St. Paul and band explore family history and tight grooves
When you talk about Southern values, family certainly ranks as a cornerstone. For Alabama-born and -raised Paul Janeway, lead singer of St. Paul & the Broken Bones, the connection to his loved ones has always been strong, but complicated.
As a liberal artist growing up in the South (“a blue dot in a very red part of the world,” he says in the band’s online bio), he saw the world differently than those around him. And for the band’s latest album—which he initially envisioned as a trio of EPs—he set out to explore and better understand his connections, especially those between his grandfather, his dad and himself.
“It was going to be through my eyes, my father’s eyes and my grandfather’s eyes,” he said during a recent interview. “I had a desire to do it because they are complicated relationships, which I kind of think a lot of people can relate to. It doesn’t have to be a father, but family in general. For me, I wanted to kind of work through that. … It became a bigger project than I thought.”
The work on the new album, Young Sick Camellia, came in the wake of two albums and whirlwind years of success for the Birmingham, Ala.-based octet. With a vintage soul vibe and a charismatic leader in Janeway, the band became a critical darling, scoring performances on NPR, Austin City Limits and many of the late-night talk shows, and even a couple of slots opening for the Rolling Stones.
For its third release, the band wanted to move away from the “retro soul” tag, so in addition to Janeway’s thematic vision, the group also was inspired to mix things up musically and to that end teamed up with producer hip-hop/R&B producer Jack Splash (known for his work with Kendrick Lamar and Alicia Keys).
“On the musical end, it was one of those things where we worked with … a producer that was ‘out of our realm.’ That was musically important because it changed things for us. For him, he was just enthusiastic about the project. For us, it felt right and we just kind of led with our guts. If it feels right, then it probably is right on the creative and artistic side,” Janeway explained. “It was kind of like a blind date in a lot of ways when you do these kinds of things. … We said it was an open canvas, that we needed to figure out what to do. Working with him—he’s an overly positive guy, he extracts the best effort out of everybody, which is really what a producer should do.”
Having grown up as a preacher’s kid, Janeway brings a kind of performative fervor to his music—both on stage and in the studio—much like his musical forbearers/influences, Sam Cooke and Al Green. And despite the desire to move away from the throwback sound, Janeway’s showman’s energy and his evocative vocal phrasing—bouncing between a biting falsetto and yearning croon—remain even as the music explores later eras of R&B, plus disco, hip-hop and even some electronic music.
The lead single, “Apollo,” is a mash-up of Hammond organ, funky synth squiggles and a dash of ambient psychedelia punctuated by spacey lyrics like: “Lookin’ down from my orbit/Captain, can you get her to call me?” And its follow-up, “GotItBad,” brings out more synths for a dance number that’s a straight-up disco romp.
As the group worked things out, the EP grew to a full album. Young Sick Camellia may yet end up being part of a trilogy, but could also simply remain standalone project.
Adding to its esoteric vibe are snippets of dialogue from conversations Janeway recorded with his late grandfather interspersed throughout. And it closes with “Bruised Fruit,” a slow-burner with Janeway’s blistering vocals playing off subdued orchestration—mournful horns, strings, sparse and dramatic piano, fleeting organ flourishes—that frames lyrics that seem get back to the familial matters at hand: “You did nothing right/you did nothing wrong/But no one seems to recall the love that you gave/The love that you forsake.”