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Bartees Strange pushes the boundaries of indie rock


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Professional musicians often chafe at being confined to categories or genres. And, sometimes, an artist comes along to invigorate and stretch those categories.

Bartees Strange is one such musician.

Special correspondent Tom Casciato has this story for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Tom Casciato: Bartees Strange operates in the world known as indie or alternative rock, a space, he says, where Black artists haven't always gotten their due.

Bartees Strange, Musician: Oftentimes, we will be like, oh, yes, like, Black people are like the foundation of culture, but when you look at, like, who's winning awards and who's getting recognition, especially, like, in the guitar-driven space or the indie rock space, the contributions of Black people are oftentimes forgotten.

Tom Casciato: His contributions are getting attention. They include injecting an emotional mix of R&B, rap, soul and more to the independent rock scene, where The Guardian recently wrote "He is here to rewrite the rule book."

Maybe he was made to mash multiple styles into a new one of his own. He was born Bartees Cox Jr. in 1989 in Ipswich, England.

Bartees Strange: My dad was an Air Force guy. He worked on planes. And my mom, she's an opera singer.

Tom Casciato: The family bounced around, until Bartees, the oldest of three, found himself growing up in Mustang, Oklahoma.

Bartees Strange: I grew up on Garth Brooks Boulevard literally. We were one of the few Black families.

Tom Casciato: He soaked up music, especially that of the mostly white hardcore and emo scenes. He also attended opera camp, and he loved books.

Bartees Strange: I was an avid reader. Philip Roth was my favorite author.

Tom Casciato: So, military father, opera singer mother, Philip Roth-reading Black kid in a white town.

Bartees Strange: Strange, yes.

Tom Casciato: Is that how — is that how the name Strange occurred to you?

Bartees Strange: The people at church would go, he's kind of strange, which, in the Black community, can mean like so many things. It's like a word to describe the quiet kid, the kid that you don't understand really, but you love him.

People would always kind of be like, yes, he's in his own world.

Tom Casciato: His dream was actually to play football, that is, until one late night, he saw the group TV On the Radio.

Bartees Strange: And it's mostly Black guys wearing clothes that was like something I would wear making music that I had not heard by people that looked like that.

I was like, I need to get a guitar. It changed what I thought was possible in my life.

Tom Casciato: But music wouldn't take over right away. In fact, Bartees Cox went on to an entire career outside of music in Washington, including a stint as deputy press secretary of the Federal Communications Commission.

As recently as last year, he worked in communications for a climate change nonprofit. But he was making music all along. He began getting more attention with a 2020 release, where he covered tunes by a prominent indie band that he adores, The National.

Bartees Strange: Kind of wanted to make this kind of a commentary on the artists that make it and the ones that don't, despite the history of Black art in the scene.

And I was like, after all this history, why can't there be a band like The National that looks like me?

Tom Casciato: So he took songs by The National that sound, for example, like this and interpreted them like this. But it was only in 2021 with the album "Live Forever" that he made music full time.

Critics heralded the work that culture site Paste wrote "flows with past traditions and new sonic possibilities." It included a breakthrough track called "Boomer."

Bartees Strange: That song basically is a moment in my life where I had just, like, actualized. I was in Brooklyn. I was around a bunch of artists that I loved and respected who are Black who made me feel like I was a normal person.

And I was able to write and create music that was, like, so true to myself. I was always kind of like, ah, ah, ah. But when I was making "Boomer," writing that song, I was like, yo, I'm good.

Tom Casciato: His latest record, "Farm to Table," has up the stakes. A standout cut is called "Hold the Line." He played it for his siblings and parents before the album's release.

Bartees Strange: After George Floyd died, I remember watching the news and seeing his daughter, Gianna, talking to the press about what had happened. And everyone was like, oh, my God, this kid is so brave. Oh, my God. And I was like, no, we failed this child, just like we failed so many Black kids.

I say he's calling to his mother now right? And at the end of it, I say, I'm calling my mother now, because, man, George Floyd looks like me. Like, he's like a big Black dude. My whole life, I have had to, like, police what I do with my body, how loud I am, how I look, what I'm dressed like, who I'm looking like. I was like, I could have easily been him.

There's many times in my life where I thought I was going to be him.

Tom Casciato: Nowadays, he sometimes appears on stage with The National, and new music has brought new fans. One invited Bartees onto his podcast.

Elton John, Musician: It's a real privilege to talk to you. Your music is so beautiful, and it's the kind of jewel that's emerged.

Tom Casciato: I saw recently that you chatted with Elton John. Do you aspire to that kind of success in the business?

Bartees Strange: Yes, I do, 100 percent. But I'm really trying hard not to write that way. I'm trying hard not to say, I need to make a hit. I'm just going to keep making music. Hits will come. I think that my journey is only just beginning.

Thank you all. I'm Bartees Strange.

Tom Casciato: For the "PBS NewsHour," this is Tom Casciato in New York City.

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