Halifax, meet Bartees Strange: The new rockstar prototype

See a music megastar on the rise as Strange opens for Metric on August 1 and 2.

There’s no one more taken by surprise with the sudden success of Bartees Leon Cox (who performs under the name Bartees Strange) than the Washington, D.C.-based musician himself. Given the way his resume and bucket list collated since he landed on Stereogum’s 2020 Artists To Watch list—opening for the likes of Courtney Barnett and Lucy Dacus and dropping two critically adored albums—you’d be forgiven for misfiling him under the category of 

overnight success.

But it would still be a wrong move: “It's weird because I've been playing music my whole life. I’ve had jobs and stuff,” (like being press secretary for the Obama administration) “but I was always in two or three bands, I was always learning how to do new recording stuff…It was the only way I could do my day job,“ Cox tells The Coast, speaking by phone while packing for his next bout of tour dates—which includes opening for Metric in Halifax at the Rebecca Cohn auditorium on September 1 and 2. “I'm always just grateful that I get to do it at all. And also, always processing the fact that I'm actually doing this—because like I said, I'm 33. I’ve been working other jobs since I was, like, 20 years old. So it’s just super-surreal, like crazy. And I feel very lucky. It's cool.”

The fact that his rocket has launched to space in the midst of the pandemic and in the dawn of his 30s—all while Cox champions messages of community—shows that he isn’t yesterday’s definition of a rockstar, and not just because he weaves jazz and hip hop into his work: Instead, he keeps the crunchy guitars and hard edges of the early 2000s indie sound, while making music that feels hopeful but never saccharine.

“I feel like the work is the same: To motivate and inspire people to be their best selves, and to continue always working on themselves, asking themselves what they can do better internally—and for their community,” Cox says. “I feel like through music you can do that, through organizing you can do that. There's a lot of ways we can do that. I sure am grateful that for this chapter of my life I can do this.”

It’s an ethos that’s apparent in every warbling guitar line and synth-soaked back-beat, from his debut EP, which covered songs by The National, through to Cox’s newest album, 2022’s Farm To Table. The new record, Cox adds, “Kind of arose because I had been home so much like during the pandemic, and I had so much to reflect on. It was written out of that energy of just looking at all the ways my life had been changing since that first record. Just wanting to mark it and remember it and really process it. The record was like a way for me to do that.”

It’s also an assertion of self-exploration and self-discovery, a vulnerable portrait of an artist and the community he comes from: “I really proved something to myself with the first album: That I had something that was special and worth doing. So this album was me doubling down on that and also asking myself some questions, like: Honestly where I see this new path going and marking the transition in my life.” He later adds: “My hope is like, being more vulnerable will give people more to chew on and more to listen to and come back to over time. I feel like my first album was very much like, ‘Hey, look at me! I'm an artist! I’ve got something to say!’ and the second one is like: ‘Now that we're all here, I have some feelings.’” He laughs.

The result sees Cox melding influences like Bloc Party and TV On The Radio with the gospel music of his childhood (his mother was a singer) and a formative exposure to George Clinton’s revolving-door, acid-soul act Parliament-Funkadelic. If you can’t help but think that both Sun-Ra and Ray Davies would be fans of Strange’s souped-up, genre-agnostic rock, you’re on the right track.

As his new reality continues to seep and settle for Cox, he shares a genuine excitement at the potential of becoming an audience’s new favourite act with every big-ticket show he opens—and acts as an accidental beacon to part-time artists everywhere: “Like, when I started making music, I never thought I’d get to do the stuff I'm doing now. I just did it because I couldn't not do it,” he says. “So if you feel like that about something, it’s definitely worth doing.”

Metric and Bartees Strange play the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium in Halifax September 1 and 2 at 8pm. Tickets and details on evenko.ca.

About The Author

Morgan Mullin

Morgan is the Arts & Entertainment Editor at The Coast, where she writes about everything from what to see and do around Halifax to profiles of the city’s creative class to larger cultural pieces. She’s been with The Coast since 2016.

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