Every so often you hear a band that truly surprises you in the most delightful kind of way. Some weeks back I came across an album from a little band out of Alabama called St. Paul and the Broken Bones. Instead of the catchy, upbeat hook that bands often use to establish their presence on the first song of an album, I was a greeted with a dramatic wash of horns that felt sad, soulful and rejuvenating all at once. What followed was a rich tenor voice that immediately clasped my emotions and gave me the best kind of chills that only a truly special voice can induce. It was that rare type of voice that simultaneously expresses sadness, emotion and hope, and felt in line with the soul legends that came out of FAME Studios in the 1960’s. I savored the album without stopping. The leader of this group and the one behind that incredible voice was Paul Janeway, a stout bespectacled fellow that looked more like the unassuming guy who shares your cubicle space at the office than a soulful crooner. I was hooked.
St. Paul and the Broken Bones are part of a new wave of Alabama bands like Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires and, most notably, the Alabama Shakes, making straightforward honest music that, while seemingly retro in sound, comes as refreshing in the parched landscape of modern music. When I ask Paul Janeway what it is about Alabama that breeds such an abundant range of musical talent he answers with a laugh: “I guess we don’t have shit to do.”
He can’t help but elaborate on his own drive to make music and challenge the negative stereotypes that often fall on the Deep South. “When you’re from Alabama or Mississippi people kind of give you that look, like ‘oh, you’re from Alabama.’ I think with me I kind of have that chip on my shoulder like, ‘no, we’re gonna do it better than you.’”
In other words, if you’re not willing to suck up your pride and abandon your home state, you might as well put everything you have into making the best music possible. Growing up in the tiny town of Chelsea, Alabama, Janeway was immersed in the world of the church and, by his own admission, was “groomed to be a minister.” Until he turned 18 the singer had one goal in life: to become a preacher. However, as with any boy growing up in this strange world, questions arose and sooner or later Janeway found himself rethinking his life goal.
However, it would be impossible to grow up in such a religious environment and not be influenced by it at all, which may explain Janeway’s impassioned, preacher-like persona onstage, a fact that he can’t help but acknowledge.
“Growing up around church things are a lot more dramatic – you put yourself into that – when you think you’re going to Hell. You kind of do things with more purpose and more meaning.”
For Half The City the group also enlisted Ben Tanner, keyboardist for the Alabama Shakes, to produce the album and release it on his newly launched Single Lock Records. To help capture the energy of their “dynamic live show” Tanner and the band opted to record the album to tape, embracing the deep musical heritage of their home state by choosing to record the album at the Nutthouse Studio and mix at FAME, both of which are in the Muscle Shoals area.
Janeway chuckles as he reflects on the experience of making a record in a place like Muscle Shoals. “It’s one of those things where in certain cities if a band has success they can poke their chest out and be like, ‘I’m somebody!’ But in Muscle Shoals there are people literally walking the street that have worked on Aretha Franklin or Rolling Stones records. You will never be at that level so there’s no use sticking your chest out.”
St. Paul and the Broken Bones had a lot to live up to and their dedication to cutting a high quality record shines throughout every moment of Half The City. The album is a world wind of highs and lows, practically bringing you to tears on one song while causing you to dance uncontrollably on the next. The young six-piece band locks into a tight, in-the-pocket groove with the expertise of seasoned players, yet the instrumentals never overpower the voice of Janeway, who sings each song with desperate passion and confident emotion.
Half The City stands strong on its own and is an impressive full-length debut to say the least, but for St. Paul and the Broken Bones the studio recording is only one part of the equation. It is in the live setting where the band has gained their reputation and following, playing in suits while Janeway commands the spotlight with his signature dance moves.
“To me it’s like transformation time – when I put on that suit it’s time to get down to business – and I like that, it’s kind of like a superhero thing. We’re not one of those bands that’s gonna just wear what they wear normally. That works for some people. We put on a show, that’s our job, and we fucking love doing it,” says Janeway.
This is a good thing because following the release of Half The City the band is embarking on a massive tour that includes what is sure to be a high profile stop at South By Southwest. Just like their peers the Alabama Shakes, who took the festival by storm in 2012 and quickly skyrocketed into one of the biggest acts in the country, St. Paul and the Broken Bones are ready to surprise audiences with their honest-to-God soul music, and pretty soon it won’t just be critics getting chills to their music.