When BJ Barham picks up the phone, he’s happy to be connected.
It’s late June, and he’s about to play a show in Asheville, the sixth date on a tour that will stretch across the country and continue until October with little interruption.
The run finds the Raleigh-based Barham and his American Aquarium, perhaps the Triangle’s most quintessential road-dogging rock band, touring in earnest for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic stymied dates around the release of the group’s 2020 album, Lamentations.
He likens playing for an audience—hearing them respond, talking to them afterward—to therapy, a necessary connection he could never quite replace.
“You can’t get that through a livestream,” he says. “It’s the feeling that only comes with standing on a stage in front of 1,000 people and connecting.”
The disconnection of the past two years was hard for Barham. He was cut off from a key emotional outlet at a time when he had an overwhelming amount to process: the songwriter lost his mother in December 2019, a little more than two months after he lost his grandmother.
Chicamacomico, the album American Aquarium just released in June, is marked by these losses and others, and by the isolation of the pandemic. Left largely—and intentionally—bereft of his band’s trademark barroom bombast, Barham slows things down on a set of mostly patient ruminations that process traumas, including the miscarriage he and his wife experienced six years ago and the suicide of a friend.
The album’s tempered Americana is less dynamic and distinct than on the lauded Lamentations, but it spotlights the maturity Barham has grown into as a writer.
He stripped things back successfully on the 2016 solo effort Rockingham, dissecting his fraught feelings for his hometown. Brad Cook, who produced that record and Chicamacomico (as well as the 2015 American Aquarium album Wolves), urged a similar approach for the band’s latest, subtly enhancing songs defined by the loneliness of their creation with the confident chemistry of a road-strengthened band.
To write the songs for the new album, Barham decamped to Rodanthe, a small beach town on one of the thinner stretches of the Outer Banks, between late February and early March 2021. While the area bustles in the summer, he says it was a ghost town in late winter.
“I was there for a week and a half and saw three people,” Barham recalls. “There’s nobody in those towns, there’s no cars. It’s the weirdest thing. I’d go for three- and four-mile runs every day and never see another car pass me on the highway. It felt apocalyptic. It felt like the end.”
The setting provided space and inspiration to finish a song he’d been working on since his wife’s miscarriage. On his runs, he says, he kept seeing a water tower emblazoned with the word “Chicamacomico,” which he discovered was the name of a station built in 1874 by the U.S. Life-Saving Service (which eventually merged into the U.S. Coast Guard).
It became the central symbol for the album and its opening title track, in which a couple comes to the island seeking salvation and to move past their miscarriage by “swim[ming] out past the breakers to curse the maker’s name” and “head[ing] down to the shoreline [to] wash off all this blame.”
Behind these words, the band lopes softly, with pedal steel casting far-off shimmers, like hope coming slowly into focus.
Barham says he couldn’t—and didn’t try—to know or express the physical loss felt by his wife, but the idea of a couple coming to this end of the earth to get through their grief allowed him to fill out around the verse he’d been holding onto for six years, keyed by the lines “And I swear I’m gonna lose my mind / If I have to hear about God’s plan one more goddamn time.”
“It was something that, in anger, I scribbled down after someone explained to me, you know, that God’s plan is the reason we lost a child,” he recalls.
The rest of the album is similarly poignant and plainspoken as it copes with bereavements.
The suicide of a friend stirs bittersweet memories of Barham’s hometown on “Waking Up the Echoes”—“Weddings and funerals used to always get me down / These days they seem to be the only thing that ever bring me back to town”—as he wishes that he might have helped: “I wish you’d have called me / Maybe I could have talked you down.”
Barham charts the difficulty of “The First Year” without his mother, marking the time with visits to her grave on Mother’s Day, Independence Day, and New Year’s Day and observing the void she left. “Like a castle made of sand, watched that mountain of a man / Fall apart when they laid to rest his queen,” he sings, digging into the gravel of his baritone to describe his father’s anguish.
Both songs are spare and contemplative, guided by finger-picked acoustic guitar and girded by skeletal piano and ethereal pedal steel.
The closing “All I Needed” is the only tune where the band erupts into its typical fervor, offering a redemptive swell of confident country rock as Barham recounts the surprising comfort he found in a song that came on the radio when he got in his car after his mother’s funeral.
“It was a hook, it was a line,” he hollers in the chorus. “It was a savior in 3/4 time.”
He declines to disclose what the song was, which is probably for the best; its power is more universal when the listener can imagine one that’s made a similar impact on them.
“It was a reminder that no matter what life throws our way—and as cheesy as it sounds, I truly believe it—there’s always going to be a song that gets us through it,” Barham says.
It’s fitting, too, that the album ends on this hopeful note.
Despite the difficulties, Barham’s life changed for the better these past few years, a shift he describes on the jauntily rollicking “Little Things,” the album’s only truly happy song.
“I used to be a singer with a family back home,” Barham sings. “And now I’m just a father and a husband / Who knows his way around a microphone.”
Pulled off the road during the pandemic, he fell into being a full-time dad to his now four-year-old daughter, Josephine Pearl, and he didn’t want to give that up. With American Aquarium having already cranked down from playing at least 200–250 dates each year to 92 in 2019, Barham says the band is now at a place where it can comfortably subsist on about 75.
“Ninety-five percent of our fans, I’ve shaken their hand, I’ve sold them a record at the merch table. We’ve built this really kind of beautiful grassroots thing,” he says of the 16 years it took to get here. “I couldn’t have been the dad I am now 10 years ago. Hell, I couldn’t have been the dad I am now five years ago.”
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