Bartees Strange: Virtual Session

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Bartees Strange: Virtual Session (MPR)

Bartees Strange joins Jade for a virtual session to play songs from his latest record, Live Forever, out now on Memory Music. They'll also be talking about leaving places that prevent you from feeling free, covering The National and SAMIA, and what he's working on in his studio for his family this Christmas.

Interview Transcript

Edited for clarity and length.

[JADE] Hey it's Jade, welcoming you to another one of The Current's virtual sessions and today we are joined by Bartees Strange. He has a new album that is out now. It's called Live Forever and Bartees, thank you so much for checking in with us.

[BARTEES STRANGE] Thank you, I appreciate it. Thanks for having me.

Yeah. How are you doing? How is the pandemic lifestyle treating you these days?

It's alright, I mean I go to the studio a lot and it's been like, a lot of records that I've got to work on this, like throughout the pandemic so I've been just - I've been pretty busy which has been really nice. I've been able to keep my mind off of everything thankfully but now I'm like tired. So... (laughs)

(laughs)

And I'm like reading the news again and I'm like, "Oh no, please just give me another record to work on so I can not be on Twitter all day."

I feel like we all should've learned our lesson months ago to just avoid the news entirely. Shut yourself in a studio somewhere and just, you know, put on the headphones.

Yes, yes.

But I do love that you've been so busy because it's been a treat for us because we get to listen to so much music because not only do you have Live Forever which just came out, but earlier this year you released an album of covers. Well I guess your interpretation of some songs from The National, 'Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy'. And I have to say, you and I share a favorite band. I'm a huge fan of The National. I do have to say, that is a bold move to kick off your musical career pretty much with this album of covers.

I guess? I don't know (laughs) it just felt right, I don't know. You know it kind of happened just so organically, you know I've loved The National forever like since I was probably in high school. I just felt like as I got older I just grew with the band, like so many National fans. We all feel like they're ours, you know? I just was doing a lot of thinking about just like larger indie rock, you know the space, where music is going and when I was at that show it just kinda hit me. I was like dang, I live in D.C. like one of the last majority minority cities in the country. And I'm like the only black guy here, like how is that possible? Just thinking about like the whole ecosystem and just like, you know, how there should be more bands that are people of color that are doing cool things and have huge careers like them, all inspired by that. So I wanted to cover them. Yeah, it's great.

That is a big conversation that I've had with several of my friends, not just being like, you know, in the crowd looking around and being the only black person, brown person in the audience, but also being on stage and performing to an all-white crowd which in Minnesota happens a lot. Especially for, I mean we're a public radio station, for the kind of bands that we play and for the audience that we have listening it becomes at least for some of my friends, an uncomfortable situation. That idea of, how do we create these spaces where people feel comfortable showing up? And I think that's something that has been a big, you know, something to grapple with in 2020. How do we-- the voices have been pretty loud. We need to do something to change this, especially in the music industry. Do you feel like you've seen any change in the music industry since the beginning of the year?

I mean it's completely shut down. (laughs)

Well besides the fact that the ecosystem is slowly falling apart.

Yeah. Oh I don't know, like it's so hard to tell. You know, like before I did music I worked in the non-profit sector for the last ten years in climate organizations and labor organizations and public interest groups. They're trying to deal with the same questions like, everybody's like, "How do we like, have a more reflective organization or label or music industry?" It's the same but I think it starts with putting people of color in these organizations. Or on these stages and really backing them. Letting them be creative and letting them do things their own way. And seeing how things can open up. I think it's tough for people to let power go, you know power is nice to have and it's really what artists are asking for is a power shift. So, same thing in all the other places. It's the same thing that has happened in music. Yeah, I don't know. Are things changing? Sure. Everyday. I don't know. (laughs)

I will say, when I first started in the radio world, early on somebody told me that to play women, I had to think about it like how I play jazz. You have to sprinkle it very - think about it almost like women were a genre. For the history of music I think Black music was thought of as like, a genre, instead of thinking about the fact that Black people, women make all kinds of music. It's not - you know, women aren't just singer-songwriters. Black people aren't just making hip hop and I think that is something that, as I've grown in the industry it's something that's shifted and I hope we continue to go in that direction.

Yeah well I remember when I heard those last two Tyler, the Creator records, I was like, "Oh it's about to happen." You know, I was like - because I was like, "Yo, these are like pop records." You know? And just being in love with what he was doing and then Lil Nas X and all that. And I was just like yo, and then NNAMDI put out 'Brat' and I was like, "Yes!" We're about to be like, it's gonna happen. So you know, it's exciting. It's really cool to make music right now and there's a lot of people to look up to, so it's really cool.

Yeah, you said something that was kind of echoed in both an NPR article I saw and a Rolling Stone article where you said, "People are excited about my music, but it means nothing if I'm the only one," about that representation in that having a group and a cohort of other musicians and kind of the ecosystem all helping each other out but I kind of wanted to go back to the beginning. Was there an artist that you saw and that was the artist that made you go, "Oh! I should be doing that." Not maybe The National, but like, an artist, or maybe made you think, "I could do that."

