Build Whatever Worlds You Want: How Bartees Strange carved his own lane on Live Forever - WXPN
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Bartees Strange isn’t the type of artist that you can pin down. His genre-defying sound is the product of refusing to stay in one space and purposefully blending music that he feels has a right to be blended.

There are no rules to his process, and his debut full-length, Live Forever, could very well change the world. At the very least, he hopes it inspires conversations about seeing past limitations – whether they’re race, gender, political views, or economic standing – and just going out and doing that one thing you’re afraid of, whatever it is. Do the thing that people say you can’t do. Bartees Strange is living proof that hard work and believing in the art you put into the world will help you get to exactly where you need to be.

A native to Mustang, Oklahoma and now a local to Washington D.C., Bartees continues to use his wide range of eclectic taste to produce his next album along with the help of Studio 4’s Will Yip, who have much more in common with each other than they ever thought. Both were kind enough to sit down with The Key over Zoom last week to explore how their relationship came to be, what Live Forever means to them, and what impactful changes they hope to see in the industry because of it.

The Key: You grew up with a classical music background and then got into punk and rock, as most teens tend to do. But your sound doesn’t really seem to fit any one genre, which I think is really impressive. So how did you discover your sound?

Bartees Strange: My mom’s a singer and my dad is an avid collector of music and tape machines and recording gear, just a sound nerd. So between growing up in churches and opera houses, I think I didn’t get exposed to secular music until I got a little older and I had friends with cars and was able to ride to a show or go to someone’s house to play video games and hear something like Underoath or Tooth & Nail. That was kind of how I fell into that music and hip hop. And I guess I never really thought about how, when putting genres together and not having a distinct sound, they were all connected. And I always felt as a Black person, especially a Black person from the South – my whole family has a musical background. My mom’s a singer, and before her, my great uncles and grandparents were all singers and Chitlin’ Circuit players. That’s just my background. And I always thought it was insane to expect a Black person to just make a singular sound. Western music is Black music, you know? All of it. So it felt very natural to show how they were connected. And I didn’t really try to, it’s just that I was writing things I wanted to hear and trying to prove those connections with my music. That’s how I’ve always kind of approached it.

TK: That feels like such an awesome driving purpose. I can definitely tell that there’s a common thread between all of the singles that have been put out off of Live Forever so far, even though they do sound so different from each other. How did you and Will go about putting this release together — because it does listen so complexly?

Will Yip: Jamie Colletta, a brilliant PR person, and more than that, just a great visionary and a great ear in the music industry hit me up last year. She said, “Will, there’s this record that I think some people in our scene just don’t get yet, but I feel like you’re going to get this record. I feel like you’re just going to understand this guy.” So I’m like, “Let’s go, send it over.” And coming from her, that means a lot. I trust her and she knows me and she knows my background and she knows how eclectic, like Bartees, my background is with music. She sent me the record and I fell in love. Tracks one, two, three, four. I was locked in. Once I got to “Kelly Rowland” I was like, “Alright, what are we doing here? How am I going to work with this guy? Let’s get a conversation going. What do you guys need? How can I help? Let me help, whatever it is.”

So Jamie was like, “We just need someone that backs us. We need a label to help put this out.” And me being a producer, my first thought was, “Who worked on this? Who produced this?” And Jamie said he did. I was just inspired by the overall vision and just how eclectic the music was that I knew I’d connect with him. I don’t look at myself as just a rock producer, I just want to be here to help great artists, whatever that means, you know? For some artists I’m writing and producing; to some artists I’m just an A&R guy; sometimes I’m somewhere in between, whatever it is. I just want to help with my resources, help however I can. And artists share the craft in the best way possible with whatever they need and participate. You know, the second I heard Live Forever and when Jamie gave me a little bit of back story, I just kind of fell in love with the project even more. I fell in love with the potential. This is just my man by himself with his brilliant homies working on this record. I was like, “Damn. If we gave him endless resources, what could he do?” I think that’s how we kind of linked up and how this record ended up on Memory and how I remastered it. But, you know, artistically, Bartees doesn’t need anyone. His vision is so clear and I’m grateful to be a part of it.

