I discovered Bartees & The Strange Fruit through the same internet diy rabbit hole that probably led you here. Multi-talented Bartees Cox writes prickling folk-esque songs that leave you thinking, which led me to reach out to him for an interview. Below he talks about being from Oklahoma, his songwriting process, his other projects, and more.
Cox lives in NYC; among many other dates, you can catch him there May 6 at Pianos; May 9 in Philly at PhilaMOCA; May 31 in Chicago at Haymarket Pub and Brewery; and June 2 at Muchmores (also NYC).
DWP: You’re from Oklahoma but you’re in NYC now–what brought you there?
Bartees Cox: Well I moved to DC to work – because that’s what I thought I “should” be doing. It was a fun few years and I made some friends but I really wanted to pursue music. So eventually I packed up and moved to NY to join a couple bands. Eventually, I found myself in a few projects I liked and I had a decent lay of the land which was really helpful in starting my solo project Bartees and the Strange Fruit.
DWP: In your bio is this really interesting quote: “Rural Oklahoma grinds the folk and the country into you. The black cowboys grind the blues into you and your parents grind church into you.” What other places and experiences have grinded (or ground) something into you?
BC: I grew up in Oklahoma, but I was born in Ipswich, England. My parents are both pretty interesting, anything remotely interesting about me I would attribute to them and their talents. My mom is an opera singer, she had me and my siblings in plays, operettas, and singing in church super early. My pops is like a freakish athlete, who eventually joined the military and is an engineer. I think my love of music and the process in which I create it is from my parents. They also played a big role in exposing me to music/sounds, we listened to everything from Porgy and Bess and Gilbert and Sullivan, to Parliament to Erykah Badu, you name it we were listening to it. They also bought my my first tape recorder, I think I taped absolutely everything as a child. I loved it. I had a talk boy, remember those?
We moved around quite often, Of the three of us kids we were all born in different countries. So yeah, Oklahoma was a big section of my life, but I had a lot of things happening throughout my entire upbringing – moving around a lot, tons of exposure to art and talented people – and two really supportive and talented parents.
DWP: While your most recent Bartees/Strange Fruit record can definitely and safely be called “folk,” there are so many other elements at play. Does that come organically? How do you feel about the folk label in general?
BC: The folks genre is fine – I don’t think i sound like a bunch of other folk artists but that influence is definitely there. First thing is I generally just like music and how all of it runs into each other. There’s really not a lot that separates a folk song from a pop song, and a pop song from a rap song, and a rap song from house music. I really love how closely things are intertwined and I like to draw that out in my music. So yeah, there are moments in thees songs where it sounds very much R&B, sometimes the time signatures change and it can feel really math rocky, and on songs like “Going Going,” it feels like a hybrid folk/R&B/indie mix. I guess the thing I hope is that people from different backgrounds can find something in the music they can relate to.
DWP: I love the record and how it often feels ghostly and otherworldly. What kind of recording techniques/instruments/etc. did you use to get that feel?
BC: 🙂 Alll types of stuff. I did a lot of this record “out of the box” as engineer nerds would say. Basically I didn’t use a lot of the stuff within my computer, most of the effects and textures are all created through the way it was recorded. All of the reverbs and delays were printed on the way in. Each instrument was either recorded straight to my Revox PR99 tape machine or it was recorded and then ran through tape in the mixing process. I used an 1176, a Focusright ISA1 pre and an Warm Audio EQP for most everything with a Roland Space Echo and Echoplex for all the modulation, reverb and texture. I also used the Space Echo to throw my voice into overdrive which you’ll hear on many of the songs (one vocal track sort of clean, while the other is just totally fuzzed out and hard panned.)
In terms of instruments, I took many things off of the record throughout the process of tracking/mixing–to be honest, we had horn, violin, cello, glockenspiel, slide guitar, bells, piano, pedal steel, and a couple guitars. This thing coulda sounded really different, but I wanted to save that for the next record. I figured as my first foray into doing this I should keep it simple and let people hear me and not much else. You’ll hear a lot more next time.
I used a lot of tape on this record, I sped things and slowed them down a lot, truly if you are somebody who knows what you’re doing with analog recording gear my last record is me learning how things work. Which is really fitting for that particular moment of my life. I tracked this thing in my apartment in the middle of the summer.
DWP: I know you’re involved in a few other active musical projects–what is your primary focus musically right now? What are you writing about a lot lately? Anything super cool and new you want me to plug?
BC: Like I said earlier, I like music across genres generally, so choosing one sound or one band to stick with is always going to be a challenge. At the end of the day I want to just keep making stuff. With that being said, I feel like I’m beginning to hit the stride in understanding what the next Strange Fruit record will be. I released a super short mixtape on Valentine’s Day with some of the influences for the next record, I’m very excited about it. I’m also piecing a band together for that work. I’ll be recording that record after the band is pieced together and I have a better idea of what it needs to do. Expect some music soon.
The thing I’m really focusing on this year though is recording more artists, I fear it might be the only way our of a day job (s/o to the sponsors). There are a couple of incredible releases I’m working on through the summer so stay tuned on that.
I also sing and play in other bands too: Stay Inside, Stephan Marcellus, and Lizzie No – Stay Inside is a post hardcore band, Stephan is more rock/alt country and Lizzie’s band is indie/folk leaning. I’ve got dates through the summer with these projects, so it’s a balancing act. But I’m having fun, it’s sorta the dream.