American Aquarium is bringing a lot of new music to Key West.

Tough times don’t last; tough folks do.

There isn’t much of the past year for anyone to be positive about. It sucked. Touring came to a screeching halt, and for a band like American Aquarium, that was killer. They put out their eighth studio album, Lamentations, anyway. Against all odds and better judgement. And it was one of their best.

BJ Barham has always found a way, and in a pandemic year, he found a way to sign a publishing deal with One Riot, create his own record label, Losing Side Records, and write enough of his own original material to ensure that the label will put out three new albums in the next 12 months.

That’s what BJ does. It’s how he’s built his career and his business, and now he’s proud that he’ll have the legacy under his own name.

He’s returning to Mile 0 Fest in Key West this week for the third consecutive year (he only missed the first one because of a booking snag with a similarly named festival across the country). And he’s made it clear that any time Mile 0 is putting on a festival, you can go ahead and count him in. “If they decide they don’t want me anymore, I guess that’s another story,” he joked. But as long as the festival will keep inviting him back, he’ll be there, he assures.

He and I spoke about a year that he managed to tough out better than anyone else and how much it managed to bring to him professionally. 

It seemed like that past year was good for you. You had a lot of great energy, and you got a lot accomplished…

Yeah, I hate saying that it was a blessing when so many families and people were affected, but we found a way to get through it. We got really lucky. We adapted. We changed the business model; for a business model that relies on touring your ass off to keep the business afloat, we had to figure something out quick. Between online shows and upping our merchandise presence online, we found a way to get through it. We kept our names in people’s mouths.

It didn’t hurt that we put out Lamentations in May. We put out arguably the best record of our career in the middle of the pandemic. So you have millions of people that are stuck at home. We found that a lot more people that were stuck at home were consuming albums. They weren’t just consuming singles or just the music they loved; they were finding new music. So we saw this resurgence of people consuming music at an alarming rate.

The online shows seemed to be really successful. I was at a couple of them. I know it wasn’t the way you’d most want to do things, but they seemed to work really well for you.

Obviously, I like being in a room with people. I like being in a room where I can feed off of the energy that the crowd is providing. But when that is completely off the table and the only options I have are sitting in my office and playing to a computer screen or not playing music at all, it’s a pretty simple choice for me.

I don’t think anybody that tuned in preferred the online shows over real life music, but the fact that technology gave us a chance to continue in some form – albeit an inferior form – but in some form where we could play music for people – that got a lot of people through the pandemic. I know it got me through the pandemic. I think it got a lot of fans through the pandemic, as well.

You signed a publishing deal. Is it something that you’ve considered for a long time? How did you arrive at that decision?

It’s just like signing a record deal. The only record deal I ever signed was with New West. We were with New West for two records. The only reason I signed a record deal is because they met all of the requirements that I set forth. I’m not against record deals or publishing deals; I’m against predatory record deals and publishing deals. I’ve always said that if someone offered a record deal that was fair to me, I’d sign it. And I did. 

Now, me and New West have amicably parted ways because I wanted to start my own label. I would have loved to kept putting out records with New West, I just thought it was time for me – as an independent artist – who has a voice, who has a fanbase, who has a foundational structure set up – I thought it was time to start my own label and build the legacy that I want my songwriting to have. It’s a weird word to use. But 15 years in – and especially watching my daughter and how she reacts to music – I want to be able to leave something bigger than me. And I think that’s a way to do it.

The publishing deal was extremely advantageous to me. I didn’t feel like anybody was trying to rip me off; I didn’t feel like anybody was trying to get my songs for pennies on the dollar. I felt like it was a very fair deal. I’m excited to be writing songs for a company that believes in real music. 

I’m signed to an offshoot of Reservoir Music called One Riot, and the only artists they have signed are me, Courtney Marie Andrews and the Secret Sisters. So I feel good about who I signed with. Reservoir reps some of the biggest Top 40 country artists out there, but this little Americana offshoot that they started is friends and contemporaries that I really respect.

Do you have control of your old music that was released on New West? Will you reissue that on Losing Side in the future?

Yeah, I own 100% of my entire catalog. I licensed it to New West, so I’ll get all of it back in a couple of years and it will be reissued on Losing Side Records. As of now, those are the only two records that aren’t on Losing Side moniker.

Have you already begun writing for other folks in the publishing deal? Have you sat with Courtney Marie or the Secret Sisters for a session?