BS: Damn, that’s so nice, Will. Just so you know, Emily, I grew up on Will’s catalog. In high school, I remember when there was a series of records, from Circa Survive’s Jurturna to mewithoutyou to Balance and Composure to Tigers Jaw. That was my life. Like, those guitar lines? I was playing lines off those records for years, and then I figured out who Will was and learned his story. I felt like he was a grinder like me. Will was making records in his basement. He was in school and he got an internship and he worked and worked and got a job. He built this thing for himself. I felt like I was in a situation where I couldn’t follow anyone’s path and I had to build this on my own. I can’t wait for someone to give me this, and I feel like Will’s a great example of that. A lot of people I look up to are grinders, so when Will wanted to work with me on this record I just felt like it was cosmic. It felt like this was supposed to happen.

WY: I think we first had a conversation about just what kind of music we were into, I got chills. I got chills our whole phone call because it’s hard, you know what I mean? Not that people in our scene don’t have eclectic taste and eclectic backgrounds, but, you know, it’s hard to find a story. And just the backgrounds – obviously Bartees and I are so different, but we share a lot of the same outlook. What music means to us is that there isn’t a pigeonhole. People love pigeonholing me, and even when I see Live Forever being pigeonholed as an indie rock record, I’m like “this record’s more than that.” Bartees is more than that. I’m more than that when I produce records. When we had our first conversation about how we see music and how we see Bartees’s music, the first thing I got from it was soul. Not just soul music, but just the word soul from it. It touched my soul and it touched my heart quickly, like some of my favorite records do.

And I think that is because of how eclectic everything is and that there are no boundaries. And I think a lot of people, when you’re not born into that, there are no boundaries in music and you try to do that later. And if you grew up listening to whatever pop music and then you discover whatever you discover, Migos in 2012 or whatever, you start to put things together in such a transparent way that doesn’t sound right. But when you’re born into it, when you’re born into the eclecticism of music and you’re born into just boundaryless stuff like Bartees was, it all feels so right. You can hear “Mustang” and “Kelly Rowland” and go, “that feels correct.” Even though it’s so different, life was the same. And that’s because my man was born into this without boundaries and he’s never seen boundaries in art and music. And that’s how I looked at music my entire life. You know, that was the rule of working with Ms. Lauryn Hill. In music, all we see is making the best music we can with what inspires us. And Bartees looks for the good in the bad, you know, he draws from everything. And I couldn’t connect with that more. I feel like that’s what makes not only this record special, but the rest of his career is going to pop off because he’s going to be tapping into things that no one’s doing because he was born into something. He’s truly unique to himself.

TK: You’re a rare find, Bartees. How do you feel hearing these things being said about yourself?

BS: It’s life affirming shit, you know. Like my whole life I just didn’t know I could do this. I always wanted to, but I never saw anyone do it. I remember when I saw TV on the Radio perform on TV, and I remember the flick of the switch and thinking, “I want to be that guy.” But I couldn’t say it out loud; I felt crazy to want that life. I always tried to do what I thought I was supposed to do. And then I think I just hit a point where I was like, I’m going to die like this. I can’t live my life without going after this. And I always worked. I don’t come from money and I was working 40 or 50 hours a week and doing music every second. I didn’t take a vacation for nine years. Every vacation was tour, and any time I was not at work, I was working on music.

