Soul Proprietors

Soul ensemble St. Paul & the Broken Bones make a big splash with their debut album Half the City

Sep 23, 2014 at 2:14 pm
click to enlarge St. Paul & the Broken Bones (Photo: Dave McClister)
St. Paul & the Broken Bones (Photo: Dave McClister)


ere’s another reason why organized religion and Rock & Roll mix so poorly: Whereas the church teaches one to know his or her place before an alleged Higher Authority, Rock is all about being your own superstar.

Paul Janeway, the screaming, pleading 28-year-old dynamo vocalist in St. Paul & the Broken Bones — the dapper and lava-hot Soul-Rock outfit headlining MidPoint Music Festival’s Thursday night concert at the Taft Ballroom — grew up attending services at a Pentecostal church in Alabama. He wanted to sing, but the pastor limited him to background vocals. Although his was a predominately white congregation, it sang African-American associated Gospel hymns. 

“I’m not a great follower when it comes to vocal music — if I’m going to sing I need to be singing lead,” Janeway says. “I think he was trying to teach me a little bit about humility. He probably taught a little too well, because I wasn’t too confident. Never thought I had a good voice. If someone doesn’t want you in the forefront, you think you probably don’t have as good a voice as anyone else there.”

That was a wrong assumption. This year’s Half the City, the first full album by the seven-piece band that includes two horn players, certainly has established Janeway as a guy with a powerful voice. St. Paul (a sly reference to Janeway’s religious background) & the Broken Bones has found itself in the middle of two new musical trends — the rise of Alabama acts like Alabama Shakes and Muscle Shoals-born John Paul White of Civil Wars, and the revival of American Deep Soul music courtesy of Sharon Jones, Lee Fields, Charles Bradley and others.

It’s a dramatic change from what Janeway’s family wanted for him. His parents wouldn’t let him play much secular music in the house, but as an older teen he did start to explore it on his own. He was drawn especially to the South’s tradition of passionate Soul singers melodically wrestling with the heartaches brought on by love — Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, James Carr, O.V. Wright and, later, Eddie Hinton. Immensely popular as an African-American-originated music in the 1960s, it struggled amid the growth of 1970s Funk and Disco.

“I don’t know where Soul music went,” Janeway says. “It died in the mid-1970s and I go, ‘Why?’ I think it’s having a resurgence now because people say that was really good music and there’s not a lot else going on anymore with real instruments.”

In his late teens, Janeway learned a little guitar and started writing material. At age 19, he attended an open mic night at a Birmingham, Ala., club. “They said, ‘You’re not much of a guitar player but you got a real good voice,’ ” he says. “That’s the first time I’d really heard that. I kind of explored it.”

That exploration led to him and Jesse Phillips, a bassist, playing together, first in a band doing covers of Led Zeppelin songs (which Janeway had to learn because he was unfamiliar with them) and then writing together in a contemporary Soul vein. Janeway handled lyrics. He realized it actually wasn’t that much of a stretch from his church background.

Their next band, St. Paul & the Broken Bones, came together with other Alabama musicians, especially after guitarist Browan Lollar — a Muscle Shoals native who had played with Jason Isbell’s 400 Unit — joined. And he got friend Ben Tanner of Alabama Shakes to mix 2012’s debut EP.

By then, Janeway’s voice, which always had a high gentleness, had also developed a much tougher, rugged dimension — a cry.

“It was a little sweeter when I was younger,” he says. “But sometimes you just got to scream as life punches you in the face a few times, and that’s how it is now.”

With this band, he had made a place for himself in the world of secular music.

“Something my mom says to me now is, ‘If I’d let you listen to Nirvana as a kid, you’d never have been a Soul singer.’ So I guess it all works out in the end,” he says.

Right around the time of the EP’s release, Alabama Shakes started to break nationally, with its own powerhouse soulful vocalist, Brittany Howard, and a gritty Alt Rock orientation. So Tanner, with Civil Wars’ White, started a label, Single Rock Records.

Janeway recounts further events. “We got a call from him saying, ‘I’m starting this label, would you guys be interested?’ We said, ‘Hell yeah!’ Nobody knew who we were and somebody says, ‘We’ll pay for you to make a record.’ We said, ‘Let’s go!’ ”

Religion still has a place in Janeway’s life, if not quite the hallowed one it did when he was a child.

“My fiancé is Episcopalian and I go with her to that church, which is a lot different than what I grew up with,” he says. “That’s one thing that bothers the hell out of me about the Episcopal Church — the music is awful.”

But he says he does find peace at services. “If you’d asked me seven-eight years ago about this, I’d be a lot more venomous about church. But now I’m OK with it. If you find peace in it, you find peace in it.”

But he’d only go back to his old church under one condition.

“If they don’t let me sing lead, they’ll never see my ass.” ©

ST. PAUL & THE BROKEN BONES play the MidPoint Music Festival Thursday at The Ballroom at the Taft Theatre.