In a plaid pearl-button shirt and cowboy boots, BJ Barham reclines on a couch in the downtown Raleigh apartment he shares with his girlfriend, surrounded by records and oversize show posters. Some of that simple statement may surprise the growing legion that follows American Aquarium, the alt-country band Barham's fronted for the last five-plus years.
First, there's the apartment. American Aquarium has spent the vast majority of the past three years on the road—300 dates annually isn't uncommon—so it's odd to picture the barnstorming singer-songwriter tethered to anything, even if it's just a hometown apartment. It's even stranger to see Barham in a committed relationship after so often portraying himself as a jilted philanderer throughout the band's first three records. The last of those three, Dances for the Lonely—in Barham's own words, "a 'fuck you' record about one girl said 12 different ways"—took that persona to the extreme. On the verge of releasing Smalltown Hymns a year later, is that carousing past now behind him? Barham thinks so, at least to a degree: "These songs are still about heartbreaking girls, but I don't think [they're] pointing fingers at them. If anything, they are pointing fingers at me."
While that's not entirely true—on Hymns, Barham likens a Florida woman to a destructive tempest and a Tupelo honey to a venomous serpent—the album does find Barham confessing that those romantic woes are not always her fault. "I'm on the road nine months out of the year, so maybe that's why relationships are fucked up," Barham admits. Besides the shift in blame, Smalltown Hymns also marks another stylistic shift for American Aquarium. A stark follow-up to Dances' bar band bravado, Hymns matches the vibe of Bones, the stripped-down companion to the 2008 full-length The Bible and the Bottle.
"It's almost nonproduced," Barham believes, "just mics in a room and someone hitting record." That someone was producer/ engineer Andrew Ratcliffe, with whom the band holed up in Oxford, Miss., for a month. Keyboardist Zack Brown credits Ratcliffe—along with the remoteness of his studio—for helping to create the mood of the record. "[There was] no cell phone service," Brown remembers. "I didn't talk to anyone for a month." Though the band is pleased with the process and the album's feel, they admit it was a challenge, one they intend to avoid by bringing in a batch of road-tested songs to record with former Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell for their next disc in November.
"I usually can't just sit down and write," Barham admits. "I'll go months without writing a song, then write five songs in two days." Barham says he entered the monthlong session with just "a couple lyric sheets here and there and a couple chord progressions." The band eventually put 11 songs to tape.
"When we got there, we worked with what I had the first couple days," he recalls, "then I would just lock myself in the control room after everyone went to bed and just stay up all night writing."
The result reverts toward the introspection seen on Bible, though it comes with more experience than starry-eyed wonder. Barham realizes he's rehashing the popular songbook topics. "Every single theme in this genre—love, booze, the road—has all been written before," he says. But he tries to find his own way of relating it to listeners. On Smalltown Hymns, he took a page from the playbook of heroes like Bruce Springsteen, Craig Finn and Bob Dylan, writing from the perspective of another character. "Everybody's heard me bitch and complain about how I suck at relationships," Barham says. "It's cool to try to write about something else." The emotional centerpiece of Hymns, "Water in the Well," is a gutwrenching piece where Barham assumes the voice of a Depression-era Georgia farmer who just lost the family farm to tax collectors. It's his finest moment as a songwriter.
Following a touring model set by bands like The Avett Brothers and Lucero, American Aquarium has generated ever-expanding audiences in markets across the country. "If we play in front of four people, our goal is to play in front of eight the next time," Barham explains, though he admits it was tough in the early going. "That's the make-or-break point—when you're playing every single night for nobody, and the people you are playing in front of don't give two shits who you are."
The steady growth, however, combined with the band's tireless work ethic, has worked in adopted hometowns like Little Rock, Ark., where the band now sells out 250-capacity clubs after having drawn just a handful two years ago. It also means that American Aquarium can now afford a tour manager, travel in a new air-conditioned van, and stay in hotel rooms rather than scrounging for fans willing to host them on floors and couches.
For Barham, that's where they have to be their best, anyway. He admits there were external factors challenging him to push himself as a songwriter. "On Dances, a lot of people thought I took a step back as a songwriter," he says, referring more to the press than fans. "It definitely fueled a fire inside of me to make sure that when people hear this record, they walk away thinking that this kid can write a song. It may have been starker and it may have not shown off how good of a band I have, but come see us live." Hundreds of nights a year, American Aquarium offers you that chance.