I didn’t go to school for music. I taught myself how to engineer, like in my apartment with my setup, and I taught myself because I felt like every time I walked into a studio, no one could do what I was hearing and no one trusted me. No one would invest in me. I was just the Black kid in a punk rock studio. No one wanted to give me the space, you know? And damn, I was like, “I got to make my own shit. It’s the only way.” Sometimes you’re just the only one who knows, for so long. Eventually people form around you, like Jamie, Tim Zahodski, Will, all these people have kind of popped up because I felt like I knew something about myself and not everyone agreed, but they agreed. I’ve always said I only need one or two yeses, and it’s on. And Will was the yes, Jamie was the yes. Tim was the yes. And it’s been life-affirming. Like I said, you know, hearing this stuff from someone like Will – if I could have like an eighth of the career, I would be fine.

WY: You’re gonna take my job, man. I’m gonna have to look for a backup job.

BS: It makes a lot of things feel worth it. 

TK: To build on that feeling of not being heard for so long, what do you feel like you’re specifically trying to say to listeners once this album comes out? What do you want them to hear with this?

BS: Like I said, people can build whatever worlds they want. You’ve got to come to a point where you accept that you’re powerful and you may be the only one that knows what you can do, and you may have to build on your own for a while. But you can do it. You can do anything you want. The right people will come around you. And I feel like for Black people, brown people, gay people, you know, people that grow up marginalized in small towns, the ceiling looks really short, but there are other options. Even if you don’t see them right in front of you, you’re not crazy for wanting something wild for yourself. I feel like rock really fucked up when they systematically started cutting Black people out of it. If you look at hip-hop, it’s leading the culture because of the people who are part of it. It’s the people that make that genre so powerful. And I wanted to make rock songs about wanting a fancy car and the baddest chick and wanting to buy my mom a yacht, you know, so I was like, “let’s write rock songs about that shit.” My whole life I was told that I don’t deserve these things, but I do. And, you know, I feel like in this genre, I think that’s an important thing to like, say, as Black people, that “this is our shit.” 

WY: Just being a fan of the record, if I had to share with my friends what this record means to me, I just hope that it inspires people to do the thing that you grow up thinking there are rules for and thinking that you can’t do it. I was a Chinese kid just getting into music in middle school. That was the least sexy thing I could have done because everyone wanted to play with people that looked like the people that they aspired to be on TV, you know? No one looked like me on MTV. And so that’s the thing about this record. It represents so much “new” in a way that is kind of fucked up because it’s stuff that should have been there for the last 40 years in popular music. Why are there so many rules on what music can be? Why can’t rock songs have this real soul influence to it? And why can’t there be an actual hip-hop grimey song on a rock record without standing out like a sore thumb? People can’t just tie things together without kind of appropriating the culture.

I think this record is going to speak to people and it’s going to start to educate a lot of people on how to take bits of culture and how to be inspired by different types of culture. It’s about paying respect while enforcing the fact that there aren’t rules. As long as you do it right, and as long as it feels good to hold onto and it’s honest and coming from the right place, there are no rules. And I think this record speaks very, very loudly to that. And it’s a special, special thing.

TK: You both definitely have motives that come from the right place. Pushing for inclusivity seems to be an uphill battle sometimes. Working as a woman in the music industry can be difficult at times too, even though things have definitely been heading in more of a positive direction in recent years. But there’s obviously still work to do all around, and what you’re doing just by sharing your story and working so hard to be a person to defy these limitations is a huge step.

WY: That’s why we’re still very far behind, but we have to make those moves. I mean, for women, for Black people, for all kinds of marginalized people. We have to make those moves and keep inspiring people to do it. And artists like Bartees are just at the forefront waving the flag.

TK: So how do you feel about releasing this during a time when you can’t tour for it?

BS: You know, I’m okay with it.

TK: That’s so interesting because some artists are taking that really hard and it’s almost deterring them from releasing anything.

