St. Paul & the Broken Bones’ electrifying Half the City grinds and grooves with unmatched immediacy. The soulful debut swiftly establishes the Alabama-based band as successors to their heroes.
“Obviously, I love Otis Redding and Sam Cooke and Al Green,” lead singer Paul Janeway says, “but I also love a lot of gospel singers like Joe Ligon of the Mighty Clouds of Joy, Alex Bradford and I love Rance Allen. It’s a whole barrel of folks.”
The band’s eclectic influences simply combust in concert. Janeway howls like a preacher ablaze onstage. He releases revelations by the minute. Those attending South by Southwest, take note: My favorite festival discovery last year returns to Austin this week. Go.
CMT Edge: Describe how the new record took shape.
Janeway: Our guitar player Browan [Lollar] is good friends with Ben Tanner, who plays in that little band Alabama Shakes, and he approached us about starting a label and recording with him. We went, “Well, that’s a pretty good deal.” We like him, and he’s become a really good friend. Unfortunately — or fortunately — we had to write 75 percent of the record within a month. We recorded it live in the Muscle Shoals area and did about three takes of each song and did it to tape.
Why did you have to write so quickly?
Well, the issue was Ben’s touring schedule was pretty hectic. We had to wait four or five months before we would have another time to record with him, or we could do it within the month. We decided, “Well, what the hell.” I think it was pretty good. It was one of those things where if you don’t have a deadline or pavement to fall on, you can get lazy. I think it was good for us, and it turned out all right.
How collaborative is the band’s songwriting process?
It’d be that they’d bring in a riff or a horn line and say, “Hey, let’s try to do this.” I wrote all the lyrics, but we’d just come in, and if someone had an idea, we’d try to gussy it up. “Hey, I’ve got this chorus, but I don’t know what to do with it.” … “Oh, here’s this.” It really was collaborative.
Do you prefer writing songs that way?
I enjoy the collaborative part of it, but I also enjoy Jesse [Phillips, the band’s bassist] and me sitting in a living room writing songs. Sometimes you overthink it, and sometimes you underthink. It’s one of those things that you hope falls right.
Tell the story behind writing the title track.
I think Jesse wrote the riff on “Half the City.” I can’t remember. We all help write the music. Lyrically, it’s about Birmingham and my experiences there. It’s kind of a haunting city for me. I’ve never released an album before, so it’s a lot of pent-up stuff.
Did growing up in the church affect the secular music you got into?
Actually, not really. It’s really bizarre. I grew up around Christian music and gospel, but I was still able to like Sam Cooke and old-school Marvin Gaye. But when I got about 18 or so, I started exploring, just for something different.
You know, you get a little rebellious and fall out of love with the church. I would listen to Radiohead and My Bloody Valentine and other things that were a little left of center at the time. I would also go deeper into the soul stuff and R&B. But, no, gospel didn’t lead to what I listened to secularly.
So, what do you do to psyche up for your show? You let it all out.
(laughs) Well, it’s kind of like a switch. I have my routine. I’ll have some tea to keep the vocal cords nice and fresh. Then I’ll do my vocal warm-up. I’ll put my suit on and do this stomping-of-feet thing, then the guys will get together and do our thing. We have a little thing we tell each other. Then I’m ready to go. Once the switch is flipped, it’s show time.
I have to admit, I was the lunatic hugging you after a South by Southwest show last year.
Thank you! That’s great! I like to hear that people get that kind of joy out of it.
Besides the man-hug, what do you remember about performing at the last year’s South by Southwest?
(laughs) I remember feeling like my hair was on fire trying to get all my shit down to Sixth Street and then parking. It’s funny, though, because we weren’t really officially accepted last year. We played some parties, but we never did a showcase. We didn’t have access to anything. I vividly remember being shot down a couple places. “Oh, you can’t come in here.”
What do you look forward to about returning to the festival?
I have a feeling it’ll be better this year. I think they told us we’re doing 12 shows this year. It’s a lot different than last year. It’s pretty nuts, but I’ll take it, man. You only live once. I only hope I’m able to breathe!