Bartees Strange Can’t Slow Down

Take a taxi ride with the artist on his way to being an indie rock star

On June 17, 2022

When Bartees Strange hops onto the Zoom call, he’s in a New York cab heading for Penn Station, where he’ll have to rush to make his train back home to DC. The week after it’s the record release party in LA for his new, second album, Farm to Table. Over the last couple years, since he released his 2020 debut Live Forever and the live music industry has begun to open up, he’s become the most in-demand opening act in indie rock — hitting massive venues with the likes of Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, Courtney Barnett and Car Seat Headrest. He also signed to 4AD, home to his heroes The National (a nice full-circle moment, since he began his journey as Bartees Strange with a National covers EP, Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy).

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There’s no slowing down for him. He’s on the precipice of indie rock stardom, and Farm to Table makes that look all the more inevitable. The blend of alt rock, Americana, hip-hop and R&B with which he made an explosive impression on Live Forever has this time been polished even further, presented with even more confidence and lifted to even greater heights. From the arena stylings of “Heavy Heart” and the Auto-Tune swagger of “Cosigns,” to the poignant, soulful vocals of “Hold the Line” and the campfire singalong of “Hennessy,” there’s never been an album like this. 

Strange is taking it in stride, though. He doesn’t seem worried about the train he’s possibly about to miss (spoiler: he made it, about five minutes after the interview wrapped up), nor about the acclaim and attention that is sure to ramp up with this album release. As his car rushes through the streets of Manhattan, he chats with VMP about how he’s been navigating it all. 

VMP: Talk me through the making of Farm to Table.

Bartees Strange: I started writing the record literally the day that Live Forever came out. There was a point where this was just gonna be an EP, and I turned in “Heavy Heart,” “Wretched,” “Mulholland Dr” and this other song that’s gonna be a B-side. And the label was like, “This is great, but how do you feel about making it a record?” And I was like, “Hell yeah, that sounds rad,” ’cause I had a bunch of music. So in November of 2021 I went to London and tracked six or more songs. And that was pretty cool to do after I’d signed to 4AD.

Signing to 4AD must be particularly cool since this all started with your National covers EP.

It’s been my dream ever since I was in high school to work with that label, and I just never thought it would work out. So I am still so grateful, and also just shocked that it worked out the way it did. They reached out to me, and they were the last people to do it. And I remember being like “this isn’t gonna work out” the whole time, just kinda preparing myself. Which was fine — I was like, I’m gonna be around for a long time, maybe it will work out down the road. But the more I talked to them, the more it just seemed like the right fit. It’s really amazing. I just didn’t expect that to happen.

How did you push yourself and your songwriting while making this album?

Since Live Forever came out, I really dove into my writing and production process. I wanted to get better at that stuff. So I spent a better part of that year just producing records for other people, and I feel like through working with a slew of bands, I picked up some new skills. I [became] a little better at saying what I wanted to say more clearly, and I refined some stuff in my production process. 

There’s a lot of stuff on this album that’s live, which I’ve never done before. I really wanted to have a spread that was like, extremely raw sounds and extremely produced sounds. I [also] wanted to do some new stuff on the vocal tracking. On a couple songs, like “Black Gold” and “Escape the Circus,” I’m doing some pretty wild recording chains, like tracking vocals off of amps and weird microphones, running vocals through big, weird pedals and getting these degraded tape loops that I’m sticking onto the end of my phrases. On “Black Gold,” it almost sounds like the vocal is just breaking off at the end of the lines, which I kind of stole from Justin Vernon, watching him do it with “CRΣΣKS.” So that was a fun thing to do. 

It was also my first time recording a record in multiple places. I started it in Maine. I did a lot of tracking in my basement. Then I did a lot of tracking in a studio in Virginia called 38 North. Then I finished it all in London. So it was like this process of carrying all my files with me in my little bag, and going all over the world and finishing my record with all these people. It was just really special.

On the track “Cosigns” you talk about getting to know artists like Justin Vernon, Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus and Courtney Barnett. Have you had any memorable conversations with any of them?

