Bartees Strange Is Looking for Sustainability — and a Home in Canada

Ahead of curating Calgary's Sled Island festival, the artist discusses crossing musical boundaries, loving the Rural Alberta Advantage and hopefully moving to Toronto

Photo: Luke Piotrowski

BY Nicholas SokicPublished Jun 21, 2023

What Bartees Strange wants most is long-term sustainability.

"If I could figure out a way to make a living doing this thing I really, really love to do, that'd be amazing," the artist born Bartees Cox tells Exclaim! "I feel like I'm there now. How do we keep this going for as long as possible? I have the job that I wanted — I just want to keep my job. That's kind of where I am now."

He got to where he is partly on the strength of last year's album Farm to Table, as well as a busy touring schedule that will bring him to Calgary's Sled Island festival as the guest curator.

Aside from the touring, he'll be finishing up his next record as well as producing for a few artists he's excited about – of course, he doesn't reveal any names in this interview, although his dream collaborations include James Blake, GloRilla and Bon Iver's Justin Vernon.

For his goal of sustainability in a notoriously unstable industry, he's going about it in as best the way as one probably can: a meteoric pandemic rise followed by a steady and diverse output. He launched his career with reworkings of some songs from the National (2020's Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy), while his full-length releases have embraced rap, electronica, folk, emo and more.

"I feel like I'm just making stuff that I very naturally gravitate to," he reflects. "When I'm writing a song, I never, ever start a song thinking, 'Oh, let's make like the rap thing, go into the rock thing.' It's never how it works."

No matter the genre he's inhabiting, he takes an audience-first mindset he learned from his opera-singing mother to each song. As he puts it, it's about "really understanding that the music and the things you make really aren't about you; they're about the person that you're showing it to."

But he also describes a tension with an industry that loves preconceived notions of genre — particularly with the ever-expansive and amorphous "indie rock." Cox's genre agnosticism can sometimes be at tension with the rote approach of algorithms.

Pop music can similarly get oversimplified: he lists Jessie Ware, Doja Cat, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift and Tyler, the Creator as pop acts who are unfairly grouped together because of their streaming numbers.

"I do feel like there is tension that exists there. Especially because I'm Black," he says. "Being broad is good, and it makes space for other people to be broad, just like Tyler, the Creator makes space for everyone to be broad generally by making the most insane rap and pop records ever."

Part of that sustainability mindset extends to his production work, but also to performing. Regarding his gig as Sled Island's curator, he's not even sure how they found out about him.

"The only thing I really knew about Alberta before then is that one of my favourite bands was called the Rural Alberta Advantage," Strange says. "It's cool to hit up bands you've played with over the years and be like, 'Yo, like, you want to come to Canada to play this festival?'"

Cox is an unabashed fan of Canada, and Toronto specifically — even more than Farm to Table opener "Heavy Heart" implies, when Strange croons, "We should go to Toronto more often."

His partner is from Scarborough, so he spends most of his time in the suburbs, even shouting out Pickering. He's a fan of the city's cuisine, but he also speaks to his feelings of safety as a Black man in comparison to growing up in the Southern US (primarily in the small city of Mustang, OK).

"So being in Canada, smoking weed out and having a cop walk up to you and be like, 'Hey, would you mind just taking that around the corner because there's a school down the street?' That interaction? I was like, Oh my god," Strange reflects. The feeling is so strong that, when he thinks about where to live in the long-term and to raise a family, he hopes to settle down in Toronto — no matter how expensive the rent becomes.

He says, "Could you imagine living in a country where you're not afraid?"

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