BS: The way I see it is I think of people like Adrian Lenker, who can write a hit record with two spoons and dental floss. It doesn’t matter. Justin Vernon, same kind of deal, it doesn’t matter what he has, he can make a record of all the best songs you’ve ever heard with anything in the room. And I feel like quarantine and pandemic puts artists in a situation where, if you’re real, if you can do shit with anything, you’re going to stand out. I feel like it’s almost like a more level playing field than normal. I don’t have to worry about being scooped because bigger artists are struggling to get into big studios, and I know how to do this myself. So I was like, “I’m going to use this as an opportunity to get ahead and produce the next thing and it’ll be ready when it’s time to get back on the road.”

WY: Touring is so big to rock culture. It’s almost most of the culture to rock music. Whereas if you look at any other genre of music touring is a big part of it, obviously, but a lot of it also isn’t. A lot of these pop and hip hop artists can be so successful without touring because they’re releasing so much content and the content is speaking for itself. Rock bands kind of culturally, relied on touring numbers for their livelihood. But again, this is where Bartees’s music is not just rock culture stuff. I think it stands alone in a vacuum. I can’t wait for people to see him perform because he’s a brilliant performer. But the music, the songs, the recorded material stands alone by itself. It’s not one of those things where you listen to a rock record and someone says, “but you’ve gotta see them live.” You’re going to love this record because of the product in the music, because he’s an artist, a producer, a writer. You’re going to believe in him as an artist.

TK: Do you feel like any of these lyrics took a lot of bravery to actually write? Do these songs say things you’ve been trying to say for a while, but didn’t have a reason or it just wasn’t the right time?

BS: I think what’s interesting about the record, and something that I believe in deeply is that we live in a really polarized society. Things are one way or the other, but that’s not reality. I think we’re the middle and everything is kind of mixed and ugly and things aren’t as simple as we’d like them to be. And there’s an opportunity in that, socially, economically, politically, musically, and where those things meet is where most people really are. And I think, with my music in the first song of the record, I say, “welcome to a world where everything is everything.” Like, these songs are everything. The rap songs, country songs, rock songs, pop songs, whatever. And a lot of music now is kind of trending in that direction. And a lot of people are trending in that direction, too, and I feel like if we can get outside of wanting things to be simple and wanting things to be Republican or Democrat or wanting things to be black or white, we’ll realize that with so many things, we’re all just arguing over pennies. The real opportunity is how close and how similar we all are and how similar these genres are. And that’s kind of just what I’m trying to illustrate. Everything is everything. There is no yes or no. It’s all of it.

TK: That’s such a “this demands attention,” sort of line. And you’re gripping your listeners right from the first song so they understand that this album has something that needs to be said and has needed to be said for so long. You’re a powerful writer.

WY: I haven’t felt this much complexity and this much dynamic in an artist in a while, especially since we haven’t even worked together creatively yet. His outlook on life in the world, and how it speaks in his art – everything Bartees is saying makes sense to the music. And the closest in terms of this feeling I’ve had working with someone like that is Ms. Lauryn Hill, and one of my favorite tracks of hers, “Everything is Everything.” She has such a similar outlook. And I remember she worked with me because she knew I could handle those parts of her. She doesn’t want to just be an emcee or an R&B singer. She wants to feel like she’s the lead singer for The Clash. You feel like she’s the lead singer for Led Zeppelin when you listen. And she’s like, “Will knows how to record electric guitars, but he can handle rock and the hip-hop world, too, and I like that.” I haven’t felt this much complexity in creative production and creative output since Ms. Lauryn Hill that I’ve worked with and artists that just live in the R&B world. She’s above that. People say we’re living in this rock world, myself included. I like to think we’re above that. Bartees is definitely above that.

TK: Ms. Lauryn Hill. Bartees, that is an insane compliment.

WY: I didn’t want to gas you up too much, man. We’ve got a lot of work left to do.

BS: Will, I’m afraid of the day that we’re in a studio together for longer than a week.

WY: Emily, imagine the two of us working together for a month on a record.

TK: I assumed that’s what Live Forever was and I can’t believe this isn’t a collaboration between the two of you yet. What I’ve heard so far is so unbelievably good and, you’re right, I don’t think I have any sort of grasp of what a true project between you guys is going to be. So that’s a testament to you both individually.

