They just might be the sensation of Bluesfest 2016.
By Brian Wise.
One of the hottest new bands in the world is from Birmingham, Alabama and, in fact, does not sound new at all! St Paul and the Broken Bones have been thrilling audiences for the past few years with their retro soul sound driving by singer Paul Janeway’s dynamic performances and charismatic stage presence.
If you close your eyes while watching then you might be transported back to the 60s to the era of classic Southern soul bands. When the band first appeared at the Americana Awards a couple of years ago, Janeway stood at the front of the stage and almost took on the persona of a hot-gospeller as he held the audience in the palm of his hand.
At the end of their brief appearance their was a massive roar from the audience the likes of which had seldom been heard in the Ryman Auditorium, the holy church of country music. A few weeks later I watch them draw the same reaction at San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, only this time the crowd was ten times bigger and the roar could be heard across the entire festival.
We’ve been predicting huge things for the band ever since but it has been a slow build, perhaps because their debut album, Half The City – produced by Ben Tanner of the Alabama Shakes and recorded in the famous Muscle Shoals studios – is released through an independent label. They want to do it on their terms. But at some time in the near future the group will break in a huge way. Last year they played Coachella and Bonnaroo and opened for the Rolling Stones in Atlanta on the Zip Code tour last year so the tidal wave is not far away.
When I catch up with Janeway to talk about his group’s visit to Australia I find him back in the studio recording their second album. They’ll be previewing some of the songs on the tour. By all accounts this could be the album that does the trick in terms of international success and we’ll get to hear some of the songs first.
“We are really, really looking forward to coming to Australia,” he says. “We can hardly wait.”
If Janeway’s stage presence (and enthusiasm in interview) draw comparisons with Southern preachers then it is probably because Janeway – who is from Chelsea, Alabama – was brought up, like so many singers, in the Church.
“My parents were members of the Pentecostal Church,” he explains when I ask him about his background and what he was listening to as a youngster. “So I was not allowed to listen to any secular music, apart from Sam Cooke and people like that.”
“Really, I only listened to gospel music,” he continues. “In fact, I was training to be a minister. So my goal was to be a preacher.”
Janeway also learned to play guitar and would do so in church, singing along, but never getting any lead parts. He never thought he would ever make a living out of it!
In his late teens, Janeway started to attend open mic nights in Birmingham and his musical influences diversified as he listened to some of the great soul singers like Otis Redding, James Carr and O.V Wright.
“I had a job as a mechanic’s assistant,” explains Janeway,” but when the economy crashed I lost it and was out of work for a year or so. Then I went to community college and studied accounting.” Accounting!
“It didn’t last,” he notes, much to our relief. “I met Jesse [Phillips] and we started writing together.”
They started recruiting other musicians and St Paul & The Broken Bones was born. Now, all six members of the group share the credits on most of the songs on the debut album.
Half The City was released on Single Lock Records, the label co-founded by Ben Tanner and John Paul White of The Civil Wars. Tanner, who has spent time at Muscle Shoals’ Fame Studios, offered to mix the group’s first outing – a four song EP and then signed them to his label.
The forthcoming album, like its predecessor, is ‘old school’ according to Janeway but shows the progress the band has made in the past two years.
“The first album was like a snapshot of us back then,” he says, “but the new one is what we are now! I am really excited about it.”