“I was born and raised in a small town and grew up in church,” says vocalist Paul Janeway. “I feel bad, because it’s kind of a cliché now.” Then again, he’s in good company: Fellow Alabama natives Wilson Pickett, Martha Reeves and Percy Sledge also got their start in choirs. And taking a cue from those greats, Janeway is telegraphing his gospel roots and considerable singing talent into the soul outfit St. Paul and the Broken Bones, which returns to The Grey Eagle on Saturday, Jan. 11.
“A lot of people discredit Alabama, but there’s the sense that, musically, we can do it better than anybody else,” says the frontman. His band also draws inspiration from The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, Stax Records (based in Memphis in the ’60s and ’70s) and an American musical aesthetic that, he continues, “obviously, you haven’t seen a lot of in the past 30 years.”
Soul music, says Janeway, “hasn’t been there all the time, but it’s something we dive into and have an appreciation for.” The blue-eyed soul of St. Paul and the Broken Bones exhibits the guitar swagger, the brassy horn hits and the seductive sway of the genre popularized in the ’50s and ’60s. Janeway’s smoldering vocals are as permeated with Sunday morning as with Saturday night.
Also like some of his musical predecessors, Janeway was, at one point, on track to become a preacher. More recently, he “kind of fell out of love with the church,” though he notes that the experience of singing with his band is like being back in a house of worship. Indeed, it was the performance aspect that made the idea of a career in the ministry appealing. “I got the same thing from church that I get from playing a show,” Janeway says.
“We have shows to have this moment that you can’t capture on a cellphone and you can’t write about. It’s the moment where you have this connectivity, and everyone in the room can feel it.” Those blissful, transcendent flashes don’t happen every night, the singer says. “But it feels pretty special to be the conductor of that, sometimes.”
Still, there’s more to a St. Paul and the Broken Bones show than a string of ecclesiastical moments. The band’s debut record, Half the City, spans the full spectrum of emotions. “Grass is Greener” throbs with lovesick agony. “Remember when those sweet memories used to soothe us, used to make us smile?” Janeway sings, wringing every drop of longing from the melody. Lead track “I’m Torn Up” wavers between the cool bass thrum, the luster of the brass section and the pummel of organ. “Call Me,” an early video release that’s gaining momentum on YouTube, showcases the band’s infectious danceability. Joy is inherent in every heartache plumbed for this collection of songs.
Because that vibrant energy is central to the group’s sound, Half the City (due out Feb. 18) was recorded live, to tape, with very few overdubs. That meant there wasn’t much room for error — a particular challenge, since the band wrote most of the songs on the album in about a month’s time. “It seems funny, because we play the songs all the time now,” says Janeway. “But I do think we captured what it was at that time, and that live feel and the emotive thing is expressed through the recording.”
The band was formed by Janeway and bassist Jesse Phillips. “We were pretty decent at getting a verse or something,” Janeway explains, adding that they’d take whatever they came up with to the rest of the growing collective to flesh it out. Drummer Andrew Lee wrote some horn parts; guitarist Browan Lollar contributed a song or two.
“I have to remember, that’s what I enjoy about this: sitting in a room and writing music,” Janeway says. Already the project has taken on a life of its own, from the size of the band to the amount of attention the album is getting, even prerelease. “This thing’s gotten a little bit bigger than we ever thought.”
— Alli Marshall can be reached at email@example.com.
who: St. Paul and the Broken Bones with Patrick Sweany and band
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Saturday, Jan. 11. All ages.
9 p.m., $10 advance/$12 day of show