In a business where media training is all but an essential part of the artist development process, BJ Barham remains a refreshingly candid interview. While previewing his band American Aquarium’s new album Things Change this week, the North Carolina singer-songwriter also weighed in on his relationship with Jason Isbell, navigating his thirties, and the real reason why his old band up and walked away.
With its theme of paternal advice, your song “Madeline” is similar to Jason Isbell’s “Outfit.” He produced American Aquarium’s 2012 album Burn. Flicker. Die. – is he an artist you’ve sought to emulate in your career or are any similarities mostly coincidental?
Barham: After I released [“Madeline”], a lot of people made that correlation. He’s kind of on a different level these days – he’s about as big a superstar in this genre as I think there’s gonna be without breaking over like [Chris] Stapleton did. He’s at the height of independent Americana —”I say what the fuck I want, I write what the fuck I want.” It’d be stupid for me to say I don’t look up to that. He’s been a friend for about a decade. Who wouldn’t want to overcome your demons, get married, have a kid, and win a couple Grammys along the way? Anybody who’s doing this and isn’t looking up to Jason Isbell is doing it wrong.
How did he come to produce Burn. Flicker. Die.?
Barham: We met back when we were both drinking. We opened up for him in Raleigh. He asked where he should go after the show. He’s an avid pool player. We went to my local shitty dive bar, Slim’s. We had a lot in common. We’re both college-educated Southerners who tend to lean left on social issues. We bonded on a lot of stuff. When it came time to make what we thought would be our final record in 2012, Burn Flicker Die, he said, “You come to Muscle Shoals, I’ll do it.” We spent a week in Muscle Shoals right before Southeastern was recorded. It was before his sobriety. We were drinking heavy in the studio. It was right when he started dating Amanda [Shires] and she came down and played fiddle. It was kind of nice to watch Jason transform – a good songwriter who got in his own way all the time. It’s like me: I was a mess onstage, even though a lot of people saw promise in my writing. So it was nice to watch what happens when you get out of your own way.
John Fullbright produced Things Change. What do you think it is that makes these all-star songwriters want to produce your records, and how do Fullbright and Isbell’s processes in the studio differ?
Barham: I’m finally at a point in my career and my life where I’m realizing that I’ve surrounded myself with some of the most legendary songwriters. It lets me know my path is not on the wrong track. [Fullbright is] very similar to working with Jason, to be completely honest. They’re very hands-off; they let you make the record you want to make. If they hear something that doesn’t sound as good, they’ll make the critique. If you’re doing something that serves the song, they’re not going to try to change that. Songwriters have the song’s best interest in mind at all times.
You and your wife recently had a daughter. How’d you not end up naming her Madeline?
Barham: For a long time, that was on the short list of what our first kid’s name would be. And when we actually had the kid, my wife said, “Since you’ve already written a song, we’re not going to do that. It’d be really awkward to explain that Daddy wrote a song about you three years before you were born.”
On the subject of names: how’d you land on the name American Aquarium?
Barham: It’s a Wilco lyric from “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” off Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. That record changed everything for me; it showed me you could pay homage to roots music and still be weird as fuck.
You’ve got a whole new lineup of players on Things Change. How’d you go about recruiting your new bandmates, and how come the old ones left?
Barham: The easiest thing to say is, “Life happens.” A lot of those guys were with me for eight or nine years. When we started, we were on the same page – we wanted to do this for a living and were focused on doing it. But fast-forward nine years and people change. Once a couple guys decided to leave, everyone else saw it as their only way out. Looking back, it had to be me. We were at the height of our success, making a living making music. I’d love to blame something else, but I think they got tired of being in a band with me. One of the guys moved to Texas and runs a gym. Another went back to school for computer coding. It ran its course. Their heart wasn’t in it anymore. The highlight of their day wasn’t getting up onstage and playing music for people, and that’s a problem. It was a big blow to me and I pouted about it for a couple weeks. Then my wife sat me down and said, “You can either bitch about it or change it.” So I changed it; I found a band that wanted to tour every night, and everyone who’s seen us live says it’s the best version of American Aquarium yet. It’s the same thing I was looking for in 2006 when we started playing together.
There’s a lyric in the Things Change track “Tough Folks” that is really powerful: “Last November I saw firsthand what desperation makes good people do.” Has Trump’s presidency managed to do much to change the lives of the folks in small towns who backed him?
Barham: I don’t think so. You can’t go into West Virginia and promise to bring back an industry that died 20 years ago. But he said what they wanted to hear. If your specialized trade evaporated 20 years ago, and some snake-oil salesman says he can bring back the life you had, what do you have to lose? Another year in poverty seeing your entire community get torn apart by drug addiction?
What do you have to say to people who would prefer that you “shut up and sing?”
Barham: You can’t ask me to be raw and honest when it comes to my relationships, my demons, the road and my shortcomings, but turn off that honesty when it comes to how I see the world today. As a songwriter, my job is to observe, process and write – completely unfiltered. It’s not something that I can just turn off when it gets uncomfortable. I’d be doing me and the listener a disservice. The only reason people have problems with an artist being political is when the artist is outspoken about views that don’t fully align with theirs. I guarantee some of my friends and fans on the right would have fully agreed with these songs the morning after the 2008 election. Even if they can’t get behind my message, hopefully they can get behind one of their favorite artists being open and honest about the things that matter the most to him. If they can’t, were they ever really a fan in the first place?
On Wolves, you sang about being on the losing side of 25, although you made it pretty clear that you were quite content being on that side of the fence. Now that you’ve cleared 30, do you feel like you’re on the winning side of the ledger?
Barham: I’m surviving in an industry that has a 90 percent failure rate, and I get to tour and play in front of people every night. I get to come home to a wife and a kid and a house and a backyard. I don’t have to dig ditches for a living, so I consider that a success. You’re successful when you can travel to any town of the country and people pay to hear about what you think of things.