BJ Barham: An Honest Songwriter

Betsey Geier

Things Change isn’t just the name of American Aquarium’s new album, but the story of frontman BJ Barham’s last few years.

Recently, all five of his previous band members quit. Since starting the band, Barham has had over thirty different band members, but he never had a whole group quit at once.

“Tumultuous” is the word that he uses to describe getting to this point.

“I push people to their breaking points,” Barham said.

He attributes his strong work ethic to his father and admits that his “motor is a little stronger than most people’s.” But now he finds himself with a group of guys who can handle the workload. And, since the birth of his daughter, he slowed down his tour schedule (although still doing between 150-200 shows a year, he tours more than most).

The new band lineup consists of Shane Boeker (lead guitar), Joey Bybee (drummer), Ben Hussey (bassist), and Adam Kurtz (pedal steel and electric guitar).

But, a new band isn’t the only thing that’s changed for Barham since his last record, Wolves.

“Since then I’ve gotten married, I got sober, I had an entire band quit on me, I had an entire band join, we had a presidential election that split our country in half, and I welcomed my first child into the world two and a half months ago,” Barham said.

Things Change is American Aquarium’s seventh studio album.

“It’s a huge step forward for me as a songwriter,” Barham said.

He’s made a career writing songs about his relationships and experiences touring, but this is the first time he has written about his sobriety and politics.

“I call myself a songwriter. I call myself an honest songwriter and if I’m being honest with myself that is where my mind is at these days,” Barham said.

It’s deeply personal and honest.

“This record I write a lot about religion and politics, which are the two things you don’t talk about at the dinner table. There is a reason for that. Because half of your family feels one way and half of your family feels the other way. And the same goes for your fan base.”

Barham stepped outside of his comfort zone to write Things Change.

“When you write about politics and religion, you run the risk of alienating your fan base,” Barham said.

Although you might disagree with someone, Barham notes that it’s important to respect the other side’s viewpoint.

“I feel like as long as you approach writing about it with respect to the other side’s views, I think it comes across as endearing. I think it comes across as you just stating where you stand,” Barham said.

The World is on Fire 

The first track of the record, The World is on Fire, is political, but it’s the one Barham recommends that people listen to first when they are listening to the record for the first time. He describes how he ended up writing it:

“I wrote the first verse the morning after the election. I was angry. I wrote the second verse after I traveled the country for an entire summer asking questions. Trying to talk to people and figure out where they came from. I wrote the third verse - a couple of months before we made the record - about finally coming to grips with where were are as a country and the fear that I had of bringing a daughter into this world. And trying to find that one flicker of light in a pretty dark corner, and trying to find hope, if not for me than for her.”

One Day at a Time

Another track on the record, One Day at a Time, is about Braham’s journey to being sober.

“I went from being just a social drinker in college to having a full-blown problem as an adult,” Braham said.

He cites rock and roll as a contributing factor. This song is about that experience.

“The culture of being in a band leads to excessive drinking and drug use and kind of digging myself out of that hole, one day at a time,” Braham said.

A Charleston Connection

Charleston is special for Braham. It’s the place where he and his now wife spent their first twenty dates, and it is the place where he proposed.

His wife is from Jacksonville, Florida and Braham was living in Raleigh, so Charleston was the halfway point. He fell in love with the town and the food while he was here.

His favorite chef here is Sean Brock, who he shares his music with when he comes to town. He always tries to stop by Husk or Minero when he is visiting.

“I’m excited to get down there and loosen my belt loop and dig in,” Braham said.

American Aquarium will be playing at the Pour House on June 26.