All Things Go Festival Creator Summit: Interview With Bartees Strange

Bartees All Things Go Feature

Over the weekend, I was in attendance for the All Things Go Festival and specifically the “Creator Summit” that featured several key interviews of All Things Go artists like Bartees Strange, and Empress Of. I was able to record the full interview session of NPR’s Marissa Lorusso’s “Fireside Chat” with Bartees Strange, where he shared his unique story that led to his critical acclaim and commercial success. The event took place in the heart of Washington D.C., at the Eaton Hotel’s Beverly Snow Room.

I’m Marissa Lorusso, an associate editor and I am so excited to be here speaking with Bartees Strange. A singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer, and a resident of the DC area. The son of a military father and an opera singer mother. He was born in England and grew up in Missouri, before moving to the East coast. As a solo artist, he released two records in 2020 and re-imagined songs by The National Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy, and his debut full length album, Live Forever. This summer, he released his spectacular, critically acclaimed sophomore record Farm To Table which Rolling Stone called “one of 2022’s most audacious albums. One that worlds through ideas while exploding preconceptions.” So, we’re very much in DC, which is where you live. So to start, I thought I would ask you what is your favorite place to see live music in DC?

9:30 Club. So many of my favorite bands have been there for so many years. But there’s also like, a funny story about every club in the city.

Can we hear the funny story about the 9:30 Club?

Here’s one. I mean, the first time I ever went to 9:30 club was actually for a dance night. It was like the beach club, beach ball-themed dance night. I met a girl on Tinder.

Was there an outfit involved? 

Well, I dressed like I was on the beach. I get there, and I text her, and I’m like, “Oh, yo, where are you?” And she ghosts me. And so I just moved here. I have no friends. And I ‘m like, “Fuck it, out here at this place.” I just went and ended up kind of telling the story that everyone had met. And I thought more people were going to be dressed up earlier to show up. So it was pretty pitiful.

Okay, what brought you to DC? I know that I read that you really felt drawn by the music scene and kind of the history of music in the city, but also the work, too.

Yeah, so I grew up in Los Angeles, which is a huge metropolis. And I eventually went to University of Oklahoma and I kind of was like, “Okay, I want to play music. But that’s like impossible. No one makes it. So the best thing I should do is just try to be like Oklahoma and try to find a city where I can like at least play a little.” And so DC was like where I wanted to go. I found out about the like lightning on air and local magazines and stuff. And so then I moved to DC in a week.

I want to ask you about your really wonderful records that came out this year Farm To Table. What song’s your favorite on the record?

My favorite song on the record is the very last song, called “Hennessy.” And it’s kind of like a cheeky kind of song. 

The whole record is pretty bombastic. It’s like rap songs, big pop songs, big rock songs, all these things like big feelings, right? And when you get to the very last track…

I think it sounds bad…<Laughter> I just made this like, super shiny, “Look what I can do, record.” And then I was like the last song though, I wanted to just feel like how I feel when I write music. It’s just me in a room with a piano and a guitar, and I’m just writing to myself. And that song is kind of making fun of something I grew up with, we were in rural places. People look at black people, as you know, one thing, they don’t really want you to do a lot of things. I felt kind of hung hamstrung by that growing up, I played football. And I was like, this is the most anyone in my town can really take like, I can’t play football and sing, and be clear. And I want to be at school. At school, like you kind of slide into a box that people kind of create for you, just for safety in a way. And the song, the hook is in, “They say, black folks drink Hennessy, but I want you all over me.” And it’s kind of saying like, there’s all these stereotypes about what black people should be like to drink Hennessy, and blah, blah, blah. But what I really want it for you, is to see us like a normal person. And that’s kind of what the production of that song and the lyrics of that song are all about. That’s by far my favorite song.

You said that people usually assume it’s a different song on the record. What do people assume is your favorite?

”Wretched.” Yeah, it’s my least favorite. And it’s like, all you do is make songs. Sometimes you’re excited. You’re like, damn, easy. It’s like anything you do. I remember, I can be like, “Oh, God, it should be harder than this.” And I think that now when I hear, and I hear people love it, like, “Wow, that’s so hard…” It took like 15 minutes. And I know how much time I spend on the other side.

