Farm to Table, out now on 4AD.
“For most of my adult life, after college, I just thought that music wasn’t going to work,” says Bartees Strange, who’s become one of the breakout indie acts of 2022 at the age of 33. Although the artist born Bartees Cox Jr. sang in his church choir as a kid and started playing secular songs in his teens, he never considered music as a career path, instead gravitating towards professional sports (he enrolled at Oklahoma University, with NFL dreams) and politics (he worked as a press secretary for the FCC during the Obama administration).
He moved from Washington D.C. to New York City in 2015 and started to find a music community, but assumed that he would always remain within the underground. “I remember being 23 and being like, ‘Tyler, The Creator and all those guys, they’ve made it, they’ve already figured it out, there’s not enough space for me,’” says Strange. “You tell yourself these stories — ‘No one’s gonna pick me, no one wants me, it’s not going to work out.’ And why would it? My life was already good! But at some point, I remember just being like, ‘I’m gonna do this anyway, because I need it just for me. I like making stuff. So whether things get big or not, I’m just gonna do it.’”
Strange’s 2020 debut album Live Forever was preceded by forays into a variety of musical styles, from contributions to post-hardcore bands to acoustic folk experiments to dance-leaning remixes. As such, Live Forever functioned as a sonic pastiche, refracted through a guitar-driven indie-rock prism but also containing a deep love of hip-hop (“Free Kelly Rowland”), country (“Fallen for You”) and noise rock (“Mustang”).
Live Forever won raves and a cult following, but it also sounded like the emptying of his notebook. Not so, says Strange — he set to work on his sophomore album in Maine in October 2020, one day before Live Forever was released. “I remember finishing [Live Forever] and being like, ‘Oh my God, there’s so much more I want to do!’” Strange recalls. “I knew I was getting better. Everything I didn’t know how to do while making Live Forever, I know how to do now. And in terms of clarity, I feel better and more clear, about what I want to say now.”
Farm to Table expands the world that Strange created on Live Forever in every conceivable way, with even more ambition — “Wretched” sounds like a genuine pop hit with a gigantic hook, while lead single “Heavy Heart” swivels through deliveries across its verses and peppers in horns for a richer flavor. On “Cosigns,” Strange rattles off references to Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus and Courtney Barnett, all recent tour mates that helped him grow his audience prior to the release of Farm to Table last Friday. Also helping in that area: his new label, 4AD, which announced its deal with the singer-songwriter in March.
“I’ve always been attracted to [4AD], because my favorite bands came out on that label, ever since I was in high school,” says Strange, who name-checks indie stalwarts TV on the Radio and The National. “They’ve always had great taste, and I always really wanted to be what they liked. So I was really honored that they wanted to work with me.”
Strange is a star — charismatic, absorbing, naturally funny but with an ability to address serious issues in his music. He’s going to win more fans over on his first North American headlining tour, which kicks off in November, and as he scores more national TV spots (he made his late-night debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live! last week). Above all, however, he hopes the messages baked in his music keep affecting listeners. A standout on Farm to Table is “Hold the Line,” a message to George Floyd’s daughter that remains empathetic and never preachy. Meanwhile, “Escape This Circus” addresses the impulse to leave a troubled society instead of fighting for change.
When asked about “Escape This Circus,” Strange says he certainly understands the impulse to throw up your hands, or try to move to another country. “The thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is all these problems — gun violence, race, women’s issues, gender issues, climate change — they’re all so humongous, and it gets to a point where no one feels like they can do anything,” he says. “It almost feels cosmic, all of the crazy things happening. We all wish there was a fault in our stars — it’d be easier for us to think, ‘Oh, it’s bad luck,’ or ‘God is wreaking havoc on us.’
“But really,” he continues, “we’ve all put ourselves here, and the only way to really fix any of it isn’t to think big. It’s to think very small — to think, what can I do in my house? What can I do in my community? And that’s what that song is about — all this stuff is true, but you can’t solve it. You can only do yourself, fix yourself and what you can. Focus on that, so you can sleep at night.”
The Piece of Advice Every New Indie Artist Needs to Hear
“Just make stuff. I think people get a little caught up in their process. They think every song is gonna be the one that’s going to pop. It isn’t really about that. The most important thing, the most revolutionary act anyone can do, is make something that didn’t exist before — build a new system, make a new song, do something that inspires other people. Follow that.”
The Studio Equipment You Couldn’t Live Without
“I write everything on guitars, so I’ve got some guitars that are special. There’s a 1967 Epiphone Casino in my house that I write on a lot — I wrote ‘Heavy Heart’ on it, ‘Escape This Circus, ‘Cosigns,’ all types of songs. That guitar is probably my No. 1 desert island piece of equipment.”
The Artist You Believe Deserves More Attention,
“The artist that I love that has attention, but deserves more, is Yves Tumor. I think Yves Tumor is the greatest artist of my generation, personally. I don’t think there’s anyone like them.”
The Thing That Needs to Change in the Music Industry
“People should get paid more, generally. It’s hard to make money on tour, and it’s hard to make money selling music, and as a musician, it’s all about your war chest. Does Mom and Dad have some money for you? Did you get an incredibly sweet deal? It all comes down to the money, and unfortunately, musicians, we don’t really like to talk about money, it’s not our favorite thing to do. There’s gotta be a healthier way to do this, for everybody. People are tearing their minds and bodies apart to do this — they should be making more money.”