New Music: St. Paul and the Broken Bones

Singer Paul Janeway and his bandmates are keeping Alabama’s musical legacy humming

Photo: David McClister

Singer Paul Janeway (front) and bandmates at Birmingham's Lyric Theatre.

>Listen to St. Paul and the Broken Bones’ “Call Me” from their new album Half the City.

If you check out the video for “Call Me” by St. Paul and the Broken Bones, the first thing you notice is the natty attire. The horn section is in crisp shirts and ties, and front man Paul Janeway wears a suit jacket and pocket square. But then Janeway’s thunderous voice takes over: a raspy, rafter-rattling soul powerhouse that propels him to shimmy his way across the stage like Mick Jagger at a backwoods tent revival.

The preaching comparison isn’t just a metaphor. The twenty-eight-year-old Janeway grew up in Chelsea, Alabama, in a devout family in which secular music was largely forbidden. At the church he and his family attended, worship included raucous save-my-soul services during which Janeway was often asked to testify through song to the audience. “It was a lot of Holy Roller type of stuff,” he says. “I snuck in a little Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, but the rest of my music was learned through the church. But it taught me one thing: I know how to read a crowd.”

That foundation has served Janeway well. Spurred by the band’s roof-raising live shows throughout the South, its debut album, Half the City, has been one of the year’s most anticipated releases. But Janeway almost never gave himself the opportunity. After moving to Birmingham to study accounting, he sang in a band, the blues-rock outfit the Secret Danger, which included one of his current bandmates, bassist Jesse Phillips. Following the departure of its guitarist, though, the band floundered, and Janeway figured he would play it safe by finishing up school while continuing his job as a bank teller. Then, in 2012, a mutual friend invited Janeway and Phillips into his studio to cut a song. “It was going to be our last hurrah,” Janeway says. “But then something just clicked and we walked out of there with something.” Reinvigorated, the pair quickly recruited St. Paul’s additional members, including a three-piece horn section, two of whom were still in college at Samford University.

The songs on Half the City are steeped in feel-good soul music but also have a raw garage feel rather than silky-smooth stylings. Produced by Alabama Shakes keyboardist Ben Tanner, songs like “Call Me” and the chugging “Let It Loose” balance rich horns with a gritty Delta blues vibe, while the stellar “Broken Bones and Pocket Change” begins as a slow, easy doo-wop that explodes with an earthshaking howl. “I never thought I could do the soul thing,” says Janeway, who was dubbed St. Paul by his bandmates because he doesn’t drink or smoke. “That Muscle Shoals sound is so sacred to me.”

With the Tanner connection and the band’s own spin on the classic Shoals sounds, the comparison to the Alabama Shakes rings almost too easy, but it’s not a stretch to think that St. Paul and the Broken Bones are riding the same career arc. “Things have gotten pretty nuts,” Janeway says. “I’m not good at enjoying the moment, but our manager basically told us to get ready because ‘crazy’ hasn’t happened yet.” And as it turns out, after going through a divorce, his parents have come around to Janeway’s way of preaching. He even found out his dad was to some degree a closet rocker, attending concerts by Elvis, Elton John, and Johnny Cash. “I think there was a sense of realism that came out when my parents split,” Janeway says. “They’re supportive, and now when I talk to my dad, he always starts the conversation with ‘What’s up, Elvis?’”