Bartees Strange explores his journey from 'Farm to Table' In an interview with Morning Edition's Leila Fadel, the fast-rising artist talks about a life path as winding and varied as his music.

Bartees Strange explores his journey from 'Farm to Table'

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LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Anyone still waiting for their dream job will appreciate the meandering career path of Bartees Strange. As a teenager, he seemed to be destined for greatness on the football field in Oklahoma. Then he ended up as a spokesman for the FCC.

BARTEES STRANGE: I was the deputy press secretary. So I did a lot of pitching for the chairman. And, you know, one of those things was obviously pitching NPR a lot. So shout out to you guys. Love, y'all.

FADEL: Today, Bartees Strange is one of the hottest names in what you might call alternative rock, but there's a little bit of everything in his music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAVY HEART")

BARTEES STRANGE: (Singing) I never want to miss you this bad. I never want to run out like that. Sometimes I feel just like my dad, rushing around.

FADEL: Bartees Strange's new album just came out. It's called "Farm To Table."

BARTEES STRANGE: A big theme of the record is kind of becoming your parents.

FADEL: His dad is an engineer, used to be with the Air Force, moved around a lot, and now he's with FEMA. As a kid, Bartees couldn't relate.

BARTEES STRANGE: Wow. Dad is always busy, you know? Why work this hard if you can't relax, you know?

FADEL: Now Bartees is working and traveling all the time, just like Dad. His mother is an opera singer and educator.

BARTEES STRANGE: If it wasn't for my mom, I probably wouldn't have taken music so seriously.

FADEL: But he just couldn't get into the classical music his mom was pitching.

BARTEES STRANGE: Just mostly because I couldn't see myself in it, you know? It wasn't what really got me going, although I thought it was really beautiful, and I did opera camp. You know, like, I really enjoyed it, but...

FADEL: Wait. What's opera camp like?

BARTEES STRANGE: Oh, my goodness. So every summer, Cimarron Circuit Opera Company would have a camp where kids from all over the state would go to the local college and learn an opera and perform it. It was, like, the most fun part of my summers, for sure.

FADEL: So you were doing high school football and opera camp?

BARTEES STRANGE: Yeah. Well, definitely through middle school and freshman year of high school, yeah. Opera camp, straight to football practice.

FADEL: That's amazing. You've had a really unusual career path. How did that path lead you to music?

BARTEES STRANGE: It's funny 'cause, you know, music has always been a huge part of my life. I think it was so much a part of my life that I didn't want it to be my whole life, you know? I remember my mom, even being a musician, she wasn't pressing me to be a professional musician.

FADEL: Right.

BARTEES STRANGE: She was like, you should get a job, you know? Like...

FADEL: (Laughter) A real job.

BARTEES STRANGE: ...If the music works out, great. But you don't want to be like me, you know? Like - (laughter).

FADEL: Wow.

BARTEES STRANGE: And so that was what I dedicated myself to in college, you know? Like, I had, like, 10 internships. I left college early. I moved to D.C. for another internship. And it's so funny. When I moved to D.C. from Oklahoma, I remember selling all my music equipment. But as I was doing it, I just noticed there was something huge missing in my life. And it was music. And so I quit that job, moved to New York. I just joined every band I could.

FADEL: That's scary to just - to start building something and then just leave it.

BARTEES STRANGE: You're right. But I think it's even scarier to look at yourself in the mirror and not recognize yourself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD THE LINE")

BARTEES STRANGE: (Singing) Hold the line.

FADEL: I want to talk about your song "Hold The Line." That one, it really stayed with me. And I know you wrote this about Gianna Floyd, just 6 when her dad George Floyd's murder was filmed, sparked mass demonstrations around the world. I was in Minneapolis when I watched Gianna smile and say, Dad changed the world. And it broke me watching a 6-year-old looking for meaning in her dad's senseless killing, being told that her loss would finally change the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD THE LINE")

BARTEES STRANGE: (Singing) See that child. Can't imagine what's running through her young mind now.

I remember hearing the news and watching the video and eventually seeing Gianna speak.

FADEL: Yeah.

BARTEES STRANGE: And my first feeling was, like, how devastated I was because here we have this 6-year-old child having to address the free world...

FADEL: Yeah.

BARTEES STRANGE: ...On how her father was murdered on TV. And I was just like, I wish she could have been a kid a little longer. I remember when I realized that because I was Black, my life was going to be different than the white kids I grew up with. And every time I see Black kids have to grow up that fast, it just - it sends me all the way back, you know? It's horrifying. And it just broke my heart.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD THE LINE")

BARTEES STRANGE: (Singing) Take my life. Trade in mine. He had everything I wish I had. I can't even lie.

That song, just like how I am now, is just a bundle of emotions, you know? And I think that that's OK.

FADEL: How old were you when you realized life was going to be different for you than the white kids?

BARTEES STRANGE: I remember - I was 8 or 9. You know, I was, like, really getting into hip-hop and all this stuff. And I wanted to change how I was dressing, and I started sagging. And I remember my dad just being like, hey, like, you may see everyone else doing this in your school, but you can't do this 'cause you look different. You know, you're tall. You have broad shoulders. You know, someone might think you're older than you are. And I didn't understand that at the time. I was like, why would it matter if someone thought I was older than I was? And then, you know, he just started to break down what he went through when he was a kid and the friends that he had lost or been killed or put in jail or whatever. And I remember getting older and seeing it happen to my world of friends and seeing how people would treat me.

And so, you know, being a kid was kind of taken from me. I had to grow up a little fast. And especially - you know, I grew up in a all-white conservative town, big football town in Mustang, Okla., where, you know, it was fine, but we faced a series of challenges living there, like, you know, all the way from who you date to how late you can be out to what you're driving to - everything, you know? Fear becomes, like, the - I guess, like, the motivating factor for all of the decisions you make as a young person.

FADEL: Oh, my God.

BARTEES STRANGE: And that's, like, no way to live, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK GOLD")

BARTEES STRANGE: (Singing) I remember moving out. And what do I do now? I had so much love. Why did I hate that house?

FADEL: OK, the title of the album, "Farm To Table," when I hear that, I think of boujee (ph) restaurants with overpriced food, grass-fed beef. Tell me, why this title?

BARTEES STRANGE: Like I said, I grew up in a really rural area, right?

FADEL: Yeah.

BARTEES STRANGE: And I was kind of recognizing this shift in my life, you know, like, from being this kid that grew up in the country to finally being at the table with all of these people I admire. And now I feel like I have this decision where it's like, OK, like, I'm at the table now, and I can kind of do some stuff, but there's still some stuff from the farm that I want to keep. Like, I don't want to change too much. And this record is kind of about all the people in the past and all these new people in the future and how I'm trying to just, like, retain myself, like, throughout the entire transition of it all.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WRETCHED")

BARTEES STRANGE: (Singing) And I took the keys to the lake.

FADEL: Bartees Strange - his new album is "Farm To Table." Thanks so much. And congratulations on the album.

BARTEES STRANGE: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WRETCHED")

BARTEES STRANGE: (Singing) Sometimes it's hard, but you know I'm thankful.

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