In the lush tobacco fields of North Carolina where BJ Barham was raised, people work hard. Families stay nearby, toiling and growing together. BJ loves those farms and his tiny Reidsville hometown, but he had to run off and start American Aquarium, a band now beloved by thousands.BJ couldn’t stay. But he couldn’t really leave, either: he’s still singing about the lessons, stories, and lives that define rural America––and him.“I moved to the big city to go to college and fell in love with music,” BJ says. “But half the songs on our record are about small towns––little pieces of my childhood. I’ve had moments where it turns out a piece of broken English my father repeated twice a week is the most accurate way to say something. So I put it in a song.”American Aquarium’s seventh studio album Things Change offers the band’s finest collection of folk-infused Southern rock-and-roll to date. Stacked with BJ’s signature storytelling––always deeply personal but also instantly relatable––the record questions and curses current events, shares one man’s intimate evolution, and leaves listeners with a priceless gift: hope.“In my early 20s, I was not as hopeful,” BJ says. “Now, as I’m getting ready to become a father, I think I have to be hopeful––especially with the situation our country is in now. For her sake, I have to be positive.” He pauses. “Her” is his daughter, due in the spring of 2018. BJ adds, “Being self-aware has always been a blessing and a curse. But that’s what’s always made my songwriting relatable to people. I don’t hold back. I’m almost too honest.”BJ’s candor has fueled American Aquarium’s runaway appeal, visible most clearly in consistently sold-out shows across the country and throughout Europe – between 200 and 250 dates a year. Much has changed for the band and BJ since their acclaimed last effort, Wolves. In 2017, every American Aquarium member save BJ quit the group. American Aquarium has featured about 30 players since BJ founded the outfit in 2006, and while each member has left indelible marks, the band has always been anchored by the literary songs and sometimes roaring, sometimes whispering, drawl of BJ Barham. BJ’s personal life also underwent seismic shifts: He got sober. He got married. Soon, he’ll be a dad.Featuring a new band lineup that includes Shane Boeker on lead guitar, drummer Joey Bybee, bassist Ben Hussey, and Adam Kurtz on pedal steel and electric guitar, as well as a reinvigorated frontman in BJ, Things Change is American Aquarium’s first release on a label after selling thousands of records on their own. “As an artist, your goal is for the newest thing you do to be better than the last. You’re slowly whittling away the bullshit to try and get to the truth,” BJ says. “With this album, I learned how to cut some of that fat so that it’s just truth. It’s our best record.”
Recorded at 3CG Records in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Things Change was produced by Grammy- nominated singer-songwriter John Fulbright and features cameos from Americana standouts including John Moreland and Jamie Lin Wilson. Brazen album opener “The World is on Fire” is a richly layered rock-and-roll anthem that documents BJ and his wife’s stunned reaction to the last presidential election. Emotional and conversational, the song taps into widespread feelings of confusion and fear: “She said, ‘What are we going to do? What’s this world coming to?’ / For the first time in my whole life, I stood there speechless.” But what begins as despair builds into defiant faith, as BJ growls a call to action to cap off one of his favorite songs he’s ever written. “I’m complaining about the state of things, and then the third verse almost serves as a challenge to myself: hey, you’re in charge of another human being. You can create change,” he says.Driving rock-and-roller “Crooked + Straight” explores the small-town consequences of questioning religion, and the tightness of family in the face of one member’s rejection. His father’s advice anchors the song. “I come from a blue-collar family. I’m the only one who didn’t go into farming. I learned if you want something, you have to go out and take it. You can’t expect anything from anybody,” BJ says. “You can only go out there and work harder. My dad always said you can outwork anybody else.” Love for hard work and the people who carry it out appears repeatedly throughout Things Change. Guitar-heavy “Tough Folks” is a snarling ode to those with dirt under their fingernails, while bass- and pedal-steel-infused “Work Conquers All” spins a tale in praise and pursuit of Oklahoma’s state motto.The album’s love songs are the kind of achingly beautiful that only comes with maturity and a willingness to expose one’s own flaws. Haunting “Shadows of You” recalls a lover’s flight as the protagonist longs for what he let get away. Gorgeous “Till the Final Curtain Falls” celebrates loyalty and pledges endless devotion. The moving title track takes an often doleful topic–– people’s tendency to change––and turns it on its head, tracing BJ’s personal growth and recognizing his now-wife’s steadfast love.BJ’s other two favorite tracks are album standouts. Moving “When We Were Younger Men” addresses the break-up of American Aquarium head on. As BJ professes love for his former bandmates over stripped down acoustic guitar, his voice is honeyed and deep. “It’s an open letter to five guys who I spent eight years of my life with seeing the entire world,” BJ says. “I think anyone who has ever had to walk away from a friendship or has had somebody walk away from them will relate to the song.” Stunner “One Day at a Time” is self-perceptive and vulnerable, detailing BJ’s battles with himself. Even within his career full of well-written gems, the song is a towering accomplishment.“At the end of the day, if you’re not writing songs to affect other people’s lives, you’re in it for the wrong reasons,” BJ says, reflecting on the new album, where he’s been, and where American Aquarium is headed. “Money may come and go. You may never get fame. But if you sit down and write songs to affect people, you can do it your whole life and be happy.”
