It’s a bit premature to predict a full-blown Southern soul revival in Alabama, but this much is already certain: Alabama Shakes aren’t the only retro-savvy twenty-somethings in the state. Birmingham happens to be home to St. Paul and the Broken Bones, a hot horn band fronted by a young, Pentecostal-bred accounting student named Paul Janeway.
Though the group is just months old and Janeway is still fleshing out his identity as a performer, he’s already mastered a fiercely entertaining bait-and-switch. First, he steps onstage in buttoned-up, formal attire. Then he proceeds to work himself into a lather with fits of down-home soul shouting and ecstatic, almost preacherly physicality — not the sort of thing an audience soon forgets.
Early in December, Janeway and company quietly released an EP, Greetings From St. Paul and the Broken Bones, and they’re currently at work on a full-length album with Shakes’ keyboard player Ben Tanner. Their next move won’t be nearly so quiet.
CMT Edge: How long has the band been together? It hasn’t been that long, has it?
Janeway: Not it hasn’t, actually. We’ve been together, golly, probably about five, six months now. But me and Jesse [Phillips], the bass player, have been playing together for a while.
It sounds like things came together in reverse order. You weren’t really a band at all until you went into the studio to record.
We did it so weird. I would never recommend it for anybody. We went into the studio. We’re not very wealthy by any stretch of the imagination. We’d go in there and we would have to pay for this time. …We wasted so much time and money, but we ended up with the lineup we have now. So it ended up being a good investment. (laughs)
You mean you accumulated players as they came in to play on sessions.
You and Jesse Phillips had a psychedelic rock band before that.
It was a weird band. I’m not even gonna lie. The thing was, it was just so many different kinds of influences. I was more like soul and stuff like that, and some of those guys were into Rush and the Police. I was like, “That’s not really my thing.”
Even if I hadn’t read what little’s been written about the band so far, I think I would’ve been able to tell by your performance that you’d been shaped by singing in church. You’re a soul shouter, not a crooner, and there’s an element of testifying to what you do onstage, not to mention your spirit-filled dance moves. So what kind of church was it? My hunch is it must’ve been charismatic.
(laughs) It was. … I basically grew up in the same area my whole life. It’s a small town outside of Birmingham called Chelsea. It was kinda the sticks and kinda out there. The church went back and forth. It just depended on who the pastor was. When I was I’d say about 10, a pastor came in that was very charismatic. … I thought I was gonna be a preacher. I thought that’s what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I was groomed that way since I was little. I got up in front of the church and spoke.
Did you sing then anything like the way you sing now?
Yeah, I did. I think when you are in church like that, that’s just how you do it. There’s no other way. I mean, you just go spit fire. You go for it and pour it all out. To be honest, church taught me so much about performing that it’s not even funny. I know it sounds terrible. But really, every time I get onstage now, I have to go to a certain place mentally. … I just go wherever I was when I wrote that song. Church teaches you that, this of-the-moment-ness.
It’s not surprising to hear you say that church taught you about being a performer. So many early rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues and soul musicians came out of the church and faced a moment of truth when they were looked at as crossing over from gospel to the devil’s music. Was it at all like that for you? Was it that dramatic?
I wouldn’t say it was that dramatic. … There are still things to this day that I really love about the church. But you start falling out of love [with it] and go, “OK, there’s a lot more to it than just this certain creed. There’s a lot more to it.”
Actually, I don’t think I sang the way I do now, as far as the hurt in my voice. And I really don’t think [people] can until they experience true devastating heartbreak. I got a good dose of that with a young lady one time. It was pretty bad.
Joe Ligon of the Mighty Clouds of Joy. That guy, for me, is a huge influence because he kinda goes off the handle, and I have a tendency to do that sometimes. Wilson Pickett’s big because he’s actually from Prattville, Ala. We’ve got a really strong history of that in Alabama — Muscle Shoals and all that stuff. Wilson Pickett, I mean, he’s the best screamer on the planet. When I first heard Otis Redding, I was just like, “Oh my god.” He just freezes everything.
But actually my parents — and I never knew this until [later] — they used to listen to slick soul. My dad loved Sam Cooke. … As time has gone on, I have actually listened to more Sam Cooke when he was with the Soul Stirrers, the gospel group he was in before he was Sam Cooke. It’s a little bit more raw. I actually like it more than I do Sam Cooke singing “Cupid” or whatever.
