Five years in, St. Paul & The Broken Bones have just released their third album, with each thematically different from the other. While 2016’s acclaimed Sea of Noise stamped them as a socially conscious outfit, this Young Sick Camellia, looks deeply inward with leader, Paul Janeway’s most personal lyrics yet. As with previous efforts, the nine songs meld and blur soul, R&B, funk, and rock n’ roll in their signature sound with Janeway’s high register vocals soaring over the band. This time they teamed with noted R&B/hip-hop/dance producer Jack Splash who has worked with Solange, Kendrick Lamar, Diplo, Alicia Keys, Cee Lo Green, Mayer Hawthorne and many others.
Here Janeway explores his own family dynamic, questioning generational differences and trying to find common ground. Along the way, he fought to understand how people can relate to one another when their views and experiences could vary greatly. He continues to find the process cathartic. This could be the first installment of a series. We’ll see. Given Janeway’s wife’s masters in literature, Paul is increasingly putting more care into his lyrics, taking it on as a major challenge. Somehow though, the band finds that elusive place where music can be fun and danceable while remaining intelligent and provocative.
Janeway traded in a career in ministry to start his own Birmingham, AL-based band. “I’ve always been the artsy weirdo in the family,” he says. “I’m liberal, a blue dot in a very red part of the world. When you’re from Alabama you have to go out of your way to make people understand that you think a little differently. But we’re an Alabama band—it’s who we are.” Their rather meteoric rise as a killer live act got them plenty of exposure, including major TV appearances. Janeway’s co-leader Jesse Phillips has helped shape what is now an eight-piece band, comprised of some of the best young instrumentalists in the South. In addition to Janeway on lead vocals and Phillips on bass and guitar, the lineup includes: Browan Lollar (guitars), Andrew Lee (drums), Al Gamble (keyboards), Allen Branstetter (trumpet), Chad Fisher (trombone) and Amari Ansari (saxophone), who replaced Jason Mingledorff following the album’s recording.
Upon completing Sea of Noise, Janeway began working on its follow up immediately, compelled to write directly about his relationship with his father and grandfather. “I was dwelling on my family and the complexity to all the men’s relationships,” Janeway says. “My papaw was not a warm person, but he showed his affection through hard work. He and my father had a complicated relationship and didn’t communicate well. This record is about me growing up in a digital age, and my father and papaw growing up in their different times and exploring the dynamics of those relationships.”
Janeway originally envisioned himself and the two paternal figures as subjects for a trio of EPs but found that he had enough material for a full-length. The title takes its name from the Alabama state flower, which he assigns to himself. His lyrics are a vehicle for interpersonal conversation and he uses pieces of actual conversation with his grandfather he recorded months before his unexpected death. “I wanted to explore the dynamics and their views on life,” Janeway says. “It’s an extremely personal record—not that I haven’t written personal records before, but this is more in-depth and with a vulnerability that I was maybe scared to try. But you have to have that exposure. I think we’re in a much better place than we’ve ever been as a band. We weren’t totally confident with the ‘retro soul’ label that was thrust on us and we knew we had to explore more ground. Young Sick Camellia is the first record we’ve done that just felt right all the way through, like we’re doing us. Nothing was rushed and everything has intent.”
Janeway leaned more than ever to his band members for song contributions which is reflected in the use of samples, fresh rhythms, and new instruments. From the spacey opener “Convex” to the bouncy “Apollo” and the confessional “LivWithoutU” and the album-ending “Bruised Fruit,” in which Janeway howls the words “Blood is what I can’t escape,” one almost feels guilty reveling in the danceable music if focusing on the lyrics, which at times can be chilling. That effect is partly due to the recorded passages, about which Janeway relates, “I made the decision to use that audio on the record, and then he got sick and passed away a few months later after we had finished the album. It felt like that’s why we did this; it’s just the way the world works, a beautiful thing. In my mind music lives forever, and that will always be there.” Janeway finds the process both terrifying and fun.
Given the care that went into this record, you can expect their live shows to be undoubtedly moving, both figuratively and physically.