Note: Authored by David Menconi, this piece has been produced in partnership with Raleigh Arts.

The week after Raleigh, N.C., roots-rock band American Aquarium’s new album “Lamentations” was released, frontman BJ Barham got a call from the group’s record label asking if he’d seen the latest Billboard charts. Barham said no and was told, “You’ll want to go check that out really quick.”

Once he did, Barham saw that “Lamentations” debuted at No. 1 on two different charts—Top New Artist Album and Americana/Folk Album. It was also the No. 2 Country Album, No. 2 Rock Album and even cracked the overall Billboard 200 chart (at No. 133).Album Cover for American Aquarium's "Lamentations" 

“It was a pretty crazy day,” Barham said with a laugh a day later. “Obviously it’s our biggest-selling record to date. We knew there was more buzz, just no idea just how much. It’s something you hope for as an artist, but wishing for something and having it come true are obviously two completely different things. We don’t put out records for the accolades, but it’s nice to get the pat on the back every now and then.”

The chart action takes some of the sting out of being marooned at home right now. The group’s last full-on shows were way back in Jan. at their annual “Road Trip to Raleigh” at Lincoln Theatre.

With a new album out, American Aquarium—one of the 21st century’s ultimate road-warrior acts, a band that has played up to 300 shows a year since 2005—would usually be burning up the road to play it live on stages from coast to coast.

But COVID-19 has shut down the live-concert business for the foreseeable future, which leaves Barham feeling a bit restless.

“Being off the road right now does feel weird,” Barham said. “The tour was supposed to start with what we hoped would be the No. 1 Americana album in the country. Getting that No. 1 was supposed to be the hard part, and planning the tour was the easy part. Well, it turns out we got the hard one while the thing that was always so easy to do is literally impossible right now. But I just hope this record has enough legs to where five months from now—or a year or whenever we’re allowed to go back out—people will still want to see and hear these songs and this band again. As I recall from Economics 101, demand goes up as supply goes down. So a year off as we’ve put out arguably the best album of our career should mean more people coming to see us, I hope.”

If things are pretty upbeat in American Aquarium’s world right now, the ironic part is that it’s thanks in part to an undeniably dark record. Aptly titled, “Lamentations” is full of regrets, betraying a sense of shame in songs like “How Wicked I Was” and “The Day I Learned to Lie to You.” In contrast, Barham (who has been sober for years) leads a life of domestic contentment with a wife and young daughter.

“It’s about finding a small piece of myself in each character,” Barham says of the new album. “All 10 songs have their own specific characters, but you can also envision them all being about one character’s lamentations about things that broke him as a person. I write a lot about that guy I used to be and still sometimes see in the mirror, all the flaws and scars. The mirror can be a dark place. That kind of self-analysis has been the focus of the last couple of albums.”

Band photo, lead singer in front with five group members in background

To keep busy during this down-time, Barham has been playing online live-streams on Facebook and Instagram several times per week, with the obligatory Venmo tip jar. Proceeds are earmarked for his American Aquarium bandmates, so he can keep paying them even though they’re not playing.

Barham is also taking advantage of the extra time at home to write songs. He says he’s already pretty far along on another album’s worth of material and vows that the next record will come in less time than the two-year gap before “Lamentations.”

“Every writer says they want more time to just focus on the work, the art,” Barham says. “I’m curious to see how many will have taken that to heart and created something during all this. It’s actually been perfect for me. We already had this record in the can and about to come out, so no pressure. That let me explore things. I’ve done so much writing under pressure before, where studio time was booked when I still needed six more songs. It’s been nice to write for just me, not to impress bandmates or cut demos.”

You can purchase "Lamentations" on CD and vinyl—plus band merchandise—here. You can also stream on Spotify

Below, BJ Barham performs as part of Window Music, a webseries where musicians perform in front of its downtown Raleigh office windows. 


Header photo by Joshua Black Wilkins

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