You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.
This sage advice, given from Bilbo Baggins to his nephew, Frodo, in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, seems mildly appropriate when considering B.J. Barham’s decision to step outside the comfort of his long time band, American Aquarium, and record an album on his own.
Though not nearly as perilous as Frodo’s quest, Barham’s decision to go it alone, without the musical safety net provided by a decade’s worth of performing with American Aquarium, probably seemed equally as nerve wracking. But Barham, with the release of Rockingham, proved worthy of the task.
Songs written over the course of days while on tour in Europe with American Aquarium were recorded with a new cast of musicians who rehearsed for just two days before letting the tape roll.
The urgency in the writing and recording only accentuates the deeply personal subject matter in the songs, making Rockingham a great record.
I recently got the chance to ask B.J. some questions about the new record, including how he handled writing songs about his hometown, recording with the new band, and giving advice to a daughter I didn’t even realize was pretend.
BRO – What’s the biggest difference between having your name, instead of your band’s, printed across that CD packaging?
BJ – It’s a totally different feeling. I started American Aquarium in college and it was my first band and, subsequently, the only band I’ve ever been in. Putting out a solo record elicits a lot of emotion. I was extremely nervous to begin with, but as the record started to take shape, so did my confidence. If it’s good, you get the glory. If it’s not, you have to be ready to take the “stick to your day job” comments.
BRO – What did you learn – or, perhaps, relearn – about Reidsville, and your time in it, while using it as your inspiration for this record?
BJ – It’s funny. I spent eighteen years of my life wanting to get out of that small town, only to find myself wanting in my thirties the exact same things I ran from as a teenager. In writing this record, I learned that Reidsville is just like every other town in America. Hard working people doing the best they can to provide for themselves and their families. Through the good and the bad, it’s still my hometown and that will never change. I do find it ironic that my wife and I just moved to Wendell, North Carolina, a tobacco town that’s one quarter the size of Reidsville, and I couldn’t be happier.
BRO – If I ever pass through Reidsville, where can I get a killer cheeseburger?
BJ – Without a doubt, Pete’s Burgers & More. Also, try Short Sugars BBQ, just down the road, for the best barbeque in North Carolina.
BRO – Your band for this record met on a Monday and was recording by Thursday. How do you describe the energy, or kinship, you developed during just two days of rehearsals?
BJ – Again, this is the first time I’ve ever played with anyone outside of American Aquarium, so it was exciting. Me and the boys have played together for a decade and know each other’s quirks, tendencies, and processes. It was really refreshing being pushed into a situation that was this spontaneous. Every take was exciting, just because I had no idea what the new guys were going to do with the songs. It was flying by the seat of my pants type stuff. Every now and then, as a creative person, I think it’s good to step outside of your comfort zone and throw yourself into those types of situations.
BRO – Having a daughter myself, I found it especially powerful that you penned a tune for your little girl. Favor, from one father of a daughter to another . . . Do you think you could write something I could keep to give my daughter’s potential suitors? It doesn’t have to be a murder ballad . . .
BJ – Hah! I actually don’t have a daughter. This is more of an open letter to a daughter that I hope to one day have. I wanted to write a song to pass down some of the things that I’ve learned in my 32 years that might help her not make her father’s mistakes. Don’t even get me thinking about a female teenage version of myself. That should scare anyone that knows me. I have a feeling that I will be the date who cleans the guns while the prom date waits.
Yeah, so I totally fell for “Madeleine,” but having a five year old daughter made that one all the more poignant to me, so I don’t care that I was fooled all that much. And I can’t wait to hear B.J. sing it live. Speaking of, you can catch B.J. in Raleigh on August 20th, Charleston (SC) on August 21st, and Jacksonville (FL) on August 22nd, and Asheville, NC on August 30th. The rest of the month finds him all around the Southeast, so check out his website for his tour schedule and catch him when he comes to town.
Before that, however, make sure to take a listen to “Rockingham” on this month’s Trail Mix.