Paul Janeway of St. Paul & the Broken Bones (Shutterstock)

Paul Janeway on the new St. Paul & the Broken Bones LP and "open wounds we didn't know were there"

Salon talks to the frontman and Alabama native about Jeff Sessions, family trauma and "Young Sick Camellia"


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Annie Zaleski
September 7, 2018 11:00PM (UTC)

When Salon reaches St. Paul and the Broken Bones vocalist Paul Janeway, he's "giddy" as he looks at a super-limited vinyl edition of the band's new album, "Young Sick Camellia," that possesses a unique feature: The wax features interwoven gold thread carefully removed from a gold suit he owned.

"Every time I call [Gotta Groove Records, where the vinyl was pressed], they're just kind of like, 'Oh, God, what did you want to do?'" Janeway says with a laugh. "It was funny — Matt, who works there, was kind of like, 'Usually we try to get this stuff out of the record.'"

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But for Janeway, who says he's a "pretty avid vinyl collector" — "I don't drink, so I don't go out, I go to art museums and record stores, and that's about it" — releasing unique records is all part of the fun of being in St. Paul and the Broken Bones. Based in Birmingham, Alabama, the troupe is rooted in Southern soul, but has never been afraid to stretch out and add in different textures and genres.

That's no more evident than on "Young Sick Camellia," the group's third album, which was produced by Jack Splash, who's worked with Alicia Keys, John Legend and Kendrick Lamar. In addition to usual soul, the album encompasses sleek R&B ("NASA") string- and horn-swept disco ("Got It Bad") and even Portishead-style trip-hop ("Mr. Invisible"), in addition to interludes that sample the voice of Janeway's late grandfather.

The week before "Young Sick Camellia" is released, Janeway spoke about St. Paul and the Broken Bones' sonic evolution, how family dynamics influenced his lyrics, and the therapeutic value of music.

Was there anything that you wanted to do differently this time around? How did you approach it?

You're always evolving. If you look at this as an artistry, which I still vaguely do, you feel like you should always try to change. Initially, the whole idea was to do three different EPs, and the record label was terrified of that, as you can imagine. Apparently if you say EP, it's the kiss of death. For me, it was one of these things where I wanted to kind of explore new things.

We worked with Jack Splash, who is not a Muscle Shoals guy [and] he's not a Nashville guy. He's a straight-up L.A. guy. He's worked with hip-hop and pop and R&B [artists], kind of all over the map. Working with him — it was just so interesting how he approached things. He was a music lover, just like we are, so that's where we connected.

We were starting to make things that we were like, "All right, this is going to be different." And we knew it was when we started working with him. We were like, "Okay, things are changing." [Laughs.] It was a good change. We left ourselves open [to] wherever this takes us.

What did Jack Splash bring to the record?

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We cut live drums, but we were basically just sampling our own drums, which is kind of an odd thing to do. It seems kind of redundant. That's basically what we did. And, plus, he was just open to anything, as were we. The one thing I really appreciated, someone like that, they chase the hits. They can. And he wasn't like that. He was just like, "Let's just make great music," and that was the plan.

"Mr. Invisible" is an interesting detour. The song reminds me of Portishead.

If there's a song that's probably the future of the band, that's it. That was kind of our way of going, "All right, this is the preview of where we're headed." Browan [Lollar], our guitar player, his grandfather had an old clock, and all that is is a sample of Browan putting his finger on the clock to just make that sound. It's a really bizarre sample and a weird song, but obviously it's a huge compliment for us, because Portishead is a band that we all dearly love.

We've learned that there's a song on each album that's kind of like, "All right, that's the preview of what's coming next." That's probably the song.

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Were you all pretty much on board with it, or were there any adjustments in the band?

We have Al Gamble in the band. And this is not me just being like, "Oh, he's a really good player." He is one of probably the best Hammond B3 players in that Southern style out there. If anybody wants to be like, "All right, I want to sound like Booker T and the MGs," or [get] that Al Green sound — he actually just did a session with Al Green. He's the guy.

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When you tell a guy like that, "Hey, guess what? You're not touching that on this record. You're getting on a synth," that's a hard conversation to have, and he just took to it like a fish in water. He really did. I can't get him off of it now.

Obviously, if this is a complete failure, then we'll go from there. Maybe it's not as liberating. But you just feel like you can do whatever you want to do, and I think everybody felt that this time.

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On the last record [2016's "Sea of Noise"] . . . it really is the sophomore thing. You don't know what to do. And you're like, "I don't want to alienate people, but we're going this way." And this one was like, we didn't give a shit. We were like, let's just do it. That was very liberating.

How do you feel that you grew as a vocalist making the record?

I've just grown as a singer, period, over time. I didn't feature falsetto as much on a lot of the records we've done, but I've always written songs in falsetto. There's something about the female voice, kind of register ... I think of writing that way more. It just sounds more natural to me, instead of [affects singing in a lower voice] that range. I always just think in that higher register. I think of melody better, honestly.

I really focused on the melodic elements of this record, whereas maybe the first record, I was like, just belt it and go. With this record, it was like . . . I listened to everything from a lot of Elliott Smith, the Beatles, the Bee Gees — things that have really strong, melodic structure.

There's a reason why, decades later, people are still listening to that music and people still remember it, because there was such an emphasis on melody.

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I think [of] Elliott Smith that way too. They thought of music in a very classical sense, that's timeless. And then for us, we get tagged with certain things. It's like, "Well, we want to make timeless music." That's the people you need to pay attention to. You don't need to pay attention to what's the modern trend, because that stuff has a tendency to date itself, kind of in the same way that we listen to hair metal [now]. You really want to try and make transcendent music that stands the test of time.

