Interview: BJ Barham Didn’t Expect American Aquarium’s New ‘Lamentations’ Album to Be Quite This Relevant
For more than a decade, American Aquarium spent more time on the road than they did at home. It was on tour in January of 2019, in fact, that band founder and leader BJ Barham kicked off the creation process for the group's new album, Lamentations, out Friday (May 1).
"I have a really -- it's a good and a bad thing: I always name the album before I even start writing the songs," Barham, American Aquarium's songwriter and only remaining original member, tells The Boot. While he was on the road for some solo shows, it just so happened that the last AirBnB he stayed in held the key to Lamentations.
"Inside of the closet, it had this -- it was a darker Bible verse from the Book of Lamentations," Barham recalls. An Old Testament book in the Christian Bible, the Book of Lamentations is a book of poems, which some believe were written by the prophet Jeremiah, mourning the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, and God's desertion of the city and the author because of a number of sins.
"I just thought that the word 'lamentations' -- it's a word we don't hear a lot anymore. It's a word we don't see a lot in print or in conversation," Barham notes. "And so I started just breaking down that word.
"You can go with a Webster dictionary [definition of 'lamentations'], which is an extreme expression of sorrow or grief. And I think this record kind of encapsulates the definition of that word," he muses. "Also, I wanted to approach it from the biblical sense ... I saw a lot of extreme parallels between that [book's contents] and current, 2020 Southern me, crying out, questioning the existence of a higher power, watching what's going on.
"Throw a global pandemic in and it becomes a little too real," Barham jokes, referring to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The release of Lamentations -- which Barham describes as "one of the heaviest American Aquarium records yet, but also ... the most accessible American Aquarium record to date" -- comes about six weeks into pandemic-related shutdowns and restrictions in the United States.
"I think that people, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, they're looking for that little piece of light in the darkness; they're looking for that crack in the door to remind them that, yeah, life's not always easy, but we're going to get through it, and we're going to get through it together ..." Barham reflects. "I didn't mean for this record to take on that connotation, but I think ... people are gonna find a lot of correlations between real life and what I wrote a year ago."
Lamentations' title track finds a man at his breaking point, a blue-collar worker out of a job, his community struggling with divorce and addiction and a nameless politician not fulfilling his promises to help. However, after Barham completed the song, "I realized that if I wrote 10 of those songs and it was just really overtly political record, I wasn't really going to be winning people over," so he expanded his focus.
"I started looking at what the Book of Lamentations is really about, which is about a man reaching his breaking point," the singer explains. "So I wanted to start writing about all the things that break us as human beings, whether it be politics, whether it be fiscal responsibility, whether it be addiction, whether it be finding love, love lost, a marriage, children.
"All of these songs are encapsulated by that one central theme of the things that break us," he adds. "And I look at the good side of that and look at the bad side of that."
Barham never wants to make the same record twice -- at this point, in fact, he's found that he's pretty good at thriving amid uncertainty and change -- so he chooses different recording locations and producers for each project. Shooter Jennings produced Lamentations, with American Aquarium joining him out in Los Angeles for the sessions, but that wasn't the original plan.
Barham intended to make this record in Memphis, Tenn., with a different producer. A few weeks before they were set to hit the studio, however, that producer "had a gut feeling that it wasn't a right match," Barham recounts, and backed out.
"You've written these songs, you've submitted these songs, and then, here at the last minute, someone's telling you they don't believe in the songs as much as you do. There's a lot of self doubt that comes into play ...," Barham confesses of that moment. "And so I started questioning those songs, like, 'Maybe they're not good enough' ... And I was pretty down on myself for probably a week or two."
It was Barham's booking agent, who also represents Jennings, who suggested the new match, and made the connection. Barham was skeptical -- after all, Jennings was on a hot streak, having recently won a Grammy for his work on Brandi Carlile's By the Way, I Forgive You and worked on Tanya Tucker's acclaimed While I'm Livin' -- but Barham sent Jennings the same three songs he sent the original producer.
Jennings, obviously, said yes.
"We spent eight days in a studio in North Hollywood, and Shooter became a member of our band for eight days. And when I say that, that's not cliche ... He was just as important to making this record as anyone that played on it," Barham gushes. "You can listen to this record and you can hear Shooter Jennings' production style all over. It's big, it's grandiose, the vocals are clean. He got something out of us that we've never been able to get out of this band, and you could hear it on the record."
The last-minute change was a blessing in disguise, Barham now says: "In retrospect, we couldn't, we couldn't have made this record how you hear it today with anybody else but Shooter Jennings."
"I didn't mean for this record to take on that connotation, but I think ... people are gonna find a lot of correlations between real life and what I wrote a year ago."
When Barham was recruiting a producer for Lamentations, one of the songs he sent was "How Wicked I Was," the album's penultimate track. While it's not strictly autobiographical, the song is a reflection on the worry that comes with having children -- specifically, the fear that, some day, they'll grow up and and realize, as Barham puts it, "how big of a piece of s--t you were before your kid, or, in many cases, how big of a piece of s--t you are, just in general."
Barham and his wife Rachael welcomed their first child, a baby girl named Josephine Pearl about two years ago, and he admits the thought of her learning that her dad isn't a superhero "keeps me up at night." After all, his music has well documented his transgressions, failures and low points, so it's all out there for Pearl to hear when she's a little older.
"She's going to know what Dad does, and I'm not always going to be able to sit back and play her Pixar soundtracks on guitar," Barham shares. "I think, eventually, she's going to learn what Dad does, and she's going to have questions about it, and I think I'm going to have to approach it as honest as I possibly can and tell her that Daddy gets paid to write about what he observes ... and try to be as open and honest with her without telling her like, 'Hey, Dad has a really dark past.'"
Barham has been spending plenty of time with Pearl in recent weeks, as he's quarantining at his home outside of Raleigh, N.C. While he's kept his tour calendar a bit lighter since her birth, it's out of the ordinary for Barham to not know when he'll play his next shows, as is the current case.
"I might not be able to tour on this record for the rest of the year," Barham points out. Despite the unknown return date of live music, postponing the project was never an option: "There's too many people who are stuck at home who have been excited about this record, so I'm going to give it to them," he reasons.
"Whenever we can get back to the road, I have no doubt that our fan base will show up at the shows, and we'll get back to being the road dogs that people love," Barham adds. "But for now, we're going to keep our family safe. We're going to keep all of our loved ones safe, and we're going to do our part to keep everybody else safe.
"And they'll just -- they'll just know the songs louder, and they'll be able to sing all the songs back to us," he continues. "It'll be the craziest release tour."
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