Brandy likes being the boss. When she has a vision, she wants to be the one calling the shots. She knows how she wants a song to sound and has been making music long enough to know how to properly execute things to ensure the final product is what she had envisioned.
Brandy Zdan also is not afraid to be vulnerable and knows no one can put out a good album by themselves. She comes into the writing and recording process with everything planned out but also lets things come naturally. This dichotomy is what’s at the heart of her sophomore solo album, Secretear.
“When you first start making records, you think you know everything,” she admits. “You come in and you’re entitled and you don’t want to try anything because your way is the way, but it’s not. Everybody else is going to make your ideas way better, and you have to try it out.”
The singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist put this trust into producer Teddy Morgan for her first solo album and decided to work with him again on her second — a gesture that is foreign territory for the well-seasoned musician with nearly 10 records under her belt.
Zdan has been performing since she was 15 and spent nearly a decade making gothic-folk music as one half of the Juno Award-nominated Twilight Hotel in her native Canada. When she moved to the States, landing in Austin, she joined the all-girl Americana outfit, The Trishas, where she acted as lead guitarist and utility player (lap steel, accordion), before moving on to a solo career. Each album she made with both acts was produced by someone else, but none of those people were Teddy Morgan.
These two have a special bond — Zdan considers Morgan a brother at this point — and that connection is one of the things that made the creation of Secretear so special. The other is her husband, Aaron Haynes. The couple met just six months before she began the recording process, yet Haynes contributed immensely to the album, including inspiring the songs “I Want Your Trouble” and “Be The One.”
“This all came from a text message he sent me during our courtship,” she explains. “All it said was ‘I want your trouble.’ I knew it had a be a song. And a kick you over one at that.” “Be The One” begins with the line, “Let’s keep making secrets,” which was also pulled from a text message Haynes sent to Zdan when they first started dating.
With My Morning Jacket’s Tom Blankenship and Carl Broemel contributing bass and guitar/pedal steel, Zdan was able to make an album with the people she loves most. And for that, she is grateful. “it’s hard to find people who get it and don’t hold you back,” she says. “They let you shine through it.”
For Zdan, getting to the other side was the most satisfying part of the whole process. “These songs made me work harder than I’ve ever had to before,” she divulges. “We were doing so many takes to get the right feel. These songs have a lot of energy, and you want that energy to come across.” During the first week of tracking, the singer-songwriter blew out her voice and rubbed her fingers raw playing guitar. “I went through creative exhaustion and back again,” she admits. “The songs made me give everything I had, and I think that’s how it should be. You can’t be safe; you’ve gotta take creative chances and go where it’s gonna take you, then reassess later.”
For Secretear, the songs took Zdan on a journey of self-discovery as she navigated the worlds of past relationships (“Get To You,” “The Ones”) and her relationship with Haynes (“I Want Your Trouble,” “Be The One”), while simultaneously strengthening the love she has for herself (“Secret Tears,” “I Will”), creating a collection of unconventional love songs…that rock.
“I feel like I’m coming to terms with a lot of things on this record, because there were so many things I was coming to terms with in my own life while I was writing it,” she reflects. “There were a lot of things I was discovering about myself that I didn’t want to accept, in terms of relationships and making the same kind of mistake over and over again.”
But she came out the other side stronger both personally and as a musician. “I don’t choose what kind of songs I’m gonna write,” she explains. “The only thing that was on purpose when I started to write for my solo project was cut out the fat, punch you in the face kind of songs.”
And in that, she has succeeded with Secretear by turning to the music that inspired her youth: ’60s and ‘70s rock n’ roll. From the Beatles-inspired descending drum fill on opener “Get To You” to the dirty guitars, drums and synth on “Wild Fire,” this album sees a veteran musician getting back to her roots and finding a voice clearer than its ever been.
“I know who I am more than ever before — more than when I made the first record — and that’s gonna change, which is fine,” Brandy Zdan confesses. “I’m shedding a lot of skin of my personal and musical past, and the things that have held me back from being the best version of myself. You get to a point as an artist where you have to give it your all, and I’m at that point. There’s no turning back.”