How long? How long did the last one ever take you to write down?

There are iterations of “Hennessy that go back to 2015.” Yeah, so that’s probably why I’m like, listen to “Hennessy.” It’s good. For seven years, so it’s true.

I read that your parents didn’t let you listen to a lot of secular music when you were growing up. And then you found your way into loving indie rock and wanting hip hop and hardcore bands. And I feel like you can obviously hear all of that in your music. I think critics, maybe to an exhausting degree, talk about how multi-genre your sound is. I guess my question is, are there artists that you heard where you thought, not just like, “Oh, I could do this.” But artists that you heard where you thought, “Oh, they’re doing all of these things at once. And I want to do that too.”

No, not really. Well, George Clinton, I remember the first time I found out about George Clinton because someone asked my dad, like, “Yo, what was like the biggest moment of your life,” and my dad said, “Probably when my son was born, but it might honestly be one of the watched Parliament Funkadelic’s Mothership. <Laughter> And my dad was like, “I’m about to change your life!” And he did. And I remember hearing all these things in that music that I was like, “Oh, this is what Led Zeppelin did or like, what are the who did or like, all these other bands that are so so big, and I was like, damn, a lot of them is just George Clinton.” Like it’s Harlem. Yeah, huge riffs, big hooks, crazy melodies, like some of the wildest players in music ever. You know, Bernie World, like, Khan Freaks, like freaks of gymnastic-level guitar and bass. And that kind of blew my mind that I got into like Rick James and Prince, and all these artists that were always categorized to me was like one thing. But when I listened to their music, I was like, “damn, this is like, everything.” So, yes, there were a few. But the artists that really hit me the hardest was TV On The Radio, because when I saw them, I was like, you don’t have to be in a salon.

Yeah. Do you remember the first time you encountered their music?

Yes! I was channel surfing, after like a football game or something. And I remember hitting Letterman, and it said, “And next up from the studio is TV on the Radio, to play ‘Wolf Like Me.’ And I was like, “Oh, what’s this?” No way….There’s the black guy singing and there’s three other black people on stage! And I was like, I can do that. I remember really feeling like, “Oh, I can actually do that, then I don’t have to be like some freak level musicians.” Make music because, my mom was off. She’s an opera singer. So all the musicians I knew growing up, were just like…monsters. It was discouraging to play with that level of virtuosity. I majored in public relations, because I just can’t do that. Like, that’s impossible. I was wrong. Others like, Bloc Party, there were a number of bands that really connected with me and that changed. 

Yeah, okay. I find it interesting that you say that too. Because I do feel like your level of guitar playing. It’s like, pretty intense, pretty high level. Honestly, and we were talking about this backstage, I personally feel like there aren’t enough people talking about the guitar and your music because there’s a lot to talk about and your music. There’s a lot going on. There’s a lot of stylistic shifts. Your voice is really powerful. And but the template is really great. How did you get started playing guitar?

So I fell in love with guitars. In high school, I was kind of a late bloomer. I had friends who were just obviously singing opera since they were four and like, just these kids whose parents were just like, on top of that shit, you know? I loved opera. We used to do like, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas…Who cares, right? <Laughter> 

I was like coming out opera camp and all that. I was playing football and basketball and running track and I had a friend Christian Spencer, who was like this metal-head, really cool guy who I skated together with. It’s not what you see on TV. It’s like, there’s a piece of wood outside, let’s jump it!” <Laughter> Rolling down the driveway jumping over a piece of wood. It’s trash. Anyways, I tried guitar, and I thought it felt really natural. But it wasn’t something I really pursued until I kind of saw TV on the Radio, obviously. And I was like “Mom, I’d like a guitar.” And she was like, “Finally he’s interested in a musical instrument!” Because she tried to put me on my piano horn. I was in a band in seventh grade and I flunked out like literally got an “F” in band, and I went to every class.

You should call your teacher and be like, You know what I do for work? <Laughter>

I’ve shouted her out in so many interviews…she tried to break my spirit but it didn’t work. <Laughter> I hung in there. No, but I was a bad really bad trumpet player. Yeah, I remember I got my first one and I was just listening to stuff on the radio and trying to copy it.

