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American Aquarium reflects on loss in new album


The band American Aquarium is known for its sometimes country, sometimes folky, sometimes anthemic songs, mixing great musicianship with lyrics both pointed and personal. Their latest album takes a quiet, more introspective turn.


AMERICAN AQUARIUM: (Singing) So let's head down to the shoreline and wash off all this blame. Swim out past the breakers just to curse the maker's name.

GONYEA: That's the title track, "Chicamacomico." B.J. Barham is the founder and lead singer of American Aquarium. "Chicamacomico" is the Algonquin name for the area of the Outer Banks in North Carolina that's now called Rodanthe, and it's where Barham says he wrote the record.

BJ BARHAM: I like to do writing retreats. And in preparation for this record, I went there for about two weeks in late February of 2021. And I wrote this entire record there in Rodanthe, N.C. As a North Carolinian, when you think of the Outer Banks, you think of summertime and fun. In February, it's a much different scene. There's zero people there. I was there for almost two weeks, and I saw three other human beings. It was very apocalyptic, but it also served as a pretty great backdrop for the record that I was writing, which is a record about loss, which is a record about dealing with the trauma of loss. And so kind of the desolation, isolation of the setting I was writing the record - I think you can really hear it on the record.


AMERICAN AQUARIUM: (Singing) Try to find that piece of us we lost all those years ago.

GONYEA: That title song - there's one line that just grabbed me. You write and sing, I never knew hard until I took apart that room that never got used.

BARHAM: Yeah. And that's one of the very first lines I wrote for that record. I've been trying to write this song for six years. Me and my wife experienced a pretty devastating miscarriage back in 2016. I think for anyone else that's went through that, those words ring a lot truer. If you've never experienced it, it's a heavy song. But if you've actually lived through that kind of loss, it's a devastating song. I felt like somebody needed to put words to that experience.

GONYEA: This album is full of very personal details and stories from your life. I want to ask you about the song "The First Year."


AMERICAN AQUARIUM: (Singing) You left in such a hurry. I had so much left to say. I was just passing by, thought I'd stop and say hi and that I miss you. Happy Mother's Day.

GONYEA: Who's this song for?

BARHAM: It's for my mom. I lost my mom on New Year's Eve of 2019. That holiday will always be marred by the loss of my mother. My mom was, you know, one of my best friends. Every good quality that I have came from that woman, so losing her was extremely hard. And I think that's why, when I talk about this song, this was one of the hardest songs for me to write on the record, in a record full of hard songs to write. It doesn't really sink in that you've lost someone of that much importance until the first holiday rolls around that you associate with that person. For me, it was my birthday, which is early May. So right around Mother's Day, we shared that holiday together. And so for me, that's when it became very real. It crushed me. And that's what that first verse is. The second verse is the day it hit my dad, which was their anniversary.


AMERICAN AQUARIUM: (Singing) A shining example of what love could truly be. Like a castle made of sand, watched that mountain of a man fall apart when they laid to rest his queen.

BARHAM: That was when I saw my dad get crushed. I watched him crumble - a man that is not known for showing a lot of emotion. I watched him become human that day. A lot of times, we personify our parents as these kind of superheroes. And I watched my dad kind of tumble back to earth, tumble back to reality for a moment. And when you start seeing how different relatives process that emotion through different holidays, that's where the idea of that song came from was to kind of take you through that first year of losing someone that is extremely important to you.

GONYEA: Music can be so useful to lean on as you feel your way through a very rough emotional loss. I'm wondering if when you were there in the Outer Banks and you're by yourself - there are no people around and it's February - were there things that you found yourself listening to, being inspired by, as you wrote this song and other songs on this record?

BARHAM: I wasn't really listening to a lot of music out there. Those writing retreats - I know exactly what the mission is once I go on those. And I knew very early on this record was going to be about the last two years. And I think a lot of people listening to this record probably went through the same kind of loss. If you made it from 2020 to 2022 without losing anything, you should receive, like, a medal or something. Like, I don't understand how anybody could have went through those two years without losing something.

And so as I was writing this record in February of 2021, it became very, very clear what the theme was. So I just started putting together the puzzle pieces. And then, you know, you look up, you're a week and a half into your trip and you've got 10 pieces that kind of had this central theme. You can't listen to any of these songs and not conjure this, like, sense of loss.

GONYEA: The song "All I Needed" has earned a spot as the last track on the album, and it seems to be about you possibly turning a corner in dealing with all of the emotions that you've been singing about throughout the entire album.


AMERICAN AQUARIUM: (Singing) How can something that I've never heard in my life pull me back into the light?

GONYEA: We can feel it in the tempo, but it's also there in the lyrics, as well.

BARHAM: Yeah. We - that was a very conscious decision to put the only really upbeat song at the very, very end of the record. I like to close out records on a hopeful note. I like to leave the listener not too bogged down. It's pulling you out of the hole we just put you in. And it's telling you that no matter what you're going through, there's a song that describes it for you.

I wrote that song - I was coming back from my mother's funeral, and a song came on the radio that only the universe could have delivered. You know, it's one of those songs where I hadn't heard it in years. It's a song I associate with my mom. And it came on the radio literally as I'm leaving her funeral. And I know for a fact the universe sent it my way because they knew I needed it. And, you know, then I went into a writing session with my friend Carl Anderson, and we wrote that song about that - about that exact feeling of turning the radio on and a weight, a burden being lifted off your shoulders.


AMERICAN AQUARIUM: (Singing) It was a hook. It was a line. It was a savior in three-quarter time.

BARHAM: After a record full of songs that I hope put words to a lot of the really hard experiences that people are dealing with when they're going through humanity, I hope that that last song kind of reminds them that these songs aren't meant to bum you out. These songs are meant to help you get through it.


AMERICAN AQUARIUM: (Singing) I was running on empty, and life was really getting me down.

GONYEA: B.J. Barham is the lead singer and songwriter of American Aquarium. Their new album is out now. It's called "Chicamacomico." Did I get it right?

BARHAM: Nailed it. Nailed it.

GONYEA: All right. Thank you. Thank you for being with us.

BARHAM: Thank you so much for having me.


AMERICAN AQUARIUM: (Singing) It was a spiritual change. I'm no longer the same. Yeah, I've turned a page. In one afternoon, a three-minute tune was my coming of age. Its transformative power I began to devour, every painstaking word. It's a time. It's a place. A lyrical sucker-punch... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.