Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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St. Paul & The Broken Bones: The Saints go marching

St. Paul & The Broken Bones - PHOTO McNair Evans
St. Paul & The Broken Bones - PHOTO McNair Evans St. Paul & The Broken Bones - PHOTO McNair Evans St. Paul & The Broken Bones - PHOTO McNair Evans St. Paul & The Broken Bones - PHOTO McNair Evans

As modern-day retro-infused soul bands go, they don’t get much better than St. Paul & The Broken Bones. A soul band yes, and as I prefer to refer to them, an ‘authentic soul’ band - as you think back to the great house bands of legendary record labels, Stax, who had the deft talents of the Swampers underpinning their roster of supremely talented artists and of course, Motown, who boasted an array of soul/funk/R&B wizardry care of their in-house musicians, the Funk Brothers.

It was these trendsetting musical visionaries who helped to form the backbone of the sounds of the 60s and 70s. They, along with the label bosses and technicians, helped black artists achieve what was thought to be almost impossible as they conquered the charts repeatedly and in the process, made household names out of those who they supported - some singers/bands even went on to become legends and icons in the soul and R&B genres they proudly represented.

So it’s no throwaway comment, when I make a direct comparison with the damn fine talents of US soul octet from Birmingham, Alabama and those legends of yesteryear. The decades may have rolled by but the spirit and energy, along with that authentic soul sound is alive and well AND evolving. And it’s name… St. Paul & the Broken Bones.

Recently, I was lucky enough to shoot the breeze with the 35-year-old charismatic frontman, Paul Janeway. Topics up for discussion include the evolution of the band’s signature true soul sound, their ultra smart image, Janeway and the band’s influences and what and who they rate today. There is also the small matter of their critically acclaimed new album, which I delve into finding out about its creation and why o why is their new long player called, “Young Sick Camellia”? There’s the lowdown on why this soul man sang Led Zeppelin songs for a living and I find out about one of Janeway’s other many talents, err, accountancy!? Which, in turn, all add up to a VERY interesting interview…

So where did the very young Janeway start singing? I presumed his father, who was a Pentecostal church minister, had a helping hand in unearthing his son’s singing talents but this far from the truth, in fact quite the opposite, as he strongly discouraged a music career but ironically, their was a little divine inspiration to be found along the way because “I grew up singing in church and that’s kind of how I was exposed to music and didn’t hear a lot of other styles - I knew gospel music and a little bit of soul. It was a sense of urgency to always sing that way.” When asked when he knew he could belt out a tune (laughs) “well, that’s just kinda how I sing…that’s how it comes out! I don’t really know, it’s just the way it goes!” Now remembering, “when I was 4-years-old - since I can remember music (laughs) - when I was exposed to it, I remember hearing Sam Cooke when I younger and Otis Redding and things like that…since I can remember being alive! (laughs) I was conscious that I was always around it, it was something I was exposed to.

The band formed in 2012, rather surprisingly from the ashes of a Led Zeppelin covers band, Janeway takes up the story of the band’s incarnation “well, Jessie (Phillips), who is the bass player in the band, knew all these people. Me and him became really good friends. I had only played in one band prior to this one. He knew all these people in Birmingham and said ‘hey, I think we are going to write a bundle of songs around Paul’s voice’”. Continuing “anytime he had a horns section and anytime he counted music, it got to be that backbeat - it’s not slow and boring and it’s not super fast! That’s how the band kinda got cranked up…it was out of a friendship out of me and Jessie. It was kind of our last ditch effort, to be honest with you. I was in accounting school to be an accountant and he was going to move to Montana, that’s kinda how it went down”.

Led Zeppelin tribute band, accountancy and St. Paul & The Broken Bones, it’s not hard to spot the odd one out but the one-time bank teller and then accountant number cruncher looks back on his past with both pride and amusement as those days now seem worlds apart. “Well, I would say it helped at the beginning with the band to have those credentials (laughing). I thank god every day that I didn’t become an accountant”. And does he still cast an eye over the books? “I don’t anymore because it’s gotten so big but in the beginning, yeah. We now have a business manager and I think she’s a little surprised by some of the questions I ask - it’s not as easy to get away with stuff…”

The band is comprised of the talents of the aforementioned Janeway and Phillips, plus Browan Lollar (guitar); Al Gamble (keys); Andrew Lee (drums); Allen Bransetter (trumpet); Chad Fisher (trombone) and Jason Mingledorff (sax) and the band’s name, St. Paul… pokes fun, while derives from Janeway’s church upbringing - he was even groomed to be a minister until age 18, which may explain his well-versed fluency and ability to connect verbally with his audience.

The SPBB back catalogue, although short, is ever so sweeeeeeeet - all have been previous B&S albums of the month and all have received glowing 5-star reviews. The usual pattern, they release an acclaimed album, tour the world and 2 years later do it all over again…hence albums “Half The City” in 2014, “Sea Of Noise” in 2016 and the latest stunner “Young Sick Camellia”. Maybe an odd choice of title for some but Janeway soon enlightens “The Camellia is the Alabama state flower. The other part of it is based off (Michelangelo Merisi da) Caravaggio painting called “The Young Sick Bacchus” (also known as the Sick Bacchus or the Self-Portrait as Bacchus) and the idea was, like the self-portrait by Caravaggio. I feel like this record is very self-reflective”. Expanding on the new album and future releases “it’s kind of supposed to be set up as a kind of a trilogy. You have this one, which is me. Then the next one, my father and the next one, my grandfather. I wanted to explore those relationships, which are fascinating to me and extract good art, which is really important to me”.

Their latest set of solid tunes, complete with Janeway’s trademark powerhouse vocal, see the band deliver performance which is tighter than ever, Janeway comments on the band’s evolving sound “I think anytime you write, it’s kinda like expanding the pallet - a kind of single image of the band at the time, you know? Obviously, it’s a little bit more modern sounding but there’s still funk and groove - there’s experimentation. The band can achieve a lot of different things and I think this record, more than any of the other ones, kind of achieved the kaleidoscope of places the band can go. That to me is a lot of fun, it makes things more interesting, you don’t want to be typecast as a band. I think this record can dispel some of that”.

There is a term which the band are not fond of, mainly because “I think (what we perform) it's still 'soulful music', the problem is when people say ‘retro soul’ it makes it sound old and we are not making ‘old music’. Obviously, we like drums and bass and we have horns so if that puts us in that category, then that’s fine. But for me, I’ve always kind of thought that we are influenced by everything from David Bowie to Portishead to Daft Punk to Marvin Gaye…we just don’t want to be limited. I think I heard Tom Waits say ‘genres are for record labels and record stores’. It’s not really how I view it…I have never viewed it that way”. He continues, “I think it’s a fair assessment of the first record (“Half The City’) because that’s what we grew up with and that was our past, you know? I think we have expanded beyond that musically and I think it’s a calling for us. We could just sit on that and rest on our laurels but I don’t want to be considered a band who does just one thing, I want to be a band that is willing to experiment and has the ability to experiment”.

When I suggest an ‘authentic soul’ label instead, Janeway concurs “yeah, that’s probably fair. I think there’s nothing old about what we do and there is an authenticity, that’s for sure and I don’t know what that gets you anymore (laughs) but that’s true”.

(And I’m just glad we agree! Lol)

The album "Young Sick Camellia" is out now through Columbia Records.

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