Lyrically, what was really inspiring you this time around?

So, the idea initially was three EPs. It was going to be me, my father, and grandfather, and that's how I viewed it. And what I wanted to do — we have these complicated relationships with my father, and then my father and his father. There's kind of this generational difficulty, and differences. I felt like I needed to explore that; I needed to really explore that vulnerability.

And so the idea with this record is that it's through my lens. Some of it's about those relationships, but then the next record is supposed to be through my father's lens, and the next one, my grandfather's lens. Kind of trying to almost in a therapeutic way try to go, "Why do they necessarily view things the way they do?" And it would all be through my perception, obviously, because I'm the one writing it, but just over time.

This record, to me, was trying to build this vocabulary with symbolism and things, as you have a tendency to do when you write songs, and hopefully use that vocabulary, because this feels like part one of the trilogy. So hopefully that vocabulary builds throughout the next two records, and you have this whole universe that you've created.

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It's deeply personal, in a lot of ways. Not that previous work wasn't, but I really went for it on this record, lyrically, that I didn't have really done in the past.

Whenever you do get into family dynamics, it always does get personal. There's just something about writing about family and relating to family that I think it's very difficult to put into words—but there is so much material there. It's rich.

It's very rich in material. That's a very good way to say it. For me, growing up in the south, growing up with different political beliefs and fundamental beliefs on certain things, it's a complicated thing, especially now. Especially now. Because that's what someone said, "This is a political record," and I'm like, "No, it's not." Subconsciously, maybe it is, you know what I mean? Maybe that's what I'm working through.

But there's so many more issues, because it's like you said, it's very rich. There's more dynamic . . . I remember talking to Jim, our PR guy, and he's like, "Well, is this a Trump thing, da da da . . ." And I was like, "I disagreed with my family on politics a long time, and also there's a lot more issues than just that."

So that's where it's like, it's this well of creativity. And it gives you this vulnerability that you feel like you can make good art. I always thought maybe this was off limits. And I think that's when you're like, that's probably what makes it the most compelling to you — to myself — is that it feels maybe you're going down the road that you didn't think you would.

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I think everything going on with politics and with Trump and everything is sort of cracking open all sorts of other issues. That's the sense I get. It's like, this happened, and it's magnified a lot of other things that have been sort of bubbling under. I feel like that's been happening for a lot of families, a lot of people.

Right. Yeah, I think so. I think that's what you are finding. I talked with somebody about this. They were saying they've seen a lot of artists' art go . . . Because I could go and make a grand statement, talk about how liberal I am, how awful Trump is, and all of this stuff. But there's a lot of people doing that. [Laughs.] You know what I mean?

It should be done. It's not that I don't think it shouldn't — but what they were telling me is a lot of artists are starting to go inward. Because you're right: It bubbles up things. It feels like there's open wounds now that we didn't know were there, maybe you swept under the rug. I think that's where you go, "Okay, I gotta figure this out," and subconsciously that's what's happening maybe with me.

I totally see that. I think it's taken this long for a lot of this stuff to come out too. It feels like this year especially, everyone is a little . . . I don't think resigned is the right word, but it's settling in, I guess.

Right. Right. There's outrage and shock, and now it's kind of like, "This is it. This is the reality."

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Yeah, absolutely.

It was funny, I was actually doing an interview with Salon when Trump got elected. We were in New York, and the interview was that day, and everyone was down. I was like, "Look, I've lived in the state of Alabama my whole life. Politics have sucked a long time, so now it's just everywhere." [Laughs.] The woman interviewing me was like, "You know what, that strangely makes me feel better, because you're still here."

I think that's true. There are certain political figures that have been lurking down in different states, and all of a sudden they're on a national level, and people are like, "Where did they come from?" And people who have known them for years —

Sessions has been there a long time. We've had him a long time.

That's who I was thinking of—yes, absolutely.

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Exactly. We've had him a long time. I've never voted for him, but it's like, it just is what it is. It is true. I live in this state, born in this state, and it's a part of my identity. Obviously, I don't agree with those things, but you know what I mean, though, being from here.

Has your family heard this new record then?

No. I played it for my sisters; we're pretty close. The grandfather part, I haven't played it for my dad yet. I mean, he knows about it. It's funny, I had to get legal permission to use [his voice]. My grandfather passed away a few months back, so I had to ask the owner of the estate. They had to sign something.

That's very brave of you to do this, I think.

Well, it's scary, I'll be honest. It's very scary. Here's the thing: The good thing is that me and my father have a really good relationship now. And that's great. That, to me, is the victory in it, because when I was little, it wasn't that way. Now, we have a good relationship, and that, to me — there is kind of a happy ending in that, in that aspect of it. But he didn't with his father, and that's the sad part about it. It was weird. It's just weird.

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I don't know if it's brave. I feel like it's something I had to do. You start going down this way, and . . . I don't think there's going to be too many hurt feelings. My dad's pretty open about things. He maybe wasn't the best dad around, but in my adult years, it's a lot better.

There's things that I still deal with that I know are residual effects of growing up that way, but luckily I have music. And I have creative outlets that can help me figure that stuff out. That's a beautiful thing about getting to be being able to be creative and be an artist. As long as you are honest with yourself, you can let those things seep out of you.

On stage, that's where it comes out. I've seen you guys a few times, and you leave it all out on the stage.

Absolutely. I think that's part of it. People ask us, "How do you get the energy? How do you do this?" I'm like, "This is my hour-and-a-half of therapy, this is my hour-and-a-half of exorcising the demons." When I'm on tour, I get that a lot, and it's very therapeutic, very nice. If it was taken away, I don't know what I would do, I'd probably have to hire a very expensive therapist and figure it out.

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Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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