rehm Show for years, and now I get to talk to these people myself.

There's all these little things that I thought were wastes of time when I was working those jobs ... that now as a musician, I'm like, "Wow I'm really glad that I had all those meetings with MacArthur Foundation," because I definitely know how to talk to this label.

I mean we are talking in the middle of the great resignation, right? Everybody's moving around, starting something new.

Oh my gosh, it's so weird to even say there is a silver lining at all to the last few years. But I have so many friends who are reevaluating their lives, their relationships, their jobs, their cars, their houses. It's great, everyone should do that. Change things. That's why my life is the way it is now, because I've had many small changes that I've made over the last decade or so that have put me in this position.

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Corrected: June 17, 2022 at 9:00 PM PDT
A previous version of this interview identified a member of Bartees Stranges' team as Kris. It is Chris.
Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Phil Harrell
Phil Harrell is a producer with Morning Edition, NPR's award-winning newsmagazine. He has been at NPR since 1999.