From each of them I feel like I've learned so much. The coolest thing for me going out with these bands is you realize that they’re people just like you. The first time I met Phoebe, she invited me over to her house in LA and we just had a couple drinks and talked, and it was surreal. ’Cause I was like, I’m a huge fan, I love your music, my sister loves your music, all my friends love your music. And we were just kinda shooting shit. 

And then there’s the second realization of like, oh, this person is also running a very successful business. Like, how do they juggle it all? And you see the inner workings of their mind and how they run their business and how they’ve made it sustainable. Lucy Dacus was so open about like, yo, music is fun but it ain’t worth dying for. No tour is worth your mind, always protect yourself and protect your energy. And it’s been very inspiring watching how she does that for herself and her band and her team. 

I’ve just learned a lot of little things from each of them over the last year and a half that I’ll definitely be using as I keep doing this. I’m so grateful that these people have taken the time out of their lives to be like, “Yeah, I’m gonna share some game with you, so you don’t make a mistake that I made.”

As you get more successful in your own career, how do you handle making those decisions and choices that come up on the business side of things?

Well, I’ve had to make some decisions in the last year or two that have been really, really hard. And for me it all comes back to what’s serving the music. Making music that connects with people and having shows that make people feel like they belong — if that is threatened then I have to change some stuff. So I just try to keep that in my crosshairs. What’s best for the music, and also what’s best for me and my health. I’m interested in how the industry works, ’cause I wanna be successful in it, but I don’t see myself exhausting myself to make anyone more comfortable with me or whatever. I’m kinda creating my own boundaries and going through it in a way that I feel like makes sense.

I know in your Pitchfork feature, you talked about being a very competitive and ambitious person. So what does it mean for you when you think about success? How do you plan for it?

I’m trying to do that more. I feel like my whole life I’ve been the type of person who would be like, “OK, if everything goes wrong, how do I make sure this still works?” But I’m trying to be a person that’s like, “OK, there’s a good chance this is gonna work, so what are we gonna do after this works?” It’s a very different way to think. It’s kinda like getting out of a scarcity mindset, and recognizing the truth, which is [that] there’s enough for everybody. 

But I compete with myself. There’s always going to be a part of me that’s super competitive, and wants to outdo myself. So, Live Forever did great, I want Farm To Table to do better. I want people to like it more. I want it to be a bigger record. I’m always pushing myself in that way.

Do you think the fact that you come from a DIY world gives you a different perspective on success? Particularly as we see artists from that world, like Japanese Breakfast and Lucy Dacus, reach huge success of their own.

I think that not being afraid to work and do things yourself is critical to being successful in music. Like, Doja Cat’s one of the hardest-working people in the music industry, that’s why she’s so successful. She’s in the creative meetings, she’s at the shoot early, she’s the last one to leave. She’s a huge pop star, she doesn’t have to do that. [But] she works hard, and that’s why she’s crushing it. Same thing for Megan Thee Stallion, same thing for Tyler, the Creator. These people are extremely hard workers. Even though it’s not a DIY space that they’re in, they’re still doing a lot of it. 

So I feel like for people in my world, it’s like, [artists like Japanese Breakfast and Lucy Dacus] are gaining acclaim and getting bigger, but it’s because of their DIY ethos, and because they’re not afraid to get scrappy and do the work. So yeah, I definitely take a lot from that, ’cause I feel like I’m kind of a grinder. I like working on this, and I’m sure that as things get bigger I will go even deeper.

What are your wildest ambitions as an artist?

I wouldn’t mind having Aaron Dessner’s life. [Laughs] I wanna produce big records for artists that I admire, and I wanna make records that I love and that people love. I’ve always said I wanna win a Grammy, or I wanna score a movie — those are career milestones, but in the biggest picture, it’s like, I just wanna have a sustainable, happy, healthy life, working with people that inspire me. And so I can also bring other people in that I think deserve a chance, too. So I want a lot, I guess, but I think there’s enough time to do it.

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Mia Hughes

Mia Hughes is a freelance music writer from Manchester, U.K. They specialize in punk, indie and folk rock, and they’re most interested in telling stories about human beings. They’ve contributed to Billboard, Pitchfork, NMEMTV News and more. 

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