What kind of stuff was on there?

Switchfoot. The stuff you remember….Switchfoot, but a lot of Christian rock music. I was a church kid growing up. And I got into like church music, hardcore. My mom was always singing at church and they had ultimate backup vocals. So I was at home guitar really over the course of a couple years I was writing/stealing from the country players.

Stylistically, when you are starting to write a song, how do you make that decision? Do you think like, Okay, I want to write a song about this, and that feels like a country song. Or I have this, you know, riff in my head, and that’s like, such a big indie rock riff we’re gonna, like start with with that?

I don’t know where the song is gonna know, when I start with the song. Yeah, I literally like won’t even see our song until it’s done musically. So it’s hard to even know what as long as gonna be about this more like…I’ll have like a feeling. And I’ll just be playing guitar and I’ll record a clip. And I just come back to the legs over and over again, and built. And eventually, the song forms a shape. And then once I see it, I’m like, Oh, I think I can make out what the shape is. And I tried to fill in the blanks. And when it’s finished, I don’t really have a plan.

So you’re not like, “Okay, I want this to start with an indie rock banger. But then I’m gonna rap the second verse?”

No, it’s like, I just make the song. And I feel like I really just kind of opened myself up, like, where do you want to go? Like, we can go anywhere. And but that’s kind of the thing is really believing that, and being like, you can’t do this long as you want. First, not wanting to, you know, it was like, It’s my stuff. So do whatever I want to say no. Yeah, that to me, that’s the fun part.

And you’re producing a lot of your own stuff as well. Right?

Yeah. Thanks for that. Yeah.

I mean, mostly are self taught in production?

Yeah, I taught myself how to by watching YouTube and stuff.

What made you want to start learning how to produce?

Being the only black kid and studios, everyone kind of talks to you like to know what you’re talking about? You know, you want to do something and there’s somebody who’s like, you don’t want to talk about you know, you know, compression, like desert. Like the the guy like know everything. I’m in the studio forever. I’m like, Yeah, but, and I know you do punk records, but I want to like the course like a Kanye song.

Did you feel like you were in studios, and people were like, “Okay, well, this is kind of be a punk record.?”

Yeah, that’s all you’re kind of at the mercy of the engineer. Yeah, you know, especially when no one knows you. And you’re just like, making records. But I also in my mid 20s, I was just like, Well, I’m just gonna figure out how to do this. Like, I was like, how hard can it be? Like, I’ll just figure it out. And maybe then at least I can explain what I want better, you know, because I didn’t even know the terminology. Yeah. And then over the course of it, I just really fell in love with the process. It’s like, I love making records. It’s like, the most fun part about music for me. Someone asked me recently, like, whatever other play shows, or like, making albums, like produce albums, and I love playing shows that there’s something special about making a song or a record. And you’re the only one that has it. And it feels like it’s yours. And you build something on house about, it’s like a nice thing. But when you put it out, it’s like, it’s not yours anymore. So I really miss that.

And you produce for other artists as well. Right? Yeah. What is that process? Like?

It’s so liberating. Because like, I have so many thoughts and feelings about my music and like, how I want people to hear it. Yeah, I want to say, but when you’re working on someone else’s record, it’s just like, What do you want to do? Like, I’m just gonna be the tool like, I have all these things we can do. And you tell me where you want to go? I’ll get there faster.

Do you feel like you’re able to be the person in the room, the engineer, the producer that you wish that you had had when you started out? And people just like really didn’t get your vision?

I never thought of that… But I guess! Yeah, sorry. That’s a lot of pressure. Well, honestly, it’s like, I just want a different world for people when they can use it. For black kids and for queer people and for women, people who like want to make records. Every time they walk into a place. They’re like, they feel like they don’t belong there. And it’s like, you belong there and I felt like, I feel like what I do is about pushing that, you know, isn’t on the line. People that live for the future don’t have to look like it was today.

You kind of broke through as a solo artist? Do you feel like that gives you a sense of perspective, or just makes you approach things differently than when people were kind of coming up alongside you?

