There's admittedly a lot poured into Bartees Strange's first solo track, but such is the life of the U.K.-born, Oklahoma-raised artist.
Born Bartees Cox Jr., he was brought up by a very musical family in a relatively sheltered, small town near Oklahoma City. He sang in black churches and got what he could out of the surrounding music culture: Christian punk and hardcore bands passing through, a local rock scene heavily influenced by country, which included some early Kings of Leon gigs. He took a football scholarship to college but found himself in music; artists like TV on the Radio, The Internet and Burial became core influences. He eventually wound up in Brooklyn and toured with a variety of artists, including the post-hardcore act Stay Inside and later, Lizzie No's Americana-folk band.
"I feel like I grew up as a contributor who always wanted his own show," he tells Billboard. "I was always the third place person when deep down I'm like, I'm good enough to do this."
Which brings us to the excellent "In a Cab," the first sampling of Cox's debut album as Bartees Strange. It's a lot of song crammed into just over two minutes. There's no real intro or outro; just a plunge into the deep end: anxious, jazzy percussion, a wall of brass, and alternating falsetto and lower-register soul, where the TV On the Radio influence really registers.
We're premiering the official video below, which is another trip in and of itself. Find it below, along with our recent chat with Bartees about his very unique past and how it shaped his forthcoming debut album.
What was your upbringing like?
I grew up near a small town called Mustang, Oklahoma, in a neighboring small town called Yukon, but went to Mustang High School. I was a very typical country-ish kinda guy. Like, I painted fences in the summer, played on the football team, played basketball. I got a football scholarship out of high school to play but then I got hurt in college, so that was when music really took off.
I had a pretty interesting upbringing. My mom is an opera singer and she taught music at the University of Oklahoma. My dad is an engineer and was really into music as well. I grew up always singing and playing in churches, a lot of black churches. My mom was a praise team leader for six different churches. Mustang was it's own thing, incredibly segregated, very racist. I could tell you all the black kids that were run out of town. But me and my brother and sister made it through and got out. Mustang was a weird place to grow up, but it's why I'm able to make what I make.
I feel like I've always tried to run away from Oklahoma, but I've realized in the last few years that where I'm from has made my music special. There's not a lot of people up here [in New York, D.C., etc.] from Nowhere, Oklahoma [Laughs]. It actually made me really interested in Lil Nas X. I was like, fuck yeah. There are black people out in the country doing all types of wild shit, good at all types of things.
Are those influences popping up on your forthcoming music?
A lot of the album has a lot of country influences. I'm like, this is good timing!
I've got an album coming out. I just got all the mixes today. I need to choose a person to master it… It's got 14 songs on it. I went into the studio with 33 songs, recorded 24, put 14 on the album. So I got a bunch I'll release after the album's out.
There are a lot of influences, from jazz to R&B to indie rock… I think there are a lot of natural connections between hardcore, indie, and country. I used to go to the [defunct Tulsa, Okla. venue] Green Door and see At the Drive-In and Kings of Leon before they were poppin'. The Kings of Leon folks, they had family who was like, a substitute teacher at my middle school. We used to go and see Kings of Leon when they were young. In Oklahoma, we have hardcore bands and punk bands, but they don't sound like New York punk bands. They sound like country bands.
You mentioned the Christian post-hardcore band As Cities Burn in your press release. That really caught my eye.
That was my shit! We grew up in the church. If I could sneak a band by my parents that was also Christian, it was always money: As Cities Burn, the Almost, Underoath, Norma Jean. That was how I could get in. And then I'd be like, "Oh yeah, mom, At the Drive-In and Glassjaw, they're also chill!"
"In a Cab" is the first song you've released for this solo project, as Bartees Strange. What influenced it and why did you decide to lead with it?
I wrote it when I was in Belgium, staying with a friend in a neighborhood there called Le Flagey… I had found a way to get out of Oklahoma. I moved to New York, was playing in all these bands. I was starting to feel like a lot of things I'd thought were super impossible were kinda realistic. I was like, Oh my god I'm in Brussels, I've never been this far, who are these people… And then I hit a point where I was like, fuck it. I let it go. I really enjoyed being over there and met people who really changed the way I saw myself. It opened my eyes to a way bigger vision of what I thought I could do musically and artistically.
Sonically, I wanted to put something out first that shows my range. Over the years I've played in a bunch of hardcore and country bands, things like that that were more easy to define. I made a lot of beats in college and worked with a lot of really great producers. I started playing a lot more guitar and did some touring in a post-hardcore band called Stay Inside. Then I started playing with Lizzie No and her country band. I felt like I could do something a little more progressive, but still maintain the soul, the backbeat, the indie rock vibe, but keeping everything kinda like me.
Why did I choose to put this one out first? "In a Cab" is the clearest range of what I could offer as an artist. The song is like a jazz-TV On the Radio-indie hip-hop song.
What were you trying to express in the video?
It's almost like a seance. It starts off at Dead Horse Beach in Brooklyn… One of my best friends, Rachel Hamburg, she's building a portal from bottles and trash washed up, and using it to transport me to a place where I'm welcomed, a place I can have a good time. That party at the end was thrown by Taja Cheek, the woman that fronts L'Rain. When I moved to New York, I knew nobody and there were a lot of people I looked up to who played in way bigger bands. But over time, we all became close. The song is about making something that puts me in a realm of people that I feel like I'm equal to. In real life, they threw a party to film my music video — the people I've looked up to for the last four, five years.
I'm in the cab, riding down Flatbush. That's where it all began for me, musically in New York. And where I met a lot of the people in the video.
It sounds like solo music is very important to you. Is there something you wanted to share with people you felt you could only get out that way?
I feel like I grew up as a contributor who always wanted his own show. I was always the third place person when deep down I'm like, I'm good enough to do this.
On this album and "In a Cab," I really wanted to be honest and intentional about being myself. It's every artist's journey, figuring out how to put out emotions people can relate to, but at the same time, being yourself. People have asked me, what is this? It it a hip-hop song? A jazz song? A rock song? And I'm like honestly man, it's just me. This is what I make. I think when when you hear it all together, you'll be like damn, Bartees, he's out there [Laughs].
The "In a Cab" video was directed by Rachel Hamburg and Oli Booker. You can find Bartees' upcoming live dates here.