The Bartees Strange Guide to Defying Genre

Photo: Luke Piotrowski

Bartees Strange has a question: “At what point in history did hip-hop become rock and roll?” Let him explain. “Rock and roll was hip-hop: the big energy, the shout-outs, the features, the camaraderie across bands,” he says. “Then that totally shifted to hip-hop, and rock got really sad and emotional and became this different creature.” That’s just part of the unique way Strange, born Bartees Cox Jr., sees music. Genre isn’t about rules to follow but qualities and expectations to play with. Music is fluid and expressive. When he notices the shifting ground in rap and rock, he’s really looking at it for a different reason altogether. “I feel like there’s definitely some space in between, which is where I’m trying to live,” he says.

A singer, songwriter, and producer, Strange introduced his genre-agnostic approach on his 2020 album, Live Forever, drawing on not only rock and hip-hop but country, pop, and gospel music. Looking back, he sees the project as an experiment. “I was always curious if there was enough space for a record like it,” he says. “I was like, I wanna hear more records where people are just doing everything ’cause I feel like that’s how people listen to music.” It worked: Live Forever was the most lauded indie debut of the year and landed Strange opening gigs for Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, and even his heroes, the National. It also led him to sign to the revered indie label 4AD for his second album, Farm to Table. When Strange calls from the top of a castle, where he’s shooting a music video for his song “Wretched,” the symbolism is obvious.

Farm to Table is an even more audacious record, with soul and dance influences in the mix and styles often likely to shift mid-song. “On Live Forever, I felt like I was a little hesitant,” Strange says. “So with this, I was like, Okay, if they like it, I’m just gonna double down and push it a little harder.” Strange spoke to Vulture about some of the most genre-bending performances on Farm to Table and the lessons he learned from his debut.

“Heavy Heart”

This song first introduces an approach you take throughout the album, in which in the second verse, you sort of flip to rapping.
I feel like I’m just doing what feels natural to me. I’m honestly not really good at repeating sections. I’ve always liked, I feel like in country music, the first verse is a setup and the second verse is the best verse. Everything leads you to the second verse. I’m into weird sections and kind of doing whatever I want with them. So with “Heavy Heart,” I thought it’d be fun to play with the rhythm of the drums, so you’ve got, like, this 16ths kind of rhythm that, on the hi-hats, is like a trappy kind of cah-cah-cah-cah-cah hi-hat thing. I was like, Okay, I can sing over this, like, Matt Berninger in the beginning and set up this very National feeling — twirling guitars; ornate, orchestral pattern — and then hit it again from a completely opposite angle of a very straightforward, almost like Nelly singing a rap-verse thing. And I love that shit. [Laughs.] That felt natural to me.

The first verse being the setup makes sense to me too because you’ve got to build to this huge chorus.
Right. The way I look at it, there’s only one verse in the song. You’ve got this pre-chorus, chorus, verse one. And you never hear another verse again. After that, it goes straight to a chorus, big horn bridge, pre-chorus, chorus out. The song’s got, like, four choruses. It’s like a rap song. [Laughs.]

“Mulholland Dr.”

This one also does the verse-chorus and shifts further into rap, but with Auto-Tune on it. It’s cool to hear you drawing from hip-hop in a totally different way.
I feel like across the ten songs, I’m making these little connections. The first two songs, they’re rock songs, but I do the rap thing. And then you hit track three and four, and the instrumentation totally switches to hip-hop or pop, but I’m just singing on them. I introduce this pop-hip-hop idea and then I fully flesh it out. It’s fun.

I feel like the twin brother of “Mulholland Dr.” is “Escape This Circus.” You have this big woozy drunk feeling to the music. It’s like a wave. And that’s what “Mulholland Dr.” is about. It’s a song about being in California and being overwhelmed with this beauty, but also the darkness of it, and overlaying that with the state of the world. The chorus says, “I don’t believe in the bullshit of wondering when we die.” I remember being in L.A., and I was like, Damn, it’s gorgeous. You got the water, Big Bear’s down the street, most beautiful people I’ve ever seen. But at the same time, there’s homeless people everywhere, it’s way too expensive, there’s no water anywhere, the fucking woods are burning down, and all these people in the Hollywood Hills have to sprint down to the bottom three or four times a year so that they don’t die. [Laughs.] Millionaires, you know. And they’re like, Yeah, whatever, I’m good. Keep pumping the water up to my house. They don’t really believe in the bullshit of wondering when they die. They’re just in this woozy, drunk, beautiful wonderland. And the instrumentation really reflects that.