O.V. Wright was a really big one because that kind of exposed me to soul music that was a little bit off the fringe, that not everybody had heard. … That was kind of a keystone singer too because I was like, “Why is this guy not hugely popular?” I think in the ‘60s you could’ve thrown a rock in Memphis and hit 80 great soul singers. I don’t think that happens now. I think you might get one, maybe two or three. (laughs)
You’re still so early on in finding who you are as a performer. You seem to be assembling your thing from elements of church performance, Tom Waits-style eccentricity and soul flamboyance. Is that how it feels to you?
I think so. … We have a great place here in Birmingham called Bottletree. They have a lot of indie acts come through. It’s a great place. But the thing is, I’ll see some acts there and they’re boring. And it always makes me angry. I’m like, “People are coming to see a show. If they wanted to listen to that, they would have listened to the CD.” I feel like every time that we perform — I mean, I don’t care if it’s to five people or to 50,000, to me, it’s got to be a show. … I don’t know exactly where it is between soul and Tom Waits or whoever. It’s just the place that I go. I become very boisterous. (laughs) Really the attitude is “There’s nothing better in your life going on than what’s happening right now.”
I know the band hasn’t been around all that long, but how often have you heard people say they’re surprised by the voice they hear coming out of you?
(laughs) We kinda like that. … We played a show up in Kentucky and it was pretty amazing. I was just kinda walking around, and then we performed the show and people were stomping on the floors trying to get an encore, and we didn’t know any more songs. So I just got up there and sang “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke a cappella. After the show, a guy was like, “You’re walking around like you’re all nice and everything. And holy cow! Boom! You blew me away!” We get that fairly regularly. We like to watch the reactions onstage when people first hear it because they all go, “That doesn’t [add up] for me.” We enjoy that. I don’t know whether it’s good or bad. But apparently it stirs something up in people.
You perform in a suit and bowtie. Was that a look you assembled for the stage, or were those professional clothes you already had since you’re studying to be an accountant?
(laughs) No, that is not how I normally dress. But the bowtie stuff, there’s a great singer out of Memphis called James Carr. The bowtie and everything is kind of my homage to him. He always wrote songs about heartache.
So you don’t intend to dress like that if you end up working as an accountant?
(laughs) I never thought I would be in accounting, just to let you know. I was gonna be a vocal performance major and get my degree. Then the economy went down and I was like, “Ugh, I’m gonna have to get an actual skill. I can’t be on the street and go, ‘Oh, can you give me a sandwich? I’ll sing you a song.’” So I decided that I’d go to accounting school. I actually kind of enjoy it. … It’s good to have somebody with some sort of accounting knowledge [in the band]. But we don’t actually have to dress up for school, not quite. I actually have to wear — this just tells you how filthy rich I am — I have to wear the same suit to go to funerals as I do at shows.
From what I can tell, you started getting local press before you started playing shows.
That is very true.
Do you think it has something to do with the success of Alabama Shakes and the fact that people are watching for the next soul band?
I think that’s exactly the case. I like those guys a lot, Alabama Shakes. They’ve been nothing but good to us. But I will say, when we first heard ‘em we were like, “This is what we’re going to have to come up against all the time, if what we do becomes successful.” I think there are small differences, of course. But obviously there’s a soulful singer. [Brittany Howard] is a lot better guitar player than I am.
I think people are just really looking for some sort of authenticity, to some degree. I don’t think that happens as much in music. I think our region’s really rich with that.
From an outside perspective, you could hear two great, young soul-reviving bands coming out of the same state and assume there must be a whole scene like that down there. So is there actually a young soul scene?
I wouldn’t say so, no. … I think what’s interesting is that everyone loves it. You know what I mean? From really old to really young, I think, like the music.
Do you have any sense of where the new material is headed now that you’re approaching this as a bona fide band?
We’ve kind of gone, “OK, we’re a soul band,” and we’re kind of extracting from that.
And a horn band.
Any band I’d even been in, I wanted a horn section. I think we’re actually going to rely a lot more on the horns. With the EP we were like, “We want horns!” And we kind of added it in. This time, we’re gonna have a few horn-driven songs. We’re gonna be working with Spooner Oldham. I can’t tell you how cool the full-length stuff’s gonna be.