Bartees Strange’s surreal journey from FCC staffer to indie-rock stardom

Bartees Strange headlines 9:30 Club this month in Washington, D.C., a city whose music scene he has long admired. "Maybe I’m an underdog at heart," he says, "but I’ve always been drawn to doing it from here." (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
9 min

Bartees Strange points to a lengthy text message inviting him to visit the Hudson Valley residence of Aaron Dessner, the prolific music producer and multi-instrumentalist known for playing guitar in the National. Strange’s voice rises slightly in pitch: “I can’t believe I’m talking to these people,” he says. “Literally 2½ years ago, I was like, ‘How do you become one of these people? How do you meet them?’ ”

Strange, a musician and producer himself, is referring to when he released his first project, March 2020’s “Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy,” an EP of reimagined National covers inspired by a concert the Grammy-winning rock band played in Washington, D.C., the previous year. Since then, Strange, 33, has released two critically acclaimed records, “Live Forever” and “Farm to Table,” paving the way for him to stride into the space he dreamed of inhabiting. He accompanied the National for a handful of dates on their summer tour.

Seated in late September on the patio of Kramers, the Dupont Circle bookstore and cafe where he worked years ago after moving to D.C. as an intern, Strange exudes the mild incredulity of an indie artist whose star is rising swiftly and the confidence of one who knows he earned it. He’s got the goods; often praised for his tendency to traverse genre lines — punk, rap, emo, country, whatever the heck alternative rock means these days — Strange excels at drawing the listener in close before slingshotting them to another plane entirely.

The next stop on Strange’s surreal journey is 9:30 Club, a historic venue with sentimental value for those familiar with the local music scene. He is set to headline there for the first time Saturday, a special feat given that he used to watch video after video of bands playing at the old 9:30 location (and can immediately recall the first show he ever attended at its current spot on V Street Northwest: “Beach House. It was so sick. ‘Norway’ era”). While a gig in public relations technically brought Strange to D.C., his deeply ingrained love of musical acts who thrived in the area set his sights on the city in the first place.

“There’s a Black star here,” he says. “Chuck Brown was here. George Clinton was making music here. There’s a history of Black experimental, indie — prominent artists. People kind of sleep on the area. Maybe I’m an underdog at heart, but I’ve always been drawn to doing it from here. I want to refocus the light.”

Born Bartees Leon Cox Jr., to a military-engineer father and opera-singer mother, Strange lived in England, Germany and even Greenland before his family settled during his tween years in Mustang, Okla. Strange considers his mother a fundamental part of his musical life, referring to her as both his biggest fan and toughest critic. “I have a lot of respect for her,” he says. “How humbly she walks among us.”

Strange, who grew up singing in the church, was raised on gospel and soul. At home, he dug into his father’s funk collection, whether Funkadelic or Rick James or Prince, fascinated by the discovery that while most of the contemporary rock bands Strange knew at the time were White, “all of my dad’s rock bands were Black.” (He adds, “I didn’t think they were funk bands. I was like, ‘This is a rock band.’ ”) When Strange eventually befriended peers who could drive, he ventured out with them and began to encounter all sorts of new music.

Among the artists he found on his own? “50 Cent,” he says with a hearty laugh, adding that “Get Rich or Die Tryin’ ” was “the first record I bumped in a car. I was like, ‘Music is crazy. You can do this?’ ”

After a brief stint playing college football in Kansas, Strange graduated from the University of Oklahoma and moved out east to D.C. He worked at Kramers alongside three guys who had all been on “Jeopardy!” — “different seasons,” he specifies — and made his way through a series of public relations jobs that led him to the Obama administration, for which he worked in 2014 as a spokesman for the Federal Communications Commission. Strange once aspired to a career in politics, romanticizing the moving and shaking of it all. It was when he landed the FCC position that he realized he didn’t want that life one bit: “I actually hate myself right now,” he remembers thinking.