Oh, I mean, Tunde, [of] TV On The Radio. And Kele, [of] Bloc Party. Those two guys, I remember watching that "Wolf Like Me" performance on Letterman and I lost my mind. I was just like, "You can do that?!" You know? Because I had only seen like Jimi Hendrix and I was like, "Yeah. I don't want to do that." Like, "That's cool. I love guitar." But when I saw him, like Tunde and them do "Wolf Like Me" and the way they played it and just like, the message it sent me, as like, a Black kid in Mustang, Oklahoma that was completely lost and confused and had no Black friends and was in an all-white environment just like, who am I? And then someone like that just appeared out of nowhere. Or like, Beauty Pill in Washington D.C., Chad Clark. See those little - it was like a flare went up in my life and I was like, "There's another person like me." So like, you know. Yeah. There were a few people like that.

Is that why you moved to D.C. or you moved to Brooklyn because of those artists and those bands?

Well yes, and I mean, you know, in college I was trying to get a job and everything so interning and normal person stuff. And I was honestly like, I tried to not play music. I was like, I gotta like, get a job and help my brothers and my sister and you know, I'm from a normal family. I went to D.C. and got an internship and worked nights and just got a job. I had to live and I've just been working and playing music as often as I could on the side. You know? Like just grinding with my friends so, you know, D.C. was cooler than Oklahoma so that's why I came here. And then I got a really sweet job and I hated it and I was like, I wanna move to New York and play in bands and then everything changed. And I've just been doing both ever since. Yeah.

Yeah, kind of balancing that out. But you do have a song, and a song that you pre-recorded a couple of songs for us that we're gonna listen to in just a moment here but one of those is called "Mustang" and it's about that idea of, "Oh I need to get the heck out of here." You know? Get out of Oklahoma. What was it like growing up in Oklahoma? Was it that immediate, "I need to get out of here"? Because you do come from a, kind of a musical family? Your mom was an opera singer?

Yeah my mom's an opera singer, she's an amazing singer. Taught me everything and I had a normal upbringing in Oklahoma except for, you know, it's like very conservative state. Conservative town. Not a huge city, outside of Oklahoma City- Mustang, I played football. I was one of the Black kids that played football and that was just kinda how I got by. I wasn't really out with myself, I just kind of played my role. People have asked me a lot about Oklahoma in the last few months and it's like, I don't think I ever realized how afraid I was all the time until I moved to New York and saw so many free Black people. And I was like, I've never been free. You know? I've always been afraid of something. I really became myself, I kind of feel like. So Oklahoma, it was like a dull racism kind of grind. Watched my parents go through a lot of stuff. It was tough, but you know, at the time I didn't know how bad it was. I was just living my life, you know?

Yeah. I think that's part of it. When you're living your life and looking down it's really hard to realize that there's other things. This album does feel extremely free. While it is asking a lot of those same questions that we've been talking about, it does have some joy and some exuberance. Even the relationship with your father, we're going to hear your song "Boomer" in a moment and the part in there, because my Dad's also a boomer and just the idea of sittin' in an attic with your Dad and having a chance to have some conversation. Do you feel like as you've grown and changed and sort of broadened your own horizons by moving around and getting out of Oklahoma - do you think that's altered your relationship with your parents?

Yeah, big time. My mom and dad, they were always like, "Go! Do stuff! Do everything!" Me and my brother and sister all did different things but I was the one that was like, as soon as I could've gone - I went. I was like (whoosh noise), straight out. So I think they kinda always knew I was gonna be that one. That was kind of always gone and, you know, I've always missed a lot of stuff. You feel guilty. So your relationship with your parents changes as you get older. I'm the oldest. Now I live, we all live near each other. They live in D.C. now, they just moved here. We're like all out here, it's so wild how that worked out. So now we're like way closer than we've been since I was in like high school. It's wild.

Well I'm glad you guys are all there. Are you gonna be able to get together for the holidays? Or is it still--

Probably. I don't know, you know? My mom, she pulls up like last minute, like, "Yo, so I know we weren't gonna do anything but this is what we're doing now." And it's just like, you just gotta risk your life. That's it. You just gotta risk your life.

That's how it is with a mom.

Yeah.

Do you guys sing Christmas carols? Do you get like all together and sing? Is that like the holidays?

Oh my god. So my mom actually asked all of the kids to put together videos of us singing for the Grandparents and everyboy. So now I've got- I'm the only one with a studio so I gotta like, I'm about-- yes. To answer your question, yes.

So more work on top of all of the things that you're already doing in the studio.

Do you hear where I'm at right now? It's the best though, I'm so hype. I'm like, yo, this is crazy. Seven months ago I was like sending press releases at work so this is lit.

It's not a bad way to be, especially in a year that's been as bonkers as it has been so congratulations again on the latest album, Live Forever. You also just did a cover of Samia's "Pool" so that's out as well right now. So yeah, just congratulations on everything you've been doing and I'm glad that you're busy because that means we'll get more music from you in the future.

Yeah, I'm excited about it. Thanks.

SONGS PLAYED

15:30 Mustang
19:10 Boomer
Both songs appear on Bartees Strange's 2020 LP, Live Forever, out now on Memory Music.

CREDITS

Host - Jade
Technical Director - Peter Ecklund
Broadcast Producer - Derrick Stevens
Digital Producer - Jesse Wiza

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