I feel like indie rock is coming more around to Auto-Tune, but still — not everyone is. How do you decide when to put that on a vocal?
The main character in that song changes after that first chorus. He’s kind of a slimier person — a person with a little more bravado trying to get your attention. And I thought a cool way to do that would be through how we approach the vocal take. I like to switch it up on the second verse a lot, so I wanted to hit it that way.


This feels like totally new territory from Live Forever because it’s bringing in this dance influence that I didn’t know was there with you. Where did that come from?
I just learned how to make it. With Live Forever, I tried — I made “Flagey God,” and I had a couple other house tracks I was playing around with. With “Flagey God,” I was like, Okay, I think I understand how to build this type of song, and over the last two or three years, I’ve been practicing. “Wretched” was a song that I had created a shitty version of a few years ago, and I was able to come back and make it what I wanted it to be. I’m excited to do more songs like that.

Have you thought about how you’re going to translate it live?
Oh yeah, I’ve been thinking about it maybe too much. I have some ideas. We’ll try it a million ways until we figure out how to do it. But I like rolling as a band. The show is a band — there’s five people onstage — and so we’re gonna play it. I don’t wanna do backing tracks.

This one also has your second-verse moment again, but it does the opposite: this acoustic shift.
I’m trying to show that one person can have a lot of different feelings. You can have a song like “Cosigns” and feel like God one day and then in other moments feel really small, and both feelings are valid feelings. Nobody’s like A$AP Rocky every day. Not even A$AP Rocky is like A$AP Rocky every day. Like, I think about Future and how he writes these songs that are like, “I’m the greatest, I’m the coolest n - - - - that’s ever walked the earth, I have so much money. Also, I’m addicted to drugs, and I don’t have anyone that really cares about me, and I’ve ruined all my relationships. But I have to keep doing this because you want me to be this person and I don’t know how to live without being this person.” His whole shit is pretty fucking deep! I really admire artists who are able to put all their emotions out there and be like, Yeah, that’s just how I feel. With “Wretched,” I feel like that’s a really clear example: The song builds, and it breaks off and then I’m by myself, trying to make sense of these feelings.

Something that’s been exciting about listening to this album compared to Live Forever is that those shifts are happening more in the course of one song.
I felt like with “Boomer,” I figured out, like, All these sections work together. The country section and the rock section and the rap section all work as the same thing. So with this record, I wanted to explore that more. Like, How far can I push this idea that this shit is all the same? [Laughs.]


I love this concept: a brag track name-dropping all these indie-rock people whom you’re not expecting to hear on it. Where did that idea come from?
I was like, This record needs a thesis statement, something that shows you clearly where I am in my life at the time of making this. At the time, I’d just come off tour with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, and I was getting ready to go on tour with Courtney Barnett. And Bon Iver had just asked what my availability was. I was like, Man, these are, like, my heroes, people I’ve looked up to for years, and now we’re buddies. So that song is fully leaning into that feeling of, Dawg, this is fucking sick. This is fucking everything I wanted to do. And I also felt like, in the spirit of being different than those other people, I wanted to make a song that I feel like I’m the only one that could make. You look across the indie-rock space, and there’s a lot of very humble vibes. People are like, “Yo, I’m just so happy to be here, and I’m so grateful, and it’s not even about the money.” But for me, it’s a little different. I’m a pretty competitive person. I’m grateful to be here, but, also, I feel like I deserve to be here. There’s a very specific thing I wanna do with this opportunity, and it’s to bring this bigger energy and this bigger attitude to our space. That song was me trying to do that. And the song was fun to write.

Did you write it all at once, or did it take a lot of tinkering?
Well, the arrangement, I had that done for a year and a half. I just never knew what to say on it.

How do the people you name-dropped feel about the song?
I was glad they understood it. You could read it as someone being like, Oh, I’m as good as you, or you could read it as what I intended it for, as, Big ups to these people for putting me on. That’s the point of the song: I’m so grateful for these co-signs and for these people that are riding for me.

