Raleigh Now Spotlight: American Aquarium

Cal Quinn

by Katherine Poole

Songwriter BJ Barham opens every show proudly declaring his allegiance to the Oak City. Originally from Reidsville, North Carolina, Barham founded the alt-country group in 2005 while studying political science and history at N.C. State University. And from the group’s first gig at Raleigh’s legendary music venue The Brewery, to shows in major metropolises, and tours through every state in the union and 19 countries, Barham continues to pay tribute to his musical roots—American Aquarium is a Raleigh band. Hear it from him:

Raleigh has always been my center. My dad used to have this crazy saying: Grow where you are planted. And I was always that guy who thought to myself, ‘Well if I can’t make it in my hometown, what makes me think I can make it in New York?’ … I had to prove to myself that I could be a big fish in a small pond.

Raleigh is where I found my identity as a person. I came to N.C. State and … had no intentions of being a songwriter. I didn’t even play the guitar. When I moved to Raleigh it was the first time I was able to see live music that wasn’t in a big venue. I was able to realize you could play songs for people and not be Tim McGraw. I was introduced to the idea of an independent local band.

Barham has certainly grown where he was planted. Since the band’s early days playing for friends in local dives, Barham has sown his wild oats, gotten sober, married his soulmate, moved to the country, parted ways with his original bandmates, and in April welcomed a daughter into the world. He’s the first to tell you that his life is like a country song and he puts it directly into his music. Barham writes with raw honesty about his life and that has never been more evident than on the band’s 10th album, Things Change.

There are plenty of songs about dirt roads and Friday nights and cold beer and pretty girls and whatever the hell is on pop radio these days. But my favorite songwriters … they’re writing from a point of not holding anything back.

I write songs about very specific moments in time and very specific people. It is so eye-opening to me to travel somewhere and meet someone that heard the same exact song that I wrote and took something completely different away from it. They just applied that raw emotion to their life and it got them through something.

I have watched fans spend their entire 20s in a drunken haze, and then come to shows now as a father or as a husband or as a recently sober person.Watching them change with me, hearing people coming up after the show saying the reason they made this change was watching me … it pushes me to continue to be honest. It pushes me to continue to be a voice for someone that might not have one.