Small town inspiration for solo success - BJ Barham
BJ Barham is best known for fronting the Raleigh rock/Americana band American Aquarium, but he’s about to make his solo debut with his forthcoming album Rockingham. Barham wrote the bulk of the album while the band was on tour overseas in late 2015, finding himself especially moved to put pen to paper after the terrorist attack on Paris’ Bataclan Theatre on November 13.
- I understand how you came to write this record, the circumstances don't need going over, but how is it striking out on your own?
It's a weird feeling. I started American Aquarium 11 years ago and it has been the only band I've ever been in. The band makes me feel safe. We get each other. We've played literally thousands of shows together and have an unspoken language that only comes from playing together for the last decade. I've always toyed with the idea of putting out a solo record but never had a cohesive group of songs to justify doing so. It's a scary feeling breaking outside of my comfort zone and taking a chance like this, but I am extremely proud of this collection of songs and feel like they're some of my best to date.
- You have written about where you're from, at one point you say about "taking you back home", what's your home town really like?
Reidsville, NC is a small farming town on the North Carolina/Virginia border. Tobacco is what put Reidsville on the map. They did it all...farming, manufacturing and distribution. If you have ever smoked a Lucky Strike cigarette in the states, it's pretty likely that cigarette was made in my hometown. It's a small, very tight knit community. You work hard. You go to church. You have fun on the weekends. It's a pretty great example of small town life in the south.
- You go back often?
Up until recently I never went back. Maybe once a year for the holidays to see my parents, but as I've gotten older, I find myself going back a lot more. The last few years I visit my family at least once a month when I'm on the road touring. My parents are getting older and I want to spend as much time as I can with them. I find myself falling in love with the town for the same reasons I hated it when I was a teenager. Funny how everything comes around full circle.
- How does growing up in a small town shape your view of the world?
When you grow up in such a small town you aren't truly aware of the different people and cultures that exist in the world, you can become sheltered. From the time I was born until I left for college. most of my interactions with other people were lower with middle class, white, southern baptist people who were born and raised in the same place I was. When I left for college I realized that there was so much more of the world than what I knew. I think a lot of the hate that's still in the south comes from fear of change. Moving away from the narrow and close minded views of my hometown taught me a lot about myself. We all have a story to tell and all deserve a fair shot to tell it.
- The stories you sing are fictional you've said, yet they seem so real, characters working in auto parts centres etc. I know they aren't autobiographical but theu must be based on some trueisms?
All of the characters on Rockingham are just amalgamations people I have met over the years. Very real people. Very real emotions. Very real problems and solutions. I like to tie in real life events into fictional stories, somehow it makes them more real. Real for me. Real for the people they are based upon when they hear them. Real for the average listener that associates my songs with people from their life. My father has spent most of his life selling auto parts so I made a nod to him. There's line about pecan pies in Unfortunate Kind is a true story my father told me about my parents' first week together as husband and wife. Those little real moments are give these songs life.
- O'Lover seems very real, something you've contemplated?
Luckily I've never been pushed that far. O' Lover is ultimately a song about desperation. What happens when good people are forced to do bad things in order to stay alive. Growing up in the south, poverty was a real thing. The common misconception in the States is that if you're poor, it's because you didn't work hard enough. In rural NC that couldn't be further from the truth. Hard working, good hearted people spend most of their lives trying to figure out how to keep it all together for another month. This is a song about what happens when a farmer is pushed to his breaking point. He doesn't want to hold up a convenience store, but he just can't figure out any other way to keep his head above water. Desperation is a recurring theme on Rockingham, but this song definitely puts it front and center.
- What's your getaway car of choice?
For the record, I'd be a terrible getaway driver but if I had to pick I'd go old school American muscle. Camaro, Charger, The late 60's was a great time for cars to be sexy and extremely powerful all at the same time. If youre playing the part of the criminal, you've got to look good doing it.
- What are you a Mustang or Chevy man?
My dad was a Chevrolet man so I guess that makes me a Chevrolet man. It was the only car my father ever owned so obviously it was the first car I bought when I was old enough to drive. Again, full circle.
- You are a positive person?
The current version of myself is an extremely positive person. I have nothing to complain about. I'm married. I'm almost two years sober. I just bought a house. My career is going well. I'm in a really great place right now. My twenties, now that's a different story. That is the deep well of negativity that I will always be able to draw from creatively. I was in a dark place most of my twenties and was an extremely jaded and negative person. I've loosened up a lot in my old age...haha.
- You think parents/society lies to kids, they tell you can be anything - when really the most of us can do is be worker bees in the hive?
I don't think they do it on purpose. Up until a certain point I think it's ok to let kids believe in the fairy tale, but at a certain age, when it starts to become clear that you aren't going to be a professional athlete or a nobel prize winning doctor, I think it's good to talk to kids like adults just to brace them for what is ahead. My parents were very open with me, probably from middle school on, that life was not all fun and games. If you want a comfortable life you have to work hard, get lucky and be smart. I think we candy coat things for kids, that just makes the dark reality of adulthood even more overwhelming when it punches them in the face.
- Its an album that seems to re enforce that?
The world is a very dark place. That is reality. That isn't something I made up or some grand statement that i came up with. Its just how it is...I write what I know. I can't write songs about rainbows and sunshine. It hasn't been all rainbows and sunshine for me. I write about the doubt, the desperation, the dark side of the human condition, because that is what resonates with me. I like to think that's why my fans like my music, because I talk about the real problems in their life. Instead of giving them a happy lie, I present to them the not so happy truth. I think that level of honesty between me and my listeners is what they not only have come to expect from me, but what the respect about me in the first place.
- You'd make another solo record? You've other narratives in mind?
It took 11 years to make the first one so who knows. If the narrative is there and the songs make sense, I am not opposed to it. It was a really fun process getting these songs to tape, so I would more than likely jump at the chance if it ever presents itself again. For now I'm just focused on writing the next American Aquarium record and pushing my songwriting into an even better place.
- You know when a song is a solo tune or an AA tune?
For the last decade that have just always been American Aquarium songs. Then I wrote a group of songs about my hometown and really felt like it was "my" record not a "band" record. Its the first time it's ever happened so I cant really answer the question. Talk to me in a few years and I'll let you know if that has changed.
- What do the rest of AA make of the record?
They have been incredibly supportive of the process and a few of the guys even played on the record. They understand that this isn't me "going solo" because the band is still alive and well. We're touring as much as we ever have and working on new material. This is a side project to occupy the creative parts of my mind not dedicated to American Aquarium.
- There's a point where you say "never trust anyone who does hard drugs in their 30's", whats the best piece advice you've been given?
Nothing in this life is free. My parents use to always tell me that when I saw a advertisement for a "free" product. They had to explain to me the asterisk and fine print explaining it was only free with purchase of something else. As I got older though, it changed from just the literal meaning. I look at it as you only get out of something what you put into something. Hard work pays off. You want something, work hard for it. I live by those words every day and am extremely fortunate for having my parents teach me that, whether they know they did or not.
- Artist Website http://bjbarham.com/
- Label Website http://atthehelmrecords.bigcartel.com/product/bj-barham-rockingham-cd-pre-order