By Nick Brothers
Not long after arriving at Wakarusa, I had my first band interview with Paul Janeway of St. Paul & The Broken Bones. He was a super regular guy, and extremely down to earth. Watching him perform on Friday with the band was like a 180. He takes on the persona of St. Paul, and becomes a full-on frontman chatting up the crowd like he was James Brown. But damn, these white boys can get down on some Southern soul music.
St. Paul & The Broken Bones are one of the hottest acts in new soul music right now, and they keep getting hotter. From Birmingham, Ala., the group’s musical style hearkens back to the early 1970s Muscle Shoals groovy soul music of Sheffield, Ala. Other Alabama hopefuls, The Alabama Shakes, are also making a statement within that scene, but as Paul Janeway (vocalist), says, “they ain’t got no horns.” Another fun fact: Ben Tanner, the keyboardist for The Alabama Shakes, produced the band’s debut album, “Half the City.”
Q: So how’s your Wakarusa experience been so far?
JANEWAY: It’s been great. We had some fun earlier when we played on the main stage. The stage was huge.
Q: I bet it made for some good dance space.
JANEWAY: Oh, definitely! Maybe a little too much dance space (laughs). After a while in my mind I was bent over like “Whew!” It was so damn hot, man. Festivals are fun though. Our normal crowd ranges from grandmas to granddaughters, and we ain’t used to playing to hippies (laughs).
Q: When you’re out there just giving it all you’ve got on stage, the band is just jammin’ and everything’s going, for example, “Dixie Rothko,” when do you know it’s time to just cut loose on stage?
JANEWAY: With a song like “Dixie Rothko,” that’s something I wait for. That’s a song we whip out when we know we’ve got them. When we’ve got the crowd ready for it. When we’re going full blast, man, it’s something else.
Q: So your voice, man. It’s great, and it’s powerful. Does that ever hurt when you’re out there just belting it?
JANEWAY: Oh, no. If there’s pain, that’s a problem. It doesn’t hurt. When we got with the label, I met with a vocal coach. And, y’know, they were like, “You’re doing great, but here’s some tips on singing smarter.” I’ve only experienced it hurting twice, one of the times was when we did the CBS News thing. Of all times for it to hurt.
Q: So, being a man from the South—
Q: Do you know about the online publication The Bitter Southerner?
JANEWAY: I don’t actually.
Q: Well, they’re kinda doing this thing about the idea that they’re bitter because with being a “new” Southern person you’re both prideful but also shameful of the history. Where do you think you fit in with that?
JANEWAY: Well, you know we come from Birmingham, which has a very painful history. A very sad history. There’s definitely things I do love about being from the South, but that is a really bad part about it. You have to be sensitive to those things, y’know, especially being from Birmingham. It’s tough, it is.
There’s a tough kinda duality with it that you have to deal with sometimes. Like, I am from the South, but I’m not a racist. Y’know, and I’m a Democrat. Y’know what I mean? Like there’s those things you deal with, and so it’s interesting, it is. I definitely can get that vibe, but I come from a churchy South, and that’s a little bit different. It’s still very much Southern, it’s just, y’know, I’m not a beer drinkin’, rebel flag crazy guy. That’s just not my thing. I was always in church, and that was the good thing about being in church where I was. It was love everybody. You see racism, and you just don’t tolerate it. You don’t let it in your house, you don’t associate with it.
But yeah, being from Birmingham, it has a very terrible history. But you gotta learn from history and you can’t forget history. That’s the whole point. There’s things I love about Southern culture, but there’s a history you can’t deny. You have to learn from it, and that’s just not who I am. And that’s the thing, we’re just a bunch of white guys making soul music.
Q: All of what you just said, does that affect your music writing at all? Does it have a presence in the lyrics or the feeling?
JANEWAY: Not really, I haven’t dove into that yet. Obviously Muscle Shoals Swampers were just a bunch of white dudes, and we definitely draw from that music, but it’s definitely something that’s interesting for us. It’s a Southern thing, I’ve never thought about it as a race thing, but yeah, I don’t know. It’s very convoluted for me. Obviously I have an accent and y’know, it’s a complicated relationship.
Q: So what was the feeling of your album, “Half the City”? What was the emotion, what were you trying to say?
JANEWAY: Nothing. Not a damn thing. (laughs) No, it was a lot of heartbreak on that album. A lot of heartbreak. Obviously personal experience, it’s in there, but I typically write from a feeling. How does the song feel? I like writing songs that way.
Q: Does the music come first then?
JANEWAY: Typically. It might be a little different here and there.
Q: Growing up from a religious background, how did your family react now that you’re in a rock n’ roll soul band?
JANEWAY: Actually, my parents got divorced when I was like 17, and so it really changed a lot. My dad didn’t think much of it at first, but he does now. He loves it. I got to take him to ESPN, on ESPN tonight.
Q: So that’s what sold him?
JANEWAY: That’s what sold him.