So Strange did what many a creative, ambitious, dissatisfied 20-something did before him: He moved to Brooklyn. He filled a room in his tiny Crown Heights apartment with tape machines and other recording equipment, investing his energy into an activity often squeezed into the window between his work shift and too little sleep each night. He learned how to produce music by watching videos online.

It worked for a while, until Strange came to the conclusion that he probably wouldn’t make it in New York. There were too many other musicians pursuing the same goals, too many rich people with the luxury of spending all day making music, too many New York University students with access to much better facilities, he says.

In 2019, Strange moved back to D.C., finding a cheaper apartment in Northeast and renegotiating his salary so he could work four out of five weekdays and reserve the last for music. “Baby-step vibes,” he says. “A lot of people are like, ‘How’d you quit your job and do music?’ I’m like, ‘Over 10 years.’ I did both forever.”

During a 30-minute set at D.C.’s All Things Go music festival in October, Strange and his band played “Boomer,” an upbeat track from his first record that opens with the playful greeting, “Aye bruh, aye bruh, aye bruh.” The curious crowd listened as the steady music — with its springy drums and bright guitar — built to an explosive chorus. As Strange belted, “That’s what we dance for, Lord, I’m going in,” many of the festivalgoers assembled in the Merriweather Post Pavilion pit began to sway and bounce to the beat.

Until a friend convinced him otherwise, Strange thought of shelving “Boomer” because he worried people would find a Black man rapping over a bluesy indie-rock track too “corny.” Instead, it became his most popular song. Released in June, Strange’s second album, the full-bodied “Farm to Table,” suggests he learned to trust his instincts more. (Some external validation certainly doesn’t hurt; on the song “Cosigns,” he shouts out the support he has received from fellow indie rockers Courtney Barnett, Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers, as well as Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and Martin Mills, founder of the record company that owns Strange’s label, 4AD.)

Strange likens his storytelling on “Farm to Table” to a symphony, its 10 tracks loosely grouped into movements. The grandeur of his music often reflects his intensity of feeling. The horns on opening track “Heavy Heart” go nuts, hitting the listener with as much impact as Strange’s emotions have hit him. When his career took off in the first year of the pandemic, Strange felt a sort of “survivor’s guilt” that he wound up channeling into a vigorous work ethic. The lyrics to “Heavy Heart” explore how unsustainable it can be for guilt to serve as a primary motivator: “Sometimes I feel just like my dad/ Rushing around/ I never saw the God in that/ Why work so hard you can’t fall back?/ Then I remember, I rely too much upon/ My heavy heart,” he sings in the chorus.

Rich and buoyant in sound, the song is ultimately hopeful, according to Strange, who says its position as the opener suggests he will find some sort of solution to his struggles later on. In life, he finds strength in community, a constant reminder that he doesn’t have to go it alone. He moved back to D.C. in pursuit of that feeling.

“I wanted to be a band from here,” he says. “When I was in Brooklyn, I really enjoyed it, but I’m not a Brooklyn band. I wasn’t from there like that. … I wasn’t part of that community like I was when I was in D.C.”

Throughout the conversation, Strange, who now lives right outside the city in Maryland, tosses around the names of D.C. bands with the same fervor he recalls feeling upon first discovering them. He was familiar with Scream and Fugazi early on but can pinpoint the exact moment in his young adulthood when someone recommended he listen to the indie rock band Smart Went Crazy, which then led him to band member Chad Clark’s subsequent venture, Beauty Pill.

Clark, also a multifaceted Black songwriter and producer, has been a North Star for Strange, who hopes to help carve out a space for other inventive artists to thrive. For Strange’s first national headlining tour, he says, he was intentional about putting together the sort of diverse billing “I always wanted to see.” He’s bringing along performers They Hate Change, Pom Pom Squad and Spring Silver, the latter two of which will play 9:30.

“I want to be the person that brings you in and gives you something, because there are people who gave me something,” he says. “It feels good to broaden my shoulders and be like, ‘We belong here, too.’ ”