Recently, indie musician Bartees Strange has become friends with Deadpool actor Ryan Reynolds, toured with Lucy Dacus and created a fan out of New Pornographers singer/songwriter A.C. Newman—who tweeted two months ago that he loves Strange’s record.
“When artists that I’ve loved forever, who I have made music because of, share my stuff, I’m just like, ‘How is this real, man?’” Strange says.
Strange is currently on tour with acclaimed indie-rock singer/songwriter Courtney Barnett. He headlines Felton Music Hall on December 11, the day before he opens for Barnett at the Fox Theater in Oakland. It’s one of two smaller headlining club gigs he’s doing on this run.
After he released Live Forever in October 2020 to much acclaim, there’s been a slow but consistent trickle of people discovering his music and falling in love.
“The music’s circulating, which is cool. It’s cool to know that’s how people still find things,” Strange says.
When he released Live Forever, he had no idea it would catch on. A few months prior, he released Say Goodbye To Pretty Boy, a beautifully re-imagined collection of quietly intense covers of songs by the National. The record didn’t blow up, but it led some local punk and indie bands to hit him up to produce their record. Strange hoped that Live Forever would bolster his burgeoning producer career.
The reason Say Goodbye To Pretty Boy was recorded so well was a result of Strange trying to fulfill his own unique creative visions. He’d played in bands in nearly every genre—country, hardcore, jazz—and always tried to convince them to push the limits of these genres.
“They weren’t too down for it, which made a lot of sense, because they probably weren’t the best ideas at the time. But once I quit those bands, I focused on Live Forever,” Strange says.
His vision involved incorporating elements of indie-rock, hip-hop, emo, jangle-pop, R&B and literally any style he could imagine. He found it challenging to find others that gave helpful recording advice.
“There’s not a lot of Black people that are producing rock music. And I found myself in a lot of situations where I was the only person in this room that knows what I want to do with this song,” Strange says. “So, I began the multi-year journey of teaching myself how to engineer my own sessions and produce my own stuff. Once I got that, I kind of was unstoppable in my mind.”
Live Forever’s first single, the synth-heavy emo-rocker “Mustang” did well, but it was his second song, the total hodgepodge “Boomer,” that got attention. With rap verses and various 2000s indie rock subgenres competing for space, it was almost too weird. He nearly didn’t record it.
But part of Strange’s philosophy is to think differently. There are elements of hip-hop culture he took that he feels other rock musicians should borrow.
“Maybe it’s because I’m Black that I feel with hip-hop, that I have this window to it,” Strange says. “All the great hip-hop acts, like all the great rock bands, it’s the same bravado. The same gravitas that made Pink Floyd cool makes Travis Scott cool. They’re both larger-than-life creatures. Somewhere along the way, rock and roll got sadder and more demure, and hip-hop got grandiose and honestly hopeful. People listen to hip-hop because it’s uplifting. It makes you hype.”
For Strange, Live Forever was the moment he let go of trying to play by other people’s genre rules, and he recorded an album that he wanted to hear, even if it jumped around all over the place in a way that was out of step with current indie rock. Somehow, his weird vision caught on.
“There’s no way I could just make one type of music. It’s so counterintuitive,” Strange says. “It’s harder to just make a record that sounds like a standard indie rock record than to do something that’s explorative. Like, look at how all this shit works together. It’s a good reminder that all of it’s super connected, which people forget. We have a lot more in common than we think we do.”
Bartees Strange performs at 8pm on Saturday, Dec. 11 at Felton Music Hall, 6275 Highway 9, Felton, $14/adv, $17/door. 831-704-7113.