I’ve flown to Nashville three or four times during the pandemic and written with a lot of your bigger Top 40 country songwriters. I’ve got a bunch of songs written with them. I wrote a new song with Katie Pruitt that we are really, really proud of; I can’t speak of when it will see the light of day, but soon. 

It’s been fun. I get to write with people that I care about. I’ve got a song with Muscadine Bloodline coming out on one of their next records. It’s a different side of my brain that I get to flex. Up until I signed the publishing deal, I had never done a co-write. Everything that I’ve done for American Aquarium and my solo project was all me. It was just me writing the songs. So the publishing deal really made me step outside of my comfort zone and allow someone else into my process. And in turn, jump into someone else’s process. I went into it very hesitant, but once I got going with two or three of them…

It’s like the first time you jump in the deep end, you’re scared! But you get in there and it’s like, “Hey this is kinda fun!” Why did I put this off for so long. I had been discounting a lot of really great opportunities. I’m really enjoying it. I’ve got another writing trip – basically, I fly in one morning, and I’ll do two writes. I’ll do a morning write and an afternoon write. I sleep in Nashville, I wake up, I do a morning write and afterward, I fly home. I fly to Nashville, I’m there for 36 hours, I write four songs and I come back home. And I only have to be away from my family for one night.

Do you think the publishing thing will eventually force you to move to Nashville or are you determined to keep doing everything from North Carolina?

Man, it’s worked for 15 years. I know a lot of friends that have had to move to Nashville for their business to grow or for them to have the opportunities. I’ve been very lucky. I’ve been able to grow where I was planted. I didn’t have to uproot anything and move somewhere else, and I feel very proud of that. I’m not knocking someone else that does it; there’s thousands of people moving to Nashville on a weekly basis to try to make it in the music business. I feel very fortunate that my fans have allowed me an opportunity to stay at home and do what I want from here.

And Nashville’s a 45-minute flight away. If there’s a big opportunity for me, I’m not going to miss out on it because I live in North Carolina. It’s an easy flight. Southwest offers three direct flights to Nashville every day from Raleigh. I can jump on a plane and be there in 45 minutes. 

So I don’t see myself needing to move to Nashville anytime soon. I enjoy visiting. I enjoy coming in to write songs. And the publishing deal has given me an excuse to come in and not only write songs, but see friends and have meetings with my manager and agent face-to-face and eat the amazing food that Nashville has to offer.

I spoke to Morgan Wade recently and she had a similar sentiment regarding staying in Virginia. It made me recall that you two were set to tour together before the pandemic (and Morgan will join select rescheduled dates this year). You put a lot of time into choosing your openers. Is that important to you? 

Yeah, some people just let management pick their openers. Some people let the label pick their openers. I look at it as an extension of my own musical taste. I’m not going to force someone to sit through an hour of music that I wouldn’t sit through. Plain and simple. The reason we didn’t take a lot of openers out in the past is because we couldn’t afford to; but fast forward five or six years, and we’re in a bus now. Touring is pretty easy for us. The minute that I could afford it, I started bringing out people that I cared about; people that were exponentially more talented than the local guy that the promoter would probably put on. 

Last year, we were supposed to take out Morgan and Emily Scott Robinson. We just announced our summer tour, and we’ll take [Wade and Robinson] and Gabe Lee out. 

We’re only playing 15 shows this summer, but every one of those shows is stacked with people whose records I own. They’re in my vinyl collection. They’re people I listen to; they’re people I like; they’re people I dig. And I think that’s important. I think a lot of artists take out the flavor of the month or whoever management made a deal with – and I’m a very hands-on musician, especially when it comes to the business side. It’s important to be hands-on. You’re telling your fanbase, “These are people I really, really like. You should like them, too. You should get there an hour early to see why I like them.” Hopefully, I’ll be able to do that my entire career. I hope my career allows me to always be able to pick who I want to come out with me.

You’ve said in the not too distant past that you have enough material ready to put out two records in the next year. Is that still the plan?

I’m putting out three records this year.

Wow! That’s awesome!

Yeah, it’s a bit hush-hush, but you’ll see once it all comes together. We’ve been very busy during the pandemic. I’ve been writing my ass off. There’s gonna be a lot of cool stuff coming. I didn’t start a label just to have a new business; I started a label to put out a lot of music. And a lot more of my music; which is exciting for me. When you eliminate the middle man and you’re your own boss and you get to decide when a record comes out and how many records can come out, it really opens things up. There’s no pressure. 

