Bartees Cox, a songwriter and guitarist based out of Brooklyn, created Bartees & The Strange Fruit as a conduit to surface stories about people of color. The title of the debut album, Magic Boy, (out December 8, 2017 via Pineapple Record Co.) is inspired by a lyric from the song “Hear My Train A Comin” that goes: “Well, I gotta leave this town, gonna be a Voodoo chile .. and try to be a magic boy.” This particular lyric has always resonated with Bartees since he made the decision to leave his home in rural Oklahoma for the East Coast, a change that is looked back on as being a pivotal moment in his life. This record marks Bartees’ obsession with analog recording, tape machines, space echoes, reel-to-reels and a number of other types of hi-fi recording gear. Each song was recorded to tape, or at least mixed to tape, to give it the warmth of a real performance.
“The “Magic Boy” is how my family sees me,” says Bartees. “Their kid that has made it work in New York, chasing a dream.”
The debut album, mastered by TJ Lipple (Aloha), who is known for his mastering releases by American Football, Of Montreal and Bear Hands, is really about family and black life. Living through fears, leaving home, walking off into uncharted territory. Trying to do better without actually knowing better. The idea for Bartees & The Strange Fruit was a slow burn. After an open mic in DC someone from the crowd remarked that they never hear black folks play folk music, not knowing that Cox actually grew up in the style. As a black person, he believes that showing how black people fit into what is commonly thought of as “white music” is important.
“Rural Oklahoma grinds the folk and the country into you,” Bartees says. “The black cowboys grind the blues into you and your parents grind church into you.” These experiences made him evaluate the contributions black people have made to music. And how it’s sort of the responsibility of younger players of color to carry that torch forward.
“Eat Your Heart Out,” Bartees’ favorite track off the album, features his mom (jazz and opera singer Donna Cox) singing at the end. His mother sings prayers for him every morning, sometimes sending them to him, and the beautiful ritual of this was lovingly worked into his music. “Little Brother,” another stand-out track, is about some of the feelings he had to work through while questioning if he abandoned his family when he decided to move to the East Coast. “Going Going” is about the constant fear of growing up in small town Oklahoma and contains the lyrics “Sundown you’d find us inside with the lantern on, blood on the doorsill, armor of god.” “This is a reference to Yukon, Oklahoma,” Bartees says. “A town where many people of color were run out in the early 2000s, and which was once a sundown town.”
Making this record was a family affair. Bartees (who also plays in Stay Inside and Lizzie No) bringing all manner of collaborators in and out of his home during the process. The end result is a lush, warm-toned collection of songs that will move you, make your dance, make you laugh, and, hopefully, open your eyes to a few things.