“Live Forever”, the debut album of 2020 from dynamic Bartees Strange, mixes pop-punk and rap, R&B and house, jazz and outright rock’n’roll. Songs like “Kelly Rowland” and “Flagey God” showcase her smooth, refined voice. Others, like “Mustang” and the record’s lead single, “Boomer,” flex Strange’s songwriting muscles impressively.
The same year as his debut, the eclectic artist released his EP “Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy”, which features five covers of The National songs. Strange fused light into the band’s dark catalog by adding sonic urgency through synths, drum machines and the most soulful instrument of all: that signature croon. Her new single “Heavy Hearted,” released earlier this month, is laced with that same kind of melancholy. He mixes dream pop and indie rock; resounding horns splice the track right in the middle as Strange launches verses.
Lyrically, the song addresses the burden Strange carries regarding the sacrifices his family made for his success. Strange, who plays House of Blues alongside Car Seat Headrest on Saturday, says those feelings never go away. “I remember when ‘Live Forever’ came out and everything was going so badly for so many people, but things were going so well for me. It was just this guilt – I felt guilty that things worked out when I knew things weren’t working out for so many people – especially people who looked like me,” he says.
Born Bartees Cox Jr. to a military officer and opera singer, the entertainer grew up in Mustang, Okla., in a mostly white suburb. He would go on to perform with his mother and siblings with the Oklahoma City Circuit Opera Company. Strange did his best to navigate the local emo scene as he got older, playing in a slew of bands that encompassed a range of different sounds — even if that meant his blackness would make him more visible than ever.
He wouldn’t let that deter him from playing whatever he wanted. Indeed, black people are routinely treated as an anomaly in an art form they pioneered. “I’ve played rock music and country music and hard-core music and punk music, guitar-driven music all my life and I’m normally one of the few people of color there -low. It’s always me who proves that I belong [in those settings]. I’ve been part of 50 billion groups in Brooklyn that have never been recognized. Now that the stages are bigger, I still feel like I’m proving myself, but I’m much better prepared for it.
Festival audiences got to know Strange as a stellar vocalist and charismatic performer. In 2021 alone, he topped the circuit with performances at Pitchfork, Governors Ball, Shaky Knees and Outside Lands. He enjoys the diversity he sees in the crowds that come to see him play.
“When I’m performing, I just want people to see how much I want to be there – and how lucky I feel to be doing it. It’s nice to see now that when I’m doing headlining shows and as I look at the crowd, it’s not just white people. There’s black people, there’s Asians, there’s trans, there’s women. I’d like to think that the group, that I chose to be part of the band, and all these little messages that I try to send encourage everyone to come to the concerts.
“’Live Forever’ is a good rock record, but you know, there’s trap. These are not all guitars. And even when it does, it’s still black. I hope people will see it over time.
The album marked a rise into the mainstream that Strange, 33, has aimed for his entire career. He was never shy about his desire to make it big. As he prepares to release more music in 2022, he remains mindful of his journey. “The next thing that comes out will be extremely personal. With ‘Live Forever’, it was a big dream, an aspiration. … I see a future and I go to the top of the mountain. But with this record, it’s like I’ve traveled to the top of a mountain and thought about some things.
Strange has always been adamant about using his platform to show the complexities of black people. “The whole mission of my first album was to create more space for people who looked like me. I don’t make this music to make white people necessarily feel good about themselves,” he says. “For me, it it’s about black liberation, it’s freedom. It’s a reminder that we can build extravagant things.
Strange’s brand of extravagance has earned him a following of people from all walks of life. This relationship with the fans is also at the heart of what he does. “I finally realized that people connect to music in their own way and they want more of it. So now I can be more of myself. That in itself is addictive and a very liberating vibe.
With car seat headrest. At House of Blues, March 26 at 8 p.m. $28 to $45, houseofblues.com