By this time next year, Losing Side Records will have 16 releases on it. And I own 100% of it. That’s a cool thing. New West has Things Change and Lamentations for a few more years, but all rights revert back to me after that. They own nothing. It’s a rare thing for people that have been in the business for 15 years to own 100% of their masters and 100% of their catalog. 

Will Losing Side primarily be a vehicle for your own work or do you hope to sign other folks? Is that already in the works?

It’s already in the works. The goal is to put out music that I care about; music that I believe in. The good thing is that I don’t ever have to put out music to make money. I don’t have to put out music to fulfill some status quo. I get to put out music that I really believe in. If that’s signing one new artist every four years, that’s what it’s gonna be. If that’s putting out three new artists in a month, that’s what it’s gonna be. I’m excited. John Prine lived his life answering to no one. I got a lot of inspiration from watching how he dealt with his business. After he passed, we all realized that nothing is given to us. Time is ticking. Even me, at 36, time is ticking. 

So I wanted to put all of my stuff in one place and also be able to a shelter for other artists like myself; people that are willing to put in the work. I’m not gonna make or break an artist, but if an artist is willing to play a [expletive] ton of shows and stick with the first 5-10 years of poverty and obscurity, I can teach them that I’m living proof. As long as you stick to it and treat it like a craft and try to be better today than you were yesterday, you can make a living playing music. If they question it, I can just tell them to look at me. I’m not the best songwriter in the world. I don’t have the best voice. I don’t have a chiseled jawline. I don’t look good in tight jeans. But I will outwork every [expletive] in the room. Anytime. Any day. And that’s the only reason that I’m where I am now. It’s not because I’m the most talented. And God knows I can’t keep a band together. It’s because I’m willing to put in the legwork. It’s because I’m willing to write a thank you note to every single person that buys merch from me. It’s because I’m willing to stand at a merch table and shake every single person’s hand that comes to see me live and tell them how much I appreciate them being there. Little things like that are why this band is around 15 years later. If it was purely based on talent, I don’t think we’d be here. I think it’s because we’ve made an impact on people’s lives on a personal level. People who come to our shows don’t consider themselves fans; they consider themselves friends of mine. And if I never get to play another show, I’ll always be so stoked to hear people say that. “I know that guy.” I don’t try to hide under some veil of mystery. Everybody has social media. They’re gonna know about what I do. I embrace it. I want to talk to them. I want to know what makes them tick. I want to know what we have in common. I enjoy that aspect of human interaction.

You missed an entire tour cycle and now you have three new albums of material. How do you choose a set list in that situation?

I never got to play a show for Lamentations. May 1 will be one year, and we haven’t gotten to do a headlining set for Lamentations. When you first start a band and you only have two or three records, it’s hard to carve out a 90-minute set list. But 15 years in, especially after you put out a record like Lamentations…

We still play 75% of Dances for the Lonely. So there’s not a lot of room for a lot of stuff. It’s gotta be really solid to enter into the “play it every night” realm. There’s probably five or six songs off of Lamentations that are gonna be played every night for the rest of my career. That’s a good feeling. It used to be, “Man, I can get a really good 60 minutes of really great songs and have 30 minutes of filler.” And then it was, “I can get a good 75 minutes.” I feel comfortable now saying that I can play two hours of stuff that I truly believe in and still have room to add some stuff. 

Lamentations will be played. We’re gonna start doing a few new songs next week. We’ll throw in some at our sold out Raleigh show before Key West, and we’re gonna try to throw in a few new songs in Key West just to start seeing how people react to them. We go to the studio again in November – we’ve been twice since the pandemic started. Then the records start coming out soon. 

What is your favorite spot to eat in Key West?

A place we eat almost every single time is the Lobster Shack. We get lunch there almost every single day. 

There’s a legendary spot that we eat breakfast at almost every morning. We love it because we’re always up early with a two-year-old, and there’s nobody else there. It’s called the Banana Cafe. It’s on Duval Street. They have a lobster Eggs Benedict that is pretty rad. 

There’s also a doughnut shop that we’ll crush at least twice because my daughter loves doughnuts. It’s called Glazed Doughnuts. Super, over-the-top doughnuts. 

Is the family making the trip again?

My wife would never let me go to Key West and not tag along. [laughs]

American Aquarium will play the Zyn Stage at Sunset Green at 3 p.m. on Friday and Truman Waterfront Park Amphitheater at 7:10 p.m. on Saturday. BJ will join the Duets performance at the amphitheater on Friday at 10:30 p.m.

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