“Hold the Line”

You talked about this song being inspired by George Floyd’s daughter, and when I hear it, it almost calls to mind these ’60s soul songs that were influenced by the civil-rights movement. Can you tell me about the interplay between the style of this track and the subject?
That’s one of the only songs we recorded live, full band, just one take, us playing in the room. I wanted to capture an emotion, and I didn’t want it to be perfect. I wanted it to sound like I was working it out in the moment, which I feel like is reflective of where we are as a society. When George Floyd died, it was at the beginning of the pandemic, Trump was on top of his bullshit, people were marching in the streets. I was living in downtown D.C. at the time. It was a fucking zoo. I remember seeing all these people driving in from out of town, showing up to protest and just being like, We don’t even know what we’re fighting for. We’re all just like, We want better than this. But what is that? Tracking it that way was my way of being like, We’re trying to figure it out. We don’t know how it’ll turn out, but this is the best we can do in this moment.

That figuring it out comes through a lot in the guitar part. Tell me more about that solo.
Yeah, my buddy Dan Kleederman played that. He’s one of my best friends and probably the best guitar player I know. I wanted a solo that was wandering and searching but aspirational and soaring — like, a feeling that exists among all of the unfinished business, of clarity. Even as we’re figuring it out, we are guided by something. That’s what I wanted the guitar to mimic, was that feeling.

“Escape This Circus”

I’m not wrong to hear a country jangle to this song, right?
Oh yeah, big time. There’s a shuffle underneath it.

Where did that come from, for another song that’s about L.A.?
That song was a bigger statement on the problem I’d seen in L.A. I feel like when the world is really sad and weird, people start looking up to the stars and being like, Yo, God, why is this happening? But, really, everything happens because of our decisions. We’ve made the world this way, and the only way it’s going to get better is if we do something to fix it. It’s not going to be from divine intervention. I was thinking of, like, Fear and Loathing [in Los Angeles] vibes. I wanted that David Lynch–y feel to the song, like how it is in “Mulholland.” A lot of the songs I write start off as country songs and then they turn into other things. I’m from Oklahoma, so it can always go that way.

“Circus” has something that also happens on a lot of the songs in which it builds to this huge cathartic breakdown. Where is that coming from?
I needed to respond to everything I was saying. Just being like, Everyone thinks the world is so sad, and everyone’s looking for this big thing to sweep in and save us, and then at the end, I’m like, Fuck that, actually. The only way to really do anything when you feel like things are overwhelming is to start with yourself. You know, you can’t save the world. [Laughs.] That’s the secret to saving the world, is that you can’t do it. You can just save yourself, but if enough people do it, then we’ll be okay. Normally when I have a big drop or a big moment in a song, it’s to zone in on a point.


This also has this really live feel to it. Was it a pretty live song to make?
The keys and the drums and the guitar were tracked live in the room. The backing vocals, I sat in different parts of the room and sang and did it on one microphone. I wanted to end with something very stripped-down and empty-feeling, because I felt like over the record, it was big pop sounds, big hip-hop sounds, big rock outros, country songs. So the last thing I wanted to do was zoom out from the album and be like, I’m just a person, dawg. I make a lot of shit. And that’s okay to feel this way and to have all these feelings. That song is about me coming clean in a way. Like, This is who I am.

I feel like when people see Black people making music, they have preconceived ideas of what that music is gonna sound like. Like, Black dude with a guitar, it’s probably gonna sound like Daniel Caesar or Jimi Hendrix. Or, like, he’s gonna be a rapper or whatever. And it’s like, No! I do my thing. I sound like myself. And I just want to be loved. “They say Black folks drink Hennessy” — you know, they’re lazy or whatever. “But I want you over me” — like, I want you to love me. In the dark, when I’m alone, if I’m dead, if I’m thriving. I just want you to look at me as a person. And just be a creative guy. That’s the point of that song: to humanize myself. Besides the production and cool guitar moves, this is who I am.

You were saying you’re all of the voices on this song?
Yeah. It kind of represents all of the versions of me. [Laughs.] It’s kind of a joke with myself. I remember wanting to be a rapper. I remember wanting to be a guitar player. I remember wanting to be a country artist. I always wanted to be everything, until I realized I am everything.

The Bartees Strange Guide to Defying Genre