Yes, I definitely think so. Because I’ve seen like, I mean, in my previous work, I mean, I’ve worked in nonprofits…Oh, my God. We can talk about that. Another time, the nonprofit industrial complex. <Laughter> I feel like I haven’t had a lot of jobs. Like I moved here, and I worked as a lobbyist in the technology, policy spaces and trials, and stuff like that. And then I worked for the Obama administration. I was like, I was working, but at the whole time, I was like, I still always want to play music and I was like, gigging and playing the country bands, jazz bands, making beats, learn how to engineer double, just like this other word, like, suck so much. Music was kind of the thing that like fed me. And I started falling in love with all of these artists that work just hopping when they were older. One primary example is one of my biggest sources of inspiration in my life was was The National. And just being like…Matt Berninger, lead singer of the National, was 36 when Boxer came out. That’s incredible. That’s incredible. We look back on that man, and we’re all like Alligator comes out before that Cherry Tree comes out before that self-titled album comes out for that. And the whole time you’re sharing the practice wall with Interpol…who’s becoming famous right in front of them. And they’re just like, “we’re never gonna make it. We’re so old. How are we going to do this? Three albums, no one cares about us.” And then like, but they kept going. Yeah, they built it over time. I started telling myself like, I can’t guarantee someone’s gonna pick me. Nobody’s going to say, “We’re gonna give him a chance.” I can’t guarantee that. But I know, I’ll work harder than anyone else. Like, I’ll do this forever. And so that’s what I did.

Do you what was the shift like from playing and other people’s fans to all of a sudden being the face of project?

It was really weird because I was really comfortable being behind the scenes. I knew I was a public relations professional thing was like writing for people. Prepping people, getting people ready to do something. And in bands, that’s what I did to like, I was a guitar player. I was a producer. I was like, I was going to do whatever bass keys whatever. But I always had like a vision and so when I started doing my own stuff before I even recorded the forever and challenged myself to do shows just solo does mean a guitar. Yeah. A year. I was like, you’re on stage by yourself for a year. And if you can get through that hour working with me getting like a real tough boss. I can do it. Like I don’t know if I want to do that. Like being the person is like, kind of drags times for what I could see. Being in the band is like when you have all your favorite toys in a mall. You feel good.

So I read that on the day before Live Forever came out, your first record, you immediately started working on what was going to become your next record. Because you said, “I wanted to preserve the brain I had in that moment, because I knew I was going to become a different person. If everyone hated Live Forever, I was going to be fucked up. If everyone loved it, I was gonna be fucked up.” But that makes me think on the on the day before your new record came out, where were you? Did you feel like you had something you still wanted to preserve in that moment?

Yes, because I was, I’ll be so honest, I was so scared of Pitchfork.<Laughter>. I was like, thinking of like, if they give me a bad score, horrible rating…and I write reviews, I know that I was terrified. But I was like, “oh no, they’re gonna crush me. Everyone’s gonna know I’m a fraud.” I gotta just, I thought I have some good stuff now. So before everyone destroys me, let me just like, get this stuff recorded. So I remind myself that like, I’m still making stuff. I’m still good. Don’t worry about it. So that’s what I did. I went to Maine with my band.

So so when we Farm to Table came out the day before, were you like, “Oh, my God, I gotta make another record.”

Oh, well…I did, I made the next one. I feel like I’m just I’m working through this with my therapist. Just do it just because it’s good for everyone. I was just like, putting so much pain to everyone. But yeah, you know, like scarcity mindset, like, feeling like everything’s life or death. I remember feeling that in my job. And I was at home I feel like that about music. So, but that gut reaction of like, putting something out. I have to make comes from trying to work on that, but the music’s good!

Okay, one last question. Which is that in a few interviews before the album came out, you even talked about just working so hard for so long to make these like your full time job, that when that finally happened, you’re like, “Damn, I gotta find a hobby!” And I’m just curious if you’ve had any kind of like low stakes pandemic-era leisure activities?

No…I just kept doing the same stuff I always do. Watch horror movies all day, and play FIFA…still doing that. <Laughter>