NME meets Bartees Cox Jr – AKA Bartees Strange – at Third Man Records London just as the US artist is in town to promote his second album, ‘Farm To Table’ (out now via 4AD). But, as one of his fans literally pointed out in Manchester the night before we meet, Cox’s relationship with this country runs deep – and can in fact be traced all the way to East Anglia.
“This guy was pointing at his shirt, and it was an Ipswich Town shirt!” he tells NME about the Manchester fan who was pointedly representing Cox’s birthplace during the latter’s gig. The son of an air force engineer, Cox was born in Ipswich, near to where his dad was stationed at RAF Bentwaters, before a peripatetic upbringing followed across Europe and the US (his family eventually settled in Mustang, Oklahoma when he was 12).
But back to his unlikely connection to the Tractor Boys. “This [Ipswich fan] totally claims me like we’re neighbours”, Cox laughs. “And it’s so cool that people have that connection with me… I definitely feel it here in London, too.”
Cox’s strong relationship with his fans has only been enhanced with the release of ‘Farm to Table’, which has also caught the attention of the likes of Hayley Williams and Phoebe Bridgers. While his music has both an urgency and sense of tenderness, Cox also has a keen ear for experimenting with multiple sounds. ‘Mulholland Dr.’ will appeal to emo and indie fans alike (serving as a nod to Paramore’s later work and Bloc Party’s early material) while ‘Hennessey’ uses call and response and syncopated clapping to magically transport you back to church. There are subtle nods on the album to Frank Ocean too, and at some points he sounds like Justin Vernon at his most soulful and affecting.
Cox has just extended his deal with 4AD (home to The National and Future Islands) to release another Bartees Strange album on the label, which, he tells us, is shaping up to be “fucking sick” already. Based on his previous work, we’re more than happy to take his word for it at this stage.
For the latest instalment in NME’s In Conversation series, Cox ran us through the story of his music career to date, how he created his stellar second record and his future plans. Here’s what we learned.
“Finding joy in the small moments” can give you the energy to fight against oppression
As a Black, queer man, Cox is at the centre of some of the most violent forms of oppression in society. “Systems are at the root in all the things that we’re fighting against, whether it’s abortion bans, climate change, police brutality, the murder of trans people, the repealed LGBTQ rights,” he says. While he’s acutely aware that fighting against such systems is incredibly important, it can also be difficult, draining and saddening. “We all want to change [systems] and eliminate them, but you can’t do it if you’re exhausted. You can’t do it if you’re miserable,” he adds. “Celebration, joy, communion, coming together is how you refuel.”
While ‘Farm To Table’ deals with some important topics (‘Hold The Line’ is about George Floyd’s daughter Gianna), it’s also about the importance of embracing the small joys in life. “Finding joy in small moments is how you can have energy to fight,” Cox states.
‘Farm To Table’ pays tribute to both his past and present
The album title speaks to the journey Cox has taken to get to this point in his career. From “painting fences at this big hog and cow farm in Oklahoma” to now sitting comfortably at the “table” with some of indie music’s biggest stars, Cox says that when creating the album, he was “reflecting on my life, and was like, ‘I used to live in a place where people don’t get to do this kind of thing’”.
“And now I’m at the table with Phoebe Bridgers and The National: all these people I’ve watched and listened to for so many years from my office desk,” he continues. “[‘Farm To Table] is [me] reflecting on my life at this period in time before I go deeper.” He now feels at home in the scene, with no sense of imposter syndrome. “I feel like I’ve proved it to myself, I know what I’m doing and I deserve to be here.”
Music was a huge part of his upbringing
It seems like Cox has already lived multiple lives during his relatively short time on Earth, but how he landed on music as a career feels somehow obvious and unlikely at the same time. After growing up in the regimented environment of the military, Cox has worked “normal jobs” in politics (as a deputy press secretary in the Obama administration), environmental campaigning and publicity.
But music has always been a constant. His mum was an acclaimed opera singer (“she taught me how to use my voice”), and in his early years he grew up on a strict diet of gospel music, jazz and classical music (secular music wasn’t allowed in the house). These experiences whet his appetite for what else was out there, and, as a curious teen, Cox started to sneak in records into the family home. When his father eventually caught him, he decided it was time to expand his musical horizon. “We bonded over George Clinton and Black rock stars of the 60s and 70s,” Cox fondly recalls now.
The National are one of his biggest inspirations
Back in 2020 Cox released ‘Say Goodbye To Pretty Boy’, an EP full of covers of The National. The band’s music and work ethic are both huge inspirations for Cox: “For me, it’s almost half about their music and half how they live their lives in light of how their careers have gone.”
But, Cox says, the band “also represents a world of music [that], in some ways, hasn’t been all the way friendly to Black artists,” particularly in terms of “accepting the contribution that Black artists have made to the genre broadly”. He adds: “I [wanted] to reinterpret my favourite band… and I wanted to do it my way: my Black, southern country way.”
Cox is now touring North America with his heroes. “It was really cool to work with them on the release [of the EP]: their label put it out, I’m on the same label with them now, and I’m going on tour with them. It’s kind of amazing.”
The next Bartees Strange record is “the craziest shit I’ve ever made”
Although he’s keeping most of the details about his next 4AD release close to his chest, Cox does tell NME that the record will step in a different direction to his previous material and be “a reflection of myself and my little journey through life”.
Touring has certainly influenced this change, and Cox says he now understands why bands say that their records get weirder the longer they’re on the road. “When you hear it you’ll be like, ‘OK, he’s in the future!’” he jokes.