WY: That’s what I’m saying. Bartees doesn’t need anyone. But just imagine when we get in a room together, it’s going to be sick.

TK: So how are you celebrating your release Friday? Are you planning anything? 

BS: I’m going to Maine tomorrow to start reproducing my next record. So that’s what I’ll be doing when the record comes out. I need you to know, I don’t like to dwell on things. I don’t like to feel too much. It’s weird. I’ve been lucky in life that I’ve had good things happen to me professionally, and I know how to not believe the hype. I know what I want to do and this is the beginning. So I just want to keep working. The record comes out and I want to be on to the next one. 

TK: To push on that feeling of not wanting to “feel,” a little bit more, how are you handling this sudden rush of press? It could totally be because of my algorithm since I follow all the people you guys follow, but I see you pop up at least once a day on any given platform. You’re doing killer interview after interview and your release promo is so great. How are you dealing with the attention? 

BS: It helps that my partner doesn’t really know shit about music. She’s a labor lawyer and I’m with her all the time so it’s very easy for me to remember that there are so many bigger things going on in the world. I’m beyond blessed, though. This is the first time I’ve ever had any real attention on anything I’ve ever made. But I’m not dumb. I know that this is the beginning and I know that this will disappear really quickly, you know? I’m just trying to stay busy. I mean, I’m at the studio right now working on a record, there’s stuff coming out all day. I just want to outwork everybody. I don’t think I’m actually that talented. I mean, I’m talented, but I just want to be known as a hard worker. 

WY: That’s why I like you, man. You work, and that attitude is never going to stop. I see that in myself, too. We don’t stop working. 

BS: I felt like that for years, you know. When I was in Oklahoma, I was in school full time, working thirty hours, interning for five years to get out of there. I was homeless in DC for six months, interning, working nights, got a house, got a job, worked for the Obama administration as a press secretary – I work. I’m from workers, farmers. So I’m just gonna work, and that’s how it is. 

TK: Because you lived in so many places, you’ve explored all of these different areas of the music industry – the midwest, DC, Philly. Where do you feel the most at home and is that reflected in your sound? 

BS: The place I feel most at home is in Toronto, really. That’s where my partner’s from. She’s Chinese, a first generation Chinese immigrant, hardworking, nice family. I look up to her parents so much. 

WY: Dude, we’re even more connected. I didn’t know that.  

BS: Yeah, she’s amazing. I wanted to talk to you about all of that. But every time I’m in Toronto I feel so safe. The cops don’t carry guns and it’s a very different kind of energy. It reminds me of the history of Black people in America and how afraid we are all the time, even when we don’t feel afraid. You just don’t even realize how scared you are all the time until you go somewhere where it doesn’t exist and you’re like, “oh, like I’m a person. I feel good here.” They have healthcare, the school is affordable – you recognize all the things that hold people down here and how truly impossible things are for some people to do.

It makes me think about all of the things that my parents have faced and I faced, and especially with music, because people are like, “oh, my God you want to be a musician, there are all these limitations and you can’t have a family. You’re not going to have healthcare. The money sucks.” Man, for me to go to college and to get to D.C. on an internship, that’s impossible. Why can’t I do this? In Canada you just don’t realize any of that. I’m trying to get up there so I can be comfortable in the long-term, in Berlin. There are so many creative people. There are all these creative, diverse cultural hubs that are just like bringing new shit. There are artists coming out of Berlin right now. These Afrobeat people are doing it different. It’s going to change the world. It’s like nineties New York City-level culture happening. I could go on and on, these artists are crazy and I’m scared of them. I’m afraid of the day we find out about them because you won’t give a shit about me. I want to be a part of that, you know, this new wave.

Bartees Strange’s Live Forever is out today via Memory Music, and can be ordered on Bandcamp.

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