If you spent any time perusing best-albums-of-2020 lists, you probably came across the name Bartees Strange. The Falls Church musician’s debut, Live Forever, showed up on a host of them, including influential ones from Pitchfork and NPR. And if you were surprised to see the newcomer’s music nestled among the likes of Fiona Apple and Taylor Swift, well, so was he. “I just thought this would be a good steppingstone for the next thing I do,” says Strange. “I didn’t expect it to jump like that. It’s life-affirming.”
Strange—originally known as Bartees Cox Jr.—was born overseas and mostly raised outside of Oklahoma City by his opera-singer mother and career-military father. He grew up in a religious household in which gospel was the genre of choice. When Strange started creating his own tunes in college, he deliberately avoided sticking to any particular sound, and the music he plays now is basically impossible to categorize (there are elements of punk, indie, country, and hip-hop).
“I wanted to make something that was expansive and that touched on the experiences of myself, but also the sonic influences of Black people,” he says. “I’m a Black person from the South; there’s the specter of racism in every aspect of our lives. With this record, it was nice recognizing how traumatic growing up there was—and then kind of growing out of it and being like, ‘I don’t have to be bounded by that fear anymore.’ ”
After getting a journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma, Strange moved to DC and worked in PR (he even did a six-month stint as deputy press secretary for the FCC). Then, six years ago, he decided to try Brooklyn. It was there, he says, that he got serious about his music.
When he moved back to Washington two years ago, his second career started to take off. His first release was a collection of covers of songs by the indie band the National, inspired by seeing them play at the Anthem. The National released it on their own label last March. Then came Live Forever, which earned him rave reviews from major outlets.
Now, having realized he doesn’t want to sit in front of a computer all day, he has put PR on hold and is working as a full-time producer at Thirty Eight North Studio in Falls Church (which means you not only can listen to his album but also can hire him to produce yours).
Though Strange didn’t come up through any of DC’s famous music scenes, he still feels a connection to the city’s creative pulse. “I’m like, ‘Yo, Chuck Brown’s from here,’ ” he says, not to mention other local favorites of his like Beauty Pill and Fugazi. “Since moving here, I’ve met so many people, and it’s a really beautiful scene. This is a real-ass music city.”